people toasting wine glasses
Advent, Blog, Writing

A Present, An Award, and Publication…

Guess what—Christina Hollis isn’t my real name!

I’ve had quite a week, so I’m hoping to spend this weekend recovering with a good book!

Monday was the day I’d been both looking forward to, and dreading. I graduated with an MA (distinction) in Creative and Critical Writing in October 2020 but the graduation ceremony was cancelled due to Covid. We finally got our chance to get togged up and go on parade at The Centaur auditorium in Cheltenham Racecourse this week, along with all the the 2021 graduands.

My social anxiety was in overdrive while driving to the venue, getting robed, photographed, and making that long walk across the stage to bow (no handshakes, thanks to Covid) to the University of Gloucestershire’s Pro-Chancellor Sir Henry Elwes. Thank goodness I was in the good company of my fellow MA students, Rosie, Carole, and Hayley. Congratulations again, girls!

On Tuesday, Alex disturbed a wild boar when we were out on a walk. It must have been asleep in the bracken brash which covers the woodland surrounding our house. It jumped up and huffed at him furiously. I would have done the same if Alex’s cold wet nose had woken me up when I was fast asleep! Alex bounced straight back onto the track unhurt, but he was careful to hide behind us while barking furiously at the retreating boar.

The People’s Friend, Edition No. 7905

On Wednesday, my story Raining Cats and Dogs appeared in The People’s Friend. Although it’s completely fictional, the setting is based on my daughter’s tiny home in Tewkesbury. She took me with her when she first went to view it. I fell in love with the place the moment we went up the (high) front steps and over the (raised) threshold. It’s a beautiful little house, built hundreds of years ago as “infill” by some mediaeval entrepreneur to unite two rows of traditional black and white cottages. Despite being on the river bank it has never flooded—although all the properties keep special flood gates at the ready!

Ever since I got my results in October 2020 I’ve been dithering about whether or not to do a PhD. There are lots of reasons why I should (personal satisfaction, increasing human knowledge, getting to wear am even fancier cap and gown on qualifying, etc)…and lots of reasons why I shouldn’t (cost, time, effort etc).

On Thursday, all that dithering had to stop. My husband announced that he’d told his work colleagues he was looking forward to taking a back seat at office parties when we’re introduced as “Dr and Mr Hollis”. He’s hoping that curiosity will divert attention away from him, for a change!

DD, Looking Great On My Big Day

Friday brought a welcome message from Lucy, my lovely editor at The People’s Friend magazine. She told me that I’d had another story accepted for publication. This one has the working title The Self-Help Switch. I don’t know when it will appear—probably some time in the New Year—and the title is almost certain to change. I’ll let you know when I have more details.

The Forest of Dean is supposed to catch the edge of Storm Arwen over the weekend, but this week has already given me enough excitement, thank you very much! I’m planning to spend my time curled up in front of the fire with the workbook my sister gave me as a graduation present. It’s The Writers’ Advent by Portland Jones, which gives a prompt for every day leading up to December 25th. The first one supplies the opening of a detective story, and challenges you to supply the next 200 words or so. The book’s subsequent prompts cover all kinds of genres, one for each day, with suggestions for blog posts, limericks, horror stories, and more. I’ve never used a prompt book before, and can’t wait to get started.

Have you used a book like The Writers’ Advent? Did it persuade you to try a new writing journey?

Blog, Writing

Spring Has Sprung…

…and I’m finding it VERY hard to settle down to any writing work. April here in Gloucestershire was dry, bitterly cold, but mostly sunny. Although I’m working on a new book (you can find out more about that here and here), at this time the natural world has a powerful pull.

If these flowers poking through the fencing turn into cherries, deer as well as birds will be having a feast! Photo: ©Christina Hollis

Wild cherries in the wood are hung with snow, as A.E.Housman put it, and here in the orchard the Morello cherry is an absolute picture. It’s about twenty feet high and almost as wide, and when I took this photograph it was humming with all kinds of bees and other insects.

It produces tonnes of fruit each year, but we’re lucky if we get to eat more than a few kilos. The tree is far too big to net properly, and the birds love those cherries as much as we do!

Morello cherries are too sour to eat raw, and we like them best cooked gently for a few minutes with sugar and a little water. This makes a delicious sauce to pour over warm chocolate brownies, or vanilla ice cream…or you can do as we do, and top a brownie with a scoop of ice cream, then drizzle warm cherry sauce over the whole lot. That’s a really indulgent treat!

Boar damage
This is what two wild boar managed in one night, a couple of years ago. Photo: ©Christina Hollis
Bluebells dug up by boar
Wild boar regularly trash the wild bluebells like this. Photo:©Christina Hollis

Yesterday I went to check the greenhouse at 6am and disturbed a sounder of eighteen boar and their piglets, who were grubbing about in the wood which lies on the other side of our boundary fence. They scampered away through the trees, leaving behind ploughed earth where yesterday there had been a carpet of bluebells.

It’s such a shame the boar are so destructive as now there are few free-roaming sheep to eat the local wildflowers, orchids, ladies’ smock, primroses and cowslips were beginning to seed themselves around. They won’t survive for long with the concentration of boar we have here now. The medieval wild boar only had piglets once a year. The creatures running wild in the forest now are hybrids, which have been developed to breed all year round. With no natural predators, their number have exploded.

That’s why my garden is surrounded by a good fence, with barbed wire buried at the base to stop the pigs heaving up the wire and posts to get in. It means I can grow all sorts of things without worrying about finding the place trashed at regular intervals.

The heroine of my current work in progress loves growing plants and when her family hits hard times has to find a way to turn her hobby into a business. I’m off to the greenhouse now to do some detailed research. Well, that’s my excuse!

scenic view of night sky
Blog, Writing

A Few of Our Favourite Things…

Last week I told you about how I was trying to create a fictional English village as the setting for my next book. Lots of readers contacted me, either here or on social media and gave me ideas for features to include in the perfect fictional English village. The things mentioned most often were:

From the Royal British Legion Website at http://bit.ly/rblmemorial
  • Pub
  • Church (which surprised me, as rural congregations have dwindled over recent years)
  • Somewhere to sit and watch the world go by (preferably with ducks to feed!)
  • War memorial (another surprise, although the popularity of soldier silhouettes probably explains it)

Lots of people suggested things other than buildings that went to create a village atmosphere. As a writer, I found those ideas equally useful. The things that cropped up most often were:

  • Local characters – there’s at least one in every village, ready to give you the gossip, or a long-range weather forecast
  • Peace and quiet, interrupted only by…
  • Birdsong
  • Dark skies with no light pollution, perfect for romance under the stars
The view from my kitchen window. The ultimate in peace and quiet! ©Christina Hollis, 2019

and two of my favourite benefits of country living,

  • A little local shop
  • Friendly locals (rather than the more unusual characters)

We have great examples of both right here in the middle of our village. Pip’s shop really is open all hours, and shuts only twice a year: on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. It’s within walking distance so you don’t need to bother with the car, and it’s saved my bacon (and milk, and tea bags, and coffee!) any number of times when there’s been a last minute call for school cookery ingredients or bits for science project.

Pre-Covid, our village shop was a meeting place as much a shop. It was somewhere you could find out all the local news even quicker than it featured on Facebook! All that changed with social distancing and face masks.

It’s very sad. I hope things can get back to something close to normal soon.

Blog, Writing

A Cosy Country Living

I wrote here about planning my next book, which is going to be set in my adopted home county of Gloucestershire. For the sake of the plot I’m not setting it in one identifiable place, but instead I’m picking buildings, shops, and settings from several of my favourite villages to create somewhere that plenty of things can happen to my fictional family.

Here is St. Endec’s church, where the grandfather of two of my main characters is a member of the band of bellringers.

It’s actually a photograph of St Giles, Maisemore, taken from the lime avenue which I think was planted as part of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 (I’m sure somebody will put me right on that if I’ve mis-remembered!). This lane makes a sweet-smelling stroll during the summer. With Maisemore apiaries only half a mile away as the bee flies, the place is buzzing during June and July!

Here’s the local pub my characters use…

Those were the days, my fiend—sorry, friend!

Although this picture is of the Red Lion in Avebury, the pub in my book is called the Bear and Ragged Staff (or “The Bear “for short). When I was young and single, the Red Lion was about half-way between where I lived, and the home of the man I thought was my Mr Right. When I discovered how Wrong he was, I dropped him like a red-hot bar meal and have never been back. That’s a shame, because it used to be a great place for an assignation!

Here’s the village duck-pond, which is actually part of the mill in Lower Slaughter…

Pic by Adam Trevor Designs, via Pixabay

The Cotswolds was only an hour’s drive from where I was born in Somerset, but the countryside and cottages are completely different in character. As I child I thought the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter must have been the site of terrible battles but the truth was much closer to my soggy Somerset home than I realised. The Slaughters are named after the old English words “slough” or “slothre”, which means muddy.

My heroine’s sister lives in one of these cottages in Arlington Row, Bibury…

Photo by Mark Hulland, via Pixabay

Like many beautiful Cotswold settings, these cottages have appeared on all sorts of chocolate boxes, calendars, and postcards. That complicated roof-line and all those hundreds of little roof tiles give this row another claim to fame. If you have a British passport, it’s one of the (hopefully) impossible-to-forge watermarks inside.

I’ve squirrelled away all these photographs in the images file of my in the Scrivener database I talked about here, but I’m still looking for things to include in my identikit Cotswold setting. Can you help me pack my fictional village with all the right things?

When you think about the countryside, what says “England” to you?

The sheep which originally gave this area its wealth are so big, they are known as Cotswold Lions! Pic via Pixabay.
Blog, Writing

A False Start to my Writing Life…

My series Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity ended with From Inspiration to In Print, which followed my short story Catch Me if You Can all the way from the ideas stage to publication in The People’s Friend. This blog post skips through my writing career from first moments to first big disappointment.

Find out more here.

I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but until I sold my first book I earned money by writing non-fiction articles and producing photographs for magazines such as The Lady and The Garden. Among other things, I wrote monthly gardening tips, and pieces on how to keep poultry and pigs.

Once I began to get articles commissioned on a regular basis, I could afford to go back to writing fiction. At first I wrote short stories, as they fitted in well with my non-fiction writing schedule.

I love listening to the radio, so trying to produce some radio drama was an obvious move. During my first year as a full-time writer I was shortlisted for the BBC Young Writers’ Competition with an historical drama, but found writing stories and novels much easier than producing a script!

When you’re on top of Toghill, all the scenery looks pretty much like this, until you look west…Pic of Toghill Farm by William Avery, via Wikimedia Commons

How I came to be published in book form for the first time is a saga in itself. One morning on Woman’s Hour, a writer was interviewed about her new historical novel. It sounded like a great read, but in those days OH and I were poverty-stricken newly-weds. Unable to justify buying a hardback book, I ordered it from the local library.

I can still remember how indignant I felt when I read the opening sentence, which went something like this…

The beautiful heroine looked down from her vantage point on the top of Toghill at workmen busily building Bath’s Royal Crescent….

That was written by someone looking at a map, not a view. I was born only a few miles from Toghill. For anyone to see Bath, let alone pick out workmen on the Royal Crescent, they would need to be about twenty metres tall and blessed with the eyesight of a hawk! There is a great view from the top of Toghill, but it is in the direction of Bristol, not Bath. On a clear day, you can see the Severn estuary. The city of Bath is not far behind you, it’s true, but because of the lie of the land the city is invisible until you travel several kilometres south east from the top of Toghill.

…when you can see the Severn estuary, complete with bridge—but not Bath! Pic by Maurice Pullin via Wikimedia Commons

I decided then and there it would be a poor show if I couldn’t write something a bit better than that. Taking the script I’d written for the BBC, I reworked it into an historical novel. This was in the days before the internet, so all my research had to be done during trips to Gloucester library.

During my many visits, I used the library’s copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find a possible publisher for my book. That was disappointing. Only one of the publishers would accept work direct from writers. All the others dealt only with agents.

My first book! Find out more here.

The single publisher that would accept unagented manuscripts was Harlequin, under their Masquerade imprint. Just before Christmas one year I sent off the first three chapters and a synopsis, as requested in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. In January I got a lovely letter asking me for the rest of the story. I sent it off straight away, together with return postage (as Snail Mail was the only way in those days).

I didn’t sit back to wait. I kept busy, creating and submitting more articles and photographs on gardening, which is how I fill my time when I’m not writing. At the beginning of May I opened the letter every writer dreams of getting—Knight’s Pawn had been accepted for publication!

The first thing I did was to check out the most impressive-sounding literary agents in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I wrote to them, saying I’d landed a contract to write historical novels for Harlequin Mills and Boon. I got a reply from one of the biggest agents in the country almost by return, inviting me up to a meeting at their headquarters in London.

I was shown into a plush office where I was given tea and cake by a lovely guy who said it was his first week in the job. He sweet-talked me into agreeing to become his client, and said he’d get a contract couriered to me as soon as it had been drawn up.

agreement blur business close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was so excited, I spent the journey home from London working on the first draft of another book. A week passed, then ten days, but no contract arrived. I was climbing the walls with excitement until the awful day two weeks after my trip when a slim white envelope arrived.

It was an apology dictated by the head of the firm. It was their policy not to take on clients who wrote historical fiction for Mills and Boon, the letter said. The Harlequin contracts were pretty much “boilerplate”— that is, there was little if any room for an agent to negotiate different terms. The man who interviewed me hadn’t been fully aware of the circumstances, the letter said, and so with regret they didn’t feel able to offer me a contract after all.

It was tough, discovering I was that new agent’s first big mistake, but this cautionary tale just goes to show that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

That was years ago and I never did find an agent, but it doesn’t seem to have done my career much harm. I may have missed some opportunities and I’d love someone to take control of my writing calendar, but I’ve always had plenty of work, and I get to keep 100% of my pre-tax profits. If I had an agent, I’d lose 15% of it, in their commission!

What’s been the biggest excitement in your writing life?