Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas. Show all posts

Bringing Christmas Into This Old House

 I very seldom post pictures of the inside of this cottage, except for the kitchen, occasionally - and the conservatory, which is where we put the Christmas tree. It's so cold there at night that it hardly sheds a needle.

Today, though, since we've just about finished trimming up - always traditional decorations, some of which we've had for years - I took a photograph of the hallway. Our hall and staircase in this two hundred year old house is bigger than it should be. We've sometimes wondered why it's so palatial in what is, after all, a stone-built terraced cottage. 

It was built back in the very early 1800s, by a retired gardener from Cloncaird Castle, who had been given a piece of land by his employer. Somewhere among the deeds are details of the plot of land and the 'house new built thereon'. He sold it very soon after, so I suppose it was his pension fund. Some of the stones of which it's constructed are huge  - boulders more than stones. You wonder how they lifted them into place. In the sitting room, there's an original lintel, still soot marked, over what was once a vast fireplace - the main fireplace in the house back then but reduced to manageable proportions over the years. 

The wooden floor in the hallway is pitch pine and comes - allegedly - from the deck of a wrecked ship - installed well before we moved here. The beautiful wrought iron balustrade and elegant banister rail are probably Victorian although again they seem rather grand - so this was no ordinary cottage. Previous owners included a sea captain and a doctor, so presumably it became a desirable residence over the years after  the gardener built it. I don't think it was ever a weaver's cottage, although the village was full of them. 

I keep planning to try to find out more about the man who owned the land and built the house but work tends to intervene. I remember that at one point in its history it was sold by 'candle auction' in the pub over the road - the winning bid being the last one placed when the candle went out. 

Not long ago, as he galloped about the house, trying to fix something, a frustrated tradesman exclaimed 'This is a difficult house!'  We know, we know! The thing about old houses - genuinely old houses - is that they really hate being disturbed, even when you're trying to do essential work. And boy, do they let you know about it. 

But we've been here a long time now.  It's a welcoming house. You get the feeling that it always has been. And we love it.  

An Extraordinary Christmas (or Two)

Aunty Wanda
This is a picture of my great aunt Wanda Kossak. She was the elder sister of my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski, the grandfather I never knew, and about whose life I'm writing a book.

I first met Wanda in the1970s, when I travelled by train to Poland and stayed with her and her watercolourist husband, Karol Kossak, the last in a line of distinguished Polish artists that included Karol's grandfather, Juliusz, and his uncle, Wojciech. My enchanted autumn with them is a subject for another post. My Polish was about as basic as their English, but my French was better, and as with many Poles of their generation, their French was good, so that was how we conversed most of the time. Over the weeks of my visit to their apartment in a spa town called Ciechocinek, I got to know and love them.

They were no longer young, and by the time I returned to Poland to spend Christmas there, Karol was dead, but Wanda had a long life, from 1896 to 1983. In fact, I had two Christmases in Poland, although they have somehow become fused in my mind and I will have to rummage through my box of old letters before I can properly distinguish one from another. 

The first time was when I was teaching English in Finland. Flights home to Scotland were very expensive so I travelled across the Baltic to stay with my Polish relatives. The second time was in the late 1970s, when I was working for the British Council, teaching English at Wroclaw University. Our longish winter vacation was in February, which meant that, once again, I headed for Warsaw, to spend Christmas with my father's cousin Teresa Kossak, her partner Andrzej, her mother, Wanda, and a whole heap of Kossak relatives, with whom, sadly, I have since lost touch. (If any of you are reading this, I'd love to hear from you!)

Those Christmases have become a series of vignettes of a time long past. So here's what I remember.

Warsaw was cold. Colder than Wroclaw, so much further south. There was frost and snow. There was a cheerful covered market, smelling of apples and dill pickles and cheap tobacco and that wonderful smoked 'mountain' cheese that I've only ever managed to buy in Poland. 

Teresa's tiny apartment was beautiful, with her collection of porcelain cups, her bright textiles, her books and artworks. In fact it sometimes strikes me that much of what I've decorated or planned since then, in our own house, has contained an echo of that time, in that warm, cramped, hospitable flat that I envied and wanted to emulate. She and Andrzej kept dogs that were much too big for the place, and since I was extremely allergic, they borrowed another apartment from a friend for me to sleep in, so that I shouldn't have to wheeze too much! 

I remember visiting the studio of one of their friends, an artist in amber, and the pungent scent of old forests from the polishing. He took me for a magical walk round the newly rebuilt old town. He must have been in his fifties, although he looked younger. It was evening, one of those clear, cold evenings, when the light leaches slowly out of the sky, and trees and buildings are sharply silhouetted against a golden sky. We walked and talked. His English was fluent and he told me something of the history of each place. He told me that he had taken part in the Warsaw Uprising when he was very young. Many corners of the rebuilt city held sad memories for him, where this or that friend or colleague had fallen. 
'I can still see them,' he said. 'Ghosts everywhere.' 

Warsaw was not bombed from the air. It was blown up from the ground, erased from the map. But it was rebuilt, and I was privileged to see it for myself, and to see it through his eyes as well. 

I had a proper Polish Christmas Eve at the Kossak house in - I think - Zoliborz. This is always a lengthy meal with many meatless courses, and makowiec - the most delicious Polish poppy seed cake - at the end of it. 

The house was crammed with Kossaks of all ages.  These included autocratic, intelligent Aunt Joanna Skarzynska, Karol's sister. She spoke excellent English, seemed to me a little like Lady Bracknell and quite as unnerving. She had worked in the American Embassy as a young woman, which was her post-war undoing, since she had survived, only to be imprisoned by mad, bad Stalin as a western spy. She survived that too. I got the impression that she could have survived almost anything. 

I remember a son - Wojtek? -who had been working as an archaeologist, I think, in the Gobi desert. He sailed sand yachts and gave me a little bronze Tibetan Buddhist platter with a sun symbol etched into it. There was a scientist daughter-in-law who worked her socks off in the kitchen, and there were assorted teens and children, and other more remote family members. 

The Kossak house was old and spacious and had survived the war relatively unscathed. There were polished wooden floors, lights, warmth, the inevitable pictures - and a tortoise that clip clopped about the floor, and tried to avoid being trampled underfoot. 

My dear, sweet, loving Aunty Wanda was my saviour, especially on the days following Christmas Eve when we went on family visits. I don't think I have ever met anyone whom I loved so completely after such a short acquaintance. She carted me about with her, while I felt the need to protect this fragile little lady on Warsaw's rickety trams. We laughed a lot. We visited relatives of whom - at this distance in time - I have completely lost track. But I know that, like the book of Genesis, or those Gaelic clan recitations, I could see that they were intent on fitting me neatly into the family genealogy. I was Wladyslaw's granddaughter, Wanda's great niece, Julian's daughter, the one who had fetched up in England after the war and married an Englishwoman. 

And I remember bigos. Every house offered bigos and every bowl was slightly different  - much as you'll be offered mince pies or Christmas cake here. It's good in reasonable quantities, but I also remember Andrzej who was brisk and sexy and very kind to an awkward young woman, who was a little in love with him, saying 'Poor, poor Kasia. Not MORE bigos!'

Only a few years ago, one of Teresa's friends wrote to tell me that she had died, and she sent me a book that Teresa had written about her family, including a chapter about her mother, Wanda Czerkawska. By that time, both my parents too were dead. This year, a Polish friend translated Wanda's chapter for me, which added another, even more intriguing dimension to what I already knew about my Polish family. 

But you'll have to wait for my next book to find out more! 

Missing People

I love writing Christmas cards. I mean I know it's a bit of a slog, but I still enjoy it. 

Which is just as well, because I write a lot of them every year, and often put a little note in or on each one - especially if the recipient is somebody I don't see very often, or don't chat to on social media. Not newsletters. I don't do those. Although one year, I did write a spoof newsletter, with various fictional relatives indulging in bizarre activities like evening classes in witchcraft and black magic, and equally fictional ten and eleven year old nieces and nephews obtaining first class degrees in Nuclear Physics and suffering from early onset male pattern baldness. A good friend of ours thought - at first glance - that it was genuine, and was disgustedly reading it out to his wife, before she pointed out that it was all made up 'because that's what she does!' she added. 'Makes things up.'

I've already written and posted cards to old friends in mainland Europe and elsewhere. This year that includes our son, currently living and working in Barcelona, and for once not able to come home for a Christmas visit. Not just a card but a large parcel, which next year will be made much more difficult by what is called, in this household at least, sodding Brexit. 

Still, this being Scotland, we have options.

But I digress. I like spending a little while thinking about all the people that I have known and loved throughout my life. I like remembering all the tiny and sometimes silly and often hilarious details about our friendship, especially when it's a long term friendship, even when we don't often see each other. 

Sadly, the older you grow, the more you find yourself missing the people who have fallen off the end of the list. You still remember them. And they are in the address book as well as in your mind. But you wish you could drop them a line, or phone them or see them. 

 So it is that I find myself wishing that I could write to my Canadian friend, Anna, who would phone me - latterly from Canada - for long, warm, chatty calls, roughly once a month. We were a generation apart, but she was smart and wise and witty and she took no prisoners, and I loved her. I wish my Auntie Vera was still here when I get out the gorgeous nativity set she knitted for me. I wish my lovely mum and dad and my kind, wise mother-in-law were coming for Christmas. I wish I could send a card with all my news to my old head of department, Scottish folklorist Stewart Sanderson, who I kept in touch with for many years. I wish I could send him a copy of my new book, because I know it would be right up his street. And I wish I could still open an envelope and find a newsy note from Leonard White, who produced a television series I worked on many years ago and who kept in touch with me for the rest of his long and productive life. 

Most of all, this year, I find myself missing two friends, my radio producers and friends, Hamish Wilson and Marilyn Imrie, who both died this year - I wrote about them on this blog and elsewhere, here and here, but it's very hard to accept that they're not here, when I see their names in my address book, and fleetingly imagine meeting up with them again before remembering that it isn't possible. 

All of which makes the remaining friends - and the new friends, of which there are many - all the more precious. If you ask me what I've missed most, during this last Covid and rabid politician infested year - I would say it has been the hugs. Sometimes the need to hug somebody, close friends, good friends, my son, has been so acute that it is a physical pain. I think many of us are feeling the same. 

For now, the occasional socially distanced walk, the Zoom calls and the phonecalls and Christmas cards with their messages and kisses will just have to do. 

As for me, I'll be queuing for the vaccine whenever it's available. 

It's not too late to bake your Christmas cake ...


I promised to post this recipe a while ago, and then got distracted by other things. This is the recipe my mum always made, written into the back of an old book on bakery. It's never too late to bake this one, so if you bake it now, it'll be good, but if you only get round to doing it at the last minute, it'll still taste nice. The trick is in soaking the fruit for a long time and using real butter. Don't use margarine and don't use spreadable butter! Unsalted or ordinary salted butter are both fine, but I don't recommend using those (otherwise lovely) butters with salt crystals.

You'll need

1 kilo mixed dried fruit (with or without peel)
200 grams (1 pack) glace cherries
300 grams (I just use 10 heaped tablespoons) plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 level teaspoon salt
60 grams ground almonds (leave these out if you don't like or are sensitive to nuts) 
1 x 250 gram pack of butter (real butter, not spreadable and never marge)
250 grams soft brown sugar - light or dark will do
4 eggs, beaten.
Juice and zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Half a teaspoon of nutmeg
Half a teaspoon of mixed spice 
(NB these are optional - depends what you like. I add more nutmeg.)
1 teaspoon almond or vanilla essence
1 large tablespoon black treacle or molasses
Milk if needed.
Whisky, rum or brandy, to taste

You will also need a large and as heavy as possible cake tin, preferably one with a loose base. The one in the picture was my mum's, and possibly my nana's before that, so it's more then seventy years old and still going strong! Mary Berry has an excellent Christmas Cake Calculator I think mine is 21 by 9 cm high.

A day or two before you're going to bake the cake, put the dried fruit into a bowl, with the juice and zest of the orange and lemon, and a large sherry or smallish wine glass of whisky, rum or brandy. I favour brandy but sometimes I make a 'whisky mac' with whisky and a good measure of Crabbie's ginger wine, and use that instead. Stir the juices through, cover the bowl and leave at least overnight. You can leave it for a couple more days if you like, stirring occasionally. You can also add a bit more whisky or brandy. If you don't have these spirits, you can experiment with what you do have. I suspect a glass of sherry would do the job just as well. 

The fruit will begin to plump up, and it will smell wonderful. 

Before you begin mixing, line your cake tin, base and sides with a couple of layers of greased greaseproof paper. Let the paper come up over the edge of the tin as in the picture. Grease with a little melted butter.  

Heat the oven to Gas Mark 2, 350 F, 150 C. I actually bake this a little below that, because I have a hot oven, but better to bake slowly for a long time, than to bake it too quickly.

Wash the sticky glace cherries in warm water and leave in a sieve to drain. Pat dry with kitchen towel.

Soften your butter so that it's workable but not melted. You can do this in the microwave for a few seconds, or just leave it at room temperature for a while. 

Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix in the other dry ingredients, salt, spices to taste - include cinnamon if you like it -  bicarb and ground almonds

Put softened butter into a large mixing bowl with soft brown sugar and cream it together until fluffy. You can mix this cake with clean hands and I generally do. Add the beaten eggs a little at a time, and carry on creaming. Don't worry if it curdles. You will need to add your flour mixture also a bit at a time, as you're adding the eggs. You should finish up with a very stiff cake mixture.

Now, tip in your fruit, including any liquid at the bottom of the bowl, the cherries, and lastly a large tablespoon of black treacle. You can leave the treacle or molasses out if you don't have it but it enriches the cake. Mix it up and again you could do this by hand. It should still be softish, but should hold together well, and should not be at all runny. If you lift a big spoonful you should have to shake it quite hard to get it to drop off! If it seems too solid, you can add a little milk. 

Put it in large dollops into the prepared cake tin, and smooth it down, and out, so that there are no airlocks. Make a very slight depression in the middle. This is a cake that won't rise much, and you're aiming for a pretty flat top. 

Put more folded double layers of greaseproof paper around the outside of the tin, (you will need to tie this with thread or string) and then put several more loose layers of paper over the top. 

Put it into the middle of a heated oven. My old recipe says (unhelpfully) 2 - 1- Half. In reality this will take four to six hours of slow cooking, I turn the oven down from 150 C to just over 100 C after the first hour or hour and a half, and then leave it to continue baking at that low temperature for another few hours. After two to three hours, you can slide it out to check that the top isn't burning. It honestly doesn't matter if it cracks a bit - in fact there are benefits to that. If it does burn, and you're planning to ice it, you can simply cut the burnt bits off. 

It will make your whole house smell wonderful.

When it seems cooked, check it with a skewer, which should come out reasonably clean, and without raw mixture although it might be a bit sticky from the fruit. Another old fashioned method is to have a listen! If it is sizzling away, it's probably not done yet. 

Take it out of the oven but leave it in the tin, and - this is where a few cracks might come in handy - baste it while still warm with a few more tablespoons of your chosen spirit. NB - the cake isn't as alcoholic as you might think, because the soaking alcohol will have evaporated, leaving only its flavour behind, so you can afford to be generous.

When it is quite cool, take it out of the tin, peel off most of the greaseproof paper, but you can leave a layer of greaseproof at the bottom. Put away in a cake tin, lined with more paper. If you like, you can add a little more brandy or whisky after a few days. 

It will be good to eat almost immediately, but if you can leave it for a while, it will be even better. You can cover with marzipan and icing in the traditional way, or you can just use it as a cut and come again cake for the holiday. This year especially - when we won't be able to have too many visitors - it will keep for many weeks or even months, in a dry airtight tin. We've eaten the Christmas cake at Easter, and it was delicious. My Yorkshire grandad ate his Christmas cake with a good slice of Wensleydale cheese, and I like it that way too.

Above all, don't panic. This may seem like a complicated recipe, but it is the most forgiving of cakes. You can leave things out and put things in, to your own taste, and it will still be delicious. 

Christmas Pudding (bit early, but still ...)

Christmas Eve at home. Probably not the same this year.

 To be clear - I haven't made my Christmas pudding yet this year, and I may even have a year off. Or as the Sheriff of Nottingham so memorably said, 'cancel Christmas and no more merciful hangings'. 

However, a friend asked me about this recipe the other day, and since so many people seem to be keen on cooking and baking these days, I thought it would be nice to post it on here. I've been making this for years, and had to dig into the back of an old bakery book to find it written down. The book was inscribed from 'Auntie Vera, to Catherine, Christmas 1973'. But in fact my mum first found the pudding recipe in a Radio Times Supplement from December 1966, Fanny Craddock's Guide to your Christmas Table. (If you don't know about Fanny, she was a phenomenon!)  Her pudding recipe was the one that the great chef Escoffier made. But in our family, we modified and changed it over the years, so like the proverbial axe that has had several new handles and blades, it's a new pudding with a long history. 

Christmas puddings have a reputation for being ever so heavy, but our modified pudding has the advantage of being reasonably light. In fact it's a bit like a fruity bread pudding. And while you're cooking it, your kitchen will smell wonderful. The traditional Christmas pudding - such as Dickens describes in A Christmas Carol - is a more solid version of the kind of  'frumenty' that you will find in many cultures. This is a rich porridge made of boiled grains, fruits, eggs and honey for a time of celebration. My Polish dad occasionally made something called Kutia, which was a strange and wonderful mixture of wheat grains, ground poppy seed, raisins, honey and cream that was eaten on Christmas Eve. 

Anyway, here's what you will need to make one very large and one smaller, or two medium sized puddings. I've translated pounds and ounces into grams. This will give you a lot of mixture. If you want to make smaller puddings, just halve these quantities.

500 grams fine white breadcrumbs. (Don't use wholemeal. The pudding will be too heavy if you do.) 

250 grams suet (I use vegetable suet but either is fine) 

250 grams SR flour

200 grams soft dark brown sugar

1 kilo mixed dried fruit, including peel (but leave it out if you don't like it.)

1 large cooking apple (or two ordinary eating apples) peeled and grated.

2 or 3 pieces chopped preserved ginger - the kind preserved in syrup (optional) 

1 teaspoon of mixed spice

Juice of one orange and one lemon.

1 teaspoon of vanilla essence

2 large or 3 smaller beaten eggs

A can of Guinness or similar 'porter' type beer. 

Milk as needed. 

1 large tablespoon of molasses (black treacle) 

Put all the dry ingredients into a very large bowl and mix them together. You can use clean hands. It looks like a vast amount, but it will shrink later. Then, add all the liquids as far as the beer, which will foam up a bit. Once again, mix thoroughly, with either a wooden spoon or clean hands. I don't use a mixer for this, since it makes the whole thing too smooth. It should be quite sloppy. If it isn't, add a little milk and mix again. 

Everyone in the house should have a stir and make a wish. 

Cover the bowl and leave overnight in a cool place. The next day, mix it again. The breadcrumbs will have absorbed the liquid. It should be about the consistency of a thick cake mixture - you should be able to drop it from a spoon but not too easily. This is a very forgiving recipe so it you feel it's too sloppy, add a little more flour. At this point, stir in a good tablespoonful of nice sticky molasses or black treacle. I sometimes add a small glass of my favourite Crabbie's Green Ginger Wine at this point, to give it a little gingery kick, but it isn't essential. My mum used to add a grated carrot, as well as the apple, and that would be nice too. Some recipes use almonds, but in my experience not everyone likes them so I leave them out. 

Grease two medium pyrex basins, or a single large and one smaller basin, put the pudding mixture into them in large dollops, smoothing down well. Then put two or three folded, greased layers of greaseproof paper over the top, tucked down inside the basin, and finally a double layer of kitchen foil, right over the top and folded down well at the sides. You can tie this down with thread or even with string, but I find that the foil sticks to itself pretty well. Old and canny cooks used to fashion a handle out of string to make the basin easier to lift in and out of the pan.

Heat water in a large lidded pan to simmering point - about a quarter to a third of the way up. No more than that. Two pans if you are making more than one pudding.  Lower your basin in very carefully, using oven gloves and put the lid on. It's a good idea to use a low trivet if you have one, to keep the bottom of the basin off the pan, but you can do without as long as you don't let the pan boil dry! Make sure there is room between basin and sides of pan, because you are going to have to top up with hot water from the kettle from time to time. 

You'll have to have patience because it takes hours. The water should be simmering gently all the while, but not going crazy. And it will have to be topped up occasionally. If you are making two or more puddings, you can have a production line of several pans going at the same time. Your kitchen will soon start to smell amazing. Smaller puddings take less time to cook and make great gifts.

After many hours, eight to ten for a large pudding, five or six for smaller versions, you should be able to see that the whole thing has turned a rich brown colour. Again using oven gloves, take the basin out of the pan, and remove the damp foil and greaseproof paper carefully. Tip a small sherry or liqueur glass of brandy or whisky over the top while it is till hot, and then leave it to cool. Once your pudding is cool, put more greaseproof paper and tinfoil on top, and store it away in a cool place, or at the back of your fridge. Some recipes will tell you not to do this, but it'll be fine. I've also frozen a pudding for the following year although you can keep them for ages in a cool cupboard or old fashioned pantry if you have one.

On Christmas Day, put the pudding back in a lidded pan of slightly simmering water, and  leave it for a few hours to heat through. This doesn't take just as long as the first cooking, but there's no hard and fast rule. It should be hot all the way through. If you really want to follow tradition, just before it's ready to be served, turn it out onto a plate, put another few spoonsful of brandy or other spirit over the top, and - turning out the lights -  set fire to it. But make sure the kids are all seated.  On the other hand, tradition also dictates a sprig of holly on the top, but if you want to risk the brief beautiful flame effect, do remember to take the holly off first. Otherwise it will burn. And your smoke alarm will go off.  

Serve with custard, brandy sauce, or home made brandy butter, made with butter, icing sugar and a good measure of brandy all creamed up together. Or thin cream. 

Leftover pudding can be heated up in a frying pan with a little butter (horrendously calorific) - or you can cheat by heating it in the microwave, but be careful - it overcooks very quickly. 

A little of this goes a long way. Best to have an alternative for the guests who don't like it. 

Good luck. I'll post my family Christmas cake recipe - which is incredibly economical and very good - early in November. 

Twelfth Night Thoughts

Here's a last look at the Christmas decorations before they are taken down. It has to be before Twelfth Night because it's unlucky to leave them up any longer. We always have a real tree, always leave the decorations up for as long as possible because I love Christmas so much. I wished somebody a Happy New Year today and she said 'You'll be glad it's all over!'

Er ... no. I'm quite sad really. This Christmas was lovely: just the right balance between entertaining and relaxing.

Lots of good friends came round on Christmas Eve as they have been doing for a while now. We used to celebrate a traditional Polish Christmas Eve when my mum and dad were alive, with Polish food and carols. Our own Christmas Eve get together is, I suppose, the remnants of it, or the replacement for it, or what you will. This year, our son Charlie and I walked along to the old village kirk for the well attended and friendly midnight service - many young people come back for Christmas here, so there's always a small reunion of old school friends. After the carols and blessings, the minister waited outside to wish us all a 'happy Christmas' and then we walked home before Santa came.

Christmas Day was slow and casual. Three of us eating a good Christmas dinner followed by a visit to more friends just along the road, drinks, conversation, generations mixing happily together. And then after a few days of walks along the beach and several hilarious games of Scrabble, son departed to celebrate Hogmanay in the city, and we went off to a New Year's Eve party in the village.

Tomorrow, the decorations will be put away, including a few precious glass ornaments that once belonged to my parents, and may well have belonged to my grandparents before that.

And then it's back to work with a vengeance. Which is fine by me. Lots to write. It's not always easy. Sometimes it's weary, frustrating, intensive work. But it's all good and I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.

A little taste of spring, here in the Scottish countryside.

The days are very short here in Scotland at this time of year, but we comfort ourselves with the thought that in another couple of weeks they'll start to get longer. And by the end of January, they'll be noticeably longer!

Which is not to say that I want to skip Christmas, because I love everything about it. Always have. But all the same, it's cheering when the spring bulbs start to come through.

This is an old terracotta pot of white, scented narcissus bulbs I planted earlier this year, and hid away on a cool, dark shelf at the back of my office. Now, it's downstairs and they're growing and greening up on such light as is available. There's a pot of hyacinths as well, although they're a little way behind.

With a bit of luck, they'll be flowering not long after the Christmas decorations are put away for another year. I don't buy forced hyacinths at Christmas time, but I do buy them soon afterwards, if I haven't had the foresight to grow my own. I love to clean up and then bring springtime into the house in the shape of bulbs and - quite soon, here in the west - bunches of snowdrops and catkins.

I much prefer February to November. In November things are still sliding. In February and even earlier, you can feel the whole garden and the countryside beyond drawing breath, getting ready for spring. My favourite time of year.

It may be even earlier than usual, this year, since, after a cold spell that drove all the outdoor bulbs back underground, it has been incredibly warm for a few days. 'A pretty decent Scottish summer temperature' as my husband remarked! I gather it's due to get colder again pretty soon. Maybe in time for Christmas.

New Projects

I'm on the cusp of starting a new novel, and it's always a strange feeling. I know what I'm going to write and have even worked on the first few chapters. I've done the research, done the planning, know where it starts and where it's going - although I don't plot meticulously or in any great detail. I have an outline, but I'm the kind of writer who may know the beginning and the end, but not precisely how we get there. I write to find out - otherwise I'd get bored.

The other thing I do is forge on to the bitter end, even if it all goes to hell in the middle. The main thing is to get through it all. If I kept stopping to rewrite, I would never finish anything. That's another reason why I put off starting. Once I really get going, I don't much want to stop, no matter what. My current plan is to finish this first ragged draft by Christmas. Then I'll have a bit of time off for parties and celebrations (and - OK - maybe a bit of work on something else, another project very dear to my heart!)

Once the first draft has lain fallow for a few weeks, I'll go back to it, probably in February, and then start to work on it steadily through the spring and early summer, polishing away. It's the first novel in what I'm hoping will turn into a series. But that's all I'm saying about it right now. Most writers know that if you talk about a project too soon, it all dissolves, disappearing as certainly as fairy gold, leaving you with a few dead leaves!

Make a Writer Happy At Christmas!

There's a meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment about making a writer happy by writing a review. Actually, that should read a 'good review', shouldn't it? I think most of us would rather those people who really don't like our books (and there will always be a significant number, because nobody can write for everybody) would decide not to review it at all.

I know if I come across a book I thoroughly dislike I don't review it. There are a number of reasons why. I seldom finish a book I dislike and I won't review a book I haven't read. The older I've grown, the more I've come to realise that I'm not in the business of making people unhappy - and I know how even a single mean-spirited review, in the middle of quite a lot of praise, can stick with you to a disproportionate degree. It's one of the reasons why I don't check the reviews on my books obsessively, even though I have some lovely reviews for which I'm very grateful.

Personally speaking, when I do find a book I don't like, I find it easier, more generous and less stressful all round to say 'this isn't for me' and move on to something that is.

Incidentally, this doesn't mean those occasional thoughtful and thought provoking reviews you get that do you the favour of taking you seriously. You don't have to love everything about a book to give it a balanced review and I've sometimes had reviews with caveats or observations that have given me pause for thought and even made me a better writer.

Anyway, I didn't share that 'write a review' post for the simple reason that although I appreciate reviews very much - if you really want to do something for writers at this busy time of year and a review feels like a chore, I've an even better suggestion: tell your friends about the books you've loved.

The best marketing tool of all is enthusiastic word of mouth.

I was thinking about this last night, at a pre Christmas get-together with a group of friends. Three of us were chatting and two of us were Phil Rickman devotees. (See post below this for my appreciation of this fine writer!) We were so enthusiastic, so animated, that the third friend made a note of the writer and a couple of titles, while my fellow enthusiast - who recommended Rickman to me in the first place - made a note of another title she had missed. This kind of thing happens to me all the time: friends on and offline recommending books and writers they have read and appreciated, people who know me well, and therefore know the kind of thing I might enjoy.

So go on, spread a little love.

You can even drink wine and eat mince pies while you're doing it!

New Way of Blogging for a New Year

The view from my cottage window.
I'm taking a little break for Christmas - and let me take this opportunity again to wish you a very happy and peaceful festival - and a New Year that brings you all you could wish for you and yours.

Oh, and a little publishing success wouldn't go amiss, if that's what you're after. Or a lottery win. That would be nice.

But before I sign off for a few days, I've been thinking about making some changes to this blog - posting more often, but not so many carefully crafted (and let's face it quite long!) posts. Well, maybe once a month. But these days, we seem to be drowning in 'how to write' or 'how to publish' or 'how to find a publisher/agent/the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow' posts. I don't know about you, but I'm getting a bit bored with it all. Besides, this was never meant to be a 'how to' blog although my pretty extensive experiences of writing, publishing and being published - as well as being rejected - may occasionally be helpful if that's what floats your boat.

Anyway - I've decided to do something a wee bit different. During 2015, I'm going to blog as often as I can find the time about whatever takes my fancy. I have two or three big projects on hand. I'll be researching, writing, reading, writing some more, trying to earn a living, trying to earn a better living - as well as buying and selling antiques, which is the other way I try to earn a living. Most of the posts will be shorter - and some will be very short - but more frequent. I hope. Let's see how we get on.

I plan to blog about the difficulties, the disappointments and frustrations, as well as the good stuff.  Or maybe I just mean the realities. And what it all feels like. And why - when  push comes to shove - I've never really wanted to do anything else.

Meanwhile, for a whole week, from 24th December, you can download my big Eastern European historical novel The Amber Heart onto your new Christmas Kindle for a bargain price. You'll find it here in the UK and here in the US. Hope you enjoy it.

Writing Christmas

This piece of furniture, dated 1626, is 200 years old than the house!
I'm still in the middle of Christmas preparations here in this small Scottish village where I live and work. The tree is trimmed and so is the house. This old house seems to enjoy Christmas as much as we do. 200 years and the stones themselves seem to appreciate holly, ivy, the softness of candlelight. Whenever we have a powercut - and it happens from time to time in very windy weather -  I always feel that the house really loves a return to candlelight. You can almost feel it settling down with a sigh of contentment. And if you're as imaginative as I am, you can sense some of those previous inhabitants too, although the house has always felt peculiarly calm and happy.

It's a house in which people have stayed for a long time.

Sometimes, in a world where the news seems to be a constant barrage of devastating tragedy, political hatreds masquerading as religion, and misery of all kinds, this community seems like a sanctuary of sorts. Not always - because what place is? But mostly. And sometimes all you can do is gather friends and family about you, love and care for those closest to you, and hope, somehow, that the light spreads a little.

The old Polish setting for my novel: The Amber Heart
I miss my late mum and dad at Christmas. Well, I miss them all year round. But Dad loved Christmas and we always celebrated in the Polish as well as the British way. Christmas Eve was magical and a little of that magic still remains.

So when I was thinking about a Christmas 'special offer' for my readers, the book that came to mind was my novel set in mid nineteenth century Poland: The Amber Heart.

It isn't wholly set in winter, of course. There are plenty of summer scenes, plenty of Easter celebrations. But when I think of it, it seems to be a snowy landscape that comes into my mind. So much of it was based on the stories about my family that dad had told me over the years. I wrote them as fiction of course, changed them, shaped them, wove them into a different story entirely.

The Amber Heart is set in mid 19th century Eastern Europe - an unfamiliar but magical setting. It  follows the fortunes of an array of characters whose lives are disrupted by the turmoil of the times. But first and foremost it's a love story.

Maryanna is a Polish landowner’s pampered daughter, born and brought up in the beautiful 'pancake yellow' house of Lisko, while Piotro is a poor Ukrainian estate worker. The lives of these two people from vastly different backgrounds are destined to become hopelessly and tragically entwined from the fatal moment of their first meeting. 

At one point in the  novel - after a series of devastating events - Piotro is travelling hopelessly, painfully on foot, through a wintry landscape, when he is given traditional hospitality by a Polish family on Christmas Eve: 

'After the meal there followed a convivial few hours with vodka and violin music. One or two of the women lead the company in singing traditional Christmas songs. They were mostly sweet and sad lullabies to the Christ Child: ‘sleep baby Jesus, my little pearl, sleep my heart’s darling.’ Piotro recognised the melodies and even knew the words of some of them, but he was shy of singing aloud and he only mouthed the words along with the singers. They made him sad, brought a lump to his throat, though he couldn’t have said why.'

For the week beginnning 24th December, The Amber Heart will be on special offer in Amazon's Kindle Store - a big book at a bargain price. Or here, if you're reading this in the US. A good, long Christmas read. 

Meanwhile, let me take this opportunity to wish all my readers and subscribers a very happy Christmas and may the New Year bring you all you could wish for yourselves. 

New Website - and a very Happy Christmas!

Just launched my nice new website, here, designed and built by Ayrshire company, Paligap  I'm delighted with it, although it has certainly taken me long enough to get around to commissioning it! And I'm well aware that an out-of-date website is worse than no website at all.

Paligap built my first site many years ago, when they too were just starting out - I remember visiting them, two pleasant and enthusiastic young men, in premises tucked away down a little back street in the town of Ayr. I was very happy with that first website, but as time passed, my work changed. I thought about changing the site too, but I couldn't justify the expense to myself, in view of the fact that I wasn't at all sure any longer what I wanted it to say! So I concentrated on blogging, while I thought about it, and wrote, and then thought about it all some more.

Paligap, meanwhile, expanded and grew. They moved to nice new premises, and then - more recently - to even nicer premises in an old but very distinguished part of the town. And they gained some very distinguished customers in the meantime. (They are still a very pleasant, friendly company to work with though!)

And I went through a succession of changes in my working life, what I wrote, what I wanted to do with it, where I wanted to go with it. The single biggest change, though, was signalled by two things - the collapse of the mid-list as far as conventional publishing was concerned - and the advent of 'indie publishing' - the possibility of publishing work directly onto Kindle and other platforms, avoiding the increasingly complicated strings of gatekeepers which had interposed themselves between the writer and his or her readership. Suddenly, there was a very definite possibility of getting the work out there instead of spending years and years rewriting it to the demands of an increasingly prescriptive industry - and that came like a wonderful breath of fresh air.

I've written about that change more fully elsewhere, especially in the Scottish Review, here - where you can read a longish essay about the concept of the mid-list - what it is and what has happened to the writers who belonged there. Just as I was assembling ideas for my new website, I read a wonderful little book called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months (I know, I know, we should all be so lucky!) - but it's a lovely, entertaining, useful book, full of bright ideas. And the biggest, brightest idea of all, the best piece of advice - although there's a lot more, you should buy it - is that the writer should spend time thinking about/focusing on/building a relationship with his or her readers.

It was a moment of enlightenment. I don't know why, because it's kind of obvious when you think about it - but over the past few years, writers have been concentrating so hard on the long and difficult hunt for an agent, and then the equally long and difficult hunt for a publisher - that they/we seem to have neglected the person who really matters - the reader.

Fortunately, enlightenment came just in time for me to make a few changes to my new website (thank-you John Locke!) and it's now aimed fairly and squarely at readers, or potential readers. Which is just as it should be.

Meanwhile, this will be my last post before Christmas - so let me wish all of you a very happy and joyful holiday season - and a very successful 2012.