Archives for posts with tag: Cornwall

We are nearly at the end of the year. The days are getting shorter and the nights longer as midwinter creeps closer. It is easy to feel gloomy, but the good news is that from 21st December the days start to get longer! It is because of this promise of longer, lighter days that the longest night has traditionally been a time for celebration. The nights might be long this month, but they can be very beautiful if there are no clouds in the sky, as the moon is at its highest and clearest and the stars are at their brightest.

The dark can be depressing or scary, but just think: if there was no darkness, there would be no light! This is what all the festivals this month are about: finding light in the darkness.

You might think that Christmas is the oldest winter festival, but pagans have celebrated at midwinter for hundreds of years. 21st December is also known as the Winter Solstice or “Yule” which comes from a Norse word “houl” meaning “wheel” because of its place in the cycle of the seasons – or the “Wheel of the Year”.

Many of the pagan traditions of Yule have found their way into the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps you know the carol, The Holly and the Ivy – this has its roots in pagan traditions. Pagans also light candles and fires, decorate their homes with evergreen plants, feast, dance, and give gifts. All these things are now traditional at Christmas too. Pagans believe that hanging a sprig of holly near the door brings good luck and keeps away evil spirits. Mistletoe is also hung as decoration and as a blessing and symbol of new life.

Where I live in Cornwall there are lots of midwinter celebrations. In Penzance there is the Montol Festival (“montol” is an old Cornish word which means “the turning point of the year”). There is lots of dressing up, processions through the town, lanterns, singing, dancing, eating and drinking. At the end the “Mock” or yule log is marked with chalk and then burned. This log is a symbol of the light that we all yearn for in the darkness – it prevents the dark and the cold taking over.

Another good way to beat the chill is to do some winter baking! There’s nothing better on a cold, dark winter’s evening than to put on some cheery Christmas music and set to work baking some yummy warming treats. Why not have a go at making your own mince pies this year? There’s a recipe in my 2019 almanac:

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Whichever winter festival you celebrate this December, be it Solstice, Christmas or Hanukkah, I wish you a happy time and all the best for a prosperous and healthy New Year.

And look out for more treats and activities in next year’s almanac, which is available now!

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I have recently finished the excellent book Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose (appropriately enough!) It shows how reading closely can inform and improve your own writing. This is something I have always known instinctively, but Prose’s book takes you stage by stage through different aspects of writing, such as how to write good dialogue, how to develop character, how to describe gestures to a reader and so on.

I think I have perhaps subconsciously always been taking lessons learned from other writers and trying to apply them to my own work. I am certainly constantly telling students, ‘You cannot be a writer unless you are a reader first and foremost’. When I was younger and dreaming of being published, I would keep a ‘quotes’ book where I would copy out my favourite passages from books as I read them.

In writing Summer’s Shadow, I was definitely directly influenced by many great writers. I was recently asked to come up with a list of favourite books which informed my own story, and this is the list I chose.

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

I read this haunting story after visiting Cornwall for the first time. I had just been to stay in the house which provided the inspiration for Summer’s Shadow – a house which belongs to my husband’s family. I loved the place so much, my husband said, ‘You have to read Rebecca – it’s almost as if it were written about my family’s house.’ He was right! The setting of the Manderley estate, and in particular the description of the drive, complete with hydrangeas lining the way, could have been written about my husband’s family’s home. The narrator is a girl cast adrift, alone and scared, too – rather like Summer in my story. It is a book written for adults, but fans of YA fiction will love it.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

This is another story of a girl, left alone for much of the time in a strange, tumbledown house. Her family are chaotic, her father is a writer and her step-mother is a painter. It is the kind of story that makes me yearn to meet the characters in real life and to be part of their bohemian world. It is a lighter read than Rebecca, but still there is much about this story that enchanted me and fed into the writing in my own book. Any keen reader of family sagas will be as captivated as I was by this story.

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

I have read and re-read this book so many times, to myself and also to my children. As a consequence it probably had more influence on Summer’s Shadow than any other book I have readMary Lennox, the main character, is rather like Summer although she is only ten. Mary, too, is orphaned and is very resentful that she has been sent from India where she had been brought up, to live with her cantankerous uncle in a rambling house in England. She meets a boy called Dickon who helps her out of her misery with his friendship and his gift to her of a love of nature. I certainly had him in mind when I created Zach. I would recommend this book to young teens, for although the main characters are young, the language and plot of this book is rich enough to hold a young teenager’s interest.

Moondial – Helen Cresswell

I adored Helen Cresswell’s books when I was a child. I was a member of the Puffin Club, and Cresswell’s books were always on the recommended reading lists that the club sent out. I read Moondial, however, as a parent, because my daughter picked it up in a bookshop one day and asked me to buy it for her. It concerns a girl whose mother is in a coma after a terrible accident. The girl has to go and live with a relative she does not know very well while her mother is in hospital, and during her stay she has some ghostly experiences which teach her a lot about herself and her family. I drew on this when I was thinking about the ghostly passages in Summer’s Shadow.

Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce

This ranks alongside The Secret Garden as one of my all-time favourite children’s classics. When Tom’s brother falls ill with measles, Tom is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle. (You can see how useful aunts and uncles are in fiction when you want to get your main character away from their normal life!) Tom has been told that he may be infectious so he is not allowed out to play with other children. He feels lonely and restless and cannot sleep. One night he hears the clock in the hall strike thirteen instead of midnight. He gets up to investigate and discovers that the house has changed and that there is a beautiful sunlit garden that was not there before. This story about families and time travel has stayed with me over the years and had a strong influence on me when I was thinking about the Cornish standing stones and the links with the past in my own story.

Notes on an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

This is a book for adults, but again, YA fans and older teens will love it. It is set in the exact same area of Cornwall that I have written about in Summer’s Shadow. Gale’s writing is stunning. His descriptions of the sea and the light in that part of the world outstrip anything I have read – you can taste the salt in the air and smell the sea through his words. The plot is complex and compelling: it concerns a painter who suffers from mental health problems. She is consequently a difficult character, but is redeemed by her marriage to an intensely lovable man. There is tragedy and heartbreak and incredible beauty in this book. It will sweep you away. I would not recommend it to younger readers though, as the book most definitely contains ‘adult themes’. If you are a younger reader, you will just have to wait – but it will be worth it!

Summers Shadow

This is my first ever novel for young teens. I am more than a little bit excited, mixed with more than a little bit nervous about this. Up until now people have pretty much known what to expect from my books: funny stories about children and their pets, families, friends and enemies. Summer’s Shadow is a huge departure from this.

The story starts with Summer’s mother in hospital, fighting for her life. Things go downhill from there for Summer as she finds herself ripped from her old life and catapulted into a new one with relatives who don’t seem to want her. Her uncle Tristan is distracted and will not answer questions in a straightforward way, her cousin Kenan would rather she did not exist, and her aunt Becca has disappeared altogether.

As Summer comes to terms with her new life, she has many experiences, some of them good (mostly in the shape of a boy called Zach whom she meets on the beach); some of them most unsettling. After one unnerving occasion too many, Summer comes to believe that the house may be haunted. But the reader has to work out whether Summer is haunted by real ghosts, or by the shadows of her own family’s past . . .

The inspiration for this story came from a place which is very precious to me and my family. It is a beach in Cornwall where we spend every summer holiday. The house we stay in belongs to my husband’s relatives and has been in his family for generations. It is a romantic setting, far from normal life, at the very tip of West Cornwall. We have no mobile signal and, until recently, there was no WiFi. We see seals, dolphins and even whales while we are down there, we swim in the cold, cold sea (no wetsuits allowed!) and we walk along the craggy coastal path, drinking in the scenery.

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For years I had written about the place in diaries, trying to capture its essence and what it means to me, but it wasn’t until my grandmother died and I was truly bereft for the first time in my life that I felt I had the beginnings of a story. Suddenly I was writing from the point of view of a grieving girl. The scene that really kicked things off for me is a passage towards the end of the book, where Kenan challenges Summer to a dangerous swim across the bay. I knew once I had written that scene that I had two good, strong characters and the makings of a plot.

So Summer’s Shadow is a sad book, but it is also, I think, a story with hope and a happy ending of sorts. It is the kind of story I loved reading when I was a young teen. I am hoping it will be well received by today’s teenagers as I would very much like to have another book published for this age group soon!

Summer’s Shadow is published by Macmillan Children’s Books on 3rd July. If you live in or near Bath, do come along to the launch party at Toppings Booksellers on Tuesday 8th July at 7.30pm.