A Tale for a Winter’s Night

Imagine: It’s a cold night in December, the snow is falling, the wind is howling. But you and your family and friends are warm and cozy, sitting by the roaring fire. There’s delicious food, warm drinks, and a general jolly spirit throughout. Then the stories begin…

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Hands down, the most popular Christmas story (besides the Nativity story) is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. First published in 1843, the 6000 copies sold out in a matter of days. By the end of the following year, thirteen editions had been released.  Today, a first edition copy can be found online selling for upwards of $25k.  

We have Charles Dickens to thank for some of the ways we celebrate Christmas now. A combination of Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical change of religious traditions (he even tried to ban Christmas carols) and the Industrial Revolution meant that Christmas was quite understated. In the 1800s, families were often scattered for work and workers were only allowed one day off at Christmas, thus familial gatherings and traditional celebrations were starting to disappear. Charles Dickens helped bring back the carols, feasting, decorations, the festive spirit. His descriptions of the family celebrations of the Cratchits and Scrooges’ wealthy relatives, ignited a festive spark in the minds of the new urban society.


Growing up, it seemed strange to me that such a spooky tale would be associated with Christmas at all. As a youngster, I watched The Muppet Christmas Carol and was thoroughly scared of Waldorf and Statler as Jacob and Robert Marley. It wasn’t until I was a little older when I read the original story for the first time. 

In western culture, October is the “time” for ghosts and ghouls. Halloween is when I break out the Stephen King novels, visit haunted houses, and generally enjoy a more spooky atmosphere. But this is actually a more recent development in North America and Europe. 

The celebration of Christmas coincides with the pagan festival of Yule, which falls on the winter solstice. Being the longest night of the year, the festival was considered more haunted due to the themes of the death of light. The barrier between the world of the living and dead was the thinnest and the dead could walk the earth on Christmas Eve. A convenient night for Marley’s ghost to appear to Scrooge.

The tradition of telling ghost stories was actually unknown to me until about a year ago. Obviously, I knew of Dickens’ book, and I’d heard the lyrics from “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year“: There’ll be scary ghost stories / And tales of the glories of / Christmases long, long ago. But, I’d never thought too deeply about what that meant.

However, this storytelling tradition goes back much farther than either Andy Williams or Charles Dickens. 

A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins.

Act 2, Scene 1
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s play dates back to 1623. The title itself is a reference to these “sad” stories, or possibly is a reference to a play by George Peele from 1590, where a storyteller tells a “merry winter’s tale” about a missing daughter. 


For the Victorian English, ghost stories at Christmas were just as common as Mariah Carey’s Christmas songs are on the radio now. Charles Dickens continued to write ghost Christmas-y tales in the Christmas editions of the magazines he edited, Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens stopped publishing Christmas stories in 1868, claiming he felt as if he’d “murdered” Christmas.

Many other authors continued the tradition though. 

Even at the turn of the century, Yuletide ghost stories continued to be popular. Authors such as M. R. James (1862-1936), Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927), and J. H. Riddel (1832-1906) wrote spooky tales for Christmas. 

Jerome K. Jerome in his anthology “Told After Supper,” wrote:

Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories…

References & Further reading

Festive Fun

When in doubt, make it one line. 

If you know me personally (maybe even if you don’t), you know I get excited about Christmas as soon as the clock strikes midnight on Halloween. Then it’s yuletide festivities galore! I listen to Christmas music, I pull out a few Christmas decorations, I dream of a white Christmas, etc. etc. 

Not one of those people? Feel free to read something else, because this is going to be Christmas AF. 

This time of year, I also watch an embarrassing amount of Hallmark Christmas movies. So many. They are so much fun; perfectly predictable, fancifully festive, … [insert one more cute alliteration here]. 

One that came out this year was called Christmas at Pemberley Manor. If “Pemberley” sounds familiar, it’s because it is the name of the estate owned by Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The movie had almost nothing to do with Jane Austen, except the character names and who ended up with whom. 

Though the movie left something to be desired (though it was full of Christmas cuteness), it inspired me to write a P&P based Christmas story.

As it goes often with my writing, I wrote the first line and blanked. After a few days of noodling on the first line, I realized it would be fun to turn a number of classic first lines into the beginnings of Christmas stories. Here they are! See if you can guess where they’re from.

  • It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Bennett family must go to the Crystal Lake Lodge at Christmas time.  
  • It was a bright cold day in December, and the bells were chiming twelve.
  • Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the Blue Spruce trees for the Christmas ball herself.
  • For a long time, I went to bed early, especially on Christmas Eve. 
  • In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me a Christmas gift that I’ve been pondering over ever since. 
  • It was a queer, quiet Christmas, the Christmas they orbited the moon, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
  • In the late December of that year we lived in a stone cottage in a village that looked across the frozen river and the snowy plain to the mountains. 

See? So festive. I’d also like to apologize to all the classic novels whose first lines I just butchered.

If you have any classic first lines turned Christmas-y I’d love to read them!

Escapism

I try to maintain a healthy dose of daydreaming to remain sane.

– Florence Welch

I am an escape artist.

Not in the traditional, Harry Houdini sort of way. I cannot escape from a straightjacket while being held upside down in a tank of water. But I do escape. My straightjacket is reality.

Escapism is the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.

My reality has never been overly unpleasant but it is just a regular plain-old life. I used to go to school, do homework, sleep, eat. Now I go to work, write my book, sleep, eat. The repetitiveness is a bit much for me sometimes.

I don’t remember the exact moment when I discovered Harry Potter (maybe in the first grade?), but since I read the first book, I wanted to run away to Hogwarts and be a witch. The world of Harry Potter was my first conscious dip into the world of escape-through-fiction. My own world was suddenly a bit more ordinary because there was no magic.

Since then there have been many books that have acted as a portal out of my reality; included but not limited to Twilight, anything by Maggie StiefvaterThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, and Anne of Green Gables. These books help(ed) me have faith that there is more to the world than meets the eye.

Reading is my escape.

Escapism isn’t always about books. I’ve been an avid daydreamer since… ever. The Oxford English Dictionary (online) defines a daydream as, “A series of pleasant thoughts that distract one’s attention from the present.”

From ballerinas to lost princesses, to orphans (thanks Anne Shirley and Annie), to lottery winners, my inner world is full of interesting characters and adventures. As a child, I could play make-believe forever. As an adult, my daydreams often revolve around being an author, paid enough to quit my job, able to buy a quaint cottage by the sea to live in with my cats.

165669-seaside-cottage
So cute!

In high school, my internal worlds started becoming external through my writing. It’s no longer me going on adventures but the characters I create. Worlds I didn’t know were rattling around in my head started coming out onto the page. It’s been fun to explore worlds someone else didn’t already create.

Writing is now my escape.

Between reading and writing, the monotony of life doesn’t feel so… monotonous.

 

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On Dog Walking and Creativity

For over two years as I’ve been working on my novel, I’ve also been working as a dog walker. My hours vary depending on how many doggies need walking or cats need caring. Sometimes after a busy day, I just want to fall on the floor and never get up again. But, in general, I think this physical job has helped my writing more than hinder it.

 

Get Out and Get Going

 

Physical activity that doesn’t require critical thinking is a known way to combat writer’s block.

 

Writing is all about what’s going on in your head, very cerebral. Getting out and walking for hours a day means I can turn off the part of my brain that does all the writing. This allows the creative juices to work in the background and solve the plot issues I was having troubles with, or think of new scenes and characters.

Maker:S,Date:2017-8-25,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y

Physical activity that doesn’t require critical thinking is a known way to combat writer’s block. While writer’s block hasn’t been a major problem for me recently (knock on wood), being able to put writing on the backburner means I’m not getting creatively drained.

 

Interesting People and Places

 

The people we pass and sometimes talk to, add to my internal catalog of character traits.

 

My job involves spending lots of time with many different types of dogs with lots of personalities. I’ve dabbled with an idea about a dog-walker having to save a dog that secretly belonged to a secret service agent.

But mostly, it’s the places we walk and the people we meet along the way that offer the inspiration.

While out with my fur friends, I’ve discovered many a favourite tree and plenty of inspiring scenery. The people we pass and sometimes talk to, add to my internal catalog of character traits; whether appearance, mannerisms, or personality based.

People are endlessly interesting.

 

Nature and the Creative Soul

 

Being in a happy place is great for motivation. Motivation is great for writing.

 

In my last post, I wrote about the healing power of nature. Especially when it gets warm (for like two months in Canada), I find the green trees and the bright sun fill my soul with bliss. Even though I find winter a little soul-crushing after December, I can still find the beauty.

Maker:S,Date:2017-8-25,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-ve

Even without the direct inspiration, nature is what keeps my state-of-being in a happy place. Being in a happy place is great for motivation. Motivation is great for writing.

I will always find joy in nature and my job allows me to be out in it a lot. Sometimes I do end up a sweaty, dog-hair covered mess, but there’s always an underlying joy that allows me to keep writing.

First draft vs. now

The first lines of my first draft from 2014

Screen Shot 2018-04-20 at 5.08.05 PM

The first lines of my most recent draft (2018)

Screen Shot 2018-04-20 at 5.08.24 PM

Since 2014 Winnie has undergone many changes (age, location, whininess). I’m not sure if this draft is the draft I’ll be submitting or what. But, I’m hopeful it’s getting nearer to that draft.

(I’m sorry for how many times I just used the word draft)

Adventures in Positive Feedback

Yesterday I got a text from a good friend. She’d finished reading the latest draft of my manuscript after she’d volunteered to be a Beta Reader. “I couldn’t put it down” is one comment that really struck me.

I think every writer wants to hear at some point that a reader enjoyed your work so much they couldn’t stop reading. Though, I suspect it happens more after a manuscript is published. Maybe.

Her feedback was positive and was a much-needed ego boost. I’d been working on this thing for two and a half years, and I figured I was the only one who would care about the characters and the story.

Later that day, I got a message from another person who asked to read it. Their comments were also positive; the characters were individual, the writing was fluid, etc. That was also a much-needed ego boost.

Having positive feedback on a draft of one’s first novel, there is hope (or at least more hope) for the future.

 

BRB: Daydreaming of getting an amazing book deal with a huge advance.