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AWAY FROM THE MANGER – A Christmas Story

Creel Christmas Tree, Ullapool

As has been my practice over the last few years, I’m uploading a free-to-read Christmas Story in lieu of a card for readers, friends, distant relatives (HI Helen in Australia), and anyone in need of a few Christmassy moments.

Thank you all for dropping by through the year and, in particular, for those of you who take the time to comment. It’s lovely to read your take on whatever the topic is.

AWAY FROM THE MANAGER

By

ANNE STENHOUSE

Grace watched the others.

It was cold out but some of the boys had gone into the yard to kick a battered ball around while they waited for the hatch to open. The cook was behind it and the smell of bacon grilling seeped through into the dining area.

Grace watched the others.

They came back in by ones and twos, pretending they’d done enough to warm them through but failing to stop their hungry gazes turning to that hatch. The smell of bacon grilling will do that.

In the farthest corner of their dining area, Hannah sat alone peeling the skin around her fingernails and creating a buffer zone, a no-fly zone, a leave me alone to my own special misery space.

Grace did not watch Hannah. She was already miserable enough and didn’t need any of Hannah’s, thank you. Christmas Day in a hostel. Grace closed her eyes briefly but opened them when the scenes from Christmas Past flashed up in her memory.

The dogs would be frantic by now because Grace’s granny would have opened all the kitchen doors. The fridge and its freezer compartment, the larder off the little back hall, the breadbasket where Mum would have been de-frosting croissants and those other pastries with the chocolate in them, would all be standing open. Well mannered dogs like Petal and Thea would be struggling with their natural impulse to grab the turkey crown or the gammon and run for their beds under the stairs.

Then she remembered Christmas Present when it would all be different, but ‘Just as nice.’ As if…

The smell of bacon grilling was enticing. Grace looked at the others and saw the hunger. Food wasn’t going to make it go away. Were they thinking about Christmases past?

“Move over, Gracie,” Rico said as he approached her table with a tray. “I suppose you’d like a bacon roll and I brought you orange juice.”

Grace cast a startled glance at the tall young man and slithered across the bench. He was a voluntary helper. Did Tuesdays.

“It’s not Tuesday,” she said and closed her eyes in despair. How cool a remark was that? “I mean, you usually come in on Tuesdays.”

“I couldn’t bear the thought of you lovely people on your own at Christmas,” Rico unloaded the tray and yet again Grace felt the tug of that bacon smell. She wondered if the street team had a spray of it to lessen the resistance of the homeless they approached. She lifted the roll and took a bite. Oily liquid slid down her chin.

Rico laughed. She made a wry face, and he picked up his own roll. Oily liquid slid down his chin.

“There’s loads of company,” Grace said. She eyed the spare roll sitting on the big plate. Had Rico brought it for her or for himself, she wondered.

“So there is and Hannah is still sitting in solitary.” Rico spoke quietly without turning in the direction of the other girl.

“Will I take her that roll?” Grace asked. Rico studied her for a moment or two. His eyes were nearly as deep and brown as Grace’s spaniels.

He nodded and stood up to let her out of the bench seat.

“Hannah?” Grace said quietly, tentatively, “Would you like this roll?”

The other girl shook her head without raising it.

“They’re really good and hot,” Grace tried again.

“I’m vegan,” Hannah said.

“Oh, oh, I didn’t know. Sorry.” Hannah had been here when Grace was brought in a week ago and Grace had never seen her eat anything.

Back at her own table, she set the plate down.

“Vegan, was it?” Rico asked. “Her excuse?”

“Did you know?”

“No! I wouldn’t have let you ask if I had.”

“I suppose,” Grace muttered.

“Missing them at home?”

Tears spurted and she drew her sleeve down to wipe it across her eyes.

“They won’t be missing me. ‘Cept the dogs maybe. Dad and I used to take them out onto the Pentlands on Christmas morning.” She stared into the middle distance.

“It’s a second wife, is it?” Rico asked.

“My category,” Grace flashed. “Am I reduced to that?”

Rico’s big warm hand tugged her smaller one out of the defensive shrug she’d made around herself. He straightened her fingers and gripped them.

“Only in the paperwork,” Rico said. “Look, Grace, maybe they are missing you. Maybe your dad’s new wife doesn’t know how to do Christmas the way everybody likes.”

“That’s certainly true,” Grace said. “She bought beef.” Grace remembered now. It wouldn’t be a turkey crown or gammon joint the girls would be slavering under but a huge piece of something or other.

“Sirloin?” Rico asked.

“That’s the word.”

“Hmn! Well, loads of households eat Sir Loin around Christmastime.” Rico pulled her to her feet and steered her out of the kitchen. “Have you been into town to look at the Norwegian Tree?”

They stood on The Mound shivering despite being zipped into their outdoor jackets. Grace loved this tree. She turned her head to look up into Rico’s face and caught the glance he was sending over her head.

“You Ba…”

Rico was too quick for her. He had her in a bear hug round her middle before she could run.

“I know. But, I will take you back to the hostel if you really can’t face them,” he said, “I promise.”

He set her on the pavement without releasing her fully and Grace stared fixedly at the top of his jacket zip. Behind her, two dogs barked furiously and in seconds were leaping up the backs of her legs. She reached down and one of the dogs, Thea maybe, had her glove off. Wet doggie kisses slurped all over her fingers.

“Happy Christmas, darling,” her dad said, and she turned then as Rico’s arms relaxed.

To run or not to run?

“I’m a vegan now, Daddy,” she said.

“Really? Well, okay. Will you find the smell of roasting meat too much to bear?”

Grace edged closer to her dad. He looked thinner, a bit. The dogs were tangling themselves in their leads and flopped onto the frost.

“I hope so,” she said.

© Anne Stenhouse 2022

Another Capital Writer, Kate Blackadder, has produced a lovely Christmassy volume of her previously published Christmas themed stories. You can buy it from amazon, here

Diary of a Writer – October Prompt

In the Woods
The Wise Owl.
Another beautiful group.

Do I forage? Only for brambles!

I enjoy eating funghi but am not confident enough to know what’s deliciously edible and what’s poisonously inedible. I leave the selecting to more knowledgeable chefs.

The pictures as prompts for writing, heralding late autumn and early winter as they do, suggest the obvious. Accidental or deliberate poisoning comes to mind. However, the owl adds a subtlety. Wise, we may be, but what happens when we get it wrong?

Are the shorter days and the wilder weather systems seeping into your work?

Capital Writers have a little collection for your kindle Dark Stories

Anne

Diary of a Writer – September Prompt

Athens

Shorter days and darker nights are in the offing. It might be time to think about some spooky stuff.

There’s a short volume of Dark Stories written by me and some of the other Capital Writers Group. It’s called DARK STORIES and is available for a modest 99p.

Do the dark nights turn your writing efforts to ghostly goings on?

Anne

Round Robin – August 2022

This month’s topic is How do you create your characters–their quirks, habits, values, and what part they will play in the story, etc.? Do you have a process or do they come to you instinctively?

Dealing with the widening out questions first – Do you have a process or do they (characters) come to you insitnctively?

I suppose I do, or might, have a process in so far has I need to hear their voices. I often start a story or longer piece in dialogue and the character’s voice has to be clear in my head before I really know who they are.

In the beginning, I was told by my mentor, the late Margaret McKinlay, that all my characters sounded like me. This was backed up by others in the Edinburgh Writers’ Club. There was a huge shift in my writing when I realised that: No, the character would not resolve things the way I would and: Yes, as soon as the character refused to play ball with plot, they were real.

Most writers have been asked whether such and such a character is based on them/a mutual acquaintance/the newsreader and the answer must depress pretensions (or hopes) because ordinary people are too ordinary to make the cut. They need the application of quirks, habits and values and at that stage in their creation I can look to the needs of the plot.

It’s such a relief to get to that point. How does one get there?

Take Rosalie Garden in A Debt for Rosalie. She made her appearance as a young woman struggling with the loss of a promising business and the discovery that her fiancé was likely to blame. Her back story strengthened her resolve to not accept the solution offered by another man. Her emotional recovery allowed her to take the help the new man offered on terms that were good for them both.

The story opens with Rosalie getting off an ‘ageing man’s bicycle’ and instantly we know she’s a young woman of determination because she’s cycled for hours and miles on it. It becomes clear that she has no loose money – but she did have a bike; and she got on that bike.

I suppose, it’s a free-flow process. What I have to be careful over, is not getting carried away and allowing character to become caricature. Rosalie’s story may be available from a library near you.

Check out the posts from my fellow robins below, from the 27th, to discover how other writers find their characters.

Anne (who, like Melissa, has been dancing quadrilles! Ha!)

Regency Ball, Hopetoun House

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/

Dr. Bob Rich https://bobrich18.wordpress.com/2022/08/27/hatching-people/ 

Anne Stenhouse https://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com

Robin Courtright

DIARY OF A WRITER – August prompt

Edinburgh 30 July 2022

Two of the dancers are known to me – Romance author, Sophie Claire and her friend Jane. These ladies had travelled some distance to take part in the Kate Bush fundraising event for Maggie’s Centres and other cancer charities. The Edinburgh event was sited in the open grassland off the Queen’s Drive in the Royal Park.

So, why is this a prompt? It’s Edinburgh on the brink of the Festivals and such surreal happenings are not quite ten-a-penny, but not unusual. However, they are different, inspiring, thought provoking and, I think, surreal.

If I can’t get a story out of going along to watch this, I do not deserve to call myself ‘writer’.

I hope your own month is filled with inspiration.

For Edinburgh Festival tickets go here.

For Fringe Tickets try here

For the Royal Military Tattoo go here

Anne (Who is drafting the synopsis for a fresh Edinburgh based Regency)

Round Robin – July ’22

·         Blog about the inspiration behind your characters. 

·         Blog about the character you just killed.  

·         Blog about your character names.  

·         Blog about those deleted scenes. 

·         Blog about characters not in your book. 

·         Blog about the other aspects of your characters that were cut from the story.

This month the list of possible topics comes from Connie Vines and is mainly about that really important ingredient of fiction writing – CHARACTER. We’re invited to select one or more from the above and I’ve opted to go for character names.

Why?

Because naming characters is one of fiction writing’s hardest jobs and I really hope any other writers dropping in here will add their tuppence worth.

Geographic

Many of us choose to call our characters by names we know are much evident in an area or to give them a name which clearly indicates the area their ancestors are likely to be from. The internet really helps here because we cannot, alas, pop on a plane to Turkey or Northern Canada to check out whether the name we’ve selected really is used. Even more importantly, we can’t go back in time to discover when a name first came into use.

I write a lot of fiction set in Scotland and have a lifetime’s knowledge of what names to expect where. That is not infallible so when I won a book token prize years ago in a writing comp, I spent it in the Achins book shop on Surnames of Scotland by George F Black and published by Birlinn. (It has been updated and there is a new edition by another publisher.)

So, should I wish to use my own surname, I discover Stenhouse, Stanous from the old Barony of Larbert, Stirlingshire. The entry goes on to cite John de Stanhus witnessing a document around 1200. I can relate to all of that as John is very much used by the family up to and including my father’s generation.

Another type of geographic name is the one taken from a place name. People are called Glasgow, Stirling, Windsor and, in Orkney, Mainland.

First Names Choosing first names to match surnames is possibly even more difficult and even more important. In past times there were far fewer first names available so it would be quite normal for any household to have father and son or mother and daughter with the same first name. In writing fiction, however, giving people the same names leads to confusion for the reader. Sometimes giving people names which begin with the same letter can be confusing.

The internet comes to the rescue again as annual popularity lists can be found. In 1951 Linda was the most popular girl’s name. In 1971 it was Jennifer. Going back into the nineteenth century Mary, Sarah, Martha, Catherine and Ann all feature. Indeed, there was a period when Mary was chosen twice as often as the second ranking name.

That’s the fact-based approach. How about the ‘feel’ one has for a name? Do I avoid some names because they’re family ones? I do. Jane Austen didn’t and her characters often share the names of her family members and even her own. Do I call my villains by the names of people I’ve known and disliked – of course. Do I use the names of people I’ve known and liked for my heroines and heroes – not so much, but sometimes.

I did read of one writer who took the surnames for her book from the list of a football squad that appeared in her local paper.

Other reflections on character can be found below and I hope you’ll take the chance to read them. I’ve had to replace the link to Dr Bob Rich’s post – sorry about that, Bob.

City of Discoveries by Anne Stenhouse features a main character called Jennet and her husband called William Marshall. Contrary to what I said above, these names are from the family.

Capital Writers July Catch-up

Anne

   Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

·         Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/

·         Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog

·         Dr. Bob Rich

·      

·         Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/

·         Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com

Diary of a Writer – July Prompt

in Bomarzo

I visited the garden of Bomarzo in Italy during a tour of gardens organised by the Friends of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. It contains many huge statues, like the tortoise above, and a few buildings. The carvings are often referred to as ‘monsters’ and they are both immense and, in some cases, grotesque. One of the buildings is a house that slopes.

The garden was created in response to grief over the death of his wife, Giulia Farnese, by Pier Francesco Orsini in the sixteenth century. Over the centuries, it became clogged by under/overgrowth, but has been cleared. It is still in private ownership and has become a major tourist attraction.

Dublin

Okay, so how do either the tortoise or the fish on a bicycle contribute to inspiration? While my writing is very much in the doldrums at present, I think these images serve to remind me that even out of a period of comparative drought something, and something weird and wonderful, may come.

What I actually need is a house. I don’t see people walking through walls, but I am hugely influenced by atmosphere. Anyone with a recommendation? Where are the properties you’ve used? Was it a family connection that took you to the area? Were you interested in the politics?

The Door of the Year

City of Discoveries, my anniversary serial for The People’s Friend is up on their website and can be accessed here.

City of Discoveries

Anne

June Round Robin – Through a Glass darkly

June

Have you ever included current social, political, or environmental problems in any of your stories or thought about doing so? Why or why not?

This month’s question could cover a lot of ground and for guidance, contributors were offered a list of possible ways we might be including the issues mentioned. I write mainly historical novels and magazine serials and contemporary magazine short stories.

Hence my title, Through a Glass Darkly: from 1st Corinthians and meaning – to see an issue imperfectly.

Although I don’t regard myself as an ‘issues’ writer, I am very conscious of the things that anger me and hold my interest. Principally, that the discrimination meted out to the female of the species never disappears. It’s an issue that embraces politics, discrimination, wars, terrorism and economics.

The theme a regular reader of my work would identify is the entitlement to education. It was a central plank in my first historical novel, Mariah’s Marriage, and also in the Anniversary serial I wrote for People’s Friend magazine, City of Discoveries.

Once a person achieves the ability to read and write, their future changes dramatically. It was, therefore, a major objective among many to prevent women, in particular, and categories of men from learning these skills. After all, who was going to continue at home scrubbing floors and making the tea? Who was going to be content in dead-end work?

Having lost that battle, it became a major concern that no further ground – like secondary education or university education – should be ceded. This is the main theme of the serial I wrote for People’s Friend last year, In A Class of Their Own, about the struggle of women to become registered doctors.

How does this theme embrace ‘wars, terrorism and economics’? Scrolling the world news channels provides an all too recognisable answer. Women are not entitled to education in many countries. Wars are fought and much of the fall-out will be to remove the independence a previous culture allowed to its womenfolk. Some will be terrorised by the imposition of anti-female laws. Almost all will be economically discriminated against.

The work of fiction, in my opinion, is not only to entertain but to inspire thought. In many Western cultures women are educated, have worthwhile jobs, equal control of their children and the right to leave a poisoned marriage. In many cultures they have none of that. Writing in the world of the early nineteenth century enables me to entertain, but remind my reader – ‘It’s not that long since you were controlled by your father or husband and your children would go with your husband if you dared to leave him.’

The hope is that the reader will recognise and ALWAYS, ALWAYS, use their vote. It was hard to come by.

A large part of Melissa’s story in Courting the Countess is about her struggle to avoid a second marriage where her new husband would be hoping for control of her fortune.

Maybe you’d like to find out how others view the use of contemporary life and some fellow Robiners have contributed below.

Anne

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/

Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/

Anne Stenhouse https://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2Fj 

Rhobin Courtright http://rhobincourtright.com

Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/

Diary of a Writer – June Prompt

On Offer for a limited time 99p

It is always a prompt to remember that you’ve done it before.

From Lume Books, Courting the Countess, tells the story of Melissa Pateley who was badly burned in a house fire and is under threat from fortune hunters, including a stalker. It opens in the Border country but quickly moves to Regency Edinburgh where Melissa is nurtured by the handsome, Harry Gunn and his family. A fairytale inversion.