Shrove Tuesday Tudor Style

In case you didn’t notice, today is Shrove Tuesday. For me it is apt as I’m about to release Murder at the Abbey, which is set in a Tudor monastery in Lent. You may recall I spent a lot of time researching food and historical fasting and feasting while writing this book, so I thought I’d spend a few lines now explaining about Shrovetide in the age where Agnes Morrow is trying to catch her man.

But first, here’s the cover of my book. Hasn’t my cover artist done a fabulous job?

Late winter, 1540. Wenstone Abbey is closing and its abbot, Mark de Winter, must retain Henry VIII’s favour if he is to keep the infirmary open for the local community. But the woman who drove him into the cloister is hiding in his kitchens under an assumed name, and Agnes is determined to hold him to their 20-year-old vows once he is no longer a monk.

Will Agnes and Mark be together at last, or will two murders, treachery and accusations of witchcraft thwart their most ardent desires?

For centuries past, people seemed to spend most of the year fasting or feasting. That included a fast for the forty days of Lent (Sundays excluded) when dairy, eggs and meat were not allowed for most people. On Fridays, and some other days, depending on the period, there was extra-strict fasting. This period was sandwiched between Shrovetide – three days of feasting prior to Lent – and Eastertide afterwards. Shrove derives from shrive – to confess and receive penance/absolution for one’s sins.

Shrovetide began on the seventh Sunday before Easter, known as Shrove Sunday. Collop Monday followed, marked by eating collops, or fried pieces of meat, and Shrove Tuesday when you ate up all the other banned goods. This feasting was accompanied by celebrations which might include activities such as cock-fighting and apprentices ‘letting their hair down’ (the origin of this phrase) and having a good time. The shriving or pancake bell was rung on Tuesday at around 11 o’clock to signify the time for confession and then the commencement of pancake making.

Shrove Tuesday was followed by Ash Wednesday, a strict fast day of only bread and water. Palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service (the last Sunday before Easter) were burnt and the ashes used to make the sign of a cross on penitents’ foreheads during a church service. Some were exempt from the strictures of fasting due to age or infirmity, like Sarah, an inpatient at Wenstone infirmary for whom Agnes made Italian meatballs (the original mortadella!) to give her strength.

I think this reminds us just how much Christian ritual dominated lives in centuries past.

Will you be making pancakes today? Going to confession?

And what do you think of my proposed blurb opposite the cover photo? Let me know in comments below.

Writer of the Week

This week I am Writer of the Week at The People’s Friend. This is the second time I have featured in this slot. The first time was when my only serial to date, To St Peter’s Field, was published in 2018. This occasion coincides with the publication of my Xmas story Some Day My Prince Will Leave.

Not surprisingly, this story is based around a panto and was triggered by an idea someone else suggested many years before. I was on a £30, all-day, food-provided, woman’s fiction workshop, more years ago than I can remember. The leader asked us to think of suitable ideas for an Xmas story and someone suggested a panto. Brilliant, I thought. I love a good panto.

It went no further at that time as I couldn’t think of a suitable plot. I can’t remember how I came up with Prince Charming and Cinders kissing on stage every day (twice on Saturdays). I suspect it was one of my famous first lines. I’m a serial starter; first lines and opening paragraphs strike me out of the blue. I write them down straight away and then have to think up the rest of the story, which can be a very long process.

Well, Brexit came along and Piotr, being from Poland, was going home, as all his Polish friends had done, which offered no chance of a real-life romance for poor Cinders. But this is womagland and there must be a happy ending. So throw in a fairy godmother in the shape of a meddling granny, with a surprising past in place of a magic wand, and Bob’s your uncle.

I think this is a good example of thinking outside the box. It’s so easy to be hackneyed when writing Womag stories. After all, there are only so many ways boy can meet girl then be kept apart by a spanner in the works. But what an interesting situation to be in – kissing your ideal man every night on stage, but never for real.

Some Day My Prince Will Leave is in The People’s Friend Special No. 236, dated 28th December. And I love this illustration they’ve done for it.

Happy New Year, everyone, and I hope it’s a productive one for you.

Writing Retreats

Are there any writers who don’t dream of going on a writing retreat? Well, what’s stopping you?

I recently got back from a long weekend in Cromer with writing friends I met when we were all studying at the Open University. We’ve all come a long way since then and gone in different literary directions, but it’s great to get together and socialise in a safe space, with other people who know what a challenge writing can be.

the pier at cromer on a stunningly blue day.
Cromer pier on a cloudless November day, 2022.

This is who met in Cromer:

  • Mairibeth Macmillan writes Viking romances.
  • Palo Stickland writes mostly memoir now.
  • I write popular women’s short fiction and novellas.
  • Julie Bissell writes a little bit of what she fancies, but particularly enjoys fantasy and sci-fi.
  • Enza Vynn-Cara writes mostly short literary fiction and poetry.
  • Ian Elves writes high fantasy.

We meet in November when it’s cheaper to rent a house, but three of our members couldn’t attend this year:

  • Rebeccah Cohen, a prolific writer of MM romance.
  • Russet Ashby, who writes mainly short stories, and
  • Elisabeth McKay, who has a WWII adventure trilogy looking for a home.

Together we form Women Who Write With Elves, and two of our members scooped prizes at the Scottish Association of Writers conference last year.

Five of the Women Who Write with Elves, and Mr Elves himself.

We are experienced now and write in such diverse genres that we have outgrown the universal interest workshops we used to run ourselves. Instead, this time we had quiet rooms, where people could sit and write undisturbed, and social rooms, where we could sit and write and natter if we so wished. But most importantly, we had an initial catchup session, where we explained what we had achieved (or not) this last year and set ourselves individual goals for the weekend and the year ahead.

This is remarkably effective. Everyone essentially achieved what they set out to this over our 3 days together, including one of our number who quite simply needed to start writing again.

Not everyone can manage the sort of retreat we run, there are many organised retreats out there, with feedback from experienced tutors and without. So if you fancy one, why not drop a hint this December, or blatantly write it on your Xmas list.

Plotting a Mystery

This is a quick post, as I’m not supposed to be typing at the moment. I recently came across Ten Tips for the Mystery Writing Pantser, which is full of brilliant advice for those writing mysteries, like me, who is also a terrible pantser. Please take a look if you enjoy writing mystery stories.

I have been forced into minimal computer use for the next 10 days because of my elbow problem, but this has helped me with actual plotting, my bête noire. I have had a new idea around a female apothecary at the end of the 18th century, coming into conflict with both the handsome new doctor, and the newfangled chemist, who bought her father’s shop when her back was turned.

Using The Conflict Thesaurus and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, I have mapped out my main characters’ character arcs for the book. Consequently, last night, during about of prolonged tossing and turning, three fully formed scenes popped into my head, which I managed to remember long enough to write down the barebones of. I now just need the plot of the mystery element of my romance to come to me, and I shall be away as soon as I’m allowed to start typing again. Methinks arsenic will be involved, which means plenty of research to do before the typing begins in earnest.

Missdemeanors, who wrote the mystery-writing blog post, suggests making a list of all your characters’ secrets and the lies they are willing to tell to protect themselves. You may consult this at a later date when making your plot work. So that will be my next task. She also advises writing drunk and editing sober. I’m not sure I’d be following that one, especially as I write during the daytime, and if I have a drink before six I shall be snoozing in my chair all day.

Che Lavoro Fa?

I’m learning Italian on Duolingo at the moment. Technically I (just) passed the equivalent of A-level Italian years ago (molti anni fa). But this was online with the Open University, so I write great Italian, but as for finding out what’s happened to the train you were expecting to get you back to your villa before night falls and the wolves come out – forget it. Sure I can ask someone in a uniform (una divisa) ‘Dov’è il treno?’ but I won’t have a clue about the answer.

Okay, I exaggerate about the wolves, but night-time in a foreign place can be pretty scary for worrits like me. And although I’m a night owl, I’m not exactly a party animal. So if I’m not tucked up with a glass of wine and a cosy fire once the sun is gone down, there’s something seriously wrong in my life. Hence why I’d like to better speak Italian.

I joined my local U3A Italian conversation group a few weeks ago and am completely out of my depth. Hence the daily Duolingo (and a roomful of language books). ‘But what’s this got to do with writing?’ I hear you ask.

Some of my Italian language books

I’ve just started unit 11, and we are learning occupations. This is something I struggle with when I’m writing a story: what job should my character have? A fellow womag writer told me she has a similar problem and frequently reverts to the same call centre scenario.

And yet here in unit 11, I have listed a pageful of occupations from avvocato (lawyer, not a piece of fruit) to pescatore (fisherman). Most tellingly, I didn’t know the Italian for my own ‘job’ – la scrittrice (writer). It set me thinking. When did I write a story containing a clown (pagliaccio), a director (dirretore), a farmer (contadino) or a plumber (idraulico). Actually, I do remember a plumber – Piotr, who played Prince Charming in a pantomime for a winter story accepted by The People’s Friend. I’m hoping that one is published this winter.

In the two stories I submitted this week, I only mention two occupations – a ranger at a nature reserve, and a scientific researcher (ricercatore). Both occur in the same story and neither is the main character. The reader doesn’t meet either of them. I did not mention the occupation of the main character even though she desperately needs a day off to avoid seeing bunches of roses and boxes of chocolates being delivered to colleagues on Valentine’s Day. Why did I not mention it? Because it’s irrelevant. Roses and chocolates will be delivered to many different workplaces across the country on Valentine’s Day, from hotels to hospitals, and large stations to … call centres. So although traditional writing advice is to know your characters inside out, the flip of that is to leave most of what you know out of the story! Use the relevant points only and don’t weigh the reader down with unnecessary facts. Concentrate on actions, interactions and feelings and you’ll end up with a far better story, as long as they all fit with the character you have built in your head. After all, what you mainly need to know about your character is how they will deal with the challenges they face.