A Traditional Russian Christmas

Religious celebrations of any kind, including Christmas, were frowned upon by the Soviet State, and largely banned following the October Revolution of 1917. Fortunately this policy was changed in 1935, although the Festive season became a more secular celebration held in the New Year. Nowadays, Christmas in Russia is normally held on the 7 January, although many Russians celebrate it more traditionally on the 25th December as well, as many other countries do. The official Christmas and New Year holidays in Russia last from December 31st to January 10th.

Some of the old traditions have survived, such as the decoration of a tree, always an important part of the festivity. In the old days a tree would be brought in from the forest and decorated with paper lanterns, bows of ribbon, home-made crackers, spice breads, nuts and sweets wrapped in gold and silver leaf paper. Candles would be attached to the lower branches where they could easily be put out with a wet sponge on the end of a stick. The children would hang up a stocking from the chimney piece just as we do in the UK.

Where the Tsar and Tsarina stood in church.

Traditionally, there were Church services on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, also on 6 January. The congregation were expected to stand throughout the long service, even the Tsar and Tsarina, and the church would often be so cold that feet would go numb, as temperatures outside could be as low as minus 25 degrees. All servants of the household, including the governess, were expected to attend in their best clothes, complete with a warm hat and scarf.

Dinner on Christmas Eve generally consisted of twelve dishes to mark the Twelve Apostles. Roast pork was a popular dish, as was goose with apples, venison or lamb. This would be followed by fruit and jellies, candy and little cakes made with treacle or honey, ring-shaped biscuits. Plus a selection of dates, figs, walnuts and chocolates.

None of this delicious food was available during the revolution, however. In a diary I read of the period, written by a British woman, she said: ‘By way of a Christmas feast, we each had two little meat-balls yesterday. We had bought 5 lb of beef at 100 roubles the lb. We were wonderfully lucky getting it so cheap.’ But then on the 5th January she and her friend were ordered by the House Committee to clear snow from the street on the 6th and 7th from 1 to 3 p.m. Even worse, in Moscow people were ordered from their beds on Christmas night to clear the snow from the tram lines as fuel needed to be delivered, otherwise the lights would have gone out. So much for their celebrations.

Millie, who was governess to the children of the Countess Belinsky in The Amber Keeper, did her best to make Christmas a happy time, although she had more immediate problems on her mind.

Set against the backdrop of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness. 

English Lake District, 1960s: A young Abbie Myers returns home after learning of her mother’s death. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken to hear that they blame her for the tragedy. 

Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. As the old woman recounts her own past, Abbie is transported back to the grandeur of the Russian Empire in 1911 with tales of her grandmother’s life as a governess and the revolution that exploded around her. 

As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create. 

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Life in a Russian Prison

St Peter's Gate

The Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul is an important landmark in St Petersburg, and definitely worth a visit. One of the first structures to be built in St Petersburg instead of being used to defend the city, it’s history is far more sinister. It quickly became one of the most feared prisons in the Russian Empire, the building also housing the headquarters of the secret police. During the revolution it was to hold some of Russia’s most prominent political prisoners.

We found it rather chilling when we visited last year although it is now a museum, and remarkably clean and cared for. But we were certainly given a grim picture of the harsh difficulties of life back in the days of the revolution.

Seized by the Bolsheviks at the start of the October Revolution, the fortress was used to bombard the Winter Palace on the night of October 25, 1917. People could be arrested for no justified reason. Perhaps because a relative was politically opposed to the Bolsheviks, or a brother was suspected of having deserted from the Red Army. Or simply because they worked for a non-Russian. In addition, many foreigners themselves were arrested, the Bolsheviks making a list of British who lived in the city, so that they knew who to imprison next. Over 2,000 people in Petrograd were imprisoned and hundreds shot, the prisoners often forced to dig their own graves.

As Millie, my heroine in The Amber Keeper, says:

The prison at the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, situated on Zayachy Island in Petrograd was every bit as terrible as I had feared. Transported in a car over the Ioanovski bridge, through the courtyard, and from there to the fortress via Peter’s gate, never had I known such fear. I was numb with terror... Over and over I protested my innocence...

Nobody was listening, certainly not the guard who took most of my clothes and possessions from me and locked me in one of the dark and damp cells of the Troubetzkoy bastion. I tried talking to him in Russian, French and English, all to no avail. He simply ignored me...

There were traders charged with selling food without a permit, soldiers who had broken the rules by stealing property and selling it for themselves, and people who simply looked bewildered, rather like myself. Anxiety, fatigue and fear was evident in all their troubled faces...

I’ve taken out any spoilers, but her agony worsens as she struggles to survive. I doubt her cell looked as comfortable as this one.

Disease was a big problem. Typhoid was rampant as there was no water provided for washing purposes, and because of the filth and the freezing cold. Prisoners were rarely allowed warm clothes to protect them, and no medical help. Not even much in the way of food. They had to rely upon friends and family to bring food in for them, or they would starve.

In the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in the courtyard adjoining, are the graves of the Romonov family, including Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra and their children. We found the display quite awesome.

This, of course, is the big attraction today, along with the neighbouring beach where families picnic in the summer. It is also used to host concerts, including the Petrojazz annual festival.

Following our visit we took a cruise along the River Neva where we were able to see the wonderful architecture and palaces along the banks. St Petersburg is an amazing place to visit, and if you go, don’t miss the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul.

The Winter Palace

The Amber Keeper

After her mother’s suicide, Abbie Myers returns home to the Lake District with her young child—and no wedding ring. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken when she hears that they blame her for this tragedy.

Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. The old woman reveals the story of how she travelled to Russia in 1911 as a young governess and became caught up in the revolution.

As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create.

Set against the backdrops of the English Lake District in the 1960s and the upheavals of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness

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Book Launch for The Amber Keeper

I enjoyed a wonderful book launch, held at Sizergh Castle restaurant last Friday for my new book, The Amber Keeper, published by Amazon publishing in their Lake Union Imprint.

I appreciate that book launches are not essential these days as the market has changed, but it was a wonderful excuse for a party and an opportunity to meet up with old friends. It also gave me the chance to meet with new readers, which was lovely.

The event was organised by my daughter who is the catering manager there. What an amazing team she has working with her. It was a really friendly and glamorous event.

In the entrance was a display of flowers and the books.

And here is the cake they made. Wouldn't you just love a slice?

I gave a short talk telling how my career had progressed from writing short stories on a sit-up-and-beg typewriter, then historical romances for Mills & Boon on a Lettera 22 portable, and on to sagas for Hodder & Stoughton, first on an Amstred 9512 before moving on to an all singing, all dancing computer. Now we're in the age of tablets and ereaders and digital. A fascinating revolution. But I do like to keep a foot in the print market too.

I sold loads of books, which was great. Here is hubby doing his bit selling them while I am busy signing.

Photographs taken by Gary Everatt.
The Amber Keeper available from Amazon UK and Amazon US


NINC conference 2014

I’ve recently returned from a fabulous NINC conference in Florida. It was held at Trade Winds on St Pete Beach. An amazing place with one of the top beaches in the world, and the weather was perfect.

Hubby enjoyed a sail out to look at dolphins, and took some lovely pictures of birds, including this crane about to enjoy a paddle.

View from our bedroom balcony

Spouses and assistants were allowed to attend the first day, which was all about the future of publishing. The panel included Elaine English, an attorney and literary agent, Dan Slater from Amazon, bestselling author Liliana Hart, Hugh Howey and various others mentioned below. They first discussed in what areas publishers, authors and distributors needed to expand and/or revise in order to maintain and build a mutually profitable relationship. It was an interesting discussion with many questions from the audience.

Coffee break between sessions

The general view seemed to be that publishers and authors needed a more equal partnership in today’s world. Authors were encouraged to choose their goal, and get to know their audience. Dominique Raccah from Sourcebooks believed this was the task of the publisher, but others did not agree. Publishers need to create demand, but authors are more in touch with their readers, which is the most important relationship.

Pricing was discussed at length. Some of the panel said if too low it could devalue the book. Compare the price with that of a cup of coffee, which certainly wasn’t cheap at that hotel. Has the perception of the value of a book changed? Katie Donelan from Bookbub said no.
Used as a marketing tool low pricing can be most effective, but not for too long. Authors need to have a strategy. She said that fans will pay the full price because they like and trust you. They appreciate the quality of your work, so long as you deliver a good book. According to Mark Lefebvre from Kobo, 54% of readers who buy a 99c book, go on to buy more books –. The bigger the price drop the greater the sales. But prices are creeping up. A survey has shown that readers first look at what the book is about, then the author before considering the price. Reader data can be useful to know how many people finish your book, but anonymity of readers has to be protected too.

Rights were discussed and it was agreed that authors should take care what they sign re contract, particularly with regard to the non-compete clause. However, it was pointed out that there was little sign of change on this from publishers, who it should not be in a position to own an author, and learn to let go and return rights once sales have fallen.

We should all celebrate the choices now available to authors, the diversity of Indie or Traditional Publishing, as authors can now make a good living without being a household name. This has certainly been my experience.

I managed to sneak a little time relaxing in the sun between session.

We also enjoyed a wonderful buffet dinner on the last night to celebrate NINC's 25th anniversary.

The NINC conference for 2015 will also be held at Trade Winds from September 30 – October 4. Novelists Inc is for multi-published writers of any genre. You need to have published at least two books in order to be accepted as a member. Their conference does not allow you to promote yourself. Nor are there sessions on how to write. They assume you know that already. It is all about how to run your business, what an assistant can do for you, how to sell and promote your work, and deal with all the other tasks authors have to deal with.

To find out more about joining this excellent organisation do visit their website. http://www.ninc.com/


Twelve Rules about Characterisation

1. Know your character and his or her problem.
2. Get inside her skin. Reveal character, emotion and problems, settings and protagonists from your main character’s viewpoint. Live the story through her thoughts and dialogue. Show don’t tell.
3. Describe the character’s external appearance as succinctly as you can, picking out the most essential and intriguing details, interweaving it with dialogue and action. No clichèd lazy descriptions, and don’t overwrite.
4. Show your character through action. Show their body language and behaviour as they react to others.
5. Speech and voice: Make this as distinctive as possible, and different from other characters.
6. Show how the character sees herself or himself. Let her know herself, describe her own appearance, behaviour and inadequacies. And understand her own problems.
7. Show the character as others see her. This will be different for each secondary or minor character and a major part of their role.
8. Show how the viewpoint character sees and relates to those about her. Her friends, family, lover, etc.
9. Use the setting to flesh out the character. Is it a part of her or an alien place? Does she love it or hate it? How does setting affect her and her problem?
10. Make her motivation for any action clear. What makes her choose one particular course of action? Remember she must develop and change as the story progresses and come to terms with herself. She should not act out of character without good reason.
11. Character will affect plot but only if you give her plenty of problems to solve. Action and reaction. Contrast and conflict.
12. Let your character find her own solution. One that is true to her rather than convenient to the plot. Do not contrive an ending to get yourself out of a hole. Do not be predictable.

‘Polly is made of stern stuff. . . the tale of her courage and grit against the backdrop of a Northern city in the grip of depression makes for a powerful narrative.’ 
Newcastle Evening Chronicle on Polly's Pride and Polly's War 



David and I have just enjoyed a wonderful few days break in Kirkcudbright. We used to visit every year when the children were small, in our caravan, so it was great to visit old haunts. It was part of a research trip for my next book but a lovely holiday too.

Broughton House on High Street was the home of the artist E A Hornel, which still has his studio, exactly as it was in his time, and a beautiful Japanese style garden.

Broughton House

The harbour on the River Dee was lovely too, at one time a thriving port with regular imports of coal and lime and exports of grain, oatmeal, potatoes, wool and general farm produce. Now with only a few fishing boats in, but fishing is popular in this region.

There's also a marina for leisure boats.
And here's MacLellan's castle, little more than a ruin but with a fascinating history, and so long as you have a good imagination you can see it was once a most imposing town house for the laird. Building started in 1449 and Sir Thomas moved in five years later where he entertained James VI. It was meant to show off his wealth, which unfortunately didn't last.

MacLellan's Castle


Fair Girls and Grey Horses - review

Fair Girls and Grey Horses, the biography of the Pullein Thompson’s country childhood is a beautifully told nostalgic trip through the twenties and thirties right through to the end of the war. Related by Josephine, Christine and Diana in turn, it describes a delightfully eccentric family. The sisters spent their time raising bantams and geese, camping out in the garden on summer nights, reciting poetry to each other, and avoiding a formal education as much as possible.

They lived at The Grove in the village of Peppard in South Oxfordshire with their brother Denis, Mamma, and their father, Harold James Pullein-Thomson, whom they called ‘Cappy’ as not only had he been a Captain in the Great War, he’d suffered badly as a result so tended to be rather bad tempered. As a consequence the girls were closer to their mother. Joanna Cannan became their mentor and inspiration as she was delightfully bohemian and tolerant, a woman who defied convention, and a busy author who spent her mornings typing out her novels. When asked if the twins were quite normal, she retorted: ‘Good God! I hope not.’

The main preoccupation for the three sisters was of course caring for ponies, starting with sharing one between them, to owning over forty and running their own riding school. The individual characteristics of these ponies is beautifully illustrated, providing the sisters with ample material for their future careers. They would sit around the kitchen table and write their own collective stories for their own magazine before moving on to publish their first book Picotee, followed by Josephine writing Six Ponies on her own.

Diana taught one pony to undo the bolt on the stable door, and the other ponies watched carefully, learning how to do it too so that they all started to escape and new locks had to be fitted. Others would not care to be told what to do and would try to avoid jumping, or tip the young rider off their back. I can certainly remember having similar problems with the ponies we had. The first was on loan from a riding stable for the winter, to test out whether my daughters could actually cope with owning one. Bonny fed so well on the grass in our paddock that she took off one night and a local farmer woke us up so that we could give chase and bring her home. But we did buy the girls a pony, and here she is, called Lady. She was lovely, but did not care for the blacksmith as she hated having new shoes put on.

The Pullein-Thompson sisters went on to publish 200 books between them, adored by their fans, including my own daughters who read their way through the entire collection when I was running a book shop. These delightful pony stories aimed to show girls that they could succeed with their dream, even if they were not intellectual or clever, so long as they were passionate about what they did.

Fair Girls and Grey Horses, by Christine, Diana and Josephine Pullein-Thompson. 
Published by Allison & Busby.


Southport Flower Show

Enjoyed a lovely visit to the 2014 Southport Flower Show at the end of last week with lovely weather, as always. There were some gorgeous gardens and flower displays. As you can see here.

We also enjoyed the dog display team. What clever, lively dogs they were, and they obviously thoroughly enjoyed themselves racing, jumping through hurdles and hoops, and pulling the fire engine. Great fun.



The beautiful Basque area was conquered in the sixth century by the Romans, who named the region as Aquitania, or Aquitaine, because of the tradition for raising horses. The name coming from the Latin word “equites” meaning horses.

Biarritz is one of Europe’s most beautiful and stylish cities, has been a popular all year round holiday resort across the ages, very much a favourite destination of the wealthy in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Lydia, in My Lady Deceiver, considered it an essential part of the season that she spend winter away from the cold of England, relaxing in Biarritz, a beautiful and stylish coastal town close to the Spanish border. It was very popular with the British upper classes for its mild climate, stunning beaches, and sense of elegance and style. She always insisted on staying at the Hôtel du Palais, formerly the summer mansion of Napoleon III, which seemed reason enough for choosing it, so far as Lydia was concerned.

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The hotel overlooked the main beaches and the Atlantic Ocean, and was decidedly chic and luxurious, a veritable honeypot for the very best people. Which meant, of course, that it was also the perfect place for society gossip. Lydia very much liked to keep abreast of who among her friends was having an affair, or considering remarriage. She might even keep her eye out for a likely new husband on her own account.

The ladies would walk along the Quai de La Grande Plage as far as the Casino Municipal, a large white building with awnings over a parade of shops to protect them from the sun as they browsed in the windows. Wooden walkways led down to the beach where rows of tents were set out where guests could change into their bathing costumes.

The Hotel du Palais overlooks Biarritz’ main beaches and the Atlantic beyond. Its luxury and ageless charm coupled with the areas’ outstanding sports facilities make the Palais an international Mecca for vacationers and sports enthusiasts alike. The casino was a large white building set on the beach, with awnings over a parade of shops to protect the ladies from the sun.

Formerly the summer mansion of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie de Montijo, The “Villa Eugénie”, was built in just ten months and completed in 1855. During the next sixteen years, the imperial couple spent almost every summer in Biarritz, accompanied by other European royalties. In 1880, Banque Parisienne bought the Villa and converted it into a casino, opened as a hotel in 1893. It became one of the prestigious addresses of France. Queen Victoria, Edward VII, the Duke of Connaught, and many other members of royalty stayed there. But on February 1st, 1903 the hotel caught fire, after which it was rebuilt with an additional wing and altered with several storeys. The rebuilding, completed in 1905, was designed by the famous Belle Epoque architect, Edouard-Jean Niermans, and still reflects his style to this day.

Once a drowsy fishing village of Biarritz soon became a resort town for the wealthy and fashion conscious.


Sanctuary from the Trenches of WWI

Enjoyed a fascinating day at Dunham Massey in Cheshire which was transformed into Stamford Military Hospital during Word War I. By the time it was closed in Febuary 1919, 282 soldiers had been treated there. Lady Stamford ran the hospital from her parlour and the nurse in charge was Sister Catherine Bennett.

For this centenary year the hospital ward has been recreated based on original records from Dunham Massey's archives. You can see the original bed from which the others have been copied, read the medical notes and letters from the soldiers, and learn all about their personal stories. Yes, those are real people in the beds, a couple of actors playing the parts as ghosts from the past.

You can also see the room where they played chess as these two young men did while we were there, and also where the nurses escaped for a little break. You can even see a set up of the operating theatre.


The house itself is beautiful, as are the grounds.

Most definitely worth a visit.


Ironbridge Museum

I enjoyed a wonderful day at the Victorian Town, Blists Hill, Ironbridge on Friday. Fascinating place to visit. I do wish I'd had more time to explore but it was lovely to meet with readers and have time to chat. Here I am dressed as a parlourmaid. (I know my place)

 I shared a table with Jean Fullerton, dressed as a nurse with her World War II sagas.

Some of the other authors present whose novels include alternative history, regency romances and historical sagas:

Jenny Barden

Juliette Greenwood as a suffragette

Annie Burrow as a Regency lady

Kate Johnson

Alison Morton

 Here's the group of Romantic Novelists attending the fair:

And a passing steam engine.