Saturday, December 5, 2015

Mark Blasdale and Twelve Tales of Christmas

This may seem hard to believe,  but for someone used to being kneedeep in snow by now, it is the strangest thing to step outside in a fall jacket, still wearing shoes. You guessed it...there is NO SNOW! And Christmas is just around the corner. I had planned on going ice skating with the girls on Christmas day, but there is no ice...and we'd talked about a family sleigh ride. I hope that sleigh has wheels!  I hope we got some snow soon. I'll keep you posted as to how this works out.
Of course, the lack of snow is no excuse not to curl up in front of a roaring fire and dive into this next book. 

I had hoped to have this post up yesterday, but I had another question for our guest. This morning I was out with my military companions and our cadets, going door to door collecting food for the Christmas baskets which we will distribute on the 20th. So I could not complete the post until now...

Are you ready for our guest? Well then, without further delay, may I present Mark Blasdale's 

“Fireside Collection for the Festive Season,” Twelve Tales of Christmas.

What would Christmas be without a generous serving of short stories to indulge and delight in during the festive season? From the author of 'Keeping Christmas' comes a collection of twelve tales ranging from the classic ghost story to new Christmas favourites with a more contemporary feel. From spectral apparitions on the battlefield, and visitations from the dead, to a busy Cathedral on Christmas Eve and an unexpected reunion in the most unlikely of places, Twelve Tales of Christmas has it all. So pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, help yourself to a mince pie (or two) and satisfy your seasonal fancy with these twelve wonderful tales of Christmas past…and present.

EXCERPT (from the first of the twelve, The Public House)
The stranger wiped his mouth and instinctively the men learned forward. John came from behind the bar and took up his usual position on the left of the fireplace, pipe in hand.
“Gentleman,” began the stranger, “I am truly grieved to say that I have no story as such to tell. I am a journeyman and find myself in this part of the country for the first – or is it the second – time? I forget as most places are commonly similar to me now.”
The men greeted this confession with a heady mix of utter disdain and muted astonishment. After all, who would have the temerity to call upon a public house on Christmas Eve and not furnish its patrons with a story? “A lunatic!” None of the men gave utterance to this diagnosis but all thought it notwithstanding.
After several minutes silence, John cleared his throat, tapped his pipe upon the stone mantle and presented something akin to a solution to this impasse.
“As we are now assembled and so conditioned for a story,” said John, “perhaps Young Toby would oblige?”
Young Toby was a spirited leviathan of about ninety. Age may have withered his tiny frame, it may even have rendered him feeble, but his eye was keen, his memory green and his senses a remarkable tribute to his youth. Between those two large hairy ears rested the historical chronicles of the village. He was custodian of the legends, the tall-tales, idle gossip and, in times of boredom, fancies of a more general nature – fancies usually of his own creation.
The men turned to Young Toby with appealing looks. As for Toby, who was seated in his accustomed spot – a large green Wing Back chair situated as close to the fire as comfort would allow – he had momentarily closed his eyes during the silence and despite all resistance on his part, had fallen asleep. John gave him several gentle prods with his pipe and soon Young Toby was roused, refreshed by a large swig of his ale and, having been appraised of the crisis, was now ready for action.
“Tell our friend here the tale of the six gold sovereigns, Toby.” This appeal was from Clifford, a man of some importance in the village being not only the Church Warden but also its principle bell-ringer.
“Now that’s a tale worth hearing sir,” interrupted John, addressing the stranger. “That is, if you’ve an appetite for the strange and super-natural?”
“Oh I have.” replied the journeyman excitedly. “I likes nothing more than a good ghost story.”
John looked gravely at the stranger for a moment then turned in the direction of the old man in the green chair. “Then Toby, the floor is yours.”
Young Toby rose from his chair and took his place before the fire. The merest clearing of his throat and he began thus…
“Some twenty years ago, we lost one of this village’s true characters. Her name was Black Maggie and she was, by common consent, the closest thing to a witch as these parts had seen in hundreds of years. She was a surly, dark-hearted woman with tangled, matted hair, the harshest face I’d ever laid eyes on and a stubbly chin. That chin used to scare the children – and grown men too - for the popular prejudice was that women didn’t wear beards and hers was almost full-grown.
Anyway, it had been rumoured that years before, the man she’d wed left her; just woke up one morning, packed his bag and left. After that, she slowly slipped into this despondency you see and it altogether made her cold. It made her nasty too for she was often seen kicking cats and throwing jugs at dogs. She took to dressing all in black. I swear her skin never touched water from that day her Billy left.
She lived in the cottage at the bottom of the hill. You’d have passed it on your way into the village but I’ll wager you never even saw it for it’s so overgrown with nettles, brambles and such that it seems nature has decided to reclaim it and is slowly swallowing up the entire house.
Generations grew up and there was Black Maggie, the malevolent spirit at the end of the village. Of course, in the summer time when the sun was bright and the days long, we cared little for her strange ways. Her house backed onto the great orchard of the Hall over yonder and we’d cheerfully scramble under her window as a form of dare. But as winter came and the nights drew in dark and close, we kept well away. With a candle in the window of her kitchen, the whole village could see her silhouetted against the light and a scary image it was. She’d just stand there, looking out at the road, no doubt looking for victims to cast spells upon and put, as we supposed, in her soup or tea.

This book should be in every Christmas lover's library. The stories are full of atmosphere and old fashioned Christmas spirit. This little book will come out every Christmas season for me and my family to read again and again.”
"If you are looking for the perfect, beautifully written classic book of Christmas tales this is it. One that I found hard to put down, best read of 2015.”
"As a fervent anti-christmasist I feel it incumbent upon me to state that Mark Blasdale's Twelve Tales has inspired newfound festive feelings in my heart. The book is a delightful take on that time of year and sure to bring smiles to all who read it.”
"A noble, beautiful book, true in Spirit & story...sensitive but direct...Twelve tales of Christmas will bring home the true feeling of Christmas to us all."

Mark Blasdale is a writer, occasional blogger, author, historian, list writer extraordinaire and self-diagnosed coffee addict. A life-long Dickens devotee, antiquarian book collector and keen traveller, when not busy at his desk (or immersed in the above), he loves to spend his time in the heart of England with his wife Alison, his two children and the family cat, Pepsi.
Other significant interests/passions include Christmas, relaxing to music, watching LIVE music, keeping fit, gardening, politics, most 19th and early 20th Century American literature, Victorian Britain and the American Civil War.
The notable people Mark most admires include the authors Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, O Henry, Paul Gallico, MR James, Algernon Blackwood, William Harrison Ainsworth and Damon Runyon; American Civil War General William T Sherman, American astronauts Virgil 'Gus' Grissom and John Young, singer/songwriter and Rock 'n' Roll nomad Mike Tramp, Beach Boy founder Brian Wilson, and Eagle Don Henley, documentary-maker Ken Burns, health & fitness expert Lee-Anne Wann, historians Helen Castor and Bettany Hughes, chef Rachel Allen, actors Bob Hope, John Wayne, Carol Lynley, Jeff Goldblum, and James Stewart, and English eccentric, former politician and raconteur Gyles Brandreth.
Professionally, Mark spent most of his management career in the engineering and consultancy industries before abandoning the rat race to focus exclusively on his over-riding passion - writing. And it is as an author, historian, lecturer, speaker and writer that he now earns his bread...

Now let's move on into our inerview with our 'self-confessed Christmas junkie', er I mean, author...sorry, Mark ;o)
Could you share a little about yourself and what lead you to become a writer?
I’m a very lucky, extremely happy forty-six year old living in the heart of England with my beautiful wife Alison, my two children Tom and Emma, and our cat Pepsi. My wife is my best friend and we do as much together as time and work commitments allow. I am a keen traveller, avid reader and collector of antiquarian books (specifically from the 19th century). For too many years I was a captive of industry (polymer engineering and consultancy) before casting off those shackles to pursue my life-long dream of being a professional author/writer.
The desire to be a writer extends all the way back to my early teens when I first discovered the works of Charles Dickens. My English comprehensions would usually be accompanied by a prologue or preface (something unusual in my school). A love of words, expressions and description followed and have been my companions ever since.
By nature I would say that I’m quite a private person, a revelation which may surprise some and may cause others to laugh but is perfectly true. I’ve never courted the spotlight and generally prefer the peace and quiet that comes with home and hearth. But this is not a profession for shrinking violets and thus I do what needs to be done. This is something we have in common. My work calls for me to don a uniform and stand before any number of people, but once I return to my home and close the door behind me, I am content to shut the world out and focus on my family and home life.

Do you write full time? How much of your life is set aside for writing?
Yes. I’m incredibly blessed to have a very supportive wife who allows me the freedom to pursue this ambition of mine. Of course, being a professional writer is an all-encompassing career. One of the earliest lessons I learned was that writers actually make most of their living from readings, talks, lectures etc. The actual ‘sitting at a keyboard’ is, to some extent, merely the platform that allows for everything else. Specifically on the subject of writing full-time, this doesn’t mean that I sit in my office churning out a prescribed number of words each day. Personally, I cannot think of anything more stifling to the creative process. But it does mean that I have to ensure that I’m sufficiently disciplined to maintain a certain level of writing and that my deadlines are met consistently. Thorough planning and research are key ingredients to any well-written and (hopefully) successful book and taking the time to do these properly results, for me at least, in a lot less time staring at a blank screen waiting for inspiration to strike. But for me, ‘thinking time’ is the most crucial of all the disciplines. Thinking through a plot, a piece of dialogue or simply how a character looks is the eventual key to success. Thus, most of my day can be said to be assigned to writing in one form or another. This is wonderful, and so different from what others have shared in the past. I am curious to know if you find yourself in a situation where the scene plays out so quickly that you have a hard time getting it written down, or if you are the one who does the unfolding and controlling the flow.  Hmm...a good, thought-provoking question. I tend to play out (or rehearse) each scene in my head before committing it to the page so I'm not so sure that I've been in precisely that situation, but certainly there have been times when the characters have decided amongst themselves to abandon my plot entirely and set sail on their own course. I like to have a pretty well-developed chapter plan but it works best for me not to be too rigid in its application. As long as the scene, the characters, the mood and the author all end up at the same point then I'm happy.

Can you tell us a little about your book?
TWELVE TALES was conceived in part to challenge myself to create twelve unique and fully-fleshed out short stories that typically would require little more than a half-hour’s investment from the reader. Christmas, as we know, is a frantic time where peace and quiet are in short supply. Therefore, to have a dozen little stories to devour whilst the mince pies are in the oven, or the family are snoring away merrily on the sofa seemed a good idea. I do not claim to be a fan of short stories, and yet I can say the same for the 800 page novel, however, I love the idea of having a story you can squeeze into the brief, well-needed breaks during the holidays.
The tales themselves are a blend of the traditional ghost story and a few with a more contemporary feel, taking in old English Public Houses, battlefields from the American Civil War, busy streets in Victorian cities as well as a nod towards those struggling on the streets of New York and those who seek to destroy rather than create. I wanted them to honour the kind of stories that appeared in late-Victorian and early Edwardian magazines and periodicals. I love to read such things myself and wanted to add something, if I could, to this neglected genre. I will keep a look out for your novel next to Dickens during the holiday season!

What lead you to choose a Christmas theme?
I’ve been captivated by Christmas since I was a very small boy. Growing up in the 70s, for eleven months of the year my little world seemed to exist in only beige and brown. But when December rolled around, everything was transported to bright reds, greens and gold. Back in those days, Christmas was a real event in the city of Leicester and something the whole community took delight in. Now aged 46, I like to think that I’ve never lost that sense of wonderment and awe. But my whole world changed when I first read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I would have been about twelve or thirteen and it was a class assignment. That little book quite literally shaped and moulded me into the man I am today. I was completely captivated not only with the story itself, but the style of Dickens’ writing, the humour and the pathos. It remains, in my opinion, Mankind’s greatest literary achievement. So Christmas was a natural choice when it came to selecting a theme. No other season or time of the year offers a writer a broader canvas upon which to paint their story. I own several versions of 'A Christmas Carol,' both long and short. Every year, the story is shared with my children. 

Where does the inspiration for your main characters and stories come from?
It is a clich√© I admit but inspiration is all around us. I like to think of myself a student of human nature and a hopeless people-watcher and as such, I’m always sub-consciously on the look-out for interesting faces, sounds, smells etc. I always carry a notebook with me, and my memory is not yet so aged but that it can still recall minor details without too much trouble. I firmly believe a good writer should utilise all their senses to later evoke an image on the page.I am sitting here, chuckling to myself, because I do the exact same thing.
But in specific answer to the question, I guess my greatest form of inspiration comes from ‘seeing’. The first book I had published, KEEPING CHRISTMAS, began life as a few scattered lines about walking around a north Norfolk coastal town in the depths of winter (an actual walk undertaken by my wife and I). Those images came flooding back when it came time to write that particular story. For TWELVE TALES, the news story about the American trophy hunter who posed grinning with the Giraffe she’d felled certainly helped fuel the sentiments expressed in the story HUNTED DOWN, and a trip to the ancient seat of the Church of England certainly helped inspire another of the twelve, A CANTERBURY CHRISTMAS. I will admit to a bit of envy at your having such wonderful 'ancient' places to visit. Here in Canada, my home is considered to be very old, and it's only 125 years old. 

What is the message behind the stories? Was it something you specifically wrote the stories around or did they develop as your characters came to life?
I am, at heart, a mere story-teller. Generally, I try not to expend too much energy on subtext. I’ve never been a strong advocate of Literary Analysis on the basis that it’s pseudo-intellectualism at its most insufferable. Now that made me laugh!  Any themes or messages that inhabit my work are usually painfully close to the surface. But this being a collection of different Christmas stories, recurring themes naturally include family, love, loss, redemption and hypocrisy.

Do you work from an outline or just go with the flow? If you use an outline, how detailed is it?
A mixture of both really. My office is filled with index cards and notebooks of every size and description. Planning usually begins in rough format using notebooks, gathering character detail, scenes, random lines ready for inclusion etc. before moving on to mapping out the story more precisely using the cards. I find this process helps shape the story, allowing the narrative to flow more easily. But it’s not a prescriptive process by any means. Characters have a tendency to voice their opinions on all sorts of things and I usually bow to their better judgement. Yes, you do well to bow to their ways, it can be quite awkward if they decide to stop talking to you.

Could you tell us about how you go about your research, how you ‘catalogue’ information to make it all work?
I am, by trade, profession, passion and interest, a historian and as such research is as natural to me as breathing. Getting the details right for everything I produce is immensely important. I tend to stick to themes, times and places that I know so the degree of research is consequently minimised. But for each story I maintain a box file which contains all the pertinent and relevant information needed to make the story authentic and reliable. Such information includes weather reports for specific days (such as the weather in London from 19th December 1843), sales materials for products identified in my stories and street maps, transport schedules etc.). Their appearance in the story may be fleeting and largely unnoticed but getting that detail correct makes all the difference. This is something else we share in common here. I remember doing research for days, and in the end all that appeared in the story was the product name. Now what irritates me most, is when someone will comment in a review about how they believe something to be off, when I could easily ship the piles of facts right off to them, showing them that they are, in fact, the ones who err. 

How does this book differ from what you have written in the past?
TWELVE TALES is my second venture into the Christmas genre and so isn’t too far a departure from my first book, KEEPING CHRISTMAS, though the former was a novella and this new book is a short story collection. My second literary offering was an academic ‘companion’ to the Dickens scholar entitled, ALL THE YEAR ROUND WITH DICKENS offering an insight to what the great author was doing on any given day. My fourth book, SIX HILLS: Spencer Bridge is again a novella that, whilst set initially at Christmas, isn’t by definition strictly a Christmas story. This book serves as the appetizer to a novel due for publication late 2016.

How have the changes in present day publishing impacted you as a writer?
The removal of the mainstream corporate publisher as the primary route to getting published has been perhaps the greatest literary advancement in the last one hundred years. There are some fantastic FREE ACCESS platforms to publishing and authors of all genres should look to these as the traditional format becomes less attractive – both commercially and financially. Taking things one step further, forming your own publishing company has never been easier, or more financially viable. In the same way that we confuse the Law with justice, so we have a tendency to confuse traditionally published with well written. Alas, the two are becoming ever more mutually exclusive. Now that is a fantastic way of putting it!
Being able to exercise far more control over your product is an exciting prospect and as more skilled authors embrace it, so the opportunity to reach into broader, more lucrative markets will naturally increase.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Know your own voice and remain true to whatever it was that first brought you to writing. Never publish your work until it has gone through several trusted pairs of hands…and develop a thick skin.(Wouldn't that be nice!) 
Finally, read the classics, they’re revered for a reason.

Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

2016 is an exciting year for me. I begin work on the full-length novel for SIX HILLS (Madison Penn) in January. In addition, I’ll be commencing the formal research for a major biography I’m writing about one of Leicester’s forgotten sons, Daniel Lambert, as well as producing a triumvirate of stories for Halloween and a new novella for Christmas. I have also been asked to participate in the writing of a Christmas-culture-themed academic paper, as well as expanding my readings/lectures to the USA. Now that does sound very exciting indeed! Let me know if you make it to Canada.

To contact Mark or find his books, look no further:

Twitter:           @markblasdale
LinkedIn:         uk.linkedin/in/markblasdale

Twelve Tales of Christmas       
Six Hills : Spencer Bridge         
Keeping Christmas                    
All The Year Round with Dickens

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