'I've never felt less festive': the art of writing Christmas novels, 365 days a year

Drinking sherry, bingeing Downton Abbey ... how authors keep up the spirit of the season, even when writing during heatwaves and a nightmarish Christmas

Christmas novels are not a new phenomenon. Charles Dickens sold out of his first print run of A Christmas Carol in days in December 1843, while Agatha Christie played on seasonal stresses with titles including The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in 1923 and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas in 1938. But these days, there are acres of festive crime and rags-to-riches romances under the mistletoe to choose from. All tastes are catered for, whether it’s a love of trains (Edward Marston’s Victorian railway detective story A Christmas Railway Mystery), religion (Unlikely Santa: An Amish Christmas Story) or even festive erotica. Ebook retailer Smashwords stocks romance titles including The Old Dragon of the Mountain’s Christmas, and the inventive-sounding A Cyborg’s Old Terran Christmas. (“Interstellar bride Nell and her three children are forced to enter space-sleep capsules in the hope of surviving a calamity. She wakes over 700 years later on a ship of cyborg warriors. In this strange environment, Nell can’t imagine what their future will hold, but she is determined to keep her promise and make Christmas for her children.”)

It may sound futuristic, but it is part of a long tradition beloved by readers. As Christina Storey at Allison & Busby, an independent publisher whose titles this year range from Anna Jacobs’ Christmas in Peppercorn Street to Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Christmas Mystery, says: “Festive books are essentially like reading a warm hug.” And in 2020 especially, says Philippa Ashley, author of A Surprise Christmas Wedding, “people want to read about other people having a wonderful time, they want to forget their worries and just embrace everything about Christmas.”

Ashley’s novel follows the Christmas adventures of the heartbroken Lottie, who lands her dream job on a Lake District estate (complete with a handsome groundskeeper). She’s asked to organise a last-minute wedding, only to discover that the groom is the man who broke her heart. Covid-19 is conspicuously absent from the book; Ashley asked her readers if they wanted the novel to reflect 2020, and the answer was a resounding no. “They absolutely didn’t want to hear any mention of it. Like me, they were grieving for normal life and they wanted this to be their escape,” she says. “I’ve poured all my emotions into this book – my yearning for a normal family life and Christmas, and missing my family, is in this book.”

“Christmas-themed fiction allows the reader to fully immerse their head in the season as well as live it in real life,” says Milly Johnson, author of the romance I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. “It’s a perfect scenario for ‘cosy crime’, it adds extra sparkle to romances, it highlights social pressures in historical sagas … Christmas is the gift that keeps on giving us fiction writers.”

After a particularly fraught Christmas, Johnson was inspired to write her first festive novel because she realised “how so many of us end up having the sort of Christmas other people want rather than what we want ourselves”.

“My partner had left me for another woman and my heart was in pieces. I felt totally at odds with all the jollity surrounding me and I wrote the first of my three Christmas novels partly as therapy – it worked,” she says.

Getting suitably festive is not always easy for authors, especially when they aren’t writing in December. “It’s the least festive I’ve ever felt in my life,” Ashley says, of writing A Surprise Christmas Wedding amid the gloom of 2020. “Every word was a struggle.”

Alfie the Christmas Cat by Rachel Wells.
Alfie the Christmas Cat by Rachel Wells. Photograph: PR

Rachel Wells, author of Alfie the Christmas Cat, found it hard getting into a festive mood when writing in the summer. In order to write the festive instalment of her bestselling series narrated by a cat, Wells watched some Christmas films, whacked on the Christmas tunes and danced around her living room to Michael Bublé and Jingle Bells. “I was feeling really unfestive, and my son’s got special needs, so he was really struggling. I thought, there’s no way I’m going to be able to write an uplifting Christmas book. I couldn’t get my head in that happy space,” she says. “Also it was a heatwave, which added to the whole ‘where’s Christmas?’ vibe.” And Carole Matthews, a veteran of festive fiction whose latest novel Christmas for Beginners is just out, puts on a Christmas playlist and rustles up some mince pies before she gets going.

It’s not only romance fans who are well-catered for come Christmas: the tradition for murders under the mistletoe stretches back decades: think J Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White, from 1934; Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party, from 1941; and Mary Kelly’s The Christmas Egg, published in 1958. The booksellers at independent bookshop Read Holmfirth say they’ve seen “a real appetite” for Christmas crime this year, with Ada Moncrieff’s Murder Most Festive and Val McDermid’s Christmas Is Murder flying off shelves.

Moncrieff, who is also a primary school teacher, was in Madrid when writing Murder Most Festive, which sees one of the guests at a country house party found dead in the snow on Christmas morning in 1938. “To get myself in the zone and conjure a 1930s festive drawing room vibe to Madrid, I wrote accompanied only by the season-appropriate refreshments of sherry and honey-roasted cashew nuts, and worked my way through every Agatha Christie and Downton Christmas special I could get my hands on,” she says.

While romance readers are drawn to the cosiness of Christmas, crime readers, Moncrieff believes, may be dabbling in a little schadenfreude: “Once all the trimmings and presents and family bickerings have been seen to, there’s something quite satisfying in reading about someone else’s Christmas being beset by murder and intrigue. Festive crime makes everyone glad not to have a sleuth snooping around their Christmas tree.”

All the authors I spoke to were clear that the Christmas of books is an idealised one. “When you’re writing a Christmas book, it cannot be too Christmassy. It’s like wearing every glittery thing you’ve got and then some,” says Ashley. “People want that kind of fantasy Christmas, where there’s beautiful crisp snow, not the yellow sludge that stops us going to work,” agrees Matthews.

That’s exactly what reviewer Emma Hawkes is after. She has already read 18 Christmas titles this year, and is expecting to make her way through a further 10 this month. For her, they are yet another Christmas tradition, and A Christmas Carol is always part of the mix. “They are just cosy. Just perfect wrapped up in a cosy blanket, with a hot chocolate and fire,” she says. “And in a world of uncertainty, Christmas books always end happily.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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