A very novel Christmas
2nd December 2020
Bestselling Norfolk author Heidi Swain published her fifth festive novel this October. Here, she chats all things Christmas and the popularity of seasonal stories with Amanda Loose
Reading Heidi’s annual Christmas novels is now one of my pre-Christmas traditions – they’re so full of festive fun and seasonal spirit, and this year’s offering, The Winter Garden, is no exception. So I was keen to know all about Heidi’s own Christmas traditions and what she loves about this time of year.
For me you’re the Mrs Christmas of Norfolk, with five festive-themed novels under your belt. You’re obviously a real Christmas fan and love writing about it
I’m SO happy to be assigned that festive title. It’s a real honour. I enjoy writing both the summer and the Christmas books however, as you’ve rightly pointed out, I am a HUGE fan of the season and that does give writing winter books the edge.
Having secured my goal of becoming a published author I longed to write a Christmas book, but I didn’t expect it to happen quite so early on in my career.
My third book was Mince Pies and Mistletoe at The Christmas Market (set in wonderful Wynbridge) and thanks to its popularity, I’ve written a further four since its publication in 2016 and am about to embark upon a sixth.
This year’s release, The Winter Garden, is the first set away from Wynbridge. The timing for the seasonal shift to Nightingale Square in Norwich felt right and the book was a joy to plan and write. Discovering how winter and Christmas is celebrated in this fictitious part of the city was great fun and it was a real treat to visit the community garden in the chillier months and highlight a few ways to cope with the darker, shorter days and make the most of the great outdoors, even if you are based in a more urban environment.
What are the key ingredients of a Christmas novel for you and why do you think they are so popular?
Before writing my first festive title, I undertook some serious reader research to find out what people like and dislike about Christmas books. I take ‘reader responsibility’ very seriously and it was flagged up more than once that if a book had the word Christmas in the title, but then failed to deliver the celebration, that was hugely disappointing.
Obviously, that was the last emotion I wanted my readers to feel, so I have always made a point of including as much festive preparation and as many events, smells, sights, sounds and experiences as I possibly can. It’s a self-indulgent pleasure on my part and my readers thankfully love the results!
This year, there’s a shift in emphasis in The Winter Garden and more about making the most of all the chillier months and consequently my publisher and I decided not to include Christmas in the title. As always, there’s still lots of festive detail, decorating, food and events to enjoy but I want this title to last beyond the festive season. I believe the key message in the book (of getting outside and enjoying fresh air and a daily dose of green things growing) is more important than ever and I want to coax / encourage folk away from the fireside if only for a few minutes every day right through winter.
The popularity of Christmas books has soared since I started writing them and I think that’s because of the comfort and warmth they offer. A developing romance plus all the festive trimmings is a winning combo and I know I started enjoying my festive TBR much earlier than usual this year. For me, escaping into pages sprinkled with fairy lights, glitter, mulled wine and mistletoe has proved the perfect escape and I’m certain I’m not alone! Heart-warming and full of hope, they’re the perfect antidote to the winter blues.
What do you love most about Christmas?
That’s such a difficult question to answer because I love so much! I enjoy the build up every bit as much as the day itself and finding the right present for the right person is an absolute joy. Gift giving is only a small part of the celebration, but seeing the look on someone’s face and knowing I’ve got it right definitely gives me all the feels!
To me, Christmas gives me the opportunity to gather everyone I love together to celebrate with fabulous food and drink and lots of laughter. It means catching up, enjoying the company of friends and family and creating special memories.
What gets you in the festive mood?
I begin to think about Christmas in September with the start of the new school year (a leftover from when my children were school age as well as having worked in a local middle school for a decade), and there are various things I do, most likely much like everyone else but special nonetheless, because they all play a part in getting me in the festive mood.
Lists (how I love a list) feature heavily in the prep and I start making notes on who might like what and then I graduate to selecting wrapping paper, gift tags and ribbons. This year I’m sending cards too. A tradition I stopped a few years ago, but having not seen family or friends for so long, I’m sending them some written love in lieu of a real hug.
After that, I’ll turn my attention to a spot of baking – mince pies, cinnamon swirls, sausage rolls – and festive books, tunes and shopping. It’s a slow burn, happily and intentionally prolonging the excitement and by the time I’m ready to wrap, decorate the house, read A Christmas Carol (a December 1st tradition) watch films and celebrate the solstice, I’m very much in the mood!
An absolute highlight for me is sitting down to watch Carols from Kings on Christmas Eve with the lights twinkling, a plate of baked goods, a glass of mulled wine and breathing in the heady scent of cinnamon and pine. Utter bliss.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary in my prep, but I think that in itself, all those little traditions, play a big part in the comforting and familiar excitement.
What’s your favourite Christmas memory?
My head is full of special memories from when my own children were younger, but for my own personal favourite I have to regress much further to when I was about 10 years old. During the summer that year I fell in love with the cockatiels in the local pet store. They were quirky, fun and mischievous and I was smitten. But they were expensive too. Far too expensive for Santa to stuff down the chimney. Therefore, imagine my utter shock, surprise and delight when my mum and I arrived at my grandparents Christmas morning and I was presented with my very own peach and orange cheeked beauty.
The gift of that beautiful bird who I called Sammy, meant so much, even more so when years later mum told me that the lady who owned the pet shop had let her pay a little towards Sammy and all his necessary paraphernalia throughout the months leading up to Christmas.
That darling bird was the most mischievous of the lot, very much loved, with a fondness for Yorkshire puddings and lived to a ripe old age. I can still remember the heady, heart thumping excitement of that Christmas morning as if it was yesterday and I hope I always will.
What’s your Christmas usually like?
Thanks to the multiple lists, Christmas generally runs like clockwork, is spent with closest family and there’s very little stress. Why spoil something so magical by tying yourself up in knots and chasing unrealistic expectations? Keep it simple is my motto – and that’s for life, not just for Christmas.
What are you planning to do this Christmas?
Rules and regs pending, Christmas might be slightly different this year. My mum has worked on December 25th for years but she recently retired and I’m keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that she’ll be able to join us for the day. I’ve only seen her twice this year, so that would be wonderful.
My daughter is also away at university and I’m desperate to see her too. It feels like a very long time since that 10 hour round trip up the country in September.
Nothing else matters beyond being with the ones we love, does it? And this year more than ever.
May I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very merry Christmas and a happy, safe and healthy New Year!
Heidi’s novels are published by Simon & Schuster, £7.99 each