Nicola here. Over the past few weeks we’ve been sharing excerpts from our Word Wench Christmas Anthology, The Last Chance Christmas Ball (which is currently still on special offer in the US and Canada in the run up to the festive season – you can find it here!) A number of commenters have asked about the process we went through writing the book as a group project (thank you!), so we’ve updated a post from 2015 when the anthology first came out explaining a bit about this and about the individual stories that we came up with. Today's blog title actually came from a review of the anthology that was in Publisher's Weekly: Eight Writers (collectively known as the Word Wenches) walk into a ballroom and wreak fabulous, shimmering holiday mischief all over the place."
Jo Beverley, who drew together the original post, described it as “fun: at times the sort of fun you get from a camping holiday with unpredictable weather and odd creatures invading the tent.*G*” Which is to say that it wasn’t without its challenges. Some of these were logistical. We’re based around the world. Even within the US there’s a considerable time difference between east coast and west coast, but then we add in England, which is five hours ahead of the east coast and eight hours ahead of California. Pat was getting up when Jo Beverley and I were thinking about dinner, and Anne, in Australia, was going to bed round about the time America woke up! Even in this modern age we often had to wait many hours for the answer to a continuity query.
In addition, of course, we are all strong-minded authors who enjoyed a good discussion over many, many plot points and other issues! But we did have fun, and as you'll see, we all love Christmas stories.
It was Jo Beverley who wrote the prologue, setting the scene for the whole book, and there is a link to it here. Jo introduces the redoubtable Lady Holly and the tradition of the Christmas Ball, as well as her own mysterious heroine.
Next we have Joanna with My True Love Hath My Heart. You can read an excerpt here. Joanna writes:
I wanted to write Christmas Eve turning into Christmas Day. I wanted that moment of change. I wanted lights. I know it's not the solstice, but for me midnight on Christmas Eve feels like the old is going out and the new is coming in. That was very much the 'feeling' I wanted for my story. It's a 'Second Chance at Love' tale and my hero and heroine have to change. So this felt like the right time and place
Also, decorations. And plum pudding. And holly. All the Right Stuff. I ended up a little surprised I didn't overlap with anybody else. I feel like I grabbed the best date and ran off with it.
Susan's story is A Scottish Carol and you can read an excerpt here.
Susan writes: Oh I just adore Christmas, Christmas love stories, winter and snow, Scotland, Scottish Regency settings — so it was a no-brainer for me to wrap those elements into a story when we Wenches began talking about writing another holiday anthology. When Alicia Condon suggested that we interweave our novellas and focus on the same Christmas ball, suddenly we had a lot of details to work out – the central location, the occasion, the hostess and her ties to each of our characters and their past and present circumstances. Jo Beverley created a Wiki page where we shared our details, and as we asked questions and figured out solutions, helping each other, the stories began to work together. The extra effort by all the Wenches as well as our editor and copy editor in making sure all the puzzle pieces fit perfectly was worth it – I think this is a very special Christmas collection!
(One of the reasons we set the story in Northumberland, apart from the fact that it is a very atmospheric place to write about is that it was close enough to the Scottish border for Susan's characters to plan to attend!)
With my story set in Scotland in the midst of a snowstorm that affected more than one of the guests attending Lady Holly's Last Chance Christmas Ball, it didn't seem likely that my characters – Dr. Henry Seton, Laird of Cranshaw, and Clarinda Douglas, Lady Hay, the widowed daughter of Henry's old mentor – could safely arrive at the ball in northern England. So they became stranded in a blizzard, alone and cozy inside Cranshaw Castle — where Clary yearned to go to the grand ball, Henry was secretly relieved to miss it, and both had to face their shared past of first love, heartbreak, and the fear of starting over. With a little help from Dickens and a nod to Scrooge, Tiny Tim and a some other Christmas characters, I loved writing this story – and I hope you all will love reading our latest Wench venture, The Last Chance Christmas Ball!
Here's Pat, talking about her story, Christmas Larks.
Read an excerpt here.
I’ve always loved Christmas stories and the chance to break the routine by writing a novella. I have missed the collections my former publisher used to do, so I eagerly agreed when the wenches decided to pull together another anthology.
But I knew my ability to organize anything so complicated as a story interwoven with characters from seven other people would most likely explode my overworked brain. I happily followed all the give-and-take about what kind of town, what kind of history, how does the ball come about, and loved that Jo Beverley and Nicola could pull up real towns and castles we could rework to suit ourselves.
(We used Belsay Hall in Northumberland (pictured) as our inspiration although we did play fast and loose with its architecture!)
Once all the setting was developed though, I took a story that was already in my head and adjusted it to fit into the overall motif. Christmas mice, after all, can fit anywhere! Once everyone had their characters and stories settled, I could use their names where it made sense, and they could borrow mine to set around the dinner table. I’m utterly amazed how well it all worked out, and a lot of that is owed to the amazing Alicia Condon, our editor, who figured out what order all these stories needed to follow!
Mary Jo on her story: In the Bleak Midwinter, excerpt here!
We'd had so much fun with our first Word Wenches Christmas anthology, Mischief and Mistletoe, that we thought it would be rather fun to do another. Since that first anthology was bought by my Kensington editor, it was logical that I act as liaison. So I had my agent ask if they'd be interested, and indeed they were! My editor suggested that it might be fun to do an anthology built around a Christmas ball with stories intersecting. We talked about it (we Wenches work by consensus) and then said sure! And lived to regret it. <G>
I love writing short stories, I love Christmas themed books and I love writing with the other Wenches so the Last Chance Christmas Ball anthology was always going to be the best of all possible worlds. That said, I'd written linked stories before with other writers and it hadn't always been easy; there were so many opportunities to get the details wrong in terms of the house, the servants, the other characters. However, we Wenches talk a lot amongst ourselves generally so I was confident that we would we be able to communicate successfully over the anthology!
Cara/Andrea: Old Flames Dance.
There's an excerpt here!
All eight of us all loved the idea of linked stories centered around a Christmas ball. I mean, piece of (fruit)cake, right? Ha! Getting in synch on the descriptions of the Abbey, the names of servants, what guests were appearing at which meal, etc. took the construction of a Wiki page for all of us to consult as we worked on our individual stories. Still, question flew fast and furious, like “Um, Nicola does Piers arrive before or after supper on the 28th.”
Mary Jo and I took it one step further by deciding to make the two sons of the house have VERY intertwined stories, and talk about things getting complicated!
We had to understand not only the motivations of our own characters, but also those of the linked story. Suffice it to say, there were several VERY long plotting phone calls, filled with brainstorming, sketching out the personalities, the sequence of events—and the occasional tactful “noooo, my heroine wouldn’t react that way.” Getting all the little details entwined just right took a lot of planning, but it was such fun when we finished and read each other’s final drafts—seeing our heroes and heroines weave through two different narratives was really lovely. (Note to self—brainstorm with Mary Jo more often!) We are both delighted with how all the stories fit together, and I think readers will really enjoy Christmas at Holbourne Abbey!
An excerpt is here!
I knew from the start that I wanted to write a story where Lady Holly's Christmas Ball, and all it stands for in terms of joy, belonging and the spirit of Christmas, was a turning point for my characters. It was lovely to be able to weave Caro and Piers' story in with those of the other family members and guests. The most difficult part for me was making the other Wenches' characters feel authentic in my story. No way did I want someone saying "but he would never behave like that!" Happily I think we were all able to get the stories to fit together beautifully, a tribute to all the hard work and some very good editing! It's been fun and a huge pleasure to be part of the anthology. I was also the lucky one who got to visit Belsay Hall and research the story "on the ground," which was fantastic! I've used a photo I took of the grand carriage at Belsay because my story also involves a chase through the snows of winter.
Jo Beverley: Miss Finch and the Angel.
The excerpt is here!
As the other Wenches began to toss out story ideas I had nothing particular in mind, but then one day I said, "What we need in the mix is a carefree rake!" And thus, Lord Gabriel Quinfroy was born, the younger son of a duke and very glad to be so. When his godmother, Lady Holly, summons him to flirt with the wallflowers at her ball he's very happy to escape his fractious family.
However, I began to realize that I'd given myself a challenge. Gabriel has spent a lot of time with the family, so when he's there he's going to interact with all of them and be concerned about their problems. I had to keep a lot of balls in the air!
Sometimes there are characters and situation that call for a light, fun story, and Lord Gabriel was one. I find such stories a delight to write, which is why it's lovely to have an occasional anthology such as this one. Despite the challenges! (And Gabriel wouldn't appreciate that representation of him!)
You can read an excerpt here.
I love Christmas stories, and was happy to jump at the chance to write one, especially a linked one with a group of friends. There was a lot of discussion around the setting, the situation, the characters we would have in common, etc — and given that we're all pretty independent people, used to deciding all that by ourselves – it wasn't easy. <g> But it was fun.
When it came to my story, I was tossing around Christmas themes – meaning themes that symbolized the Christmas spirit — and the story that I came up with meant that most of my story would happen away from Lady Holly's Christmas Ball. But even with a small amount of overlap, when writing our own stories we still had to be very careful not to give away important parts of other people's stories. We all read each other's drafts and I distinctly remember at least one heartfelt wail of "Noooo, if you include that bit, it will totally ruin the surprise in my story!" LOL — and then negotiations would follow. But while collaboration on a linked story wasn't easy, I think we're all really happy with the final result. Certainly I'm very proud to be a part of this anthology.
We hope you have enjoyed rediscovering the story of the Last Chance Christmas Ball anthology and how it was written! Thank you to all our loyal readers and members of the Wench community and a very happy festive season to you all! Our question for you is: "If you were attending the Christmas Ball, what sort of ballgown or outfit would you choose? (This gorgeous gown was especially made for a Christmas Party in 1961 and is in the Chicago History Museum.)