Anne here, in a sudden cold snap with misty rain. I'm smelling the fragrance of wood smoke on the air and I'm brooding on the romance of an open fire. It's not cold enough to need a fire, you see, so one of my neighbors has lit it purely for the atmosphere. An open fire is such a cosy thing. And I don't have one, which is why I'm so absurdly dreamy about them.
I'm very appreciative of the convenience of heat at the flick of a switch and I know it's not exactly romantic having an open fire as your sole source of warmth — collecting the wood, chopping kindling, and logs of various thicknesses, setting the fire, cleaning away the old ashes and so on.
I grew up with that as a child and it's not much fun starting a fire from scratch when you arrive home, freezing and wet to a cold, dark house. Or first thing in the morning when you're cold and sleepy and only the bed is warm.
But once the kindling catches and the flames stop flirting with the wood and the fire becomes a roaring blaze, there's something so elementally satisfying about standing in front of the hearth, warming yourself at a fire you've created. Dangerous, too — I once stood so close to a fire I set my skirt on fire. Only a bit, and I have to admit it was very funny at the time, but still… I do love a fire, and not just because of the heat.
When people gather around a fire something magical happens — storytelling. I suspect it's some age-old instinct, staring into the fire, watching the coals shift and the flames dance, and spinning stories. Whether it's indoors around a fire, or outdoors around a campfire, there's an irresistible urge to talk and to listen. And sometimes to sing, of course. Some friends of mine are famed for their parties and one of the secrets of their success is, I'm sure, the fact that they always have a couple of large fires blazing, and as the night progresses people invariably drift toward the fire, and the stories start. They're wonderful parties and they always end very late.
When I was a little girl, I read a lot of books in front of an open fire, sprawled out on a rug on the floor, lost in the world of the book, with the fire crackling and hissing gently in the background. The fire added to the atmosphere of the stories.
I remember a story set in prehistoric times — I'm not sure if it was cave dwellers or wandering tribespeople, but distinctly recall thinking if I lived in that time I'd like to be the child whose job it was to keep the fire alight, guarding the precious flame, keeping it alive with twigs and dried moss as we wandered from place to place — because these people didn't know how to make fire for themselves. Notice how I ignored the likely danger/starvation/ discomfort/danger involved in that life? It didn't matter. I was the guardian of the flame. No problem.
The availability of fire and fuel is never something to be taken for granted and wood has to be gathered and chopped. I like to remind my characters (and readers) of that sometimes, because it's something a rich man would take for granted. Here's a snippet from The Accidental Wedding:
By the time Nash came inside he was shivering. He added a small log to the fire. A week ago he would have built a really good blaze. He loved a roaring fire, loved watching the flames dance and the sparks fly. There was a primitive satisfaction in making a fire roar.
But Maddy and the children had to gather the fuel themselves, wandering the forest in search of fallen timber, then dragging it home, chopping it as needed.
On that thought, he went back outside, found the ax she kept just inside the back door, chopped up the rest of her wood, and stacked it neatly by the back door. The combination of exercise and cold, fresh air got his blood moving again. He felt better than he had in days.
On cold winter nights when I was a child, we often used to make toast in front of the fire, toasting the thick slices of bread, and sometimes crumpets, on long toasting forks. Toast tasted so much better that way, even if it was slightly blackened in parts or you had to brush off a bit of ash because you accidentally dropped it. I've used that in a story too, particularly because sharing a fire fosters intimacy. This is from An Honorable Thief:
"Dev, old fellow. Come here and show this girl how to hold a toasting fork," he said. "Wouldn't credit it—-girl's been to India and all sorts of outlandish places but she's never toasted bread in front of a nursery fire before! Shockin' gap in her education! Rectify the matter myself, only I've discovered an appalling absence of marmalade. Can't have toast without marmalade, y'know. Off to see to the matter immediately."
"Oh no, it's quite all right—" Kit began.
"I'd be delighted," interrupted Mr Devenish smoothly, as Sir William breezed out of the room, his youngest child riding horsie on his back.
He sat down on the hearth rug, right next to Kit. In seconds little Sally, aged five, clambered over his long legs and plopped herself down in his lap. To Kit's astonishment, stern, unapproachable Mr Devenish didn't turn a hair. He simply seized a fork and bending his head to the little mop of golden curls, showed Kit and the child how to attach the bread securely to the fork.
The oldest girl, Nell settled herself down with Kit, declaring she would show Miss Kitty-cat the way of it because there wasn't all that much bread left, and suddenly peace reigned in the nursery, as the important business of making toast took precedence over all.
Kit tried very hard to concentrate on following the commands of her toast instructress, but her eyes kept flickering sideways to the big dark man sitting on the hearth rug with the tow-headed moppet in his lap. His big hands were guiding the little ones, and he murmured encouragement in a low undertone. Little Sally scowled in grim concentration as she held the fork towards the fire, its weight unobtrusively supported by the man. After a moment or two, the little girl looked up at him.
"If you like." He nodded, and she carefully drew the fork back. They both inspected the toast and after a short consultation, solemnly pronounced it ready to be buttered. That was Lady Marsden's job, apparently. She buttered the toast lavishly, honey was applied and the toast was devoured by child and man alike, with gusto.
Kit watched the whole procedure, a lump in her throat. He sprawled, relaxed on the hearth rug, in his fine London clothes and his shiny Hessian boots, a small, decidedly sticky girl-child resting against his chest, sleepily licking honey from her fingers. He seemed not to mind at all, in fact he looked like a man who had been given a taste of Heaven for the evening.
Kit bit her lip. He looked so stern and severe and he'd been so gentle with the little one, it almost broke her heart to watch them.
He glanced over at her and smiled. He wasn't a man who smiled often. It made her want to weep again.
After that night at the opera, she'd resolved to keep him at a distance with the strictest, most rigid formality.
Formality was simply not possible; not when they were both sprawled on a hooked woolen rug in front of a crackling fire, the detritus of an impromptu picnic scattered around them and each with a sleepy child nestled against them. Or in his case, with a tow-headed little angel curled up in the crook of his arm, sound asleep against his heart.
Fire is primitive and elemental and utterly fundamental to human existence. I've used fire to evoke scenes of cosy domesticity or to play as a counterpoint to a love scene. I've had characters work together to light a fire and I've had fire destroy a character's home and livelihood. I've had characters dry themselves by the fire, toss documents in the fire, gaze at each other in the shadows thrown by fire. And of course, fire is a metaphor for passion… This is from my January book, BRIDE BY MISTAKE:
The candlelight danced lightly across her face, caressing her full, dark lips, turning her eyes into pools of mystery. She ate in silence, but he could look at her face all night and not be bored.
Luke drank a local wine with his dinner, finding it dry and very much to his taste, but after one sip, Isabella had grimaced and set it aside. He gave the landlord a silent signal, and the man nodded, and returned in a few moments, telling Isabella his wife had sent up some of her very own sweet apple cider for the young lady.
Isabella tasted it with caution that would have amused Luke if he wasn't focused entirely on the way her mouth seemed to caress the glass. She liked it, gave the man a dazzling smile and sent thanks and warm compliments to his wife.
Would she ever smile like that at Luke?
Her hair, twisted high on her head, curled around her face in a riot of feathery tendrils, clustering around her temple and nape. Loose in the firelight, it had been a gleaming, silken waterfall of darkness against the pale delicacy of her skin, a dozen shades of ebony twisting between her slender fingers like a live thing.
He'd longed to plunge his fingers into that thick, silken mass, place his mouth against that tender nape. Instead he'd sipped the liqueur, the taste of which would forever remind him of her. Unexpected combinations, dark, yet sweet and sharp. Cool on the outside, a slow burn within. Firing his appetite.
So do you have an open fire in your home? Did you grow up with a fire and have to chop wood and sweep out ashes and build the fire? What memories do you have of that? And what's your favorite thing about an open fire?