Revisiting the Christmas List – and the Round Robin Newsletter

We’ve reached the time of year for the Christmas List – and the round robin newsletter.  I remember the very first time my parents ever received one of these newsletters from a family friend.  It was the cause of much fascination and amusement.  But since then, the idea has caught on amongst the UK population with the speed of – dare I say it – a pandemic.

Candle, Christmas tree and sherry
Candle, Christmas tree and sherry

I’m revisiting my subject of the Christmas List for several reasons. Amongst these are the sheer poignancy of the subject, and the fact that since then I have published a revised version of the piece in a Christmas Anthology – available here to buy on Amazon. But one major motive was the delightful contribution by novelist Alexander McCall Smith the other day which I heard on BBC Radio 4 Today programme. This wonderful Scottish author – whose 44 Scotland Street novels I love – was talking about the Round Robin Newsletter, and making some points about the tendency to boast in these newsletters. We were shaking with laughter as we listened to him.

Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.

There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her  in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.

And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.

Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.

So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.

But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list –  the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.

Perhaps the candle flame is there  to remind me of that.

Psychology, Spirituality and Family Relationships – a Volatile Mix

On 4th September, on the fourth day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, blogger Susan Hampson hosted a guest post from me on her blog Books From Dusk till Dawn.Springboard

This is part of a series in which I reblog my articles from that blog tour.  So today’s post is the article Susan first published online, called:

Psychology, Spirituality and Family Relationships – a Volatile Mix

In books on the craft of writing fiction, one of the key areas to which a writer must pay attention is high emotional charge. And if the new writer is in doubt about whose point of view to take – in other words, whose story is this? –  the main question to ask is, Who has the highest emotional stakes in the outcome of the plot?
I’ve also read that when the author is building conflict into the plot, and setting up a protagonist and an antagonist / villain, a sure way to increase depth and high emotional stakes is to make the antagonist / villain a close family member.
When we write fiction we all draw upon our own life experiences. And for many of us, our greatest challenge in life, after the challenge of self-knowledge, is how we handle our closest relationships.
In my psychological suspense novel Mystical Circles I drew upon my observations and personal experiences of many people and relationships throughout my life. But family relationships do rank highly; father and son; two sisters; two twin brothers; mother and son.  I have of course transposed real relationships into fictional situations. When we use real people to create fictional characters the wisest strategy is to employ a composite of different individuals within one person. So we can never say, this character is based on X or Y whom I know personally. But the fact remains that some fictional characters do contain a greater proportion of certain individuals.
I have drawn upon those for whom I have a strong affection and also those whom I’ve found challenging. But beyond all this I think it’s true to say that there’s probably a little bit of me in all the characters.
One of the greatest joys of reading fiction is to enter into the heart and mind of someone else to share their joys and sorrows, and to understand how they think. How can this be so unless the writer incorporates part of their own psyche into those characters? I know this is certainly true for Mystical Circles.
I also believe this principle applies to the creation of a villain, who in order to be compelling, must be a complex mixture of influences, memories, desires, wounds, compulsions, longings and choices.
In life often the ultimate villain is hidden, shadowy, the manipulator behind the scenes.
And so it is in Mystical Circles. I’ll leave my readers to work out who that might be, but hope that this particular plot-spoiler will never appear in the reviews!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Cover Design Coming for Edition 3 of Mystical Circles To Be Published by Luminarie on 31 August 2017

Mystical Circles will be published by Luminarie in a new third edition on 31 August.

Instead of the present cover, it will have a new cover created by the designer behind the cover of A Passionate Spirit.author SC Skillman at booksigning at King Edward VI School Christmas Fair SUA 3 Dec 2016

The cover design will be darker and more mysterious than that for edition 2, in keeping with the tone of the story, and will harmonise with A Passionate Spirit.

Both novels  share themes of psychological tensions, spiritual threat, religious cults, paranormal, and shape-shifters; and both are set in the same Cotswolds manor house. Although each story can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone, the second does follow on from the first, and draws through a couple of the characters who appeared before. So to demonstrate more clearly the connection between the two, a thematic relationship will be seen in the two cover designs.

More later when I’ll be able to give the cover reveal!

In addition my book of encouraging  tips, insights and reminders for writers, Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, will be published in a second edition with Luminarie, on the same date – 31 August 2017.

The new edition of each of the above books will be available as a paperback and as an ebook. Mystical Circles paperback will be priced at £8.99 to bring it into line with A Passionate Spirit, and Perilous Path will be available for £4.99.

Meanwhile I’ve reached 70,581 words in my third novel, Director’s Cut. This will continue the themes of my first two novels, with a strong emphasis on modern Gothic. I know the way the story is to end – but my main antagonist is more frightening, subtle and cunning than those in my first two novels, and the power struggle with the chief protagonist is nearing that ‘black moment’ when it seems all is lost. I still don’t know how she is to survive or to prosper, through the things she will learn from this encounter.Expectations (2)  Perhaps that’s the best way for it to be, when creating a first draft; to maintain a dynamic relationship with the characters and their inner worlds, there must be a strong element of uncertainty. If the author is to defeat the reader’s expectations, she must first defeat her own!

 

 

Gazing Out to Sea: The Beauty of the English Coastline

I recently visited Beachy Head, East Sussex, with a friend and  my two teenage children.

Shining cliff (photo  credit: Abigail Robinson)
Shining cliff (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

As we walked along the cliftop, we all agreed: Where in the world could we go that’s more beautiful than this?

Beachy Head, together with the Seven Sisters Country Park and Birling Gap are all protected by The National Trust and they are  a short drive  out of Eastbourne on the south coast.

on Birling Gap Beach (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
on Birling Gap Beach (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

 

Bright path (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Bright path (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

I was born and brought up in Kent, and it was only thirty five minutes drive from where we lived to the south coast. Camber Sands was a particular favourite, and we regularly visited and ran over the open dunes, usually going on afterwards to the lovely old fishing town Rye, with its evocative fifteenth century Mermaid Inn.

On every trip, I felt the excitement of that first view of the sea.

And now, I say to my own children, just as my father said to us: “who’ll be the first to catch a glimpse of the sea?”

Everything depends upon our own inner state, as we contemplate such landscapes, which can then become sacred spaces.

gazing out to sea (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
gazing out to sea (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

For me, standing on a cliff gazing out to sea is a thing of beauty, a joy for ever. 

Sheila & Abigail on Birling  Gap Beach (photo credit; Jamie Robinson)
Sheila & Abigail on Birling Gap Beach (photo credit; Jamie Robinson)

Page-Turning Psychological Suspense Free on Kindle

Mystical Circles cover image
Mystical Circles cover image

Mystical Circles

by SC Skillman

 

PAGE-TURNING ROMANTIC SUSPENSE   

FREE ON KINDLE

Download for free any time between 8pm on 24 November and 8am on 27 November

“Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig is gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Paradise here. Staying forever.”

Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen for the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswold hills to investigate.

She arrives at Craig’s community hoping to rescue Zoe. But intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle and, despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love – with completely unforeseen consequences.

PRAISE FOR MYSTICAL CIRCLES

“Skillman weaves romance and attraction with spiritual searching and emotional needs, powerful universal themes”
Marie Calvert (Arts Psychotherapist and Retreat Leader)

“Mystical Circles will captivate you from the first paragraph… From page one my antennas were up… like any good mystery the more I read the more questions I had.. if a great mystery would not keep you reading there was a touch of romance as well… Mystical Circles is definitely a page turner. I recommend this book.”
Marsha Randolph (US Book Reviewer)

“I highly recommend this book for anyone!”
Kristina Franken (Goodreads Book Reviewer)

“AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Paddy O’Callaghan (Goodreads Book Reviewer)

Childhood Imaginary Worlds

When I was a little girl, my friend Alison and I created imaginary worlds.

A map of the imaginary world "Coneland" created by Alison & Sheila as children
A map of the imaginary world “Coneland” created by Alison & Sheila as children

One of these was the land we named “Coneland”. We wrote stories about the royal family of this land; at the bottom righthand corner of the map is the palace and the royal park, situated of course in the capital city, Coneington.

Alison is now a gifted textile artist who regularly exhibits her work in London and throughout the UK. Early expressions of her creative imagination may be seen in the worlds we designed before the age of 10.

Among the most famous examples of imaginary childhood worlds is that composed by the Bronte sisters, “Gondal”. Emily and Charlotte and their siblings actively worked on the complicated fantasy world of “Gondal” for 16 years, and some of their creations at this time may be seen in the Bronte Museum at Howarth in Yorkshire.

Painting of the Bronte sisters by Branwell Bronte
Painting of the Bronte sisters by Branwell Bronte

Of course, the artist Grayson Perry is well known for his childhood teddy bear Alan Measles, who was “the dictator and god of the imaginary world” in which Grayson Perry dwelt throughout his childhood (and of course well into his adulthood!)

In 1979 an author called Robert Silvey wrote a letter to “The Author”, a journal published by the Society of Authors, in which he invited contact from anyone who had created imaginary worlds in their childhood. He was gathering material for a book which was to be An Enquiry into the Imaginative Worlds of Childhood.

Alison and I sent off copies of our material; pictures and maps, a description of our imaginary world, the land of “Coneland” and its inhabitants.

This is an extract from Robert Silvey’s reply:

 “It’s so interesting having two perspectives on this same ‘paracosm‘ (as we call it). The first thing that struck me about the map of Coneland was the similarity of the outline to that of the New Hiniwan States of which I was for some years the President. I suspect that this similarity has something to do with the dimensions of foolscap paper!”

Sadly, Robert Silvey died before completing the book.

But it remains true, as he said in his original letter to “The Author” magazine, that “had it not been for the subsequent fame of the Bronte sisters, no one would ever have heard of Gondal or Angria. Yet they were not the first, not will they be the last, children whose fantasy-life takes the form of an imaginary world.

Did you ever create imaginary worlds during your childhood? And how has that influenced your adult life and vocation? If so, I’d love to hear from you!

 

Promises of Freedom and a World That Refuses To Be Healed

I’m off on holiday for a week. While I’m taking a break from my laptop my blog will be quiet. However there’s a post or two in the pipeline for when I get back – but you can expect a delayed response to any comments etc.

Mystical Circles new edition
Mystical Circles new edition pub. August 2012

Meanwhile, though, consider this thought from an excellent book I’ve just read, Jeff Goins’ “Wrecked”:

The world is broken and remains that way, in spite of our efforts to help it…. In a world that refuses to be healed, we must face the fact that we are not the heroes of our stories. It teaches us to rely on something bigger than ourselves and teaches the source of true compassion.”

I think this is a very profound statement: an acknowledgement that the world “refuses to be healed”.

I spent the first part of this book relating what Jeff Goins says to my own life experiences; and the next part seeing those experiences in a new light, and perhaps making sense of them. Finally the book challenged me to go beyond my comfort zone and to be willing to behave in ways that are “counterintuitive”. I found this book very moving and penetrating. It is full of wisdom, compassion and humanity.It’s an ideal book for young people to read – and the sort of book I wish I’d read during my university years.

In my romantic suspense novel “Mystical Circles” you will meet a number of people who ostensibly do want to be healed, and have come together – into a very beautiful, idyllic place – for that very purpose.

Not necessarily physical healing – but healing in mind and spirit.

You will also meet somebody who believes he can heal, and that he is the hero of his story.

We enter an esoteric community of people all of whom have come here with a range of different emotional and psychological and spiritual needs.

Freelance journalist Juliet believes she’s only here to rescue her sister from the arms of charismatic Craig, the group leader. And she feels distinctly put out when the group members start targeting her with questions about her own feelings and  “needs”.

“Therapy or treatment?” queries one of the group members, Edgar. “What about those, Juliet? Have you ever had any?”

“No. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with you, dear. But you’ll have needs. We all have those. And they are what have brought us here.”

Craig promises to “heal” the members of the group. This is what his brochure promises:

If you’ve been searching all your life, but have so far not found what you’ve been looking for, you’ve come to the right place. Here at the Wheel of Love, you may sharpen your subtle knife and cut a window into heaven. There are no limits to what you can achieve here: only those you impose upon yourself. You’ve chosen to come so we promise to supply the necessary tools. If you accept these tools and use them well, you’ll enter a freedom you’ve never dared dream of.

Craig will reach deep down into your spirit and touch a part of it you never knew was there.

Read the novel, and judge for yourself whether Craig – and numerous people like him whom you may meet  – delivers on his promises.

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 5 – Secret India: The Land of the Gods and Neel Kanth, Mountain of Light

Does an experience of joy and spiritual upliftment only count as a mystical experience if it changes your life?

I believe these experiences gather significance cumulatively, over the course of a lifetime, through the repetition of events grouped around a similar theme – just as in a recurring dream.

And for me the recurring theme is mountains.

Welsh Mountains
Welsh Mountains

When I was about seven years old our family went on holiday to Wales. Early one morning, a few of us got up and set out from our guesthouse for a walk before breakfast. To me, the world was fresh and new, everything was full of potential and wonder, the air held a miraculous clarity, the sky was a pure translucent blue… and at the end of the road was a mountain.

All I could think was “At the end of the road there’s a mountain – and we’re going to climb it.”

And that “start of the holidays” experience of mine was to inform all subsequent “glimpses of eternity” throughout my life.

Several years later I joined the Yoga for Health Foundation which was then led by Howard Kent (1919-2005). I wouldn’t describe Howard Kent as charismatic – probably one of the things I appreciated about him – but I liked and respected his character – wisdom, spirituality & a dry sense of humour.

I went on a Yoga Tour of North India and Nepal with Howard Kent and a group of yoga enthusiasts.

We flew to Delhi and our trip included Agra (the Taj Mahal), Varanasi  (the Burning Ghats by the Ganges),  the erotic temple carvings of Khajuraho, as well as the Red City of Jaipur, and finally Khathmandu in Nepal.

I have a vivid memory of time spent at twilight on the roof of a derelict maharajah’s palace in the jungle near Khajuraho, with Howard Kent and another member of our party, during which we talked about whether it was a good idea or not to renounce the world. (We concluded it wasn’t). Out in the jungle we heard a tiger growl. Otherwise there was an overwhelming silence and tranquility. And I even remember the cloud formation in the sky, which presented itself to me in the shape of a giant fish.

But this post is about one other aspect of that Indian tour – our journey through the Gharhwal Himalayas, (known as “the land of the gods” ), a journey which took us from Rishikesh to Badrinath, centre of Hindu pilgrimage.

And there, in Badrinath, one peak – Mount Neel Kanth – encapsulated all my recurring experiences around mountains.

Mount Neelkanth, Badrinath
Mount Neelkanth, Badrinath

I quote here from a passage in my journal, written on the night of our arrival in Badrinath.

“this town and the mountains around it have an awesome quality… an almost palpable presence filled the valley… the source of this power was Neel Kanth, a mountain of white crystal whose peak appeared between the two dark slopes of Naryan… luminous in the full moon.. it shone out like a mystical vision.” The next day, I wrote,”the spiritual intensity of the night had vanished but a deeper serenity remained.”

Is there a recurring image in your life – in your dreams, or in the real world, which means a lot to you on your journey? Whatever you believe, does this ring any bells for you? Do you identify with this journey? Share your thoughts and feelings with me about this journey of the spirit. I’d love to have your comments!

Mystical Circles – Is Everything Really As Perfect As It Seems?

For those who’ve been following my series on “Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” you may recognise this as the perennial question – unspoken – in the mind of anyone on the spiritual journey I describe.

And it’s certainly the question behind much of my exploring."Mystical Circles" new print edition published August 2012

My heroine Juliet explores this too – in an idyllic farmhouse in the Cotswolds.

Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds. Massive change of plan. I’m in love. Craig is gorgeous, sexy, intelligent. Paradise here. Staying forever.

Juliet, concerned that her younger sister has fallen for the charismatic Craig, leader of the Wheel of Love, sets off for the Cotswolds to investigate.

She arrives at Craig’s community hoping to rescue Zoe. But intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle, and despite her reservations, Juliet is drawn into the Wheel of Love with completely unforeseen consequences.

“Mystical Circles” is available now in the new print edition from Booklocker. The new edition has a well-designed interior & is a smaller size than the previous (US Trade) edition. Plus a brand new cover design. If you enjoy romantic suspense why not try it out here? You can try before you buy – and download the first three chapters. Enjoy!

“Mystical Experiences and Glimpses of Eternity” Mini Series Part 4 – Cottingley Fairy Photographs and Esoteric Teachings

I want to be a very serene loving being in tune with the universe.

Theosophical Society
Theosophical Society

So said a fellow-member of my study group at  The Theosophical Society, at 50 Gloucester Place, London W1.

She spoke those words in answer to a question from my next inspirational figure. He had asked, “Why are you here? What do you hope to find?”

I’ve remembered her words for decades. And they appear in my romantic suspense novel Mystical Circles. Those words speak to my heart. Why? Because they seem to sum up the spiritual hunger many people feel, well outside the gates of  organised religion.

The Theosophical Society was my next port of call after THE CENTRE FOR SPIRITUAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDIES.  Ever-hungry for new spiritual experiences, I  alighted upon the Theosophical Society, and discovered the esoteric teachings of Helena Blavatsky, and started attending talks by another inspiring teacher.

His name was Adam Warcup, and unlike me he has sustained his commitment to Theosophy over the years, and still lectures at the Theosophical Society.

So what is Theosophy?

Theosophy, maintains its adherents, is nothing other than a body of Ancient Teachings. And the motto of the Theosophical Society is: “There is no religion higher than truth.”  But the first person who brought those teachings to the West and who managed to convey them in an understandable and accessible form was Helena Blavatsky ( on 21 June 2012 she was, together with Annie Besant, the subject of a programme presented by Melvyn Bragg on BBC Radio 4).

The idea that The Truth was to be found in this body of Ancient Teachings appealed to me strongly, as a spiritual seeker who had already  discounted what the organised religions had to offer.

And so I entered a world in which I heard, for the first time, of the Cottingley Fairy Photographs; of elemental beings; of the Devachan, (the Abode of Shining Beings), of visions of life after death much more detailed and vivid than those to be found in the Bible (as I saw it then). And fluent communicators who sounded intellectually respectable and who were able to express all these things in a way I found compelling.

I was so won over by what I heard at the Theosophical Society that the BBC producer I worked for in the Religious Schools Radio office in Portland Place asked me to go there and make notes on the lectures  for him, so that he might include an item on these “ancient teachings” in one of his programmes about spiritual seeking in London today.

Whilst I may not now, as a Christian,  subscribe to many of those beliefs, I still look at the world through the eyes of someone who understands what the other person believes. (click to tweet)

I think the reason for this is the level of my emotional engagement with those beliefs. I first heard of the Cottingley fairy photographs through a book I found at the Theosophical Society. I believed in the fairies at the time – as of course did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle several decades earlier, whose name will be forever closely associated with the case. Many years later Elsie Wright, one of the girls, confessed to having faked the photos. And yet there are those who insist on believing. And the story has an enduring fascination, as shown by the movie “Fairy Tale – a True Story”.

Fairy Tale - a True Story (movie)
Fairy Tale – a True Story (movie)

I  will always have empathy with all those who seek as I did, and rest awhile in these beguiling teachings.

I may also end with another quote, this time from Shakespeare, through the words of Hamlet to Horatio in Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5:

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Whatever you believe, does this ring any bells for you? Do you identify with this journey? Share your thoughts and feelings with me about this journey of the spirit. I’d love to have your comments!