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A Group Anthology

Writing a Christmas Anthology.
On Facebook the other day, Mary Jo Putney and I ended up having a discussion had with a FB friend, Karen, about a Christmas anthology we were part of a few years ago.  It was by The Word Wenches — the group of historical romance authors I regularly blog with —  Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Patricia Rice, Joanna Bourne, Nicola Cornick, Cara Elliott, and Susan King. (Jo, sadly has since died.)
I’d just posted the news that the e-book version of the Word Wenches Christmas Anthology, The Last Chance Christmas Ball was currently on special for $2. 

Karen kicked off the discussion by saying: I have read this about a dozen times now – fantastic anthology!
Anne Gracie: Thanks, Karen — we had some fun writing it.
Mary Jo Putney: Fun writing, Karen and Anne Gracie — but a lot of work to intertwine our stories. Worth every bit of effort, though!
Karen:  Mary Jo Putney I have wondered how you managed that. Did you all discuss it beforehand or did you write one at a time and weave in the previous stories?
Anne Gracie: Karen, all of the above. We probably spent as many words emailing back and forth as ended up in the stories. LOL

I answered Karen briefly, and Mary Jo chipped in too—and there was some talk of “herding cats” <g>—  but I thought you might be interested in hearing a bit more about how we wrote it. So here goes.

First we talked about the general theme/set up of the story — and we decided all the stories would revolve around an annual Christmas ball given by the dowager Countess of Holbourne, known to her friends as Lady Holly. Over the 50 years she’d held this ball, it had gained a reputation for bringing “last chance” couples together. 

We decided on a general location for the ball — geographical as well as the kind of grand house it was. We wanted snow, and Susan King’s people were coming from Scotland, so we set it in the north of England. We collected quite a few pictures of possible houses/castles and ball rooms and other places where the stories might take place — for instance one story needed a turret room.

We each came up with the premise/ brief outline of our stories, and discussed how they might blend (or clash) with the other stories. Some of us had story ideas that would not need to be melded — for instance Susan’s couple got snowbound and never made it to the actual ball. Those stories that most obviously would overlap (eg Mary Jo‘s and Andrea‘s (Cara Elliott) needed a lot more lining up and discussion than some of the others so they did a lot of private liaison. 

We were contracted on the proposal, but with eight authors in the anthology (which was coming out as a large paperback, as well as a mass-market sized paperback and an e-book) the stories had to be shorter than the usual novella length so we were restricted in length to about 15,000 words, which was hard. It’s actually easier for most of us to write long than short.  

The late Jo Beverley was the driving organizational force and she wrote the introduction. We each wrote our stories and shared them with the others, and hammered out any last-minute clashes — for instance where two people were doing different things in the same scene — but we sorted it all out. 

The one thing we didn’t do was to decide the order the stories would appear in —that was decided by the editor. My story, Mistletoe Kisses, came last because the last part of the story happens well after the ball was over.

My story is about Allie Fenton, a young woman who, for various reasons, has never been able to attend a ball. Now orphaned and on the shelf, she’s planning to become a teacher at a girl’s seminary in Bath. But first there’s her last Christmas at home and then, Lady Holly’s famous annual Christmas ball. 

Here’s a short excerpt of Mistletoe Kisses:

“You’ll come to my Christmas ball, then,” Lady Holly told her. “Don’t bother trying to think up any excuses — you’re coming and that’s that. Your year of mourning will be up, and you have no reason to stay here moldering away when I’ve gathered an excellent range of eligible gentlemen for your perusal.”

Allie laughed. “For my perusal? As if I’m going shopping?”

“That’s exactly what you’ll be doing.”

“Don’t the gentlemen have any say in it?”

The old lady sniffed. “Women have been making men believe they have a choice for generations. Now don’t be frivolous, Allie — I am determined to give you one last chance to find a husband before you go off and bury yourself in this, this school of yours.” She pronounced ‘school’ as if she really meant ‘zoo.’

Allie smiled. For all her caustic tone, Lady Holly had a very kind heart. “I would love to attend your ball, Lady Holly. . . “

The old lady frowned. “I hear a ‘but’ coming.”

“Not really—I would truly love to dance and flirt and be madly frivolous, and your Christmas balls are legendary, and you know I’ve never been able to attend. But the only ball dresses I have were made for the eighteen-year-old me, and not the seven-and-twenty version. Alas” — Allie indicated her hips and bosom and grimaced — “I’m no longer the slender young thing I was.”

Lady Holly snorted. “You were a scrawny young twig back then — no bosom or hips to speak of. Now you’ve a fine womanly figure. Besides, I’ve thought of that. Took the liberty of getting a dress made for you — left the box with Meadows. It should fit — got Mrs. Meadows to take your measurements from one of your current dresses.”

Allie blinked in surprise. “You had a dress made for me? A ball dress?”

“Now don’t get all stiff-necked on me, Allie Fenton,” the old lady said in a fierce tone that didn’t deceive Allie for an instant. “I was very fond of your dear mother and this is for her, as much as for you. She was so looking forward to your making your come-out and was devastated that her illness prevented it.” 

“I’m not being stiff-necked, truly I’m not. I’m just. . . surprised.” There was a lump in Allie’s throat. She was deeply touched by the old lady’s brusque kindness. And thoughtfulness. A ball dress. . . 

Lady Holly reached over and patted her hand. “Now don’t look like that, my dear — I promised your mother I’d see you dancing in the arms of a handsome man, and though circumstances have prevented it in the past — and I quite see that it would have been the height of impropriety for you to go dancing when first your mother and then your father lay dying — there is nothing to prevent you now, and you will come to my ball!” 

Allie smiled mistily. “Just like Cinderella. And you’ve even provided the gown.” 

SNIP . . . . (and here’s the kind of dress I imagined for her, only no train and in lavender)

The parcel, tied with string and wrapped in brown paper, lay on her bed. She untied the string and under the wrapping paper found an elegant box with a stylish gold emblem on the front. She swallowed. This was no dress from the village seamstress — it was from Lady Holly’s own London mantua maker.

She eased off the lid, parted the layers of protective tissue paper and gasped. Almost holding her breath, she drew the dress from its nest of tissue. It was beautiful. 

The underdress was a light shimmering lilac shade that she just knew would go perfectly with both her recent mourning, and also her coloring. But the lovely silk underdress was quite cast in the shade by the delicate overdress in some kind of gauzy fabric through which the lilac silk shimmered. Embroidered here and there with tiny rosebuds in silver thread, it was finished with bands of delicately gathered silver lace around the hem and at the elbows of the puffed sleeves, and a line of silver embroidery around the neck.

In the box, hidden beneath the dress, was underwear — not the kind of underwear that Allie had ever in her life worn — delicate, lacy, flimsy, exquisite underwear — a chemise, a petticoat, the daintiest, most feminine drawers, and even a corset. All were trimmed with lace, and everything but the corset was practically transparent. Almost scandalous. 

She remembered Lady Holly’s comment that she had the figure of a woman now, not a girl. Allie had never really given it much thought. But now . . . these were certainly underclothes for a woman, not a girl. Smiling to herself, she put the lovely, naughty underclothes back in the box. She’d probably die a spinster, but she would treasure these forever.

She picked up the dress again, held it against her body and turned to gaze at her reflection in the looking glass. It was the most beautiful dress she’d ever owned. And it suited her perfectly. The lilac color complemented her pale complexion and her dark hair, and even seemed to make her very ordinary gray eyes look almost exotic. The silver thread gleamed and shimmered in the light. It was a dress made for dancing. . .

How many years since she’d danced? And never at a ball.

Delight bubbled up in her. After what felt like years wearing mourning black and gray, this dress felt like a breath of spring. And yet even the highest sticklers could not look askance at her — lavender and lilac were approved colors for half mourning.

But would it fit? She stripped off her old black gown and, holding her breath, she carefully slipped the ball gown over her head. And breathed. It was perfect. It was more than perfect.

She gazed at her reflection, gave a sudden laugh and twirled around and around, as if she were a giddy, carefree girl again.

She felt just like Cinderella. And she was going to the ball.

* * * * *

The e-book of the LAST CHANCE CHRISTMAS BALL is currently on special at around $2.
Buy it from your favorite e-bookshop, or try one of these links for the paperback:
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada 
Amazon Australia 
From Booktopia, Australia
For iTunes
For your NookFrom Books a Million
From the Book Depository, which ships for free around the world.

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Mary Jo Putney
Mary Jo Putney
4 years ago

A very good summary of how the anthology was put together, and once more I sighed happily as Allie got her beautiful gown. For those who might wonder, the reason Andrea and I had the most coordinating to do was because we were writing about brothers–the heir to the estate and the second son. My heroine loved one brother and considered the other one of her dearest friends. Complicated. Our editor, Alicia Condon, gets a huge amount of credit for the final result. I believe that she came up the idea of the ball, and she spent a LOT of… Read more »

4 years ago

I LOVE this anthology! It quickly became one of my must read, favorite Christmas reads.