Twelve Days of Christmas

Wendy Lawton

 Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Yesterday Janet blogged about one of her favorite Christmas classics. I thought I’d follow-up, using one of my favorites to illustrate how a writer can take a well-loved piece of literature or music and use it as the basis for a new story.

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I’ve always loved the old English carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, partly because I was born during the twelve days of Christmas. (Think: Goose.) Christmas marks the first day and the twelve days end on the Twelfth Night or the day before Epiphany.

I’ve been on a historical mystery kick for my fun reading. I mentioned previously on the blog that I’ve always loved the books of Anne Perry. One member of our blog community wrote to tell me that, since I was out of Perry reads, I needed to try Victoria Thompson. Perfect! I read through her backlist, and someone mentioned I needed to try Rhys Bowen. Perfect again. I just finished her book The Twelve Clues of Christmas. It was an absolute delight. (Highly recommend: Perfect fun read for this Christmas season.)

The main character in this series of books, Lady Georgianna Rannoch, is 34th in line for the throne. Her great-grandmother was the inimitable Queen Victoria, but the story is set in the Depression, and Georgie is, to put it bluntly, flat broke. Unable to stand another moment under the mercy of her penny-pinching sister-in-law at their dank family seat–Castle Rannoch in Scotland–Georgie answers an advertisement to help Lady Camilla Hawse-Gorzley host a house party in the quaint village of Tiddleton-Under-Lovey. Georgie soon discovers the house guests are actually paying guests gathered to celebrate an authentic English Christmas. Lady Hawse-Gorzley is also trying to find innovative means to keep a cumbersome estate running in economically challenging times. All goes well until Freddie Partridge is found dead, perched in one of trees in the Hawse-Gorzley pear orchard.

From there, the tongue-in-cheek whodunnit serves up a fresh murder each day while treating the reader to the most delicious descriptions of an English Christmas celebration, from the hunt to caroling, to the yule log and the puddings, boxing day and a host of other traditions. Rhys Bowen even ends the book with recipes, Christmas games and enough detailed descriptions of the Christmas trappings to satisfy the most ardent Anglophile.

Bowen brilliantly blends the old carol with her story to create that perfect fusion of something familiar with something brand new. Many writers are successfully doing that. Think of all the fairy tale retellings. The Jane Austen take-offs. West Side Story.

I thought it would be fun today to talk about other writers who took something old as the basis of creating something new. Can you name other books that did this? Why do these delight us? Do you think it’s easier or harder to use a classic as a starting point?

I’m out of the office the first part of this week–all-day meetings in Houston–so I may be joining the conversation a little late, but I look forward to hearing what you think.

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17 Comments

  • Nicholas Monserrat’s “The Kapillaqn of Malta” is an allegorical update of St. Paul’s travels to the spiritual journey of a priest on the besieged island of Malta during WW2.

    It’s beautifully written, and probably the best way to understand what civilians on the island went through during its time as the most heavily bombed place on earth.

  • Hi Wendy – There seems to be a current trend for historical and religious classics to be used as a starting point for all types of media. As an example, recent novels have been released about the Lost Jars of Cana and The Shroud of Turin, books in the style of Dan Brown. In the movies, Roma Downey’s Bible Series as well as Director Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 controversial movie, Noah. I’ve seen more historical and religious presses advertising for manuscript submissions. One thought was the popularity of the new Pope was causing a renewed interest in Catholic fiction, combining historical and religious themes. The TV series Sleepy Hollow has even peaked the interest of those reading about George Washington and his ring of spies. Very interesting trend. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

  • Well, I have been suffering for weeks with allergies, and I’ll use that as my excuse for not being able to recall one! Grin. But I do have a question. Would it be okay to use two names from a Classic for a new story? The main character name, I planned to change a tiny bit (still similar, a nickname) and I planned to keep the name of the supporting character the same. The two main characters in my YA fiction are real … and are really named after these Classic characters. The names are not in my title, but in my supporting, descriptive title (can’t think of what that is called right off). I didn’t know if the use would draw or detract.

    Have a blessed time in my state!

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m going to have to read that book–it sounds delightful–12 murders not withstanding.

    I remember how delighted I was when I realized the movie O Brother Where Art Thou alluded to The Odyssey. My poor husband had to suffer through me hollering things like “Scylla and Charybdis” when Clooney’s character kept saying, “We’re in a tight spot.” And “the sirens” when they ran into the ladies doing laundry in the creek.

    I think it’s that feeling of being an insider–of knowing what’s REALLY going on.

  • Leslie Gould caught my attention two years ago at ACFW when she casually mentioned writing a series of Amish novels based on Shakespeare’s plays. I chuckled at the time, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Courting Cate (based on Taming of the Shrew), Adoring Addie (Romeo and Juliet), and can’t wait to read Minding Molly (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) when it releases in January.

  • Lori says:

    I love the TV show “Once Upon a Time”. It’s great how they incorporate the fairy tales into a modern day story.

    I also enjoy (but not as much “Once Upon a Time”) the TV show “Revenge” which is suppose to be a modern day “Count of Monte Cristo” but with a female as the lead.

    The Rhys Bowen book sounds delightful. I will have to read it. I have already read “Her Royal Spyness” which was Georgie’s first mystery.

    • Oh, my daughter and I LOVE Once Upon A Time. We got the DVDs at the library as I started my novella on Beauty and the Beast, and have not looked back. The acting is fantastic!!! I’m glad you mentioned Revenge. Now that I know it’s based on the Count of Monte Cristo, I might just check it out. Thanks!

    • Sarah Thomas says:

      Revenge is based on the Count of Monte Cristo?!? That’s the BEST plot line of all time. Now I’m going to have to check it out, too.

  • How exciting to have all these book ideas! The Christmas season needs to stretch a bit longer to allow for all the reading.

    My daughters enjoy (okay, I do, too :) ) The Princess Tales, a series of fairy tales retold by Gail Carson Levine. They are witty and fresh and read as if they were fun to write.

    I commented yesterday that I would love to write a Christmas novel (or several). This is another goal of mine, to re-write a classic (or several). It seems that it would be easier, since the basic framework and characters are already there. The fun would be in twisting what is conventional, helping the reader to re-think a story they thought they knew.

  • It’s funny you should mention this because I’m reading your blog as a break from polishing my modern-day retelling of Beauty and the Beast, about a war-vet whose come home with missing limbs, alcoholism and PTSD. I’m doing this as a project with my critique partners. We will be e-publishing these each month, beginning February. Mine will be released in March.
    I must say I LOVE this project. In one way, it is easier. The format of the story is laid out for me, and I am trying to stay as true to it as I can. So, I don’t need to reread James Scott Bells book on plot structure, I just follow the well-known framework. My main characters are defined, I just need to color them with more personality and update their worlds. Then I add a few characters of my own. The challenge has been how to include the critical elements without making it feel contrived or forced, though maybe at times a little tongue-in-cheek. Without magic, I needed to find a way to transform a man who thinks himself a beast, into a prince—of sorts. Then, should my “beauty” really be a beauty or can I have fun with that idea. And what role does she play in the beast’s transformation … if any.
    In short, I have found the structure comfortable and the challenges fun to maneuver through—like being given a conundrum to solve. I hope the story bears out the fun I had writing it!!!

  • I just added Bowen’s book to my Wish List. Sounds wonderful.

    Maybe this carol is on a lot of minds right now. I just read Merry Humbug Christmas by Sandra D. Bricker. This book (represented by Rachelle Gardner, I discovered) has two short stories, each 12 chapters long, that use the basis of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as chapter lead-ins: “On the first day of Christmas, Murphy’s Law gave to me…”

    I also read A Christmas Carol 2: The Return of Scrooge by Robert J. Elisberg last month. This humorous parody shows how Bob Cratchit’s overly-generous benevolence has brought Scrooge’s company–which he inherited after the man’s death–to the verge of bankruptcy. Readers will not only find it very familiar in tone and style, but several characters from Dickens’ other books appear.

    I feel it was more difficult for Elisberg, as he worked to stay true to Dickens’ original work, but both books were so fun, I would read them again in an instant.

  • . . .we all do this every day. A memory of a favorite story or song is but an echo of times past that we recreate every time we fondly think of it.

  • It’s not a Christmas book, but that sounds a lot like Shannon Hale’s Midnight in Austenland. Have you read that one? I loved it (and the first book, Austenland.)

  • I wonder what you think about, The Family Man with Nick Cage which is really a remake of James Stewart’s, It’s A wonderful Life?
    I tend to like the original version, but there are redeeming moments in the modern version.

  • A Good Hard Look: A Novel of Flannery O’Connor by Ann Napolitano is my latest read. I’m a big fan of O’Connor and Napolitano nails the history of the place and the time absorbing O’Connor into the tale of small time competition. While darker than some reads, it was very true to O’Connor’s life.

    Wendy, I’ve think you’ve been looking over my shoulder. I LOVE Anne Perry and Rhys Bowen. Try Carola Dunn books, well done female leads.

  • Linda Jewell says:

    Pamela Aidan’s trilogy, “Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman,” plays off “Pride and Prejudice” from Darcy’s point of view. I enjoyed reading Aidan’s trilogy and then rereading Jane Austen’s masterpiece.

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