At St. Eval, there's little we love more than curling up amidst the brisk midwinter with a calming candle, soothing hot drink and page-turning book.
This week, we're spotlighting the incredible creative talent, novelist and writing coach Emylia Hall. Writing from a hut in the garden at her home in Bristol, Emylia often dreams of the sea and wild landscape of Cornwall, a prominent influence for her cosy crime mystery series The Shell House Detectives.
Inspired by the scents of St. Eval and in celebration of the series' second book, The Harbour Lights Mystery, Emylia has gracefully conjured her thoughts and crafted this blog from the heart - shining a light on the power of fragrance to unlock memories, inspire creativity and whisk the mind away to a world of possibilities.
"A burning candle is, to many, a symbol of hope and devotion. As an author, I know these ways of thinking well, because to write a novel is, above all, an act of faith. You put one word in front of another – often grasping in the dark, cutting back, striking out – until you have a story. It’s a long road, and when the words are flowing it can feel like magic; when they’re not, it’s pure graft. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that candles feel as crucial to my writing practice as a notebook, pen, and a good cup of coffee. Because as with all forms of creativity, the most important thing is to believe in the endeavour. Stay hopeful. Stay devoted. And follow the flame of the idea.
After publishing four contemporary fiction novels, I turned to crime writing in the long winter of 2020. We were locked down and homeschooling and I had a strong urge to write myself somewhere else, as I was missing those wide-open skies and seas with an almost bodily ache. Desk-bound travel has always been one of the great joys of writing for me, and here was an opportunity to channel those feelings of longing into my work. A particular image kept returning to me: a weatherboard house in the dunes, and a woman living on her own at the edge of things. From here the fictional village of Porthpella grew, made of a patchwork of beloved places in West Cornwall – and my new ‘cosy’ murder mystery series was born. The Shell House Detectives came out this summer, and the follow-up, The Harbour Lights Mystery, has just been published. Meanwhile, The Rockpool Murder will be out next spring. This series is pure wish-fulfilment: from my little house in Bristol, I get to live by the sea.
Growing up in rural Devon, I went to Cornwall for the first time when I was five years old. We stayed in a farmhouse near Marazion, and certain details stand out gem-bright in my memory. When my dad turned 70, we reprised our Cornish family holidays and a week in St Ives became our annual tradition. With my little son, we started camping at Gwithian (and haven’t stopped!); I love that some of his earliest memories are of tearing up and over the dunes: delighting in the first sight of Godrevy lighthouse. And through it all, I head to Cornwall for solo writing retreats.
I always choose to go out of season, when the crowds are long dispersed. I’ve stayed in a former tin miner’s cottage in the woods of Carbis Bay, a tiny, detached cottage right in the middle of St Ives, a converted net loft in Mousehole. Last autumn I rented a cottage right on the Harbour Beach in St Ives. At high tide the water almost lapped at the back door and by night the house was full of the sound of the sea. These retreats, with only my work-in-progress novel for company, are like a beacon in my diary through the preceding months, and their afterglow is long-lasting too. I go deep, living within the world of my novel in a way that’s just not possible amidst busy family life back home. I tackle knotty plot questions head on, and I write more in a few days than I would in treble the time back home. Also … I breathe. I have my fill of sea and sky and fill my cup up in all the right ways. Between desk sessions, I blow away the cobwebs with long striding beach walks, a chilly dip, or a roll in the skatepark – my novel nevertheless ticking over in my mind.
Through my Shell House Detectives mystery series, I honour all that I love about being by the sea in Cornwall (and throw in a little murder and mayhem for good measure). And how do I evoke this spirit of place? By the magic of candlelight.
I tend to write in the early mornings which, in the winter months, means pre-dawn. I mostly write from my hut at the end of the garden, unless the rain’s lashing down. As I settle down with my notebook or laptop, I always light a candle. On a sensory level, it means my space is filled with coastal scents: my favourites are St Eval’s Sea Salt, and Samphire and Sage. By that one match strike, I’m instantly transported to the shifting dunes and swaying marram grass, to electric sunsets and the cry of gulls.
Lighting a candle is also a symbolic act, marking a change in rhythm and focus. I find it concentrates my mind and helps me turn it to my writing: as the flame flickers, I write. And when I’m lost for words it’s far nicer to watch its glow rather than stare at that flashing cursor. When my session is up – when I’ve reached the end of a chapter or hit my wordcount or, simply, the demands of the outside world can no longer be ignored – I blow out the candle. It's a lovely kind of full stop.
The Harbour Lights Mystery is set during the days running up to Tom Bawcock’s Eve on 23rd December, with the story starting at the annual Christmas lights display in Mousehole. There’s a gorgeous contemporary Christmas song by Tracey Thorn called ‘Joy,’ and I love the line, 'It's because of the dark, that we see the beauty in the spark.' Festive-set murder mysteries are a longstanding tradition, and I think this juxtaposition is part of their appeal: the dark, and the beauty in the spark.
At this time of year, perhaps more than any other, the glow of candlelight feels like magic. It takes us wherever we want to go. And for me, that’s always Cornwall."
We want to say a huge thank you to Emylia for her wonderfully kind and insightful words, exploring the captivating power and creative elements of candlelight
Emylia Hall is an established writer and has published four other novels, including Richard and Judy Book Club pick The Book of Summers and Fearne Cotton's Happy Place Book Club choice, The Thousand Lights Hotel. Her work has been translated into ten languages and broadcast on BBC Radio 6 Music. She is the founder of Mothership Writers and is a writing coach at The Novelry. Explore more of Emylia's works on her website, and discover Emylia Hall behind the scenes on her Instagram here.
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