How to write a Christmas novel


01 December 2023
Top tips from four leading authors in the festive fiction field

There’s something about the longer, colder nights that makes you want to snuggle down with a book in front of the fire, isn’t there? And perhaps, this time of year is inspiring you to have a go at writing, too…

The countdown to Christmas has officially started – there is sparkle in the shop windows, mulled wine on tap, and Christmas gifting front and centre in the supermarkets. You may also have noticed the many wonderful Christmas novels that are published at this time of year – whether you’re a crime fiction lover, or prefer to be whisked away by a Christmas romance, there is bound to be something perfect for you on the shelves, to bring a bit of Christmas magic to your reading.

And if you want to have a go at writing your own Christmas novel this year – whether that’s the perfect whodunnit on Christmas Eve, or a love story that sweeps the generations and takes place across multiple Christmases – we’ve asked some authors for their top tips on writing festive fiction to help get you started.

Sue Moorcroft, author of The Christmas Love Letters (out now, Avon)

I love writing a Christmas novel because the season makes everything ‘more’. Why do people get engaged at Christmas? Because a double celebration makes it more exciting! But if they lose their job or someone they love, the glitter and carol singing just mock their misery. This heightening of emotion is crucial. How many times do we hear, ‘What are you doing for Christmas?’ People care about the answer, and I want readers to care about what kind of Christmas my characters have, too.  

Like the season itself, my Christmas novels have a timeline of a couple of months. I make sure I cram everything in: present-buying and wrapping, Christmas card delivery, Christmas markets, carol singing, mince-pie baking – everything I can think of. But these Christmassy pursuits are wound tightly into the storyline of the novel. In The Christmas Love Letters, Maddy’s Christmas cards to Raff (yes, she sends him two very different ones!) are pivotal to the plot. Every time she takes her daughter Lyla to a Christmas event, it’s part of a scene that moves the story on. And all the threads of the book run through on Christmas Day, even if they’re not tied up until the after-Christmas glow.

By then, I hope, I leave my readers wanting ‘more’, too.

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Emylia Hall, author of The Harbour Lights Mystery (out now, Thomas & Mercer)

If you're writing a novel set at Christmas, consider how you can use the time of year to bring home the themes in your story and amplify the atmosphere. It's also a lovely opportunity to celebrate what the festive season means to you personally, either through one or more of your characters, or the pervading spirit of the whole novel. For me, writing about Christmas means valuing gratitude, generosity and open heartedness.

In The Harbour Lights Mystery, the second book in my Cornish-set cosy crime series, the story unfolds in the day's leading up to Tom Bawcock's Eve on the 23rd of December. Tom Bawcock is a legendary fisherman who, many moons ago, saved the village of Mousehole from famine by braving wild seas and bringing home the catch. It's an important part of the Cornish Christmas calendar, and I loved weaving this local celebration of selflessness and courage into my festive murder mystery.

Christmas mysteries are a delightful tradition, as we enjoy the juxtaposition of murder most foul and the season of goodwill. As Tracey Thorn sings in Joy, her gorgeous contemporary Christmas song, 'It's because of the dark, that we see the beauty in the spark.' That’s what my titular ‘Harbour Lights’ evoke. And it’s also what writing crime set at Christmas is all about: the dark, then the beauty in the spark.

Alex Pine, author of The Night Before Christmas (out now, Avon)

If it's a Christmas crime novel then I would always ensure that the weather - especially snow - plays a significant part. It can be used to impede a police investigation and up the stakes and tension, while at the same time firing up the festive atmosphere. It also allows the writer to embellish the narrative with colourful descriptions.

My Detective James Walker novels are always set in Cumbria during the Christmas period and I focus a great deal of attention on how rough the weather is. There's always a blizzard along with freezing temperatures, and this is an aspect of the books, including The Night Before Christmas, that readers particularly enjoy. Perhaps it’s from knowing that while my characters are out balancing the elements at this time of year, they are inside reading in the warm! 

Emily Stone, author of The Christmas Letter (out now, Headline Publishing Group)

I like to write novels that start and end at Christmas, but span a year (or more!) in between – so you get a dollop of festive sparkle, but see the way the characters grow and change over a good chunk of time. I think relationships are key at Christmas – it can bring out the best and worst of people, and it can really highlight any problems or underlying emotional unease when families and friends are ‘expected’ to come together around the holidays. I think playing with that tension can add a layer of something extra to a Christmas novel.

Of course, setting is so important – it can be fun to read about somewhere cosy or different around Christmas. That doesn’t have to be far away (Devon features prominently in my latest novel), but it can also be somewhere snowy and cold, with a crackling fire waiting for the characters inside.

Something I love about Christmas novels is the insight into family traditions. In my first novel, Always, in December, Josie writes a letter every year and posts it before Christmas Day. She knows the letter will never be read, but does it anyway. And in The Christmas Letter, Holly is part of a Dear Stranger letter writing club – where you write a letter to a person who is feeling lonely at Christmas, and get a letter from another lonely person in return. Clearly, I like letters at Christmas! But perhaps there is a tradition that you and your family or friends have at Christmas, which might make a good starting point for a novel? Or can you think of a tradition that would make for a good talking point – something that a reader might want to know more about?

Here's a writing prompt to get you started on creating your own Christmas story!