As 2015 draws toward a close, Nights of the Road blog comes back from travels through time and space, to rest again in the 17th century and at the National Trust property on the Berkshire Downs in England, where the portrait of a young Frances Coke, Lady Purbeck, regularly entrances visitors. We’re back here to pay tribute to Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia and her devoted cavalier, William Craven, who built the exquisite hunting lodge for the Winter Queen.
Elizabeth and William dominate a varied and interesting cast of part-real, part-fictional characters whose fates interweave across four centuries and three different time periods in Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows. This beautifully researched historical romantic mystery is set in Ashdown Park. It explores the strange effects of a fictional mirror and an exotic pearl upon those whose lives they touch, and its plot is designed to keep you guessing until the book’s closing pages .
Daughter of James 1st and sister to Charles 1st, Elizabeth Stuart was several years older than Frances Coke, but the two knew each other as girls and as adults. Like Frances, Elizabeth was a teenager when she married Friedrich V, Count Palatine of the Rhine. On at least one occasion Lady Hatton whisked Frances off to visit Elizabeth, at her court in exile in the Hague, in order to divert the young wife’s mind and affections from her blossoming love affair with Robert Howard. Elizabeth herself may have been sympathetic to and supportive of Frances’s relationship. She had, after all, been wooed herself by Robert eldest brother, Theophilus, prior to committing herself to her father’s choice of Friedrich, and with him to a life that would be spent largely thereafter in Europe far from her childhood family and friends.
Nicola Cornick offered great moral support and advice when I was preparing to publish Frances’s story in Nights of the Road. Knowing that her own forthcoming book would be set in the 17th century and at Ashdown Park, I’ve awaited publication of House of Shadows eagerly. I’m delighted to say my wait was worthwhile, and I heartily recommend the novel, especially if you are on the look-out for an original and absorbing holiday time-slip read. To give you a flavour of the story, without wanting to reveal the mystery that lies at its heart, here is the transcript of my recent interview with Nicola Cornick.
Hello Nicola! Welcome to my blog and thanks for this chance to chat together. Your historical romance novels have been appearing for nearly 20 years. What started you on your writing path?
I started to write when I was a child. It seemed to happen naturally. I was surrounded by books and read avidly. My grandfather was a poet and one of my godmothers was a published author so I think reading and writing was part of the air I breathed!
During the years you have been writing for publication, you must have seen a lot of changes, both in readers’ habits and interests as well as in the world of publishing. How have these changes affected you?
Publishing has changed almost out of all recognition since my first book came out in 1998. I just missed the heyday of romance books in the 1970s and 1980s when authors could make a fortune! By the time I started writing, the market for historical romance was shrinking to become very niche and sales were small. Then my books were picked up in the US and everything changed for me again. There was an increasing demand for books with more sensuality in them and so my very English, Georgette Heyer-style of writing needed to adapt. Then came the rise of independent publishing, and the number of books available to readers rose to unprecedented levels. Traditional publishers lost sales through pricing policies and authors who self-published could engage more directly with readers. Everything is still moving very fast and changing all the time. It’s fascinating.
I haven’t read all your earlier books but I believe they are principally historical romances and set in the ever-popular Regency period. What made you branch out in your choice of time period with House of Shadows?
I had indeed been mainly writing Regency historical romance for sixteen years, with a foray into the 17th century and another into the Edwardian era. I’ve always been an avid reader of time slip books, however, and also of historical mystery. I usually managed to involve some element of intrigue in my romances! So a move to parallel time stories with paranormal elements seemed a natural development for me, and a new challenge.
And why choose two known historical characters for the earlier time period?
The story of the Winter Queen and William Craven was the one that I felt compelled to tell. I’ve become deeply interested in their combined stories as a result of working at Ashdown Park, the house that William built for Elizabeth in 1662. The 17th century is one of my favourite time periods and it was wonderful to be able to set the book partially in that era.
How much research did you do for the story of the Winter Queen and her faithful servant, William Craven, and what were your main sources?
I’ve been working at Ashdown House for twelve years and researching the history of the house and the Craven family for almost all that time, so I already had a large body of research to draw on. My main sources for Elizabeth were the letters she wrote and also the letters and biographies people wrote about her, including her daughter Sophie of Hanover and various contemporary chroniclers. Carola Oman’s biography The Winter Queen was also very useful, as was Elizabeth Benger’s writing, which includes sources that aren’t mentioned elsewhere. I also referred a lot to material objects such as furniture, jewellery and portraits, as I think these things can tell us a lot about a person. I am fascinated by The Allegory of Love, the portrait that shows Craven and Elizabeth together.
How did you approach the question of balancing fiction and history with your known historical characters?
I was keen for the fictional story to exist within an authentic historical framework and so I stuck to the known history as much as was possible, filling the gaps with imagination that I felt was still based on historical accuracy. So much of history is interpretation; Elizabeth and Frederick’s court at Heidelberg, for example, was a focus for the Rosicrucian enlightenment. It is entirely plausible that they might have been members of the Order and embraced its beliefs. We also know that Elizabeth moved out of Craven House shortly before she died but we do not know why. Fiction allows historical imagination to fill those spaces.
How did you find the experience of writing a ‘time slip’ novel?
I found it very difficult! Writing three intertwined plot strands was very complicated for me, as I am not a planner in my writing and tend to prefer setting off and seeing where the story takes me. It wasn’t possible to do that when I had three different elements to weave together and a mystery to solve.
Which plotline revealed itself first to you?
Elizabeth and William’s story came to me first because I had read about them and thought about them both so much over the years. It feels as though I have been living with them as “companions” for a very long time.
Which of the three time periods did you find most enjoyable to write about?
I enjoyed both historical strands equally for very different reasons. William and Elizabeth’s story was the one that spoke to me most but I liked writing Lavinia’s memoir entries because I loved her character and had fun with it!
Which time period was the most challenging for you?
The contemporary strand of the story was by far the most difficult for me to make “live”. I was constantly challenged to try to bring it more alive and compelling and realistic. I’ve never written contemporary fiction before and don’t feel at home with it the way that I do with historical. That is part experience and part instinct.
You write with such a sure pen on human relationships, and seem equally at home describing complex emotions associated with love and with lust. Which of your characters were personal favorites and why?
Thank you, that is a very great compliment! It’s hard to choose favourite characters. I think I have to go for William Craven because I admire him hugely for his unwavering loyalty to the Stuart cause. At a time when many of the nobility changed sides as the wind blew. He was a very courageous soldier and a generous man.
And which characters presented you with the greatest difficulties in terms of really getting inside them and representing them authentically and convincingly?
Actually I found Elizabeth a difficult woman to know. Her letters can only tell you so much because she was a stateswoman and had to express herself carefully. All the biographies are written from a particular perspective, and the contemporary records were, of course, mainly written by men. It was difficult sometimes to find a way through to the woman beneath.
Your knowledge and love of the area within which the house in question of House of Shadows is set is evident and your descriptions of the countryside have a beautiful ring of authenticity. I found myself walking or driving with Holly just as if I was with her and back again visiting places that I frequented and loved myself as a child. That said, in House of Shadows you chose to conflate the stories of two actual houses in the area: Ashdown House and Coleshill. What prompted you to do this and did it present you with any particular plot challenges?
Thank you, I am so pleased you found the descriptions of the landscape evocative! I love the area so much that it is a huge pleasure to be able to draw on it in House of Shadows.
I honestly do not know why I chose to conflate the fates of Ashdown and Coleshill Houses in the story, but it has certainly caused a talking point with many people who know both! I think I found Coleshill’s story so compelling that I wanted to include it in some way. For me Coleshill was like Ashdown’s “big sister” house and I wanted to commemorate that.
It’s clear that you are a dog lover! Bonnie plays a prominent role in your novel. What do you think would have been missing if she hadn’t been included in the story?
That’s a very interesting question! I do love dogs and as well as being characters in their own right they can also illuminate the characters of others in the book. Bonnie is a lovely, calming influence generally and she also helps Holly to fight the isolation she feels after Ben disappears. Not to mention that without Bonnie, who knows what might have happened to Holly in the cellar!
Coleshill has a whole other dimension to its history and a most interesting story attached to that, too. Might you be tempted sometime to write another novel on the theme of Coleshill’s Second World War secrets?
Coleshill’s entire history is fascinating and as you say, its role in the Second World War would provide rich inspiration for an author. Not this one though, I think. I’m not sure I could do justice to the vast challenge of a books set in that period.
So what is on the horizon for you in terms of your future writing?
I’m writing another time slip book at the moment, which is set in the 16th century and the present and again, involves a historical mystery and real historical figure, this time Mary Seymour, the daughter of Queen Catherine Parr. It’s been huge fun writing my first Tudor-set book but also required even more research than usual since I’m not as familiar with the era. Not that I ever complain about doing research… All being well, it will be out this time next year.
Where can readers buy House of Shadows?
Readers in the UK can find House of Shadows in all WH Smith outlets and they can also buy online from Amazon UK. http://www.amazon.co.uk/House-Shadows-Nicola-Cornick/dp/1848454163/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449167828&sr=1-1&keywords=house+of+shadows
The book is also available from MIRA in Australia. There is a plan for House of Shadows to be on sale in the US in 2016 but until then it is available from the Book Depository with free postage anywhere in the world.http://www.bookdepository.com/House-of-Shadows/9781848454163
Thanks for your time, Nicola. Wishing you and our readers Happy Holidays!