Nicola Cornick is an international bestselling and award-winning historical novelist who has written more than 30 books over 22 years. She talks to Historia about mixing genres, dual timelines, her love of history and her newest book, out in April.
How has your writing changed since your first book, True Colours, was published in 1998?
True Colours was the Regency Romance I had wanted to write from the moment I started reading Georgette Heyer’s books. It was very long, featured far too many exclamation marks, adjectives and adverbs, and the point of view hopped around all over the place. I would say that in terms of technical skill my writing has improved since then. I certainly hope so, as I enjoy developing my writing style with each new book.
These days I write novels that are more complex structurally and my use of language is less flowery, but some things haven’t changed since my first book: I still enjoy including some of the lesser-known elements of any particular historical period, and I’m always inclined to bump off at least one character!
Your books overlap genres: mystery, romance, psychological, a touch of the supernatural. How risky is this, when we often hear that books need to fit one recognisable genre to sell?
It can be a risk to write a book that’s not easy to pigeonhole. I have found that there are some agents and publishers who are not interested in cross-genre books because they aren’t easy to fit into a recognizable niche and are therefore less straightforward to market. If it’s the sort of book you want to write, though, you need to weigh up how much that matters. For me it’s worth it because I enjoy mixing genres and appreciate the scope it gives me to play with ideas.
Your most recent novel, The Woman in the Lake, links 21st-century Fenella Brightwell with 18th-century Lady Isabella Gerard and her maid Constance via a beautiful, but sinister, golden gown. What gave you the idea for this story?
A couple of things came together to inspire The Woman in the Lake. I wanted to write a book set in Swindon because the town has a fascinating pre-industrial history which you don’t often hear about. I also wanted to write a book that contained paranormal elements but wasn’t primarily time slip and I had always been fascinated by the idea of possession; do we possess material objects or can they possess us? That was my starting point.
Did you make any surprising discoveries while researching The Woman in the Lake?
The most interesting discovery I made when I was researching in the local history archive at Swindon Library was that the town had been a centre for the smuggling trade in the eighteenth century.
I had assumed that smuggling was concentrated around the coast and had not realized that in the 18th century there had been a vast smuggling hinterland and a network of distribution stretching hundreds of miles inland. Investigating the tunnels beneath Swindon Old Town and the role that some of the population played in the smuggling trade was fascinating.
Which of your characters is your favourite?
Almost all of the characters in The Woman in the Lake are flawed and at times I didn’t like any of them very much! I had the most sympathy for Constance, Lady Isabella’s maid, because she has so little personal agency yet she is clever and determined, and finds a way out of an impossible situation.
You tackle some dark themes in your books; abusive relationships, for example. How difficult are these to write?
I think it’s very important to include dark themes where they are relevant and not sugar-coat a particular period of history. In The Woman in the Lake the character of Isabella Gerard is inspired by Lady Diana Beauclerk, an 18th century aristocrat whose first marriage to Frederick St John was known to be violent and abusive.
I found it very difficult to write the scenes that reflected the abuse that both Isabella and Fen, the modern heroine, suffered. I wanted to be absolutely sure that these didn’t come across as gratuitous, and I hope I wrote them with insight and empathy.
What intrigues you about stories with dual timelines?
In my historical research for various organisations I do a lot of “detective” work into anything from genealogical connections to the story behind a particular piece of art. I love a good history mystery! A dual timeline story allows me to set up a mystery in the historical segment of the book which is then explored and solved by the characters in the contemporary thread. I love writing dual time fiction and I love reading it too.
Why do you think some people tend to dismiss historical romance?
Dame Barbara Cartland casts a long shadow! I think historical romance can suffer from a combination of prejudices. First there is the literary snobbery which is directed at all genre fiction to a greater or lesser extent. Within that, romantic fiction has been a particular target, which has always puzzled me since the best romantic fiction has profound things to say about human relationships.
There can also be an assumption that historical romance is somehow less authentic than historical fiction in terms of research – which surely depends on the author and not the genre. It’s a great pity that some people do dismiss historical romance because it has a long and illustrious history and some excellent current-day authors.
How important is it to you to stick to the known historical record in your books?
As a historian by training I’m a stickler for accuracy and always try to ensure that my fiction has an authentic historical framework. Where I deviate from the known historical record I will include a note to explain what really happened.
That said, I do feel that there can sometimes be a smaller distance between historical fact and historical fiction than a lot of people believe. Historians interpret historical fact from a personal standpoint. Writers fill in the gaps in the historical record with their imagination. I’m always fascinated where one ends and the other begins.
What advice would you give to someone writing their first book?
I’d advise them to write about a topic for which they have a passion. If you love your genre and your subject, that enthusiasm will communicate itself to readers.
How did your interest in history begin?
My grandmother adored historical fiction and I read my way through her entire library. I was also fortunate enough to go to school in the 18th century dower house of Harewood House in Leeds. The history and atmosphere of the building definitely engendered in me a love of the past and my history teacher there was also very inspiring.
If you could time travel for a day, what time and place would you go to? And what object would you bring back?
There are so many possibilities! As I’ve been researching the history of Ashdown House in Oxfordshire for so long, I think I would choose to go back to the time it was being built in the 1660s. I’d love to see whether the rumours that Christopher Wren was involved in the design were true! I’d bring back one of the original carved panels from the staircase in order to preserve it, as they were destroyed in the 1940s.
And what are you working on now? Can you give Historia readers an exclusive preview?
I’ve finished the edits for my next book, The Forgotten Sister, which is out at the end of April 2020. The inspiration for it is one of the biggest historical mysteries there is: was Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, murdered? There’s a Tudor-set timeline and a modern one that echoes the Tudor story, and there’s crime, romance, mystery and a sprinkling of the paranormal.
Nicola Cornick worked in academia for a number of years before becoming a full-time author. Nicola volunteers as a guide and researcher for the National Trust at the 17th-century Ashdown House, acts as a consultant for TV and radio, and gives talks and seminars on a number of historical and writing related topics.
Photo of Nicola Cornick: author’s own
Lydiard Park near Swindon by Mike Searle (CC BY-SA 2.0): via Geograph
Lady Diana Beauclerk by Joshua Reynolds: via Wikimedia
Entrance to the parterre garden, Ashdown House, Lambourn, by Brian Robert Marshall (CC BY-SA 2.0): via Geograph