Cara/Andrea here. Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing my good friend and fellow Word Wench Nicola Cornick on her new book, House of Shadows, which releases in the UK and Australia on November 5th! (U.S. readers can purchase it through Book Depository.) It marks an exciting new direction for her, as she branches out from her award-winning Regency romances into a new genre—historical mystery/suspense! It weaves together the story of three women, linked through the centuries by two jeweled artifacts that . . . Oh, but rather than give away any spoilers, let's have Nicola tell us about the story!
To begin with I didn’t imagine it would be a big change because I clung to the idea that there was a Regency storyline in the book and thought that would at least give me some familiarity. However despite that I soon realized I was in unchartered waters. There were so many challenges! I’m not a plotter by nature – when I write I’m a total pantser who finds it difficult even to come up with synopsis for a whole book so planning the three different timelines was very difficult for me. The other thing I found very hard was writing a contemporary storyline. Years back I had tried to write contemporary romance and my editor at the time said, very kindly, that I should perhaps stick with historical! So I didn’t approach it with much confidence. I was lucky that one of my writing friends helped me work on the dialogue in particular.
I did think very hard about writing a triple rather than a dual timeline because I knew it would be very complicated to weave it all together. The trouble was that the story as I imagined it needed the three strands to make it complete. I started off thinking that perhaps I could write them all separately and weave them together later – start with the 17th century thread and then the 19th and then the contemporary one. I soon realized that wasn’t going to work for this particular story though because it was so interdependent. So I did what I never normally do and had a big chart with a column for each time period and listed what I thought needed to happen at each point in the story. As I said, I’m not a plotter at all and there were times when I felt like giving up because I became quite confused!
I definitely found structuring the book the hardest part. I was learning so much as I went along, though, so it was worth it (although I wouldn’t have said that at the time!) The most fun for me came from the paranormal elements. It’s part ghost story, part time slip with magic thrown in and I loved writing those scenes.
Here's a short excerpt:
He groped in his pocket and his fingers closed over the black velvet of the box.
“This is for the Princess Elizabeth. A baptismal gift.” He held it out to her.
Mistress Hay did not take the box immediately. A frown creased her brow.
“Would your majesty not prefer to give it to Lady Livingston—”
“No!” James was desperate to be rid of the burden, desperate to be gone. “Take it.” He pushed it at her. The box fell between their hands, springing open, the contents rolling out onto the stone floor.
He heard Mistress Hay gasp.
Few men – or women – had seen either the Sistrin Pearl or the jewelled mirror. The pearl had never been worn and the mirror had never been used. Both were shaped like teardrops. Both shone with an unearthly bluish-white glow, the one seeming a reflection of the other: matched, equal, alike.
The pearl had been borne of water, found in the freshwater oyster beds of the River Tay centuries before, and had been part of the collection of King Alexander I. The mirror had been forged in fire by the glassblowers of Murano, its frame decorated with diamonds of the finest quality and despatched as a gift to James’ mother Mary, Queen of Scots on her marriage. Mary had delighted in the similarity of the two and had had the rich black velvet box made for them.
Yet from the first there had been rumours about both. The Sistrin pearl was said to have formed from the tears of the water goddess Briant and to offer its owner powerful protection, but if its magic was misused it would bring death through water. There were whispers that the Sistrin had caused King Alexander’s wife Sybilla to drown when Alexander had tried to bind its power to his will. The mirror was also a potent charm, but it was said that it would wreak devastation by fire if it were used for corrupt purposes. James was a rational man of science and he did not believe in magic, but something about the jewels set the hairs rising on his neck. If he had been of a superstitious disposition he would have said that it was almost as though he could feel their power like a living thing; crouched, waiting.
You’ve created three very compelling heroines, who at first blush are very different, yet though they live in very different times, share elemental traits. What qualities are you drawn to when creating your women?
I’ve always enjoyed writing heroines who have an inner core of strength that will see them through adversity. Balancing their strengths and their vulnerabilities, seeing them grow as characters, fascinates me. Elizabeth, Lavinia and Holly are all very different in terms of their upbringing, their beliefs and their day to day lives but they all discover resources of integrity to see them through. In their own way I think they are all very honest characters.
Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, is someone whose story has almost been lost from history yet in her day she was hugely influential and I feel her role in the events of the 17th century should be given more credit. Perhaps it’s the old thing of her being a woman and so the (male) chroniclers of the time gave her plenty of praise for being charming and beautiful and a romantic heroine whilst ignoring her diplomatic and political skills. Elizabeth’s story is a gift for a novelist really. It has it all – adventure, intrigue, danger, love… She had a fascinating life.
One of the things that struck me was how seamlessly you blended your historical research with your creative imagination. Can you talk a little about how your real-life work as a curator at Ashdown House inspired the book?
Thank you! Yes, House of Shadows is indeed a work of historical imagination in that I took the “facts” and filled in the gaps and in some cases, which I acknowledge, played fast and loose with reality. Over the years that I have worked at Ashdown I think I have absorbed so much of the history of the house and the people associated with it that I was able to draw on so many small aspects of that to make the whole – I met with a jewelry historian, for example, who had come to look at the pearls depicted in the portrait collection. She was the person who told me about the “cursed” pearl, which Elizabeth’s eldest daughter is wearing in one of the portraits. Then there was the fact that Ashdown is reputedly built on an ancient sacred site and its architecture incorporates a number of aspects that link it to the Order of the Knights of the Rosy Cross… I researched all these different stories as part of my work at Ashdown House and they all came together to inspire me and made their way into House of Shadows. One thing I did change, though. In the book I modeled Ashdown’s destruction on the true story of a different house—Coleshill—built at the same time and in the same style. I’m happy to say that Ashdown House is, of course, still standing and is open to visitors!
Having been lucky enough to read an advance copy, I know readers will be riveted by the story arc of Nicola's three timeslip heroines as they battle personal doubts and fears to stand strong in the face of adversity, even though it means making tough choices. I think we all feel a special bond with heroines and the challenges they face in life—so let's share our thoughts! What qualities do you admire most in a heroine? Nicola will be giving away a copy of House of Shadows to one lucky reader, chosen at random, who leaves a comment here between now and Tuesday evening.