Hi, this is Jo, delighted to interview Wench Nicola about her exciting new novel.
Nicola, Whisper of Scandal is a lovely book, but also unusual. The phrase "Joanna and Alex travel to the Arctic" certainly isn't run-of-the-mill Regency. I read on your web site that you like to seek unusual settings for your books. Why Arctic Exploration? How did that come to the front of your creative mind?
Thank you, Jo! Yes, I love incorporating different and unusual elements into my Regency historicals but I think that in writing a Regency romance set in London and the Arctic I almost went off the dial! Normally I have the idea for a character or characters first. Background and setting is seldom the prime inspiration for a book for me. This time though it was the other way around.
I travelled to Spitsbergen, which is an island to the north of Norway, and as soon as I saw the island I felt a very strong urge to set a book there. So I started researching the history of Spitsbergen and of Arctic exploration in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and I soon realised that the whole subject made a fascinating backdrop.
The early nineteenth century was a period of serious scientific expedition and exploration of the Arctic from Britain and mainland Europe. There were also a great many resourceful and intrepid Navy officers seeking to be the first to find a trade route through the North East Passage. The records of the expeditions underlined how dangerous these voyages were. Horatio Nelson allegedly wrestled a polar bear on one such trip!
I believe you went on an Arctic cruise. Research can be so painful! Tell us a little about it. (I'm not sure if the map is of the same cruise, but it gives an idea of the geography.)
Yes, research can be tough! No, really, I had a fabulous time!
We were travelling on a converted ice-breaker and there were only 50 of us on the cruise so it was very personal and intimate. Our guides were experts in the history, natural history and geography of Spitsbergen.
It was the most extraordinary experience: twenty four hour daylight, watching polar bears in their natural habitat, visiting the site of the 17th century Battle of Sorgfjord, the most northernmost sea battle, seeing the huge early 19th century crosses used both for religious purposes and for navigation… oh, and downing vodka shots with the Russian crew, though not whilst they were on duty negotiating the ice, of course!
(Jo makes notes for future travel.) Readers ask for unusual settings and elements, but sometimes publishers want the same-old. Did you experience any resistance to this idea?
My editor was very excited by the idea right from the start. The only change that HQN suggested was that the story should start in London to anchor it in the Regency period for readers. Originally I had intended the entire book to take place in the Arctic but I could see that this would make it stronger and give it more scope, especially as my heroine, Lady Joanna Ware, is the darling of London society and has absolutely no concept of the hardships a voyage to Spitsbergen will entail.
An Arctic sea voyage certainly gave you plenty of scope for action and adventure, as well as the delicious element of a group trapped in close confines. It was a great way to develop the challenging marriage between Lady Joanna and Alex. Was that part of the plan, or was it a gift element?
It wasn’t part of the plan at all, at least not to start. My first draft had the book in two parts, one set before the voyage and one after, because I didn’t really want to write any scenes aboard the ship! My editor then pointed out how much potential I would be wasting if I did this.
She was right of course. Not only did the shipboard scenes throw Joanna and Alex into close proximity but they also gave me the chance to develop some of the other characters, and to draw on the Arctic background to drive the plot as well.
The scene where Alex and his cousin Dev have to cut the ship out of the ice that has encircled it is a very dramatic scene that was based – almost – on our own real life experience. Our ship became trapped in the ice for about an hour but because we had motor power we were able to escape. It’s a common problem when the wind changes suddenly and the sea ice piles up. In a sailing vessel you wouldn’t be as lucky as we were.
Here's one of Nicola's photos of the beautiful Spitzbergen landscape. Remember, you can click on any picture to see it full size.
You have a rich cast of characters on board with them. Which is your favorite from the secondaries on board ship? No, I don't think you can pick Max the dog.*G*
Naturally Max the dog is my favourite but if I can’t choose him… Well, it’s difficult. I love creating my secondary characters and I love building the world that all my characters inhabit. I have a very soft spot for Owen Purchase, the gorgeous American captain of the Sea Witch. I don’t mind admitting that Owen was based on someone I met on another cruise I took out of San Diego in California! Owen gets his own book later in the series.
That will make a lot of readers happy!
I also had a lot of fun creating Lottie, Joanna’s best friend, because I do enjoy writing bad girls and Lottie is very bad indeed. And then of course I had to try to redeem her in the next book in the series!
I'm sure that will be fun. What's the title, and what unusual element will her book bring in?
The background to that book is unusual in a different way. It draws on the experience of prisoners of war in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. This seems to me to be a very neglected aspect of British history. There were thousands of officers who were held prisoner in small towns throughout Britain during the period for the 1750s to 1814. They were allowed parole, the freedom of the town, provided that they did not break the terms of the agreement.
For example they weren’t allowed to travel more than a mile beyond the town boundaries and there was a curfew at night. And of course they had to give their word that they would not try to escape. It was extraordinary to me that there were thousands of foreign prisoners – not just French but American, Dutch, Danish, Irish and many more – wandering around these little towns. Their presence must have had a profound effect on the population (some of them even married local girls) and yet there are very few records of them.
So I thought it would be interesting to write an Irish hero who has been fighting for the French because he shares the same republican ideals, and put him in one of these provincial English towns and have him plotting treason whilst having a hot affair with Lottie to cover his treasonable activities!
That sounds like great fun. Wish I'd thought of it!
The first three books in the Scandalous Women of the Ton series all have unusual backgrounds or elements and they have all been a pleasure to write. Whilst I may not always go as far afield as the Arctic to introduce unusual elements into my books they will all have some sort of twist that introduces something different!
Thank you, Nicola, for opening our eyes to fascinating aspects of the Regency.
Everyone, you can read an excerpt from Whisper of Scandal here.
And if you're keen to nibble at One Wicked Sin, too, you can find it here.
Now, someone will win a lovely prize here — the first two books of the Scandalous Women series. All you have to do is answer this question from Nicola.
"Nineteenth century sailors on the Arctic expeditions were expected to be able to play three musical instruments, act in theatricals, sew, mend sails, nets and boots and be fit enough to run around the ship for two hours a day. If you were stranded in the ice for the winter how would you pass your
Added to this later — if we assume that we all have a stock of our favourite books, plus some exciting new ones, what would you want to be able to do in addition to reading? Try to catch fish? Brush up your artistic skills? Learn to quilt with that handy stash of fabric, thread and needles? Become a deadly shot with a bow and arrow? Learn Norwegian? All ideas welcome!
Have at it! The winner will be picked by Nicola on Friday, 1st October.
PS — I'll be blogging about this in a couple of weeks, but a head-up. The reissue of Emily and the Dark Angel will be out in a few days. A classic "good girl and the rake" story, but with many twists.