The Joy of the Letter

Butterfly cardNicola here, talking about letters and cards, letter-writing and research. Last week, a friend who lives a few doors down, put a hand written card through my door to fix up a get-together. She could have texted or used any one of a half dozen other ways of getting in touch but the card really thrilled me because it feels so unusual to receive hand-written cards and letters these days. Despite this, cards and other beautiful stationery are very popular and I’m always tempted to buy some when I visit historic houses or other lovely places that sell smart stationery. As a result, I have an ever-increasing pile of cards in my desk and seldom seem to have the chance to send them to anyone, though I do my best to find those occasions when I can.

At the same time, I’ve been researching the book I’m writing about the history of Ashdown House, and have been reminded of how important letters and letter-writing was to our forbears as a way of sharing news (and gossip!) and consequently how useful letters are to historians. In fact, my new fiction timeslip book also underlines this, as the heroine and her sister are both illiterate, never having been taught to read or write as children because they were poor (and girls). Learning to read is one of my heroine’s ambitions.

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Confessions of a Country House Tour Guide

Ashdown 1 Nicola here. Now that we are into May, I’ve restarted my volunteering at Ashdown House, the 17th century hunting lodge in Oxfordshire where I work for the National Trust. It’s a great pleasure to be back, not least because we have only been open intermittently during the last two years of the pandemic and I really missed being in one of my favourite places.

I love visiting historic houses myself and when I go, I’m always curious to see the tour guides and volunteers in action. So often, things seem to run so smoothly yet when you’re behind the scenes you know it isn’t always the case at all. As with organising anything, there’s mad paddling going on below the surface!

I’ve worked at Ashdown for 20 years now. For years I drove past the stunning little 17th century white stone house that sat looking mysterious in the middle of a wood. I wondered a lot about its history but I always seemed too busy to visit. It was seldom open to the public and then only by guided tour. However when I gave up my job to become a full time author I was looking for something to do that would get me out of the house and meeting real people. Since history was my obsession, volunteering with the National Trust seemed like a good option.

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A Sense of Memory

Weathercock HillNicola here, musing about the atmosphere of particular places. Today I’m taking us back a long way in English history, beyond the Regency, beyond those ubiquitous Tudors, to a time before the Norman Conquest when England was split into the Anglo Saxon seven kingdoms. The village where I live has a recorded history that goes back to this distant time – there are actual documents from the era relating to events that happened in this very place over a thousand years ago and I find that mind-blowing. As I walk along the footpaths and over the hills I frequently imagine how it might have looked in that time and try to see all the way back through the mists of history to think myself back there.  I can be pretty successful at this; when it’s quiet and I’m standing on the Ravens’ Fort and all I can hear are the birds singing and I feel the breeze on my face I can persuade myself, for a split second anyway, that I have travelled in time. Then an aeroplane flies over and I think perhaps not after all.

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Nicola Cornick on History, Heroines and Her New Book!

ShadowsCara/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! 

Nicola 2House of Shadows is a big change for you, shifting from Regency romance to historical romantic mystery/suspense. Tell us a little about the challenges.

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.

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Home Improvements Historical Style!

Appuldurcombe exteriorNicola here. One thing that always interests me about the castles and old houses I visit is the different stages in their life; the way in which their purpose changes over the years and so they change shape and the usage of the rooms varies and the gardens are altered and each generation develops the property and leaves their mark on their home. It struck me recently as we planned some renovations to our cottage that the process we go through is not so different from that of grand builders of stately homes, only on a much smaller scale! (The picture is Appuldurcombe House on the Isle of Wight – more on that later.)

Ashdown House, for example, was used as a hunting lodge for several hundred years and so was not lived in permanently. It therefore remained architecturally unaltered all that time because there was no change in its purpose and so no need to spend money on alterations. However the moment the Victorian Cravens decided to take up residence there on a full time basis, they changed it completely. The house was too small to be an aristocratic family home so they extended it, just as people build extensions now. They added two wings, with a ballroom, a smoking room and a billiards room, and most importantly, one suspects, they built servants’ quarters to house the thirty eight people who waited on them! The gardens were also considered too plain so they remodelled them as well with a fashionable Italianate parterre garden that was all the rage in the mid-nineteenth century. 

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