First of all Nicola welcome back! It’ s been a while since you visited last time (HERE). It’s a great pleasure to have you as my guest again. Now, here’ s my first question for you.
Thank you so much! It’s lovely to be here.
Your novel tells the story of three women connected to Ashdown House in Oxfordshire where you volunteer as a guide and local historian. What is it like to work in such an amazing place?
Right from the start, Ashdown enchanted me. There’s something about the place that grabs you and doesn’t let you go. All my fellow volunteers say the same. Perhaps it’s the combination of the sheer beauty of the house and the fascinating story of the family who owned it – a rags to riches story of fortune and passion and scandal. It inspires me every time I step over the threshold and it feels sich a huge privilege to be allowed to work there.
How crucial was your work at Ashdown House in your decision to write House of Shadows?
Can you briefly introduce the 3 protagonists of your book?
I’ve known for several years that I wanted to write a fictional story inspired by Ashdown and its history so it was absolutely crucial to House of Shadows. The story of Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, is a usually portrayed as a sad one because she lost her kingdom and was forced into exile, but there is so much more to Elizabeth as a person and I wanted to demonstrate her strength and the way she still campaigned for her children’s future after her husband died. Then there is Lavinia, the 19th century courtesan whose story is inspired by that of another Craven connection, Harriette Wilson who was the mistress of the 7th Lord Craven. In the present day, Holly is desperately trying to find her brother, and she is the one who unravels both Elizabeth and Lavinia’s story and sees the destiny that binds them together across the centuries.
Living in such distant periods, Elizabeth, Lavinia and Holly must be quite different. Nonetheless, do they share any trait of their personalities?
Whilst they are all dealing with different challenges that are the product of their time, Elizabeth, Lavinia and Holly all share the qualities of strength and determination, and I think they also grow to understand themselves and their choices more clearly as the story progresses. They are bound by destiny but also by a quality of gallantry.
The debate about accuracy in historical fiction is always quite animated. What’s your opinion on the matter?
I love this question! Firstly as a historian I would say that historical “fact” is elusive. So often history is a matter of interpretation and our understanding of it is changing all the time. As a writer I would add that historical fiction is precisely that – fiction. That said, I feel it’s important to create an accurate historical framework within which the story develops. In the case of House of Shadows, I used a lot of the known events in the lives of Elizabeth Stuart and William Craven and filled in the gaps with imagination. So I would never claim that House of Shadows is their true story. I have no way of knowing that because it is not in the historical record. However, Ashdown House and the history of the Craven family inspired the idea of the book, the historical detail is well-researched and the rest – is fiction!
What astonishes and intrigues me more reading good historical fiction is to discover the closeness between the past and the present. What do you feel is more relevant to you as a writer, the task to highlight the differences or that of discovering and convey the similarities between now and then?
As a writer of historical fiction I think it’s equally important to emphasise both the similarities and the differences between the past and the present. I say that because for a book to be historically accurate it does need to demonstrate, for example, that the situation of women was very different in the past and that their choices were often limited. This is at the core of both Elizabeth and Lavinia’s story. On the other hand there are so many parallels between the past and the present that it is also important to acknowledge that. If only we as a race could learn from it too!
Writing historical fiction and working in a historic site make you live virtually in the past. But if you could really time travel, would you rather go back for a while ( if so what era ) or rather move forward and sneak a peek at the future?
I would love to go back in time but on the proviso that I could definitely return to the present whenever I wanted! I used to think I would love genuinely to live in the past but as I’ve got older and learned more about issues such as primitive plumbing, I decided a temporary visit to Pepys’ London or a Regency ballroom would be bset. I’m sure we would be blown away by the reality of life in the past and the gap between our interpretation of it in the present day and the real thing. My urge to see into the future isn’t as strong. Actually, that scares me more!
Has writing always been your dream job?
No, when I was in my teens I wanted to be an air traffic controller but I failed my geography exams! I was a bit slow to realise I wanted to be a writer. The urge developed over a long period of time and I was in my 30s when I realised that this was the job of my heart.
What are your tips to anyone who wishes to start a writing career? And what are the pros and cons of such a choice?
I would encourage any aspiring author to be persistent and to have self-belief. We all read about overnight successes but more often it takes time and determination to build a writing career. It took me 12 years. It’s easy to sacrifice your writing time when you have so many other demands on your time and you need to be fierce about that. Protect it.
I would say the positive side of a writing career is that if it’s the job of your heart then there is nothing more fulfilling. On the down side, I find it lonely, which is why when I left my office job, I started to work with the National Trust to fulfil the need I had to spend time with other people outside my writing.
And now my final request. How would you promote your House of Shadow in (about) 50 words?
It’s an epic story of love, passion and mystery, crossing the centuries and binding together three very different women through the power of destiny. That’s only 25 words but I think it sums up House of Shadows!
Thanks a lot, Nicola. Good luck and best wishes.
Thank you so much!
House ofShadows by Nicola Cornick is out 5th November (Mira, original paperback £7.99)
About the Book
Bestselling author and historian Nicola Cornick investigates the untold story of Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen and her connection to Ashdown House in Oxfordshire. This enthralling time-slip novel is perfect for readers of Kate Morton and Barbara Erskine.
There was something the Winter Queen needed to tell him. She fought for the strength to speak.
‘The crystal mirror is a danger. It must be destroyed –‘ .
He replied instantly. ‘It will’.
Lavinia Flyte is brought to Ashdown House by Lord Evershot, who is intent on uncovering the Winter Queen’s treasures. Evershot’s greed will unleash a dark power which has lain dormant for over a century.
Ben Ansell is researching his family tree when he disappears from Ashdown Mill. As his sister Holly retraces his steps, she finds herself drawn to an ornate antique mirror and to a battered leather diary that belonged to a 19th century courtesan who, she discovers, was living at the house when it burned to the ground. Intrigued and determined to find out more about the tragedy at Ashdown, Holly’s only hope is that uncovering the truth about the past will lead her to her missing brother.
About the author
Nicola Cornick studied history at the University of London and has a Masters degree in public history from Ruskin College Oxford. She is a history consultant for TV and radio and gives talks on local history and creative writing. House of Shadows was inspired by Nicola’s research into the National Trust’s Ashdown House in Oxfordshire where she has been a volunteer guide and historian for the last fourteen years. She lives in Oxfordshire.
Follow her on twitter @NicolaCornick