Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An interview with Nicola Cornick about her new time-slip novel, House of Shadows

Time-slip novels are one of my favorite genres, so when presented with the opportunity to interview Nicola Cornick about House of Shadows, I quickly said yes.  She's known for her well-researched historical romances, so her newest novel is a departure, and a very successful one.

House of Shadows intertwines the stories of characters from three historical periods: Elizabeth Stuart, the "Winter Queen" of Bohemia, and her supporter/champion, William Craven, in the 17th century; Lavinia Flyte, a 19th-century courtesan; and a modern-day woman, Holly Ansell, desperate to locate her brother, Ben, after he suddenly goes missing.  Connecting all three of these strands are Ashdown House, a Dutch-style country house in Oxfordshire, and two objects with dark magical powers, a pearl and a jewelled mirror.  

The historical details and the three intertwined storylines (it would be hard to pick a favorite) made for a rich reading experience, and there's a good amount of romance and unpredictable mystery to keep the pages turning.  You can see an image of Ashdown on the novel's cover. 

How did you first get involved with volunteering and serving as a tour guide at Ashdown House?

I had lived near Ashdown House for almost 10 years before I became involved with working as a tour guide there. I’d driven past the estate so many times and was intrigued by the little white house hidden away in the wood. I wondered about its history. But I was working full time and never seemed to be free when it was open. Then I gave up my day job to write and was looking around for some volunteering work to do. I saw an advertisement for guides to take visitors around Ashdown House and it seemed the perfect opportunity, almost as though it had been meant!

I enjoyed visiting Ashdown and the countryside surrounding it via the novel. Do you have any favorite aspects of the house or grounds to explore, or to tell people about?

Thank you, I am so glad that the book conveyed some of the beauty of the house and its landscape! There are so many things about Ashdown that I love to explore and to tell visitors about. The roof platform is magnificent and gives panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. It’s worth visiting for that view alone! The village of Ashdown is a hidden gem with Victorian Gothic-style stables and the original laundry and farmhouse. There’s so much to see in the woods as well including the old holloways, the sunken tracks along which the drovers used to take their animals up to graze on the high Downs. It’s an ancient and mysterious landscape.

One of your characters comments that the Winter Queen isn’t well-known in Britain, despite being James I’s daughter. Why do you think this is?

I think that Elizabeth of Bohemia isn’t well known in Britain probably because she spent so little of her life here. In Germany and Holland, where she lived for over 40 years, she is famous and there are all sorts of legends about her. Although she was a prominent figure in European culture and politics in the early 17th century it was seen as peripheral to what was happening in England. Plus she was a woman and to a certain extent I think her role has been written out of history.

The dedication to House of Shadows mentions your obsession with Ashdown and with William Craven. What about his life and character impresses you the most?

It is William Craven’s unswerving loyalty and honour that impresses me the most, I think. At a time when many men changed allegiance depending on the political situation he was utterly steadfast in his devotion to the Stuart cause. I admire that sort of integrity.

Did you have the opportunity to do research on site in Europe, in the places where Elizabeth Stuart and her husband once lived?

author Nicola Cornick
Yes! One of the most exciting things about writing the book was the research and the fact that I was able to visit both Heidelberg, where Elizabeth and Frederick lived when they were first married, and also The Hague. Although the Wassenaer Hof in The Hague is no longer standing it was possible to visit some houses of a similar era to get a real feel for the style of architecture and the interiors. I also found online a virtual recreation of Elizabeth and Frederick’s hunting lodge at Rhenen, which was fabulous!

The two items which come to have dark powers, the Sistrin pearl and the Italian jewelled mirror – I’m assuming that both are fictional, but are they based on any real items, or on some aspect of Rosicrucian symbolism (or both)?

The mirror was a completely fictional creation but the Sistrin pearl is based on a real jewel. One day a jewellery specialist came to Ashdown to look at the pearls that feature in some of the portraits. She identified one particularly fine drop pearl as being in the Royal Collection and told me that Elizabeth of Bohemia had inherited it from her grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots. It is called the Bretherin and is said to be cursed. She also told me some other wonderful stories about the jewellery in the portraits. It was a gift for an author!

I did a lot of research into 17th century Rosicrucianism for the story as well since Elizabeth, Frederick and William Craven were all said to have been involved with the Knights of the Rosy Cross. Curiously, though, it is Ashdown House itself that bears the most striking resemblance to Rosicrucian symbolism. The cupola on the roof looks exactly like images of the “invisible Rosicrucian College” dating from the early 17th century.

The story of early 19th-century courtesan Lavinia Flyte felt very real (I even googled her name to see if she’d been an actual person!). Did anyone inspire her story?

Lavinia’s story came from another aspect of Craven family history. The first Earl of Craven of the Second Creation was the first lover of the notorious Regency courtesan Hariette Wilson, who gave him a pretty scathing write up in her memoirs. That was the seed for the idea of Lavinia and her diary. Jane Austen, a relative by marriage of the Earl, disapproved of the fact that Craven’s charm hid a want of moral character. She is said to have based the character of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility on him.

Structuring this novel must have been incredibly complex! Had you planned from the beginning to include three time-period strands, rather than the more usual two?

I’m not a planner when I write so I didn’t set out to write three time period strands, rather they evolved as I went along. I began with the intention of writing Elizabeth and William’s story and I thought I would need a contemporary strand as well in which to unravel the historical mystery. Then Lavinia popped up and was very real to me, hence the first person sections from her memoirs.

That said, I did find the structure hugely complex and am only writing a dual timeline for my next book!

What about the time-slip genre appeals to you? Do you have any favorite time-slips that inspired your own writing?

I have always loved the timeslip genre and can trace the appeal back to when I first started reading it as a teenager: A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley and Astercote by Penelope Lively were my childhood favourites, leading to Green Darkness and The House on the Strand. These days I particularly love Susanna Kearsley’s fabulous time slip novels and anything by Barbara Erskine, the Queen of the genre!


House of Shadows was published by Harlequin MIRA UK this month (£7.99, paperback, 476pp).  UK and international readers can obtain copies at Book Depository.   For more information, visit the author's website at; she's also a contributor to the popular Word Wenches blog.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A visual preview of American historical fiction for 2016

There was a time, a mere decade ago, when historical fiction set in the United States was considered unfashionable.  Compared to their more glamorous British and European cousins, these books were dismissed as dreary and unexciting by many editors, agents, and readers.   Fortunately, this isn't the case any more; American settings are flourishing.  Here are 15 upcoming historical novels, all set to be published in 2016, that use American political and social history as a backdrop.

The close friendship and clandestine romantic relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and AP reporter Lorena Hickok, which spans thirty years.  Albert's previous biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, was one of my favorites of 2013.  Persevero Press, February 2016.

A literary love story set during the last year of the Civil War, featuring a young Irishman and a woman from the South who travel across the ravaged landscape of Georgia, fleeing bounty hunters.  It's being mentioned in the same breath as Cold Mountain.  St. Martin's, January 2016.

The story of a pioneer family in frontier Ohio at the time of Johnny Appleseed; Chevalier's second American-set historical novel after The Last Runaway.  Viking, March 2016.

An epic about Martha "Patsy" Jefferson, oldest daughter of one of the Founding Fathers, and guardian of his controversial legacy.  William Morrow, March 2016.

This sequel to The Kitchen House, a favorite read of mine from five years ago, is also a standalone novel that begins in Virginia in 1830, and features a young man passing as white whose secret threatens to be revealed.  Simon & Schuster, April 2016.

The setting of Harrigan's newest historical novel sits close to home for me: Springfield, Illinois, in the 1830s and '40s, as a young Abraham Lincoln comes into his own.  Knopf, February 2016.

How much did Mary Surratt know about the plans for Lincoln's assassination?  Susan Higginbotham's first novel set in the U.S. examines her story, basing her novel on primary sources.  Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2016.

Hoover's second novel, following The Quickening, is likewise set in the U.S. Midwest, and deals with the aftermath of the mysterious disappearance of two German-American sisters during the WWI years.  Black Cat, March 2016.

Re-introducing a girl formerly held captive by the Kiowa to white culture proves a traumatic experience, as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd discovers when he's asked to transport her to relatives in post-Civil War Texas.  William Morrow, April 2016.

The close friendship between Isabella Stewart Gardner, society doyenne in Gilded Age Boston, and noted painter John Singer Sargent.  Harper, July 2016.

The story of an African-American musician, from his birth in WWI-era Georgia to his musical career in Harlem, his travels overseas, and his imprisonment with his best friend in Buchenwald.  The author's website says the main character, Harlan, is based on her paternal grandfather.  Akashic, May 2016.

Known for her lively epics spanning centuries of Texas life, Meacham offers a new 600-page novel centering on a wealthy heiress and a farm boy whose destinies intertwine in early 20th-century Texas. Grand Central, April 2016.

The story of two women's friendship in Golden Age Hollywood, and their adventures and desires in a glittering world where dreams can come true or falter.  NAL, January 2016.

A woman seeking to reinvent herself in the raw, ambitious world of miners and fortune-seekers in 1898 Alaska finds her past catching up with her. She Writes Press, May 2016.

The latest in Thorland's Renegades of the Revolution series brings readers to New York in 1778, and to a young woman of Dutch extraction who takes the side of the rebels.  NAL, March 2016.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Phillip Margulies' Belle Cora: an American Moll Flanders tells all

One expects certain things from a tell-all memoir. Juicy, scandalous details. Brash, larger-than-life personalities. A dramatic story that offers (or purports to offer) an intimate perspective on high-profile events.

Phillip Margulies' Belle Cora offers all this and more. Although this 600-page tome is actually a novel, not a real autobiography, its genesis was a real-life woman about whom little is known, an infamous madam from San Francisco's Gold Rush days. (Cora was her surname, which she obtained after marrying prominent gambler Charles Cora, legitimizing their longtime relationship. Or so the story goes.)

In addition, the writing quality elevates the novel above the dishy fare you might expect. Belle – or Arabella Godwin, Harriet Knowles, or one of the other names she assumes – has an educated mind and uses it. She narrates her riches-to-rags-to-riches (etc.) saga in a witty voice that combines the wisdom gained through a lifetime of hard-won experience with her observations on whatever segment of her life she’s relating.

Here’s the premise: following the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, respected dowager Mrs. Frances Andersen decides to reveal the truth of her personal history, to the embarrassment of her heirs. It spans over 70 years, from a childhood of privilege in New York City’s Bowling Green neighborhood to her forced relocation to her resentful aunt’s farm near the Finger Lakes, her stint as a mill girl, her transformation into a high-class parlor house girl, then the shipboard voyage to California, heeding the call of adventure and riches.

Trouble arrives in the form of Belle’s cousin, Agnes, who becomes her perpetual rival and enemy – as does anyone falling into the category of “Good Christian Woman.” Throughout her life, Belle constantly veers between the paths of virtue and notoriety, the former while in pursuit of her true love, Jeptha Talbot, and the latter because it brings her wealth and power she can’t achieve otherwise. Reinventing herself becomes a forte, and so does illusion, both necessary in a scandalous profession where, she says, “we went to bed under the pretense that a forbidden romance was moving forward at impossible speed.”

The era’s social history is well detailed, from the peculiar Millerite movement (and its Great Disappointment) to the chaos of 1850s San Francisco, with its Vigilance Committees stockpiling power against the municipal government. The narrative bogs down in explaining all the details about the inner workings of city politics, but the aspects dealing with Belle’s emotional entanglements proceed at a cracking pace. Belle emerges triumphant, an American Moll Flanders who survives everything life throws at her and, in the end, has learned how to live, and to tell her story, without shame.

Belle Cora was published by Doubleday (hb) and Anchor (trade pb), with the latter appearing in October 2014 ($16.95, 608pp).  I requested this via NetGalley some time ago and am embarrassed to have only gotten to it now; it's definitely worth the read.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book review: Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

Two heroines – one beautiful and innocent, the other beautiful and jaded – share the stage in Williams’ cinematic novel, which wraps up her trilogy about the upper-class Schuyler sisters. Left pregnant by a prominent (and married) senator, Pepper Schuyler has traveled south to Palm Beach in 1966 to sell the vintage Mercedes roadster she’s spent the summer helping to restore. She hopes the money – an astounding $300K – will help her establish a new life away from her relatives and her ex-lover, who wants to pressure her into an abortion.

To the surprise of the world-weary, cynical Pepper, the buyer takes interest in her situation. Annabelle Dommerich, a mysterious widow of European extraction, claims to have personal experience with Pepper’s predicament, and she also knows the car intimately well. “Twenty-eight years ago, I drove from my life across the German border inside that car, and I left a piece of my heart inside her,” Annabelle tells her.

Her story, which unfolds alongside Pepper’s, is the more gripping of the two. In 1935, Annabelle de Créouville, aged nineteen, spends the summer at her father’s villa along the gorgeous Côte d’Azur. There she falls in love with Stefan Silverman, a wounded Jewish man her brother asks her to help (which she does, unquestioningly). Playing out amidst the sun-dappled islands of the French Riviera, their affair is divinely romantic, but Annabelle is kept ignorant of the intrigue surrounding Stefan’s presence. We know from the beginning about Annabelle’s eventual marriage to Johann von Kleist, a baron and high-ranking Nazi, but, in tantalizing fashion, Williams keeps us guessing about the man with whom she escaped to America.

With its multiple twists, clever dialogue, and well-balanced blend of romance and thrilling adventure, the novel is smart and sexy escapist reading. It cries out for a film treatment.

Along the Infinite Sea was published by Putnam on November 3rd ($26.95/C$32.95, hardcover, 456pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  If you missed the first two books in the series, they're The Secret Life of Violet Grant and Tiny Little Thing.  I recommend them all, and you don't need to read them in order (although I did).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Place, time, and memory: Lucy Foley's The Book of Lost and Found

Spanning most of the 20th century, The Book of Lost and Found is the sort of sweeping multi-period saga I seek out, one that promises to carry me away on a journey of discovery along with the characters.

In 1986, Kate Darling is a 27-year-old photographer still mourning her mother, June, a celebrated ballerina; the two had been exceptionally close. After the subsequent death of June’s adoptive mother, Evie, Kate is shaken to learn that Evie had withheld information about June’s birth mother. An exquisite decades-old sketch of a beautiful dark-haired woman with a striking resemblance to June leads Kate to renowned artist Thomas Stafford, now an elderly widower living on Corsica.

Intervening sections reveal the tale of a long-ago love that transformed Tom’s life. He and Alice Eversley, born into different social classes, become friends as children, when their families vacation on Cornwall during the lazy summer of 1913. They meet again at an English house party in 1928. Although separated due to life circumstances, neither forgets the other.

“How could a mere few strokes of pen do that, exert such a pull of memory and emotion?” Foley’s elegiac tone suits her story about love, loss, and people’s connections to the past. Each locale is skillfully described, from the rocky Corsican coast, with its heady scent of herbs and salt, to the bohemian 1920s and, later, the terror of wartime France. While Alice is a brave, unselfish heroine, at times Kate feels immature in comparison. For example, I puzzled at her habit of wearing jeans and crumpled T-shirts for important meetings. The novel also jumped abruptly from one viewpoint to another in the later sections.

While imperfect, this debut novel has much to recommend it. Fans of Kimberley Freeman, Lucinda Riley, and Rachel Hore will want to look for it.

The Book of Lost and Found was published by Back Bay/Hachette in August ($14.99/C$17.99, pb, 432pp).  Previously, it was published by Harper UK.  I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's November issue.  Which cover do you like best?  The US design, at top left, is based on an actual photograph of the Corsican coastline, which amazed me.  What a view!

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Book review: Home By Nightfall by Charles Finch

It’s the autumn of 1876, and ten months after the events in The Laws of Murder, gentleman detective Charles Lenox finds his attention pulled in multiple directions. All of London is absorbed by the curious disappearance of a German pianist from the theatre where last performed. It appears at first to be a classic locked-room mystery, and Lenox knows that if his agency finds Herr Muller’s whereabouts, the public accolades they’ll receive will mean more business.

Family obligations take precedence, though. A responsible man who senses when he’s needed, Lenox opts to follow his older brother, Sir Edmund, back to Lenox House in Sussex, to keep him company after the untimely death of his beloved wife, Molly.

With its hallmarks of traditional English country life – the “lovely green springy Sussex turf," a centuries-old Saturday market, and the tall spire of St. James’s overlooking the town – Markethouse would be a calm respite from the fast-paced life in London, if not for some odd events. A local insurance salesman, hearing that Lenox is in town, reports seeing someone in his house and finding a disturbing figure drawn in chalk on his stoop. That’s not all, of course.  Events escalate from there.

Lenox’s upper-class upbringing gives his investigations a deliberate approach; one has the sense that he knows what he’s doing. The storyline incorporates gentle humor at appropriate times. So many townspeople congratulate Lenox on moving back to his childhood home for good that after a point, he charmingly decides to give up correcting them. As is his habit, Lenox decides to take charge, meeting a number of interesting townspeople: charwomen, the ultra-competent mayor, and an elderly woman who serves as the town’s institutional memory; all towns deserve to have such a resource!

In addition to the separate mysteries (it isn’t giving anything away to say that there aren’t any contrivances that intertwine them), the novel’s highlight is the insight it provides into the brothers’ close relationship: the terrible loss that Edmund internalizes, and the ways in which Lenox supports him at the most painful time of his life. These people truly care about one another, which makes it easy for readers to care for them as well.

Home By Nightfall, book 9 in the Charles Lenox mystery series, is published by Minotaur this week ($25.95/C$29.99, hb, 294pp).  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Race in historical fiction: a guest post by Libby Ware, author of Lum

Libby Ware, author of Lum (reviewed this past Sunday), is here today with an essay on an important but complex and sensitive topic in historical fiction: writing about race in historical times.


Race in Historical Fiction
By Libby Ware

As W. E. B. DuBois said, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." I’d like to add that the problem was central to the nineteenth century and still is in the twenty-first century, as well. The problem for white writers is how to accurately portray African American characters within the context of the times in which the novel is set. Three things that are hard are: dialect; terminology; and the strictures that white supremacy placed on whites and Blacks.

I do not like the use of dialect when used to misspell every other word, for example, “dem” for them, “I gwine” for I’m going, etc. I like to give a flavor of speech patterns, for example, using one colloquial word in a sentence or dropping a g off of a word, but not all words. And white Southerners have dialect, too, for example, “I’m fixin’ to go.” My book Lum is set in Appalachia in the 1930s, so I flavor all of the characters’ speech with words or sentences appropriate for the time. By researching diaries or novels written in the time period I’m writing about, I can get an idea of colloquialism to sprinkle into characters’ speech without going overboard.

A writer may need to use slurs as well as historically accurate names for other races. I hate the n-word, but since it was in use during the time I’m writing about, I used it when it suited the character and situation, as it does once or twice in my book. Another word that I can remember hearing when I was growing up is “nigra,” considered a slightly more genteel version of the n-word. I also used that word once or twice. Generally I used the term “colored.”

It is also important, but can be personally hard, to show how white supremacy is prevalent, even in sympathetic white characters. To write about a white person who always treats Black people equally in the time of slavery or Jim Crow is just not accurate. Degrees of individual racism existed, but remember that the whole of society was racist. Certainly some characters are less racist than others, but that line of division is still there.

One of the most informative books I have read was Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, by Jennifer Ritterhouse. The author points out how differently these two races learned about what is and isn’t permitted at the time of Jim Crow. White children were often told “it just isn’t done” or “they know their place.” Black children were taught that to act in a way that wasn’t sanctioned by white society is very dangerous. For example, often young Black and white children played together until a certain age. For Black children, caution was drilled into them. If a Black boy and a white boy rough-housed and the white child came home with a black eye, the Black boy could be punished by whites. An unspoken reason for taboos was often the underlying threat of interracial dating, or what was called “race mixing.” So, I had to make sure characters don’t cross those lines without showing either reprisal or the threat of punishment.

While I want to be accurate about the period we are portraying, I often have to write things that are not comfortable. But using language, attitudes, and social customs appropriate to the social mores of the time makes a novel more true to the time period.


Libby Ware is a native of West Virginia, and she feels most at home in the Appalachian mountains, although she has made her home in Atlanta, Georgia for more than 30 years. She is the owner of Toadlily Books, an antiquarian and collectible book business. Her short story, "The Circuit" (the beginning of LUM in slightly different form), was a finalist for the Poets and Writers Award for Georgia Writers, judged by Jennifer Egan. She is a member of Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers Association, the Atlanta Writers Club, and the Georgia Writers Association and is a fellow of The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. Visit her website at