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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 01: Nicola Cornick (House of Shadows; The Phantom Tree; The Woman In The Lake)

Tune in as book blogger Charlie Place and author Nicola Cornick (House of Shadows; The Phantom Tree; The Woman In The Lake) discuss burning down your place of work in fiction, every day objects of ill repute, and solving Tudor mysteries yet to be solved.

Release details: recorded 16th October 2019; published 28th October 2019

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Show notes:

Question Index
Book Purchasing Links
Photo Credit Line

Question Index

00:48 Regency romance to time-slip novelist
01:50 House of Shadows research and creation process
06:29 What was it like burning down your place of work in fiction and what was the reaction?
12:38 Where is your interest in everyday objects from?
14:54 Why the obscure Mary Seymour?
18:27 Was The Woman in the Lake, with its flawed characters and abusive relationships, difficult to write?
21:49 Did smuggling really happen in Swindon? Do you think you might go back to the topic in a future book?
31:36 More about The Forgotten Sister

Purchasing Links
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For ease of reading, ‘umms’ and similar, as well as sentence false starts, have been left out.

[intro music]

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast with me, Charlie Place; a spin-off of my events in Southampton. Joining me today is author Nicola Cornick, author of the time-slip novels House of Shadows, The Phantom Tree, and The Woman in the Lake. Nicola is also the current chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and works for Ashdown House in Oxfordshire. Hello Nicola, and thank you for joining me today.

Nicola: Hello and well, thank you very much for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Charlie: I’m going to start with before your time-slip novels if that’s all right?

Nicola: Okay.

Charlie: You started out and were for quite a while an author of regency romance, and your time-slip novels are a lot more recent…

Nicola: Yes, actually I’m apparently what’s known as a veteran author now because I’ve been writing for over 20 years.

Charlie: Oh right!

Nicola: Yes, so it really does make you feel old, and for about 15 of those, I think, I was writing regency romance/regency historicals, which was kind of how I started my writing career. And during a lot of that time I had a real yen to write a time-slip book inspired by the work that I was doing at Ashdown House but it never felt like the right time. And then eventually, fortunately, it was, so I was able to put all the work that I’ve done at Ashdown into House of Shadows and start writing different sorts of books. So yeah, that’s my CV.

Charlie: So on the House of Shadows, bringing into it – you’ve got the three sets of characters in three periods of time; the 17th century Elizabeth Stuart and William Craven, 19th century Lavinia, and then modern day Holly, and her story is that her brother has gone missing whilst doing family research and it seems to relate to all of the others. So you’ve got these characters that combine fact and fiction and I was wondering what your research and creation process was like?

Nicola: [laughs] Well I have to be completely honest about – because House of Shadows was my first time-slip I’m not sure that I had a process.

Charlie: That’s fair enough.

Nicola: I’m not the most organised of writers, I have to admit, I’m not the most organised of writers at the best of times, I’m not a plotter I am a pantser I’m a total pantser, and it gets me into so much trouble when I don’t have a plan, because I just do tend to start writing with an idea and then try to get everything to fall into line afterwards, and with House of Shadows it was a particular problem because as you’ve mentioned, not only were there three timelines, I mean as I’ve discovered, it’s difficult enough to get two timelines to fit together and to work out, especially when you’ve got a mystery in there that you’re trying to build up and to solve. So really I just started off flying into the mist as it were, sort of; I was inspired – I suppose, the idea of the story very much came from the historical, from the 17th century thread because that was where all my work at Ashdown and my research was based, so it was the story of the Winter Queen and William Craven that inspired the whole book so that was my starting point. And I think, I suppose what I really wanted to do, now looking back I suppose I wanted to write a book about as much of Ashdown and the Craven family as I could, hence putting in two historical timelines, but of course in order to write a time-slip it needed to have a contemporary thread as well. So with that particular book the contemporary one was the bit I struggled with the most because obviously I wasn’t a contemporary author, I’d never written contemporary fiction before. And it’s interesting that in the book since then and in the time since then, I think that has turned around quite a lot, so in the book I’m writing now and the one that’s coming out next year, there’s a lot more of the contemporary thread, I’m more comfortable with that now, but certainly my process for… maybe the first two books, and a little bit with The Woman in the Lake, was to start with the historical story and then to create a modern mystery around that, so that I had a historical story – I suppose the mystery was actually in the history, the mystery’s in the past, and it’s solved in the present – so the contemporary story is the biggest fictional creation.

Charlie: That’s fascinating – I never would’ve guessed that you don’t plan.

Nicola: [laughing] Ah, really!

Charlie: No, I’m flabbergasted! No, it does not show at all.

Nicola: Oh, well, thank goodness. Well I mean House of Shadows took so long to write – I was supposed to write it in a year and it took me eighteen months because it was so complex and really because I was finding my way as I went along. But I can’t even pretend that I’m any better now. Today, for example, I was writing today and I’ve completely written myself into the sand because I haven’t got a plan and I actually have had to sit down and think, ‘okay, I must stop now’, and plan how these two stories interweave, the historical and the contemporary, because I haven’t done it. So, yeah, unfortunately, that’s just my process! And it can be very frustrating, but I think as with so many things in writing you have to find your own way of doing things and you have to follow your instincts so that, with time-slip, I would say, it obviously does need more structure and more of a plan than I was writing when I was doing regency historicals, but even so, it’s not possible to make an author like myself be that disciplined all the time – as long as I get there in the end!

Charlie: Yeah [laughes]. So, you used Ashdown House, where you work, in this book. It’s the main location. In reality it has a tenant, but visitors can come and view the entrance hall, staircase and roof, I think it is?

Nicola: Yep.

Charlie: And then of course in the book you burn it down – which I’ll note isn’t a spoiler, it’s on the back of the book. What was this like and what was the reaction of your co-workers?

Nicola: [laughs] Yes so when I started I had absolutely no idea that that was what was going to happen in the story and I was very surprised as well. But it was in the context of the story it felt like the right thing to do, and I was also very influenced by what had happened at Coleshill House which was a house of a similar age, only a few miles up the road in fact. And that was what had happened to Coleshill – it caught fire and it burned down and the bit in the book where the cupola on the roof crashes through three floors actually happened at Coleshill and the more that I wrote this story, the more that felt as though it fitted with what was happening in the book so I kind of meshed together the history of Coleshill and Ashdown and yes, well it didn’t go down well with my colleagues at Ashdown House, they were both shocked and quite upset in some cases and also confused so that’s why I always have to say now that whenever I write or say anything about the book, the house is still standing. But Coleshill was the inspiration for that particular thread of the story.

Charlie: Umm! [laughs] And do have a reading of House of Shadows?

Nicola: Yes, I have got a short extract from that and this is from a scene where Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, is spying on a meeting of the Knights of the Rosy Cross. So this is actually not set in Ashdown but set at Elizabeth’s palace in The Hague, so this is a part from the 17th century bit of the story.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: That sort of brings me to the next question where you’ve got the rosy cross – you use every day objects in your novels as crucial items, they are the main fantasy elements, they tend to be malign, and I found they’re almost characters in their own right. Where is this interest in objects from?

Nicola: That’s very interesting, no one has ever asked me about that before but you are absolutely right. When I was studying – I went back to college as a mature student to study a Master’s degree in Public History which is all about the interface of popular and academic history and how to make history more accessible and that sort of thing, and one of the things we studied as part of that, one of the bits of my course I found particularly fascinating was all about material objects and how they can tell stories and the memories and superstitions and stories that people attach to them, so I think that has been really influential on me and it does come out in each of the books there’s always some element like that that has this power. I suppose yes, that the malign power thing in House of Shadows particularly, that arose from the stories associated with the portrait collection, actually, at Ashdown, because all the – I’m trying not to give too many spoilers here! – the thread in the book about the pearl and the power of the pearl necklace is actually all based on research that I had done and the stories that were told about a particular necklace that features in the portraits in the house. So that’s what inspired me there and again that was a cursed pearl it did have a malign influence or so it was believed. So yes, but that’s a particularly interesting question, I do have a real interest, a real fascination for material objects and the stories they can tell.

Charlie: Yeah. Moving on to The Phantom Tree – it’s your second time-slip and you came up with a solution for a Tudor mystery that’s never been solved – what happened to Mary Seymour after infancy.

Nicola: Yes.

Charlie: I should probably say here, Mary is the child of Katherine Parr and her third husband, Thomas Seymour. So what got you thinking about her, because she’s fairly an obscure person?

Nicola: Yes, a very obscure historical person and actually that is something that I particularly enjoy exploring, I mean there were a couple of things that came together with that book. Firstly I’ve been fascinated to know what happened to Mary Seymour ever since I read, I think it was a historical novel by Jean Plaidy when I was a child and Mary was mentioned. And then, you know, I kind of thought at the time and as I grew older I don’t remember ever hearing what happened to her, and then I tried to find out and then there didn’t seem to be anything about her and then I stumbled across this mystery of what became of her. And it fascinated me that a child of such high status in terms of birth, could just completely vanish like that, that there was no record of what happened to her after the age of two. And that’s kind of like a gift for a writer really, isn’t it? You fill that space then with your own imaginings. So that was kind of why I chose Mary but I think in a broader sense, again I am fascinated by this idea of lesser-known characters in history because I mean even Elizabeth of Bohemia of course is a very different character but she’s not a well-known character and then so that inspired me because there’s not that much about her, and what there is is very traditional and sort of the hackneyed old fairytale princess kind of idea and so I wanted to put her in a different light, and the same thing with Mary, and in fact the same thing with the character of Diana Beaufort who inspired the historical thread in The Woman in the Lake, in my third book – all women in history whose stories had either not been told or had been told in a particular way. And yes, I mean I love the historical mystery as well, to be honest, I mean the next book I have coming out is all about the death of Amy Robsart and the love triangle with Robert Dudley and Queen Elizabeth the I-

Charlie: Oh, brilliant.

Nicola: [laughs] I like tackling these big historical mysteries and the one I’m writing at the moment’s about the princes in the tower so you can’t get much bigger than that when it comes to historical mysteries. So there’s always elements, the idea of the lost characters, the mysteries, especially the women in history that you maybe want to give a different slant on their stories, and just that whole sort of detective element to it as well, so yes, that was why I chose Mary because I just thought what an amazing opportunity for a writer to imagine what might have happened to that little girl really.

Charlie: Umm. So I’ve actually got a question about The Forgotten Sister but I’m going to ask it later [laughs].

Nicola: [Laughs] right!

Charlie: Trying to keep in a chronological order, I suppose.

Nicola: Yes.

Charlie: So The Woman in the Lake – you’ve mentioned it already – it looks at the life of a semi-fictional, basically fictional lady of Lydiard Park, which is in Swindon; and she owns a gown that has the power to exacerbate personality traits, and this gown comes into the life of modern-day Fenella, who’s rebuilding her life following an abusive relationship. It’s a bit different from the other two books, it’s got multiple narrators telling the story; it’s all executed really well, that’s partly why I was surprised you said you don’t plan. You’ve got characters that are flawed in it…

Nicola: Yeah, definitely flawed characters, yeah.

Charlie: Yeah, you’ve got characters that are flawed – they’re realistically flawed – but then you’ve got other characters who are objectively awful. I wondered if this was a difficult book to write?

Nicola: Um, interesting. Um, yes, I mean it is different in the sense that – well, firstly it’s darker. It was difficult to write some of those scenes of abuse but I felt it was important because so often especially – again, it was inspired by the true story of the second Lady Diana Spencer, she wasn’t the first of that name – and there was an abusive thread in her marriage and her relationship so that was the inspiration for that sort of element of the story and I felt it was important not to just brush over that, if I was writing about her and her life. But I found it difficult from that perspective. I absolutely loved exploring this idea of the power of possession which essentially was about possessing the golden gown and how it messed with the minds of everybody who came into contact with it basically. So I really enjoyed that. I mean I like writing time-slip, I like that, but I also like exploring other supernatural elements in my books so yes, that one was a bit different and yes, I think quite a lot darker; a lot of people have said it was almost too dark for some reason I think, and moving away from being as romantic as the other two, as well. But I don’t know, each book just kind of – it wasn’t actually… funnily enough the book that was the hardest to write was The Phantom Tree, and this one wasn’t particularly difficult except as I say in the sense of some of the themes that I was exploring. I liked doing something a bit different and yes, it was a very interesting book to write. I think interestingly as well, the eighteenth century isn’t quite as popular as the sixteenth and seventeenth, well, certainly not with my readership but it was still a great period to explore.

Charlie: Umm. You use smuggling in the book, in The Woman in the Lake, and it was quite a bit involved with the estate of Lydiard Park in the book, and I was wondering if it’s something that really happened because it’s a really interesting aspect to read about.

Nicola: Yes – smuggling in Swindon, all of that research was based on real history that I had explored which I found amazing because of course I had assumed – because Swindon is almost as far away from the sea as you can get really in any place in the country – that it wouldn’t have any kind of smuggling connections but that just proved to me really how little I knew about smuggling and how of course normally when you read about it it’s almost always based around the coast, and that sort of thing. So, yeah, I researched that very thoroughly because it seemed an extraordinary, almost an unknown story really, and yeah, the connection to Lydiard Park was an imaginary bit I put in there, but the connection between Swindon, sort of as a centre for smuggling goods from the Dorset coast up towards the industrial towns of the Midlands and further north was absolutely the case. IT was at a crucial crossroads, it was a distribution centre if you like in the days; it’s very similar, I suppose, to the way that modern smuggled goods are distributed except that in those days there was a great deal more of it. It was absolutely fascinating to research, it was probably the most interesting bit of the history behind the book, to my mind. So, yeah, it was absolutely the case.

Charlie: Do you think you might – as you say it was very interesting – do you think you might go back to that sort of history for another book?

Nicola: I don’t know, I mean this is the trouble, to be honest, as I go along I accumulate so much interest in so many different topics, I end up keeping on researching afterwards. And I’ve got so many ideas for books that I want to write that are inspired by local history – I think the way that actually keep the interest the going and keep the research going is that I do talks based on the history of all of my books, the real history behind each of the books. And so when I do this talk about The Woman in the Lake, I explore Swindon’s smuggling history and that, and there’s certainly a great deal more to learn there because at the moment all the smuggling tunnels under Swindon are mostly closed off and you can’t go down there and see what it’s really like, but they are there so I can imagine there’s revelations to come there. So yes, I wouldn’t rule it out in future as a potential topic; of course the other thing is I have to go with what, to a certain extent, my publisher would like me to write about and we’ve all found that the Tudor period is much more popular with readers, so they’re quite keen for Tudor-set books. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why the eighteenth century isn’t as popular because there aren’t as many of those sorts of books out there, I suppose, in comparison, which is a shame in a way, but yes, I am firmly back in the Tudor period for my next couple of books anyway.

Charlie: Have we got a reading for The Woman in the Lake?

Nicola: Yes. This is a scene where Isabella Gerard who is the – well I was going to say ‘heroine’ but she’s kind of a bit of an anti-heroine of the historical thread of the story – has fled from London to her husband’s country estate at Lydiard Park.

[Reading excluded to respect copyright]

Charlie: She’s not quite a heroine but she’s compelling nevertheless.

Nicola: Thank you! Well I’m glad she is because, yeah, it’s an interesting thing with that book – somebody said to me, it doesn’t have a heroine in the historical section of the book because neither of the two female characters really feel like a heroine. I suppose they both behave badly in their different ways. But yes, I’ve found both of those characters – I actually quite like Constance – fascinating to write, but I didn’t like Isabella very much!

Charlie: They kind of go back and forward, don’t they, in the way that you’ve got the same story from different points of view, which is brilliant, yeah.

Nicola: It’s interesting to write it like that because of course they quite thoroughly misunderstand each other on more than one occasion and imagine that the other one’s feeling things that they’re not, and that was actually fun to write. Yes, it’s interesting, I started off feeling much more sympathetic towards Isabella than I did by the time I got through to the end of the book and I suppose perhaps my sympathies and maybe, I don’t know, readers’ sympathies, are engaged more with Constance because she’s the one who it feels as though is in a more difficult situation, you know, she’s a servant and things are stacked against her but of course things are stacked against Isabella as well and just in a different way.

Charlie: Umm, no I definitely believed Constance more I think, when it came to things like that, yeah. Something about…

Nicola: All very unreliable.

Charlie: Yes.

Nicola: There are some very unreliable narrators in that book!

Charlie: So you mentioned The Forgotten Sister: which is coming out next April 2020.

Nicola: Yes.

Charlie: So you said you’re moving towards more positive books, is this one, or if it isn’t, is there anything else you can tell us about it at this point?

Nicola: Yes. Well, it’s a dual-time book set in the Tudor period and also with a contemporary thread as well. The Tudor story is based on the big historical mystery of who killed Amy Robsart or did she just fall down the stairs, it’s all about the love triangle between Amy and her husband Robert Dudley – the Earl of Leicester – and of course Queen Elizabeth the I. So that’s the basis of the historical side of the book. And then, a contemporary side looks at that mystery and tries to solve it but it’s also a sort of an echo of that historical story, so the same events are happening in a different way in the present. Absolutely loved writing it, I have to say, I suppose I do have to warn everybody that again, we’ve got a heroine in the contemporary thread who is definitely flawed but I hope, by the end of the book, is likeable. And it was a lot of fun because it involves a look at contemporary celebrity culture as well, which I really enjoyed researching, although I probably have to keep quiet about who my sources were on that [laughs]. But it’s quite a topical book from that perspective as well, so yes I really, really, love this and I hope people enjoy it too.

Charlie: It sounds very, very good. So, House of Shadows, The Phantom Tree, and The Woman in the Lake are out now from Harlequin. I recommend them all; links are in the description. Put April in your diary for The Forgotten Sister. Nicola it’s been wonderful having you here and having answers to questions that I know I’ve had for a good while and hearing all the rest of it has been fantastic, so thank you very much for being here.

Nicola: Well thank you, it’s been an absolute pleasure to chat about the books, yeah, thanks very much!

Charlie: Join me on Monday the eleventh of November when I will be talking to Orlando Ortega-Medina, the author of the psychological thrillers Jerusalem Ablaze and The Death of Baseball.

[production credits]

Photo used with the permission of the author.


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