Nicola Cornick’s latest novel, The Last Daughter of York, absolutely swept me away, to the point that I couldn’t wait to visit its magical setting of Minster Lovell myself and walk in her characters’ footsteps. It was literally the first historic site I visited in England after flying in after lockdown; I needed to spend time there for my own research, and Nicola’s beautiful book was the impetus to head to a cosy pub in the Cotswolds and venture out! Next week, I’ll be featuring an excerpt of her fabulous story and my review here – but in the meantime, enjoy this cosy chat with one of my favourite historical fiction authors. Thanks for stopping by, Nicola. First, a little about The Last Daughter of York:
In the winter of 1483, Francis Lovell is Richard III’s Lord Chamberlain and confidant, but the threat of Henry Tudor’s rebels has the king entrusting to Francis and his wife, Anne, his most crucial mission: protecting the young Richard of York, his brother’s surviving son and a threat to Henry’s claims to the throne.
Two years later, Richard III is dead, and Anne hides the young prince of York while Francis is hunted by agents of the new king, Henry VII. Running out of options to keep her husband and the boy safe, Anne uses the power of an ancient family relic to send them away, knowing that in doing so she will never see Francis again.
In the present day, Serena Warren has been haunted by her past ever since her twin sister, Caitlin, disappeared. But when Caitlin’s bones are discovered interred in a church vault that hasn’t been opened since the eighteenth century, the police are baffled. Piecing together local folklore that speaks of a magical relic with her own hazy memories of the day Caitlin vanished, Serena begins to uncover an impossible secret that her grandfather has kept hidden, one that connects her to Anne, Francis and the young Duke of York.
Inspired by the enduring mystery of the Princes in the Tower, Nicola Cornick cleverly interprets the events into a dazzling novel set between a present-day mystery and a country on the brink of Tudor rule.
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Tell us a little about your craft, Nicola. Do you find that writing energises or exhausts you and how do you wind down / recharge?
It can do both! Early on in a project when I am very excited to develop new ideas and get the words down, writing can be very energizing. At the end of a project, when I’m pushing to meet a deadline, it is exhausting. Mostly it’s somewhere in the middle, which is more balanced and comfortable. The antidote to both is the same, though; if I’m exhausted, I will recharge by taking the dog for a walk in the countryside and I’ll do the same to wind down.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
One trap is believing that there is a right or wrong way to write a book. There are so many articles out there on how to write. A lot of them are very helpful but in the end, whatever works for you is the right way.
If you could go anywhere for a year to be inspired for your next book, what setting would you choose and what would you write?
I’d like to go and live on an island for a year. Just being in that setting would inspire me; a walk on the beach at dawn and dusk, listening to the sea and watching it through the seasons and the different weather. I have an idea for a book set on Lundy Island, which is in the Bristol Channel off the coast of Devon, also an idea for a book set on Lindisfarne in Northumberland. In both cases, being on the spot would be wonderful both for research and simply to lap up the atmosphere of the place.
How important is working with your editor or beta readers, and how would you describe your relationship?
Working with my editor is crucial to producing a better book. I’m fortunate that I have an editor at Harper Collins HQ who unfailingly spots weaknesses in my storytelling but, always comes up with suggestions to address these. Her feedback is always constructive and so builds my confidence. We can chat about ideas and be honest about what works and what doesn’t.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Lately the time I have spent researching has increased. I used to take about a month to plan and prepare before I started writing. Now it’s closer to three months. First, I will do some “big picture” research, reading the background history of the period and the topic I’m writing about. Then I’ll do more deeper reading on any real-life characters who are inhabiting my story. I’ll also brush up on day- to -day details like what people ate or wore in a particular period, although I will also do that as I write. I like to feel that the authentic historical framework is clear in my mind before I start to put it on the page. My favourite bit of the research process, though, is visiting the historic sites that feature in my book and absorbing the atmosphere, walking the paths my characters trod, looking at the views they saw.
Let’s talk about The Last Daughter of York:
What did you edit out of this book?
Lots! I took more out of this book than probably any book I’ve previously written. It’s a dual-time novel and there was originally one character who could move through time and space from the very beginning of the story to the modern-day conclusion. One of my editors felt that this added too much of a fantasy element to fit the themes of the story and so I re-wrote it to change her character and adapt all her scenes. It was a major re-write but the story was more cohesive as a result (see my earlier comment about working with a good editor!)
I also had to edit out swathes of history! The historical part of the book covers a period from the 1460s through to the 1490s and an awful lot happened in English history during that time that could have been relevant to the story. I had to ruthlessly edit down the historical scenes to focus on a few key issues.
How do you select the names of your characters?
As I write about real-life people the names of my historical characters are mostly non-negotiable. This can be a problem, as many of the people in this book, for example, had the same name. There were a number of Annes and Richards whom I needed to distinguish from one another. With the modern -day characters, I do at least have a choice although even then it’s not always easy. Serena, the heroine of the contemporary thread of the book, was originally called Jane but my editor felt that didn’t sound right. Often characters can appear in my mind already with the right name. At other times it can take weeks to work out what they should be called.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I don’t go looking for my book reviews but if people are kind enough to write a good review and to let me know I am always hugely grateful. Long ago when I first gave up my office job to be a full- time writer, I got a very poor review for my second book and it hit my confidence so hard I couldn’t write for a couple of months. The timing was very unfortunate but it made me realize that unless I had the resilience to cope with bad reviews, I shouldn’t read them. It was as simple as that. These days I have a much tougher hide but even so I wouldn’t search google for reviews. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t enjoy your book and they’ve a perfect right not to and to say so. As long as I’ve written the best book I can, I’m happy.
How long did it take you to research and write this book; were there any “wrong turns” along the way?
I’m going to be very honest here. This was the most difficult book I’ve ever written. There were plenty of wrong turns along the way and there were days when I simply couldn’t write at all which led to it being a particularly long drawn out and difficult process. A lot of that was because of the global pandemic which on a grand scale stifled my creativity (as it did for a lot of people) and also because it was a very hard time personally and I lost both of my parents. So, it felt like a marathon war of attrition! However, the most important thing is that I did get there by sitting down and writing what little I could each day, by being kind and not berating myself for the lack of progress and with the endless support of writing friends.
Give a shout out to a writing buddy or fellow author; how did they help you with this book?
A number of fellow authors and friends got me through with this book and I will always be immensely grateful to them. A particular shout out goes to Sarah Morgan and Anna Campbell, my fellow Word Wenches, and to you as well, Liz. You have all been wonderfully supportive. It’s one of the best things about the writing community. Thank you!
Thank you Nicola, and so loved having you over for a chat!
International bestselling author Nicola Cornick is a writer and a historian. After gaining a BA in History from the University of London she worked in academia for a number of years before returning to university as a mature student at Ruskin College, Oxford. Her specialism is Public History and she gained a Masters with Distinction for her work on heroes and hero myths. She is a trustee of the Friends of Lydiard Park, an 18th century stately home in Wiltshire, and she researches the history of the Craven Family and Ashdown House for the National Trust.
Nicola’s most recent books are dual time mysteries that combine an historical and a contemporary thread. The first of these, House of Shadows, was based on the research she has done into Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen. Her new novel, The Last Daughter of York, is inspired by the 15th century mystery of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and was described by Alison Weir as: ‘An engaging, beautifully crafted romance that weaves together several intriguing mysteries, both ancient and modern, and questions the very essence of time itself.’
Nicola is a trustee of the Wantage Literary Festival and in her spare time, a puppy raiser for the Guide Dogs charity.