I am so happy to welcome Nicola Cornick to Author Chats today. Not only is Nicola one of my favourite historical fiction authors, she is also a respected colleague as a Trustee of the Friends of Lydiard Park, and a dear friend. Nicola, so good to have you here, talking about your work and your latest release, The Forgotten Sister. Thanks for coming, and let’s get started!
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
As a child, I went to Haworth in Yorkshire, to the parsonage where the Bronte sisters wrote their novels. I think that was my first literary pilgrimage. I was as curious about the type of scenery and atmosphere that had inspired books such as Wuthering Heights as I was about the place itself, and that’s become something of a theme in my writing. A sense of place is so important to me, both in what I read and what I write.
Since then I’ve been to a number of places that feel important because they are connected to a literary figure I admire, such as Chawton for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens’ house in London, and Max Gate, the house in Dorset where Thomas Hardy lived. One of my favourite pilgrimages was to Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders, where Sir Walter Scott was buried. I felt a huge sense of connection to him in that place and also very humbled!
I also tend to make a literary pilgrimage to any place that I am writing about where some significant historical event has occurred. When I was writing The Forgotten Sister, my most recent timeslip novel, I visited Cumnor village which was the place where Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, the favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, died. Although Cumnor Manor was demolished years ago, I was able to stand on the spot beside the church where the house had been. I found that very powerful in imagining myself in Amy’s situation and looking through her gaze. I don’t feel comfortable writing about a historical site that I haven’t visited in person. I need to feel that atmosphere. I consider these to be literary not just historical pilgrimages!
What music do you listen to when you write (or don’t you)
I can’t listen to anything with lyrics when I’m writing as I find I get distracted by the words of the song, and then I start to think about them and what they mean and before I know it, I’m away down an entirely different train of thought! I can and do listen to classical music when I’m writing, usually something stirring like Tchaikovsky or Beethoven. One thing I do tend to do, though is to have a ”song of the book” which I listen to a lot in between the actual writing. Usually it’s something where the lyrics or the style of it strike me as being relevant in some way to the theme of the book. For example, with The Forgotten Sister, the song I played a lot was “So Young” by Suede because it has such a youthful swagger about it that felt right for the story of Robert Dudley. It was only later I discovered that the lyrics are about drugs, but it contains a raw energy to it that feels appropriate.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have lots of half-finished books and short stories that I may come back to again one day. I only have one unpublished complete book. I wrote it about thirty years ago and it was based on my grandfather’s experience of teaching in Cyprus between the two World Wars. Whilst he was there, he fell in love with a diplomat’s daughter but it was not considered socially acceptable for them to marry because he was so poor! He came back to England, met and married my grandmother and became a poet. Fifty years later, after my grandmother had died, he sought out his first love again and they got married! Theirs was a lovely story and I hope one day to be able to publish my version of it.
Let’s chat about your newest release, The Forgotten Sister
What kind of research did you do, and how long did it take you?
When I’m researching a new book I usually start with the big picture, reading up on the background political and social history of the period so that I get the broader framework right. Then I focused in on the specific story, so in the case of The Forgotten Sister I read widely on the life of Robert Dudley, his marriage to Amy Robsart and his early career at court. I read many different accounts of Amy’s death and considered the different biases of the people writing them. This included contemporary letters from ambassadors as well as Dudley’s friends and political enemies. The most interesting part for me was trying to uncover Amy’s life. There are so few records about her specifically. Almost everything is written about her death and the implications of it for Dudley. I dug into local history records about Norfolk, where Amy grew up, and her life before her marriage. I also went to visit the places associated with her in Norfolk, London and Oxfordshire to get a feel for the atmosphere of the places she knew. I always try to do this when I’m writing about a particular setting. It helps me to get into the minds of my characters. This sort of research usually takes me about three months, depending what else is going on, and then I will start writing, but alongside that I will be researching all the details I need as the story progresses – food, clothing, travel, all the authentic period color I need.
For a dual time book you also need to research the contemporary thread sometimes; in the case of The Forgotten Sister I did some interesting research into current-day celebrity culture and I also delved into the paranormal elements of psychometry and Stone Tape Theory!
What did you edit out of this book?
The Forgotten Sister has two parallel stories where the characters and plot in the present day mirror the story thread set in the Tudor period. The present-day heroine, Lizzie Kingdom, is the contemporary equivalent of Queen Elizabeth I and originally, I gave Lizzie a brother and sister to match King Edward VI and Mary I. However, Elizabeth I’s family history is so complex that I soon realized it would overshadow the whole story if I stuck closely to it, so I’m afraid I dispensed with Lizzie’s siblings and her four stepmothers as well! In a writing craft sense, it was a case of focusing in on Lizzie’s personal story and not getting distracted by too much background detail.
What would you want readers to think when they reach “the end.”
When readers reach the end of The Forgotten Sister, I hope they feel I have done justice to Amy Robsart’s life and made her a character in her own right. Writing the book, I felt very strongly that I wanted to bring her out of the shadow of Robert Dudley and Queen Elizabeth I and tell her story. More broadly, when readers finish my books, I hope they feel that they have enjoyed a good read, learned something interesting along the way, and that I’ve transported them to a different time and place, if only for a little while.
Quick Q & A
Tea or Coffee
Dark or Milk Chocolate
White chocolate is my favorite!
When were you the happiest?
Any time I’m out walking in the countryside with my husband and my dog
Favourite Children’s Book
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
Favourite Adult Novel
It’s too difficult to choose one favorite but Josephine Tey’s novels are up there.
To purchase or pre-order a copy of The Forgotten Sister:
And Nicola’s social media links are:
Read an excerpt from The Forgotten Sister
I met Robert Dudley on a night of moonlight, fire and gunpowder.
The wind had a sharp edge to it that evening, summer already turning away towards the chill of autumn. It brought with it the scent of burning from the rebel camp twelve miles to the north. The sky burned too, in shades of red and orange below the dark clouds, so that it was impossible to tell what was fire and what was sunset. They said that there were more than twelve thousand men assembled on Mousehold Heath, more than in the whole of Norwich itself, and Norwich was a great city, second only to London. Among the rebels’ prisoners was my half-brother John Appleyard, taken by our cousin Robert Kett, to help my father ponder whether his loyalty was to his king or to his kin. John’s capture cast a dark shadow over our house but our mother made no plea – it was not in her nature to beg, not even for her children – and father stood firm. He was and always would be the king’s man.
“We will be fifteen for dinner,” mother said when I met her in the hall. The servants were sweeping like madmen, some scattering fresh rushes, others covering the table with the best diamond-patterned linen cloths, the ones that mother generally considered too fine for use. I saw the sparkle of silver: bowls, flagons, knives.
“There is an army of rebels twelve miles away,” I said, staring at the display. “Is it wise to bring out your treasure?”
She gave me the look that said I was pert. I waited for the reproach that would accompany it, the claim that my father had spoiled me, the youngest, his only daughter, and that I would never get myself a husband if I was so forward. Pots and kettles; I got three-quarters of my nature from my mother and well she knew it; from her I had inherited a quick mind and a quick tongue but also the knowledge of when I needed to guard it. Men say that women chatter but they are the ones who so often lack discretion. Women can be as close as the grave.
But mother did not reproach me. Instead her gaze swept over me from head to foot. There was a small frown between her brows; I thought it was because my hair was untidy and put up a hand to smooth it. My appearance was my vanity; I was fair and had no need of the dye. My skin was pale rose and cream and my eyes were wide and blue. I knew I was a beauty. I won’t pretend.
“You are quite right,” mother said, after a moment’s scrutiny, with a wry twist of her lips. “You of all our treasures should be kept safe at a time like this. Unfortunately your father insists that you should attend dinner tonight.”
I gaped at her, not understanding. I had only been referring to the plate and linens. Seeing my confusion, her smile grew, but it was a smile that chilled me in some manner I did not quite understand. It hinted at adult matters and I for all my seventeen years was still a child.
“Your presence has been requested,” she said. “The Earl of Warwick comes at the head of the King’s army. They march against the rebels. He is bringing his captains here to dine with us tonight and take counsel with your father. Two of his sons ride with him.”
My heart gave a tiny leap of excitement which I quickly suppressed out of guilt. The Earl of Warwick was coming here, to my corner of Norfolk, bringing danger and excitement to a place that seldom saw either. It was a curious feeling that took me then, a sense of anticipation tinged with a sadness of something lost; peace, innocence almost. But the rebels had already shattered both peace and innocence when they had risen up against the king’s laws.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “About the king’s army, I mean. It is hard for you, with John a prisoner and family loyalty split.”
She looked startled for a moment and then smiled at me, a proper smile this time, one that lit her tired eyes. “You are a sweet child, Amy,” she said, patting my cheek. Her smile died. “Except that you are not a child any longer, it seems.”
She sighed. “Do you remember Robert Dudley?” She was watching me very closely. I was not sure what she was looking for. “He asked your father if you would be present at dinner tonight. No…” She corrected herself. “He requested that you should be present, which is a different matter entirely.”
Her look made it clear what she thought of the sons of the nobility asking after a gentleman’s daughter. I suppose she imagined that no good could come of it, despite my father’s ambitions.
“I remember him,” I said. I smiled a little at the memory for a picture had come into my mind, a small, obstinate boy, his black hair standing up on end like a cockerel’s crest, a boy whom the other children had mocked because he was as dark as a Spaniard. More cruelly they had called him a traitor’s grandson because the first Dudley of note had been a lawyer who had risen high in old King Henry’s favour and had then fallen from grace when the new King Henry had wanted to sweep his father’s stables clean. It had all happened before I was born, before Robert had been born too, but the ghost of the past had haunted him. People had long memories and cruel tongues, and as a result he was a child full of anger and fierce defiance, seeming all the more impotent because he had been so small and so young. I had secretly pitied Robert even whilst he had sworn he would be a knight one day and kill anyone who slighted his family name.
“When did you meet him?” Mother was like a terrier after a rat when she saw that smile.
“I met him years ago at Kenninghall,” I said. “And once, I think, when the Duchess took us up to London.”
My mother nodded. I felt the tension ease from her a little. Perhaps she believed that no harm could have come of a meeting between children under the auspices of the Duchess of Norfolk.
“You were very young then,” she said. “I wonder why he remembers you.”
“I was kind to him, I suppose,” I said. “The other children were not.” I remembered dancing with Robert at some childish party at court; Lady Anne Tilney had scorned his proffered hand for the galliard and so he had turned to me as second choice. We must have been all of twelve years old and he had spent the entire dance glaring at Lady Anne and stepping on my toes.
“They may be regretting that unkindness now,” my mother said, with another of her wry smiles, “now that his father rivals the Duke of Somerset for the King’s favour.”
A shiver tickled my spine like the ghosts of the past stirring again. I wondered whether Robert’s father had learned nothing from his own father’s fate. Why men chose to climb so high when the risk was so great was a matter on which I had no understanding. It was as though they enjoyed tempting the gods with their recklessness and repeating history over and again.
Mother’s mind had already moved on to more practical matters, however. “Wear your blue gown,” she instructed, “the one that matches your eyes. Since you and I are to be present we shall at least make your father proud even if we will be bored to distraction by talk of military strategy.”