A new home for my blog!

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My blog has a new home on my new website!

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Friday, October 9, 2009

The Heart of Christmas!

Lovely news just as I am packing my bags for the Isle of Mull... The Heart of Christmas has hit the USA Today Bestseller List at #94! This anthology is a threesome (!) with a story from the incomparable Mary Balogh and a debut novella from Courtney Milan as well as my own story A Season for Suitors, which features characters from The Earl's Prize and Wayward Widow. Thank you to all those wonderful people who purchased a copy - and so early for Christmas too! I really appreciate your support.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I Know Where I'm Going!


I'm taking a break for a few weeks and my blog is too, so before I go I thought I would post a round up of what has been a very busy and exciting few months!

The Brides of Fortune books are still on sale in the US and Kidnapped, my homage to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel, is in the UK shops. Also on sale in the UK is Loves Me, Loves Me Not, the Romantic Novelists' Association 50th anniversary anthology to which I was very proud to have contributed a Regency novella called "The Elopement." LMLMN is a big fat romantic treat of a book with stories to suit all tastes and genres. I'm reading it myself at the moment and am loving all the stories!

In terms of new releases I have novellas in two Christmas anthologies currently on sale: The Heart of Christmas with Mary Balogh and Courtney Milan, and Together By Christmas with Catherine George and Louise Allen. Yes, it is ridiculously early to be thinking of Christmas, isn't it! But evidently not if you are a publisher or a bookseller. In fact last Thursday, or Super Thursday, as it was known in the UK book trade, was the day that 800 titles were unleashed on the public in the race to be in the Christmas Top 10, including a multitude of celebrity memoirs, cookery books, cartoons and those books of eccentric facts called things like "Why don't polar bears' tongues stick to ice floes."

Anyway, I digress. The Heart of Christmas contains a reprint of my short story A Season for Suitors and in it's first week of sale it reached Number 4 on the Borders Romance Bestsellers list, which was fab. Together By Christmas contains the first print publication of a very short story I wrote last year for Harlequin Historical's Undone imprint called The Unmasking of Lady Loveless. It also has a fabulous novella by Louise Allen, one of my absolute favourite Regency authors, and is worth buying for that alone!

That's it from me in terms of books until next summer when MIRA will be publishing my Brides of Fortune trilogy in the UK. In the meantime I am working very hard on a new trilogy for HQN Books with the working title of "Regency historicals with unusual settings." Catchy, huh! The first book, Whisper of Scandal is set in London and the Arctic, the second, Her One Sin, is set in one of the Napoleonic War parole towns. I'm hoping to share lots of research detail with anyone who is interested!

I'd also like to share my first magazine cover. This is from the Spanish romance magazine Roman Ticas and I was honoured to be their cover model!


So off I go. A few weeks ago the BBC showed a black and white film from 1945 called "I Know Where I'm Going." I hadn't seen it before but various reviews waxed lyrical about its romantic qualities and fabulous setting on the Isle of Mull. It is apparently a Powell and Pressburger classic, and the perfect film for Valentine's Day. When I watched it I realised that we are staying in one of the film's locations - Carsaig. I have every intention of recreating some of the stills from the film, sitting soulfully on the quay and staring out to sea. And hopefully the overwhelmingly romantic nature of "I Know Where I'm Going" will rub off on my writing too!

Happy reading!
Love from
Nicola




Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Researching the wip!

Today I went to Wantage to do some research for my current manuscript. The book is set in 1813 and has as its hero an Irish soldier of fortune held in England as a prisoner during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of the French prisoners of war in England has fascinated me since I came across a footnote about them in a book about the Battle of Trafalgar. I hadn't really thought about the fate of prisoners of war in that era; I didn't even know that there were any, let alone that they were shipped to Britain and held in some cases for the duration of the conflict. The rank and file were incarcerated in prison hulks moored in places like Chatham, or locked up in what we would now call maximum security jails. Dartmoor Prison was built specifically to house French POWs in the Napoleonic Wars. At the height of the war there were a staggering 60 000 French prisoners in Britain and several thousand officers. This seems like a huge number of enemy prisoners in the country and it is no wonder that there were widespread concerns about an uprising. This forms the core of my story.

The officers were allowed to live in small country towns "on parole" ie they gave their word that they would not attempt to escape. This is what took me to Wantage, as it was one of the "parole towns" where the normal populace was swelled by a number of French officers. Prisoners in the parole towns were usually not permitted to travel more than a mile outside the town and were often entertained by the aristocracy and the gentry at parties and balls, a far cry from the fate of their compatriots in the prison hulks! Naturally some broke parole and tried to escape, others had love affairs and even married local girls and plenty got into fights with the locals! All in all, a very rich background for a book!

I'll be blogging much more about the history of the parole towns next year when the book comes out but today one of the highlights of my research was visiting the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage and holding in my hand an original letter written in French from an officer to Coutts Bank in London, requesting that they send £123 to the banker in Wantage to pay his bills!

Another very pleasurable aspect of my research has been watching the film All For Love or St Ives (thank you, Alison!) which tells the story of a French prisoner of war in Scotland. I love it when my passion for research co-incides with a great historical drama!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Riding Postilion and other coaching tales!

This is the Craven State Carriage, a Victorian coach said to rival in magnificence Queen Victoria's royal carriage (she would not have been amused)! It is part of the carriage collection at Arlington Court, a National Trust property in Devon where you can not only go to view some wonderful horse-drawn coaches but you can try your hand at driving one as well.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to go to an illustrated talk about the history of carriages, given by Colin Henderson, who had been the Queen's Head Coachman. Not only did he have some wonderful anecdotes about the Golden Jubilee but he had also worked as a riding specialist and stuntman on a number of films and included the role of highwayman on his CV! He gave us a brisk trot through the early history and background of carriages - the word coach, for instance, comes from the Hungarian Kote - but it was when we got onto the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that my note-taking went into overdrive because he had so many fascinating little details that I had never read in the books so I thought I would share a few of them in this blog!

After explaining to us the difference between "the leaders" - the leading pair of horses - and the "wheelers," the two closest to the carriage, he told us that to ride postilion meant riding one of the front horses and leading the other. This was a hazardous enterprise as it meant that one of your legs was between the two horses and was in danger of being crushed. Postilions wore a steel leg guard to protect them in this position.

The provision of lighting on both the inside and outside of carriages has always interested me so I asked if there was any illumination inside and was surprised to learn that there were candle-lamps inside a carriage as well as out. The smoke apparently made a mess of the upholstery! I had not quite appreciated what a hazardous business travelling at night could be, especially on the Mail Coach. The external lights carried no further than the first horse so you could not see the road ahead at all. Coachmen had to have extremely keen hearing to listen for the sound of approaching hooves. Since the mail carriages travelled at up to 10mph and some coachmen accelerated down the hills in order to gain momentum and make up time, the possibility of running into the back - or front - of another coach or hay wagon was very strong! I was also fascinated to hear that the coaches changed horses on average every 10 to 12 miles, or 15 on the flat, and that a change of horses took only 2 minutes, rather like changing the tyres on a Formula 1 racing car! Mail Coaches were numbered like buses are now and 16 hands was the largest horse that could be used to pull a three and a half ton Mail Coach because anything taller didn't fit under the coachman's footboard.

There were also some fascinating facts about the Grand Tour. The Duke of Beaufort's travelling carriage was decorated in Regency stripe and had secret lockers under the floor for his valuables. It was rather like a caravan; the cushions folded down to create a full length bed! Other luxurious touches included silk-lined steps which were folded up inside the carriage to protect them.

I enjoyed learning the derivation of a few other coaching-inspired words as well - the "fore-gone" was the carriage that you sent on a day ahead with your servants, linen and silver, so that when you arrived, everything was prepared (or concluded!) The phrase "cheerio" originally comes from calling for a sedan chair - chair ho!

My favourite anecdote from the Victorian period was that the footboards on ladies' carriages were enormous because it was thought indelicate that a lady should have to sit looking at the horse's posterior! During this time a combined whip and parasol was developed which looked extremely complicated to use. I also liked the pictures of little "baby carriages" used by the British in India in the nineteenth century. These were developed to enable the infant to "take the air." They were drawn by a ram or a heifer and were led by a groom with the nanny walking alongside!

All in all this was a fascinating gallop through hundreds of years of coaching history and was a talk packed full of useful snippets of information that I'm sure will appear in some of my future books!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Broadsheet Broadside!

Yawn! That's the sound of the Sad Puppy waking up from a few month's happy snoozing in the sun to discover that as at least six months have passed it must be time for the UK broadsheets to have another go at romantic fiction. A few months ago The Guardian newspaper made a slight tactical error when they asked Julie Bindell to comment on Mills & Boon romances and it became clear in the course of her remarks that she hadn't read one for thirty years. So this time the Guardian had a Cunning Plan - get Tanya Gold to claim that she was a M&B junkie and that way the paper wouldn't be caught short fielding someone who hadn't picked up a romance book in decades.

Why should we doubt Tanya's romance-reading credentials? Only because there were some odd discrepancies in the article. Oh, and also because most romance readers are very proud to support the genre whereas it seemed to make Tanya feel quite nauseous. It also seemed that every M&B book Tanya had recently read contained the hero saying the phrase: "You stupid little fool!" I don't for a moment believe that this is representative of the current crop of Presents/Modern Romance. (And as an aside, why do these articles almost always concentrate on the Modern Romance imprint? Do the writers do so little research that they don't realise the wealth of different lines? And why do they equate romance only with Mills & Boon books?)

The article provided the revelation that it wasn't easy to write "a Mills & Boon book" - again this catch all description was used as though they were all interchangeable and identical. It's not easy to write any book so why should it be easy to write one for Mills & Boon? Only prejudice and value judgements suggest that it would be. Science fiction isn't easy to write, crime fiction isn't easy to write, short stories aren't easy to write. Writing for Mills & Boon isn't easy.

I don't have time to take the article apart here because I have a romance book to write but I do want to make the point that the article, so witty and well-written, was particularly clever because it looked as though it was saying some positive things about romantic fiction whilst managing to reinforce the view that it is WRONG. Perhaps the clue to this approach was in the heading in the paper, which referred to the writer enjoying Mills & Boon books "even though she knows it is wrong." That's quite a statement. Who is making that judgement and upon what moral authority? As I said in my Twitter on this last week, in what way is it "wrong" to enjoy romance books? Is it "wrong" in the sense that The Guardian and other broadsheet papers are "wrong" to take money from punters looking for happy ever after through adverts in the lonely hearts columns? Or is that quite different??

In the same newspaper on the same day was a completely different yet related article by Simon Jenkins. In it he lamented the fact that items of bad news in the media used to be balanced by the inclusion of an equal number of items of good news. His contention was that these days that has all changed. You only need to turn on the radio or TV, or to read the paper, to be faced with item after item of grim news; flood, famine and pestilence. Okay, occasionally there will be the eccentric item at the end of the news bulletin - the one that usually features a cute pet doing something wacky, like the cat that likes to travel on the bus, for instance. And of course there are sometimes genuinely happy, moving and uplifting pieces of news but they seem few and far between. For example, as I'm writing this the three top stories on the BBC website are about soaring unemployment, a knife attack and an air crash. Simon Jenkins' posited that bad news sells, which is why we are given so much of it. Life hasn't actually changed that much; the way it is reported has. He also takes it one stage further and suggests that having such a diet of bad news served up to us by the media cannot help but set a national mood of depression and fear.

This is where romantic fiction comes in. It is escapist and it makes people happy. It lifts the mood and is the reverse of bad news. And it feels as though we can't be allowed to enjoy this happiness without someone criticising our pleasures.

Both Guardian pieces in different ways reminded me of another article that was in the Observer newspaper a few weeks ago called simply "Snark." Snark is "sly, knowing and often downright nasty," the header said. "And it attacks, under the guise of wit, without proof or reason." There is a lot of snark about these days, whether it is in newspaper articles, blogs or even book reviews. One of the dangers of snark is that it is seductive because it can be so funny. There is an implication that even if you are the target of snark, if you don't laugh along with it you are either a bad sport, you have no sense of humour or you're too thin-skinned. I'd take issue with this. One of my writing colleagues recently put her finger on the fact that in print, either on the internet or in papers and magazines, there is a distance that leads commentators to say things they would never dream of saying directly to someone, face to face. Or at least one hopes they would not for respect and courtesy's sake. Or is that too old-fashioned a view these days?

Whether it is or not, it brings me full circle. Author Louise Allen wrote an elegant rebuttal of the Bindell piece. Author Michelle Styles made some spot on observations in the Tanya Gold piece. But in neither article nor in many others has a journalist actually interviewed a romance author or authors, asked them why they write the books, why they believe in them, why romance appeals, why readers love the books. Nor do readers get much of a look in. Tanya Gold asked for readers to contribute to the article and then briefly quoted a couple of them. One of the quotes was about a reader's academic qualifications which I believe is wrong on so many levels. When did anyone ever comment on the academic qualifications of a reader of science fiction or crime, for instance? Isn't it irrelevant? We're back to those value judgements again.

I suspect that the truth is that editors don't want to publish a happy, feelgood article all about writers who believe in what they do and readers who love romance books. For where is the bad news in that? Where is the snark?

And I'd be happy to say all this to their faces, no snark involved.





*I'd like to thank very much all the romance readers and authors who responded to my Twitter on this subject and inspired me to write this article - and who inspire me to write the books in the first place! Thank you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Smugglers' Run!


Last weekend we did the wonderful "Smugglers' Run" at Martlesham in Suffolk. With a name like that this walk was always going to be fascinating - not only is it a walk around a particularly picturesque part of the county, it's packed full of interesting facts for history buffs!

The walk starts in Woodbridge where there is the last remaining working tide mill in the UK. It dates from the 12th century, was working up until 1957 and was restored in 1982. The mill is situated on the River Deben, a waterway frequently used by the smuggling fraternity. One incident in Woodbridge Haven in 1739 records that a smuggler's cutter was stranded by the tide and the preventive officers were able to seize brandy and tea. The smugglers were clearly an audacious lot for they not only raised affidavits for the recovery of their goods, but also managed to have the master of the grounded cutter that they were using to ferry the goods in press-ganged into serving on HMS Boyne which prevented him from testifying against them!
The footpath travels along the edge of the river to Kyson Point and Kyson Hill with lovely views across the water meadows. I particularly liked the part of the walk that went along the beach here - and so did the dog! At high tide this stretch of the walk is impassable and you have to be careful not to get cut off by the tide. This was part of the area that fell to the Harwich Customs Collector to patrol - with a pitifully small army of riding officers. The little creeks, marshes and inlets here were perfect for landing contraband.

Martlesham Creek turns westwards from this point and we walked along the edge of the water following the path taken by the smugglers of old. This little inlet was used as a waterway for the transport of small, shallow boat-loads of contraband. It is said that Phillip Meadows, rector of Great Bealings from 1804 to 1837 gave the free traders aid by leaving his stables unlocked on moonless nights with the chaise and harness ready. Since the owner of the chaise was so well respected locally and was above suspicion, the excisemen and the constable allowed the cart to pass freely and it collected the contraband from Martlesham Creek. In return the rector was given a keg of brandy from each load as thanks for his co-operation. I was intrigued to hear this story of real-life involvement of the gentry with the smuggling trade, and so late into the nineteenth century as well.

From here the path turns along the head of the creek and enters the woods and it would be easy to imagine a moonless night and the crack of branches underfoot as the free traders made their way up to the road with their cargo. The path emerges to cross the fields and comes up by the church from where it is a straight run to the Red Lion pub. This inn dates originally from the late 1500s and was a coaching inn on the old Norwich to London road used as an overnight stopover for the mail coaches. The mail was locked up safely and then the coachmen and guard probably retired to the bar to drink some contraband brandy!

This was a fabulous historic walk through some beautiful countryside with a drink and a meal waiting at the end. What more could one ask?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Latest News!



Happy September, everyone! Whilst I have enjoyed the hot summer days we've occasionally had here in the UK this year, I do love autumn very much. Living out in the country I can feel the seasons turning. It's darker earlier in the evening when I take the dog for his bedtime walk and as we go round the fields I can feel the cool nip in the air. The young owls, born this year, are calling in the willows by the stream and the September full moon is waxing. The dew is heavier on the grass in the mornings. The swallows are starting to fly South and the leaves are starting to fall. It's beautiful!

I've had an incredibly busy but exciting summer of work that focussed on my Brides of Fortune Trilogy and I am so happy and grateful to my readers for the lovely response the books have had. Not only did all three books hit the Bookscan bestseller charts in the US, The Scandals of an Innocent reached Number 10 in the Borders romance chart as well. I hope UK readers will be pleased to hear that the series will be published in the UK from June next year by MIRA Books. More details closer to the date!

Meanwhile, I'm very proud to be a part of the Romantic Novelists' Association 50th Anniversary anthology, Loves Me, Loves Me Not, which contains Regency short stories by Louise Allen, Amanda Grange and Joanna Maitland as well as my own story The Elopement. There is a copy of the RNA anthology up for grabs as the September contest prize on my website. Don't miss the chance to win this book which contains a wealth of contemporary romantic short stories as well as the historical ones.




September also sees the publication of the UK edition of Kidnapped, from Mills & Boon Single Titles with extra pages giving the historical background and inspiration to the story. Kidnapped remains a book very close to my heart and I hope that readers will like it too!

In October I have two novellas out in the US, A reprint of The Season for Suitors in a HQN anothology called The Heart of Christmas with bestselling author Mary Balogh and wonderful debut author Courtney Milan, and the first print publication of my Undone e-book The Unmasking of Lady Loveless in an anthology from Harlequin Historicals called Together For Christmas with stories by Catherine George and Louise Allen who are two of my own favourite authors.

On the new books front, I have just sent in the first book in my new Regency series which will be coming out from HQN in 2010. Whisper of Scandal is set in London and the Arctic and I have started work on the second book in the series. Although I'll be getting my head down to work, I'll be blogging here when I can and also over on the Word Wenches site in my regular bi-monthly slot and with the UK Regency Authors on the 7th of each month.

I hope everyone has a very happy month full of good books!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taking Risks with the Happy Ever After

I'm a huge fan of the Happy Ever After. It doesn't matter which genre I'm reading, I still want to feel warm and satisfied and, yes reassured, when I get to the end of a book. Of course this doesn't work out well for me sometimes. My favourite reads include crime and thrillers and although the ending may satisfy in the sense that the mystery is solved and the bad guys caught, there's an unhappy ending for someone, usually the corpse. If the victim wasn't very pleasant then that's fine. That's why I enjoy watching Midsomer Murders. Maybe that's also why I don't read much gritty crime with random violence in it. I hear enough about that on the news. And then there's non-fiction. I love reading historical biographies but frankly I know that if I'm reading about Anne Boleyn, for example, then there's an appointment with the executioner waiting and history isn't going to change. So even as I read the book I'm preparing myself.

When I taught creative writing we did a session on the importance of endings and the different types of endings that there are in books. “And they all lived happily ever after” is the classic last line. It’s easy to dismiss this as a formula but it's far more important than that. It’s a reassurance and it sums up the theme of the story. In fairy tales, folk tales and romances the story is about conflicts and barriers to happiness. The reassurance for the reader is that all is well and will continue to be so after the end of the book. Jane Austen uses this theme to end her books. Emma ends with the words: "the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” Perfect happiness. That's what I want.

In other genres, though, slightly ambiguous endings do seem to be popular, as though hinting that although things seem okay for now, who knows what is going to happen in the future. Perhaps this is a reflection of the world we live in. But again, that's the world I'm trying to escape in my reading. I remember being slightly disappointed when I got to the end of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and the last line was: “Tonight, for the first time ever, I can sort of see how it’s done.” It didn't inspire me with confidence. Even worse, when I finished Fatherland by Robert Harris and I was on the edge of my seat wanting to know what happened: “He took off his cap and threw it, sent it skimming across the grass the way his father used to skim flat stones across the sea. Then he tugged the gun from his waistband, checked to make sure it was loaded, and moved towards the silent trees.” AND? I assume there weren't pages missing at the end of my copy.

I'm an unrepentant escapist in my fiction, and in my writing I can make those HEAs happen. Which makes it all the more shocking when occasionally I hear from a reader who tells me that they weren't convinced by my Happy Ever After. This, after all, is the pact that I make with the reader. I will provide a believable and satisfactory happy ending. Actually I'm trying to provide the best damn story I can with an ending that will blow readers away. I want to make sure that they believe my hero and heroine will still be together in fifty years time. So when I first got feedback like that, for Lord of Scandal, I thought: "I've failed. Where did it all go wrong?"

Well, of course I had failed with that individual reader. There's no getting away from that. But I'm not so sure I've failed overall. For me part of the enormous challenge of writing historical romance is to twist the conventions and to give my characters deep and fundamental conflicts that means that their behaviour puts their happy ever after at risk. Then I do my very best to show the change and growth in those characters which ensures that they will be happy. I know this isn't going to convince all the readers all the time but if it works for most people most of the time then I'm very happy and I think I've done a good job.

With Lord of Scandal, I always knew that the character of Ben Hawksmoor was going to be controversial. Born into poverty, disowned by his father who denounced him as a bastard, Ben had to fight for everything in his life and as a result valued financial security above everything else. He was selfish, self-interested and utterly materialistic. When asked by his cousin if there was anyone he wanted to love and cherish he replied simply: "Yes, me." Ben wasn't a rake but he was a scoundrel of the first order and he was completely ruthless in going after what he wanted. Unsurpringly there were readers who thought that the book was too dark and Ben too heartless ever to reform. For me the excitment was to create a character like that and then challenge his value system by showing him another one, that of the worth of love over money, as demonstrated by the character of Catherine, the heroine. It was a hard journey for Ben, but I felt that at the end of the book, when he turned down Catherine's dowry because all he wanted was her, he had learned a tough lesson. And I didn't believe that a few years down the line he would revert to type, go back to Catherine's aunt and say: "You know that thirty thousand pounds you offered me? Well, I've changed my mind about taking it..." In other words, it was a life lesson. He had changed.

Most recently, in The Undoing of a Lady I created a heroine, Lizzie Scarlet, whose characterisation my editor described as "brave." When your editor says something like that you that you know you're on dodgy ground and that some people are going to hate the character. But as with Ben, I hoped that to know Lizzie, to understand her background, is to love her, forgive her and enjoy watching her change. Readers will let me know whether the risk I've taken has succeeded and whether they buy into her happy ending.

Of course it isn't just the individual characters who dictate whether that HEA will work, it's the combination of the hero and heroine and the way that they resolve the deep differences between them. Again I have a tendency to take risks by putting together those characters who really shouldn't be perfect for each other and then working to show that they are the other's ideal match. In my next book, Whisper of Scandal, I have a hero who is an explorer, A Bear Grylls, Born Survivor type, matched with a heroine who is a Regency fashionista. He lives to travel. She lives to shop. It shouldn't work. I hope the readers think it does and that after taking risks the books deliver perfect happiness.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The perfect Friday displacement activity!

I have a thing about voices. I think they can be incredibly seductive. In the second of my trilogy books, The Scandals of an Innocent, Alice reflects on the fact that Miles was almost able to seduce her with his voice alone, he was so smooth!

Discovering the Carte Noir coffee adverts online was always going to be a treat for me. This is the next best thing to watching Dominic West play Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and the perfect displacement activity for my Friday morning when I should be revising my Arctic manuscript. I don't drink much coffee, but that's beside the point. I love both Dominic West and Pride and Prejudice in just about equal measure so that's my tea break sorted. Here's the link:

Oh, and you can also experience Greg Wise and Dan Stevens reading to you simply for your pleasure and gratification. Thank goodness I was sitting comfortably - I almost melted!

Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Living beyond their means!

I'm just back from a research trip to England's smallest county, Rutland. It's an area of the country that I love but that I haven't visited in a very long time so it was great to re-acquaint myself with the beautiful stretch of Rutland Water, the historic town of Oakham and lots of tea shops along the way! My next couple of blogs are going to be all about the historic houses that I visited because I had such a lovely time that I want to share! I chose places that were smaller than stately home size, with different and unusual histories, because although I love grand houses, these other places so often get overlooked and they have so much fascinating history to offer.

There wasn't a particular theme to the houses that I chose. They don't all date from the Georgian or Regency periods, for example. I picked them because they sounded interesting. But as it turned out, two of the houses were linked - by debt, ruin and ambitious owners living beyond their means. Although some of my older relatives mutter that young people today are extravagant and spend money they don't have, and that it never happened in their day, I discovered on this trip that it did happen on a grand scale in 1605 and 1771.

So to the first of my houses and this was my Top Pick of the trip (a tough choice!) Atmospheric ruins really inspire me and Lyveden New Bield is the most extraordinary place. Lyveden was built by Sir Thomas Tresham, a devout Catholic, to a design full of religious symbolism. The building is shaped like a Greek cross and based around the numbers 3, 5 and 9. Tresham was a rich man whose fortune derived from wool but when work started on Lyveden he was already £11,000 pounds in debt because of the fines levied on him for his adherence to the Catholic faith. The New Bield, as the house was called, was never intended to be his principal seat. His manor house Lyveden Old Bield was just down the road! This house was a fun palace, set in pleasure grounds with moats to sail on, spiral mounds to admire the view, terraces for strolling along and extensive orchards and flower meadows. Lyveden New Bield did have bedrooms and a kitchen and bakehouse, so it could have been a "secret house," a place where the family could retire for a few days whilst their main property was being cleaned. Or it might simply have been intended for fun, a sort of playhouse and gardens on a grand scale!

Whatever the case, fun - and money - was in short supply at Lyveden New Bield when Sir Thomas Tresham died in 1605. Work on the house stopped because the workmen realised that Sir Thomas had been deep in debt, had over-reached himself on his designs and they were never going to see their money! The ruin stood untouched for over 400 years. Sir Thomas's son Francis inherited his estates but later in 1605 was arrested for treason with his cousins Catesby and Wintour for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. He died in the Tower of London. The downfall of the Treshams was complete with the inheritance of the spendthrift Lewis Tresham who lost all the family's remaining money.

It was a very grey day when we visited Lyveden New Bield and against the lowering sky the ruin looked particularly ancient and intriguing. We wandered amongst the grazing sheep in the pleasure grounds, climbed the spiral mounds to view the estate and walked through the flower meadows. We climbed the stair to what is left of the first floor bedroom, with it's views to the east (so that the Catholic Sir Thomas could watch for the Protestants coming to arrest him!) It was a stunning place with a palpable atmosphere but it did make me sad that Sir Thomas Tresham's plans were grander than his budget and that in the end the house stood an empty ruin for hundreds of years.

Click here to visit the National Trust Lyveden New Bield Photo Gallery for some beautiful pictures!

Next on the blog... The historic house where Georgian design went mad!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hot Starts versus Twenty Two Pages of Description?

A couple of months ago on one of my writing loops we were discussing hot starts, those first lines of books that grab you and draw you in right from the off. I love hot starts; maybe it's because I can be an impatient reader, wanting something to happen, wanting to be swept away at the beginning of the book. There is a school of thought that says that modern life has trained people to have such a short attention span that if you don't grab them within 10 seconds you've lost them. I'd hate to think that I had the concentration of a gnat but maybe there is something in this.

One of my favourite first lines is: "I picked four of them up at White Waltham in the new Cherokee Six 300 that never got a chance to grow old." This, from Dick Francis's book Rat Race, flags up the drama that is to come, creates a sense of expectation and already has me on the edge of my seat wanting to know what happens. It's short, sharp and direct with an element of danger.

We all want to write a first line that is so memorable that people instantly recognise it and are drawn into the story from the off. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…” Is this a hot start? It's certainly intriguing and mysterious, pulling the reader in. Other favourite first lines of mine are: "Penitence Hurd and the plague arrived in London on the same day..." from Diana Norman's wonderful historical novel The Vizard Mask and “It had been too long since he had bedded a woman,” Lisa Kleypas, Lady Sophia's Lover. Both in their different ways, grab the attention.

And yet in the historical novel or historical romance, and maybe in other genres too, isn't there room for the slow build up? One of my all time keepers, Daphne Du Maurier's book Frenchman's Creek, has twenty two pages of description before anything actually happens. It's incredibly evocative and atmospheric; you can taste the salt on the sea breeze and feel the wind against your skin and hear the seabirds calling on the Helford estuary. And all that description contributes to the feeling that you are slipping back in time to the seventeenth century. It calls to the imagination, it envelops you and draws you in in a different way.

One of these days I would like to write a book that starts in such a way, creating atmosphere, appealing to the senses, grabbing the reader because of the layer upon layer of vivid description. But in the meantime my next book, The Undoing of a Lady, conforms very much to the Hot Start:

"It was a perfect night for an abduction..."

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Cinderella Bloggers!

Hello! I'm back from Washington DC where I had the most fantastic time at the RWA Conference! I loved the city and had a wonderful time at the book signings, parties and workshops, meeting new people and putting faces to those I've been chatting with over the email for months or even years. In a few days I'll be posting my impressions of the trip complete with some splendid photos taken by my dh who had an even better time in Washington DC than I did!

First though, a small quiz. It's called "match the shoe to the blogger" and all you have to do is name the four Cinderellas whose shoes are in the photo above, taken after the Golden Heart and RITA ceremony on Saturday night. The prize for the first correct answer selected by Monty is a copy of my third Brides of Fortune book, The Undoing of a Lady! And here is a clue: There are two Word Wenches, one Romance Bandit and one Risky Regency blogger in the picture! Name that shoe in one! Good luck!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Time travel at Ashdown House!

Yesterday I was guiding tour parties around Ashdown House on a lovely, hot and sunny summer's day. For the first time we had other events happening at the house and it was fabulous! First there was an early music ensemble playing in the gardens. When we were on the roof balcony we could hear "Greensleeves"wafting up to us on the breeze which was wonderfully evocative. Then there were the living history re-enactors. A horse and carriage was taking visitors around the estate and it was extraordinary to see a historic vehicle using the old Ashdown carriage drive and the road down to the stables. But for me the absolute best bit was having the living history re-enactors wandering about the house and gardens and chatting to us all. On the guided tour we talk about the reasons that the staircase at Ashdown is so wide and one of them is to accommodate the breadth of ladies' skirts. I'd never seen a lady in period dress trying to ascend the stairs until yesterday and now I can see the problem! One of the other reasons that the stair is so wide is to permit a gentleman to draw and use his sword in defence of his house, fighting down the stair to give him the fighting advantage. Sadly health and safety regulations prevented us from trying to recreate this. Maybe one day!

I think I must be very susceptible to the lure of a gentleman in full cavalier garb (ok, I know I am!) but when a dashing cavalier who looks like Prince Rupert of the Rhine doffs his hat, bows and calls me "my lady" I'm afraid I melt into a puddle and am not fit to take a guided tour anywhere! And yes, I know I've illustrated this blog post with a picture of John Simm as Sexby in The Devil's Whore and that he was a roundhead not a cavalier but honestly, can you blame me?

I'm blogging today 5th July at Risky Regencies and tomorrow, 6th July with Sia McKye Over Coffee. Please come and join me!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Prize Winner!


Congratulations to Beth, whom Monty has picked to win a copy of The Scandals of an Innocent in the rugged hero casting contest! Thank you so much to everyone who entered. I really enjoyed the debate and hope you did too.

For those of you wondering how Monty chooses contest winners (and over the years I've had a few enquiries) I am indebted to my friend and writing colleague Kate Walker, who first gave me the idea. Kate's adorable cats feature heavily in her blog and I thought Monty should stir himself from deep Labrador torpor and do the same. So when a prize is drawn I put down numbered cards, one for each entry, each with an identical dog biscuit on it. Monty is then positioned equidistant from all the biscuits and the winner is the person whose card he goes to first. He particularly likes my website prize drawing with large numbers of entries because then it becomes a competition between us to see how many biscuits he can hoover up before I grab them back!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Farewell to the rugged look!


As you know, I'm all for blogging about hot-looking actors in period costume. Any excuse! So an article in the Observer newspaper at the weekend was a bit of a gift. Under the headline of "Farewell to the rugged look as new male beauties sweep all before them" it suggested that the leading men of film and TV are becoming interchangeable. Gone are the days of actors with such individual looks and charisma as Marlon Brando and Al Pacino and in there place are bland clones. Among the new breed of actors cited were Zac Efron, Edward Pattinson and Jonathan Rhys Myers, whose appealing baby eyes apparently sealed the role of Henry VIII in The Tudors (odd when you think about it, since of all the things that Henry was renowned for, his baby face wasn't one of them). Experts claim that these boy-men are chosen for their cherub cheeks and gentle jaws, and that women prefer them because they associate these softer looks with fidelity and warmth.

So what is going on? What happened to the strong, masculine hero? Surely male sex appeal has traditionally been associated with men who are handsome rather than pretty, rugged rather than soft? Even if they were smooth (I'm thinking Leslie Howard as Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel) they had a core of steel beneath. I'm not sure I would have felt quite the same about Richard Sharpe if he had been played by Chace Crawford. And what about all those cowboys in the wild west? It's wild for a reason and they have to be man enough to deal with that.

The newspaper article suggests that this change towards beta rather than alpha man has been progressing for about fifteen years and that it started with actors like Leonardo di Caprio and Jonny Lee Miller, gathered pace with Orlando Bloom and is now reaching its peak. Certainly I've found something lacking in the historical films that featured these actors. I found Orlando Bloom more convincing as an elf than a crusader and although I loved the film Plunkett and Macleane, I wanted Macleane to be ruthless as well as charming. It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to fill a crusader's armour or a highwayman's boots. On the other hand, I'm not sure that I actually buy the idea that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a baby-faced Henry VIII. He certainly portrays the part with a convincing violence, lust and cruelty.

There isn't that much original historical drama on TV in the UK these days (more's the pity) and I'm wondering if this is also the case in the US, Australia and elsewhere. However a glance at the most recent BBC offering, Robin Hood, suggests that there is definitely some truth in this theory about boys-instead-of-men. In Robin Hood it is left to the fabulous Richard Armitage to represent the oppressed alpha man whilst Robin and some of his merry men are the equivalent of Sherwood Forest's boy band. New boy Archer might just buck the trend. I like the style of Robin Hood. It's funny, irreverent, has some good plot twists and makes no attempts to be historically accurate, rather like The Tudors. As long as I suspend my disbelief at the door I can enjoy it but I'd still like a hero with a bit more substance (I don't mean physically!)
What do you think? Do you think these boys can be convincing historical heroes and who would you cast in a historical drama? I'm offering a copy of my latest book, The Scandals of an Innocent, to the most creative suggestion!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Coming soon!


I can't believe that it is almost July! Where has the time gone? Probably on my last ditch, desperate attempts to complete my draft manuscript which is due in on 30th June! After that I'll be getting ready for the RWA Conference in Washington which I'm looking forward to very much indeed! I can't wait to meet old friends and make some new ones. I'll be offering a special conference giveaway for all readers who are going to be there and a special website contest for all readers who can't make it, so no one gets left out. Details will be coming out in my July newsletter!

So it's an exciting month. July sees the publication of Book 2 in my Brides of Fortune trilogy, The Scandals of an Innocent. Scandals is Alice and Miles' story. What happens when a ruthless rake tries to blackmail a housemaid-turned-heiress into marriage? He gets a great deal more than he bargains for! I love this story because Miles really is very, very bad - he's a real rake, not a fake rake, and Alice is lovely and innocent but nowhere near the pushover Miles expects her to be. Alice has had to make her own way in the world, she is no pampered society girl, and she knows a few tricks when it comes to dealing with rakes. It's a true duel of hearts. Romantic Times described the book as "an emotional and sensual delight," and I'm hoping readers will love it too!

I'm blogging about Alice and her tattoo (!) and the history of Tattoos at Word Wenches on 1st July. I'll also be chatting about the challenges of writing a trilogy at Risky Regencies on 6th July and I'll be a guest at Sia McKye's blog also on the 6th July! Please come and join me!


Meanwhile I'm thrilled that Trilogy Book 1, The Confessions of a Duchess, has garnered two lovely reviews this week from Single Titles and Rakehell. And I am even more excited if possible(woot, woot!) that two of my previous books for HQN, Unmasked and my RITA nominated Lord of Scandal, are currently with a film producer in LA!! She loves historicals - let's hope she loves mine enough to make a film!! Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Struggling with the Demon!


The Muse. We writers refer to her a lot. She's a goddess. She's creative, inspiring, and when she's with you it's a fabulous feeling. Your ideas flow and your fingers fly over the keyboard. But sometimes she's elusive. She teases you; she's just out of reach. You struggle to grasp her and she slips from your fingers. You're left staring at a blank screen.

Well, I've had a week of staring at a blank screen. Let me introduce you to the Muse's evil twin, the Demon. Demon. It's a great word, isn't it. The dictionary definition is fascinating (yes, you know I'm a word geek!) "An evil spirit or devil; cruel; skilful, possibly a genius..." Hmmm. If you are going to call your business "Demon" you are setting some high expectations. Hopefully you are going for the skilful and genius end of the definition - unless you're offering some pretty specialised services. Which brings me back to the blank screen. The blank screen is what happens when I try to call up my website. It hasn't been working for a week. I'm quite upset about this because my Brides of Fortune trilogy is out at the moment and everything had been going really, really well with masses of hits on the website and loads of great feedback and the chance to chat to lots of lovely readers. I know it's not a matter of life and death, but it is a matter of skill and customer service.

My website is hosted by a company called... Well, you can probably guess. It isn't Muse.

Here's the gist of what happened when I rang up yesterday to check on progress in fixing whatever fault is affecting their server.

Me: (Ringing a number I had previously been given for customer service): Hello! Please can you tell me the latest on fixing the problem with my website? This is the reference...
Person at other end: You've come through to the wrong number. Just a moment... (Several minutes of tinned music)
Me: Hello?
Another person at the other end, sounding annoyed: Yes?
Me: Good afternoon! (It's hot and I can tell he's stressed so I'm being really nice). Please can you tell me the latest on fixing the problem with my website? This is the reference...
Person: You're not the only one whose website is affected you know!
Me: (Slightly taken aback) Well, no, I had worked that out... (I'm neither so web illiterate that I thought I had my own personal server nor so self-centred that I thought it was just me!) I was only enquiring to see if there was any update on when the problem is likely to be sorted out?
Person: No. There's an engineer working on it at the moment. It could be ten minutes or two hours.
Me: Two hours? That would be great!
Person: It might not be two hours. I can give you absolutely no timescale for fixing this.

They can't give a civil answer or an apology or any kind of customer service either, can they? If you know of a good, reliable web hosting site, please let me know!






Sunday, June 21, 2009

Literary heroes - the shock of disillusion!


In Saturday’s Guardian newspaper was the snippet that the private diaries of Alison Uttley, the children’s author, are published this month. I quote: “She was apparently jealous of Enid Blyton’s success, calling her “the Blyton” and describing her as boastful and a “vulgar, curled woman.” The columnist, Gwyn Headley, went on to recall the time that he had worked for Collins (the predecessor of Harper Collins) and was asked to escort Alison Uttley to the Children’s Book Fair at the Royal Horticultural Halls in Westminster. He found her to be a “sour little old woman, with no small talk” who treated him as a minion.

At this point in reading the item I paused in horror because Alison Uttley was one of my childhood literary heroes. Her book A Traveller in Time, which I read and also saw adapted for television, was a book that not only fuelled my teenage love of history but also sparked in me a fascination with the genre of the time travel romance. I adored that book and it is still on my keeper shelf, a little battered and with the lettering on the spine almost worn away from use.

After I had recovered from the shock of finding that my heroine apparently had feet of clay, I read the rest of the anecdote, which descended rapidly into farce. Apparently announcements had been made at the Children’s Book Fair that there would be a “Meet Tthe Author” event with Alison Uttley and the visiting children were, naturally, very excited. However, because Uttley hadn’t been listening when Headley had briefed her she was totally unprepared for what happened when the curtain rose for her book signing and the children were let loose. They stormed the stage and she “grabbed her duck-handled umbrella and waded into the attack, felling infants right and left. The kiddies paused, briefly regrouped, then broke up and ran off screaming in terror. Uttley strode among them, lashing out freely.”

The Meet The Author event was abandoned and Alison Uttley was escorted from the Fair…

The full, hilarious but horrifying story is at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/20/alison-uttley-nightjack-salt-publishing

Well! This raised several issues for me. Firstly, why does it feel so disappointing to discover that one of the authors I read as a child was apparently not a very nice person? For some reason this seems so much worse than if it was an author I had read as an adult. Does discovering that Alison Uttley was apparently a “sour little old woman” who beat children with her umbrella retrospectively spoil my enjoyment of her books? I don’t think it ought to do, but I do feel a little bit disillusioned.

Fortunately another snippet from the newspaper came to my aid. “A book belongs as much to the reader as to the author,” Lucy Mangan wrote in her Book Corner column. So now I’m taking Lucy’s advice and restoring A Traveller in Time to myself as one of my childhood/teenage seminal books. Others I have loved are listed below. I don’t know whether the authors were nice people or not and perhaps after the Alison Uttley incident, I don’t want to know…

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
Fell Farm Holiday by Marjorie Lloyd

Which books from your childhood are still on your shelves? And how would you feel if you discovered that the author had apparently attacked children with a duck-handled umbrella?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why Yorkshire is the new Scotland!


I recently did an interview for the Single Titles website about my Fortune’s Folly trilogy and the interviewer, Julie Bonello, asked me a particularly interesting question. (All her questions were interesting and thought provoking but this one especially caught my attention.)

It was this:

“The trilogy is set in the fictional Yorkshire village of Fortune’s Folly. Regencies usually take place in London or Bath - what made you decide to create a fictional landscape in this particular British county?”

I’ve set a number of books in Yorkshire. The first was “The Chaperon Bride”, of which I’m very fond, and which was set in the spa town of Harrogate. TCB featured the Welburn Men, a gang of radicals protesting against the establishment of tollhouses on the turnpike roads and the exploitation of travellers by unscrupulous local landowners. They were rick-burners and fence-breakers and I based their exploits on the real live Rebecca Riots.

I picked up the theme of exploitation again in “Unmasked” with those wild highwaywomen, the Glory Girls working to redress the balance of power between the rich and poor. As a continuation of that, the Brides of Fortune trilogy is also set in Yorkshire. Not only is it a stunningly beautiful backdrop for a novel but there were wild and dangerous elements to Yorkshire in the early nineteenth century. In my mind it has some of the same dramatic appeal of Cornwall or Scotland. There is definitely something untamed about the North of England and I wanted to capture that in the books.

I love both Scotland and Cornwall as a setting for books. There’s something about the rugged beauty of the scenery that is reflected in the nature of the characters. The men are strong and the women match them. The country is hard; it throws up challenges. The characters must be tough and equal to the struggle. Yorkshire, like Scotland and Cornwall, mirrors that lush beauty and harsh existence. From wild moorland to rolling green dales from castles perched on crags to Elizabethan manor houses, from quaint fishing villages to ancient abbeys and windswept beaches designed especially for smugglers, the region has it all.

I realise that I am hardly the first to extol the wild beauty of Yorkshire in this way. The Brontes got there first! The passion and bleakness poured out in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre used to scare me when I was younger because it felt so untamed and so dangerous. Now, as a writer, I realise that background and setting can be incredibly powerful tools in creating atmosphere in a story. In the case of some authors the setting becomes so vivid that it is like a character in its own right, complementing the main protagonists, providing a rich backdrop against which they act. It can become so real that you can almost taste it. And yet, it can be very difficult to see exactly how the author has worked his or her magic.

So here are my top ten reasons why Yorkshire is such a fabulous setting for a historical romance, or the case of The Brides of Fortune, a trilogy!

The scenery is stunning!

The history is rich, vivid and inspiring.

It has the oldest castle in the UK – the walls of Richmond Castle date from 1080.

The oldest inn in the county is the Bingley Arms dating from 905AD.


Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire is said to be one of the most haunted houses in the UK.


Guy Fawkes and Dick Turpin were both born in Yorkshire and some people claim Robin Hood was too...


The recent adaptation of Mansfield Park was filmed at Newby Hall near Ripon.


Technically it is still legal to shoot a Scotsman in York, but only with a bow and arrow and not on a Sunday but it’s probably best not to try. (That one is definitely my favourite!)


The women are feisty and gorgeous (yes, that is a picture of me LOL!!!)
And the men are… here! Yes, all these actors were born in Yorkshire. I rest my case.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Can infidelity in a romance book ever be justified?


In a fascinating post on the Romance Bandits blog last week Eloisa James commented on readers’ dislike of infidelity in historical romance and put up a great defence of why adultery need not be a deal-breaker. Hot on the heels of this came a review of my own book, The Confessions of A Duchess, which mentioned the fact that Dexter and Laura had committed adultery because when they first slept together four years before, Laura was still married to Charles.

This made me think very hard because as a reader I don’t tend to like infidelity in stories myself. I shy away from them on instinct. Perhaps I’m missing some great books! And yet I went and knowingly placed this element in The Confessions of a Duchess, and I was surprised when someone didn’t like it. Inconsistent, huh?!

Those people who have read Unmasked will know that Laura and Dexter were very attracted to one another from the start and that she steals a kiss from him in the persona of Glory the highwaywoman. From there it is a brief but extremely passionate step for her to turn to Dexter after her husband betrays and deserts her and she feels utterly alone and in despair.

Laura makes a free choice to sleep with Dexter but she sees it as a mistake the next day and the repercussions of her behaviour last for years and have a profound effect on her life and her character. I don’t feel that she either acts lightly or "gets away with it" and I do believe that her experiences make her the person she is.

Speaking of her book, This Duchess of Mine, on the Romance Bandits blog, Eloisa James said:

“I gave Elijah and Jemma reasons for the mishaps in their early marriage. There’s one thing we sometimes forget as romance writers, perhaps because we often stop at the vows. Marriage is hard. Elijah and Jemma forge their love for each other by truly coming to know each other. They win back what they lost by honesty, love and forgiveness (and OK, the great sex doesn’t hurt either).”

It sounds like a fabulous, passionate and emotional read and I’ll be picking it up!

Is it a case that context and character is everything or are there some elements that simply have no place in a romance, adultery being one of them? I’d like to believe the first. I would like to think that a character can be flawed and that they will have more depth through the choices they make and the way that they deal with their mistakes. But as readers and writers we all have different views on this. Are there any story ideas that are taboo, that go against the “rules”? Or can a good author make anything work and any character sympathetic?

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Ghost Rider!


Okay, I wasn’t going to blog about this today. I was going to say “Please join me later for my official launch at the Word Wenches Blog when the fabulous Anne Gracie will crack a bottle of champagne over my head and push me down the slipway to become an official wench.” But then something happened to me this morning and I am so spooked by it, paranormal fans, that I have to share this! So here’s a true story for ghost busters and ghost lovers alike!

This morning I took Monty, my black Labrador, for a walk along the Ridgeway. It’s one of our favourite walks, an ancient chalk trackway up on the Downs. It’s a route used since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers and it feels very, very old. (Thought I would get a bit of history in here - after all this is "a passion for history" blog!) Anyway, you can almost feel the years of history pressing down on you as you walk along the Ridgeway. “Our” stretch of the track passes Waylands Smith, one of the most impressive and atmospheric Neolithic long barrows in the country. We didn’t meet anyone at all on our walk this morning; this isn’t unusual up there and actually I enjoy it, just me and the dog and the birdsong. We saw lots of wildlife – hares on the track and in the fields, loping off with their long stride, the black tips of their ears standing tall above the grass, and deer grazing at the side of the path looking at us curiously as we passed.

We walked back through the small wood that borders Waylands Smithy and as I was walking I thought I heard the sound of a horse’s hooves faintly on the Ridgeway track. Monty heard them too. He stopped sniffing about amongst the trees and raised his head to listen. They were very faint and then they stopped and I thought I had imagined them. I couldn’t see anyone through the trees and I carried on walking on the path that runs parallel to the main track. Then I heard them again, louder this time. A few hoof beats rang out and then stopped. It happened again. I looked round to put Monty on his lead as he gets nervous around horses. And still I couldn’t see anyone at all either in the woods or on the Ridgeway.

We carried on walking and the hoof beats continued to echo parallel to us on the path. After a couple of minutes I was so spooked by this that I decided to go out of the wood and onto the Ridgeway so that I could see this mysterious horseman or woman who was apparently travelling along beside us. We came out onto the path directly opposite Waylands Smith. Nothing. No one. Silence.

I looked at Monty. Monty looked at me. Actually, Monty looked a bit spooked too. His ears were up and he was looking around. And then we heard hoofbeats behind us on the track and turned round and there was no one there. They faded away as though someone was riding away from us and then they were gone. Monty stood watching and then swished his tail and turned away. I couldn't help but wonder what he could see. And I resisted the impulse to run all the way back to the car!

It was only as I was driving home and trying to rationalise the whole thing in my head that I remembered that Wayland, the Celtic god, was a blacksmith and the legend goes that if you leave a silver coin – and your horse – at Waylands Smithy to this day, he will re-shoe it for you!

Throughout my life I have had strage encounters with "the unexplained." There was our haunted house in Somerset and the ghost of the cavalier. There was my even more weird time travelling experience when I landed up in Tudor England and there was my dh's encounter with a Victorian maid in a hotel in Bristol! I like to think I'm a fairly rational person but I'm also quite timorous when it comes to the paranormal and frankly, these things scare me. I don't go looking for them and when they happen I try to explain them away. But now my ghost rider is right up there with my other spooky experiences. Perhaps I should be writing paranormal romance rather than Regency romance...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Writing "Old Flame" stories

This blog post is adapted from one of the articles I have available on my website. It’s about writing “old flame” stories. Both my new book, The Confessions of a Duchess, and the e-book prequel The Secrets of a Courtesan, are old flame stories in their different ways, from which you can probably gather that I’m keen on writing them! (And I love reading them too). There’s something very seductive about the idea of unfinished business and what might have been, of characters learning to love and trust again. But old flame books are, in my experience, very difficult to write. Firstly you have to deal with the reason why your hero and heroine parted in the first place. If it was all down to a big misunderstanding and one blunt conversation will clear everything up, it’s hard to sustain the conflict convincingly for the whole of the book. Then there is the assumption that once everything is clear between the two of them they will fall in love again. Wrong. They need to find each other again, rediscover all the things they loved the first time and start to trust each other again. Such things take time.

Last year at a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival, I mentioned that Persuasion is my favourite of Jane Austen’s books. To my mind, it still has great relevance today. Many of us have to deal with the embarrassment of meeting an ex-lover, boyfriend or partner, and with the jealousy of seeing someone move on to another relationship. In my opinion, Persuasion is a master class in how to write an old flame story. There are no big misunderstandings keeping Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth apart. The cause of their estrangement was Anne’s refusal of Wentworth’s proposal of marriage when she was 19. It would be true to say that Anne has, in fact, brought most of her problems on herself. Even though she was in love with Wentworth, she allowed herself to be persuaded by her family and her close friend Lady Russell that the marriage was doomed. It was “indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success and not deserving any” because Frederick had no fortune and Lady Russell disapproved of his brilliance, confidence and headstrong nature. (He sounds like the perfect hero, doesn’t he!) So Anne turned Wentworth down and in the eight years that followed never met another man who could measure up to him.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Anne’s mistake, the reader is firmly on her side. She has paid a huge price for her choice in letting down her own standards by allowing worldly prudence to outweigh love. So now, of course, we are rooting for her to get back together with Wentworth and to live happily ever after.

When Anne and Wentworth meet again there is, naturally, some awkwardness between them. She observes that he admires Louisa Musgrove. He thinks she may be intending to marry her cousin (and her father’s heir) William Elliot. But the real emotional barrier between the two of them is the fact that Wentworth feels that Anne should have had the strength to resist the persuasion. He feels she gave him up too easily.

Yet despite that, the two are very aware of one another. A gleeful Mary comments to Anne: “Captain Wentworth was not very gallant by you, Anne… He said you were so altered he should not have known you again.” But gradually through a series of events that Jane Austen builds up with masterful skill, Wentworth starts to recognise Anne’s true worth and to value her again. There is a very telling moment at Lyme Regis when he notices William Elliot looking at her with admiration, and when Louisa Musgrove is injured Wentworth turns automatically to Anne’s calmness and competence in the emergency.

From that point the tables are brilliantly turned on Wentworth as he experiences the re-awakening of all his feelings for Anne whilst having to watch William Elliot courting her. And in order to balance the story it is Anne who finally brings Wentworth back to her side with her public discussion about love with Captain Harville and her avowal of constancy. “All the privilege I claim for my own sex… is that of loving longest… when hope is gone.”

Persuasion beautifully illustrates the way in which old flames can rekindle their love for one another. At the beginning of the story Anne still has regrets about losing Wentworth whilst he thinks he has moved on. Through a series of events Jane Austen brings them closer together and shows them rediscovering all the things that they admired in one another in the first place. They don’t suddenly fall into each other’s arms – their relationship develops slowly but tenderly until the final declaration.

Letter-writing is almost a lost art these days but the letter that Wentworth writes to Anne in order to declare his feelings for her is as ardent and moving and romantic now as anything more modern could ever be:
”I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago…”

Sigh…

Friday, May 22, 2009

Off on my travels!


First of all a big THANK YOU to everyone who dropped by the Romance Bandits Blog yesterday and made it such a great party! I had the best time!

Now I am off on my travels to Scotland again and I'm very excited! We will be staying in Elderslie, the birthplace of Sir William Wallace, and I'll be making my pilgrimage to the Wallace Monument. I'll also be visiting Johnstone Castle where Chopin stayed in the 1840s. These days the ruin is in the middle of a housing estate which makes for a rather surreal experience! Further afield we'll be going to the fascinating "Electric Brae" and Culzean Castle. All the photos and tales of the trip when I get back! Have a good week, everyone!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Life Below Stairs!


Here I am blogging on this blog about what I have written on my other blog, which strikes me as somewhat surreal! However it did occur to me that there might be readers here who are interested in the life of a servant in Victorian times, so if that appeals to you drop by the Ashdown House Blog where there are also plenty of other interesting historical snippets!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Book News!


The last couple of weeks have been a blitz of preparation for the launch of my new Brides of Fortune series so I thought I would stop, draw breath, and post all the exciting developments here!

So first to reviews and a really, really lovely surprise! There was a wonderful review of Unmasked on The Good, The Bad and The Unread which made my day! Those of you who have read my books before will know that Unmasked is a prequel to the Brides of Fortune series and features some of the same characters. Sandy at TGTBTU said: "Nicola Cornick is a new author for me. And after this book, I'm going to definitely be reading more of her books. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Loved the characters, the story, the emotion, everything about it." You can't get a review nicer than that!

Meanwhile, The Confessions of a Duchess has been garnering some very nice reviews of its own which are on my website. Chris at RomanceJunkies said: "Nicola Cornick gives stellar pen with the first instalment of her Brides of Fortune series." Even the mighty Publisher's Weekly called the book "witty" - amongst other things :)

Now book news, and the e-book prequel to the Fortune's Folly trilogy, The Secrets of a Courtesan, is currently on sale at e-Harlequin. It's been in and out of the top ten selling e-books since its release, peaking at number 2, and hopefully it will make another bow in the charts! The Mystic Castle are running a contest to win a copy of The Secrets of a Courtesan and there are further chances to win on my website!

Eharlequin are also releasing some of my backlist Harlequin Historicals in e book format so if there are any of my books you missed and would like to snap up, here's a list. More will be added in June, when Harlequin will also be reissuing A Regency Invitation, the short story anthology I took part in with Elizabeth Rolls and Joanna Maitland. If you like Regency house parties then this book is a must!
And finally, the gorgeous video trailer for my first trilogy book is at the top of this blog and if you would like to see the others in the series click here!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Whatever you do, don’t criticise my research!!!


Uh oh, the sad puppy is out again! For those who have not encountered the sad puppy on my blog before, this is the sign that something is wrong. Last time it was BBC Radio 4 trashing the historical romance genre. This time it's something more personal.

You don’t often find writers expressing their views publicly about the reviews they receive. Jilly Cooper was once brave enough to admit that poor reviews upset her and knocked her confidence but in the main we don’t make a bid for the sympathy vote. It’s generally accepted that if you put yourself and your writing out there, sometimes you’ll get good reviews, sometimes bad, but you have to be tough enough to take it. A cup of tea and a chocolate ├ęclair (or a box of them) usually gets me through the worst of it. After all, if I use good reviews to promote my work I can hardly be hypocritical enough to criticise the poor ones. I know that my writing will never be to everyone’s taste. I'd even go so far as to admit that some of my books are better than others although I always try to write the best book I can. And reviewing is a tough job. I know because I’ve done it in the past. Writing an insightful and intelligent review is hard and kudos to those who do it. If an intelligent review is critical of my books then, to paraphrase Voltaire, I may not like what the reviewer has to say but I’ll defend to the death (well, pretty close anyway) their right to say it.

But recently I’ve noticed an exception to this rule in myself. It happens when someone criticises my historical research or my lack of historical depth. Then I become like a crazed madwoman with a red mist before my eyes and I can’t quite work out why this bothers me so much. Goodness knows, I occasionally make mistakes with historical detail and I put my hand up to it. I try very hard not to get caught out, I read and research widely, but it happens. I’ll never forget the letter I received from a reader about a mistake in one of my early books. It started well: “I enjoyed your book The Blanchland Secret very much…” and then there was a big BUT. What followed were two pages, with diagrams, on how my heroine had written and folded a letter incorrectly in the story. I wrote back thanking the reader and I’ve kept her letter to this day. I liked the fact that she had explained to me exactly what my mistake was and I loved the pictures. What I don’t like are throwaway lines about lack of historical research or lack of depth without any evidence to back them up.

My Brides of Fortune Regency historical trilogy is set in a fictitious village in Yorkshire at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It’s not set in London, it’s not set in Bath; in that sense it’s different. Perhaps it’s the fact that the village is imaginary that has led a couple of reviewers to think that fictitious means not anchored in historical fact. In fact the village of Fortune’s Folly is modelled on the spa town of Harrogate and I had a great deal of fun researching Harrogate in the early nineteenth century as background for the book. Then there are the medieval laws invoked in the story. These are all genuine and again I had fabulous fun checking out the childwite (payable when you had fathered an illegitimate child) and the amoeber (payable to the lord in lieu of him spending the wedding night with the bride.) I made Fortune’s Folly a religious settlement in medieval times in order to get around the repeal of all these laws in the seventeenth century. I could go on (and on) but I won’t because I don’t want to whine too much. For those who are interested, I'll be posting up some detail on the historical background to the trilogy on my website (oh, and some good reviews as well!)


Ok, I’ve stuck my head above the parapet. I’ll stick it back in a history book now!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jane Austen at the Swindon Festival of Literature!


Literary Festivals are marvellous things. They are full of thought-provoking talks on topics that can give you endless story ideas, you can meet famous authors who make you feel great because it turns out they experience exactly the same writing process that you do, and you can give your credit card a really good work out.

Over the past 10 days I’ve been attending various events at the Swindon Literature Festival. Now in its 16th year the festival is beautifully run by Matt Holland and always provides a fascinating programme with a great mix of writers, thinkers, philosophers and storytellers. Last week I heard the ever-entertaining Julian Clary talk about his latest novel, I went to a talk by Professor Kathleen Burk about the historical and current relationship between Britain and America and I went to a Philosophy Society discussion on the nature of friendship. And today I sallied forth to hear Claire Harman talking about her book Jane’s Fame, an exploration of how Jane Austen conquered the world.

The talk proved to be a wonderful scamper through the history of Jane Austen’s popularity from her attempts to achieve publication (great encouragement for aspiring writers there as she was rejected on several occasions and it took years for her first book to be published) to her powerful influence on contemporary phenomena such as chick-lit, romantic comedy, the heritage industry and film. We covered the ground from books written by “A Lady”, or “Lady A” as her publisher described her, possibly with deliberate misdirection, to Jane Austen and zombies, vampires and various other paranormal phenomenon.

I loved hearing anecdotes about the time that Jane’s niece Anna picked up a copy of Sense and Sensibility at the circulating library and, not knowing that her aunt was the author, put it down again saying she could tell that it would be boring simply from reading the title. Claire Harman also touched on Jane Austen’s first fan – a Miss Sheriff who was recommended Jane Austen’s works by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and became such a devotee that she wanted her carriage to break down at Chawton so she could knock on Jane’s door asking for help. Also interesting was the fact that Annabella Milbanke, who went on to have such an ill-fated marriage to Lord Byron, was one of the first ladies who found Mr Darcy incredibly attractive. Perhaps that explains why things didn’t work out for her with Byron. He couldn’t live up to Darcy. And who would have thought that James Fenimore Cooper’s first novel was called Precaution and bore more than a passing resemblance to Persuasion? These and other vignettes were slipped into the talk to make a fascinating whole.

Jane Austen’s popularity experienced various peaks and troughs in the Victorian era and whilst some critics were so fulsome in their praise they were practically suggesting canonisation for her, others were less complimentary, including Mark Twain who commented: “Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” That’s something to remember, perhaps, if one receives a critical review. You can please thousands of readers but not everyone! Claire Harman commented that it was the illustrations that accompanied William Austen Leigh’s biography of Jane Austen that did much to increase her appeal as the "Divine Jane". The pictures were soft and pretty and Jane was portrayed as a domestic angel – no wandering about on the moors for her, unlike the Bronte sisters!

I had not heard previously that during the First World War many British troops read Jane Austen for nostalgic reasons, for reassurance and for a reminder of home. Her dissection of character and her descriptions of village life were exactly what they wanted in such violent, disturbing and alien a place as a theatre of war.


And so to the present, and the proliferation of fan clubs, films, TV adaptations and fiction inspired by Jane Austen’s work. We were running short of time by now and so there was no analysis of what it is about Jane Austen’s books that might make another author choose to re-write Pride and Prejudice with added zombies. This was a topic that I would have found very interesting. I suppose it was also inevitable that Claire Harman referred to romantic fiction in a somewhat derogatory way, with even Georgette Heyer being called “lowbrow.” This, as always, made me bristle for the generalisations and value judgements involved, particularly since Claire Harman also mentioned the Colin Firth wet shirt moment in the 1995 TV version of Pride and Prejudice with something approaching gushing approval. I wish that commentators could see the contradiction in their own words at times like this; it reminds me of those newspapers that are so snooty about romantic fiction in film, TV and book reviews and then print lonely hearts advertisements on the next page without apparently seeing the hypocrisy of their actions. Anyway, a point about the Jane Austen films and TV adaptations that was well made was that many people who have seen the adaptations but never read the books are convinced that the wet shirt Darcy moment actually existed in the original and so their “experience” of Jane Austen is different from that of a reader.

All in all this was the sort of public history I love the best, not a biography of Jane Austen or a critique of her work but a witty and interesting analysis of the “Jane phenomena” from the time she was writing to the present day.