Need a suggestion for what to read over the Thanksgiving holiday? The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick is a dual timeline historical mystery that should definitely be on your must read list! The story goes between the Tudor era mystery surrounding the death of Amy Robsart (the wife of Robert Dudley and favorite of Queen Elizabeth) and the modern day characters Lizzie Kingdom and Johnny Robsart are very much tied to the past.
In this interview Nicola shares about how working as a historian and guide in a seventeenth century house serves as a source of inspiration, which historical figure she would like to be for a day and a sneak peek at her next novel that will be released next summer.
When did you first come up with the storyline for The Forgotten Sister?
I’ve been fascinated by the Tudor era mystery of the death of Amy Robsart for years and wanted to research and write about her. However, I knew that I wanted to approach the book as a dual time story with a historical mystery that is solved in the present. Thinking about that led me to create the modern-day character of Lizzie, because I was looking for contemporary parallels with the Tudor court. A celebrity setting seemed the perfect contemporary comparison with the exciting, frenetic world of Elizabeth I’s court. After that Amy and Lizzie’s stories developed as mirrors or each other.
How does working as a historian and guide in a seventeenth century house (Ashdown House) serve as inspiration for your work?
It’s a huge privilege to be able to work in a number of different historic buildings, especially Ashdown House and Lydiard House. When you step through the door you are surrounded by the layers of history that make up their stories. It creates such a strong atmosphere. The past is tangible there and the stories of the people who inhabited these places down the centuries are waiting to be told. It feel incredibly inspiring.
What drew you to the character of Amy Robsart and the mystery surrounding her death?
I enjoy researching and writing about lesser-known women from the footnotes of history and Amy is just such a woman. She is most famous for the way in which she died – did she fall, did she jump, or was she pushed to her death to enable her husband to marry Queen Elizabeth I? Amy’s own story has been eclipsed by Robert Dudley and Elizabeth’s love story for so long; I wanted to reclaim her, find out about her as a person, and tell a well-known mystery from a different point of view.
What did you enjoy the most about researching the Tudor time period for the novel, and tying in a modern day connection?
The Tudor era is such a rich one to explore. I love visiting the places where my protagonists lived; the palaces, manor houses, towns and villages that they knew. It brings me closer to them to stand in a place I know that they have been and imagine what that would have looked, felt, sounded even smelled like! I also love reading letters from that era. It takes you straight into the mind of the writers.
Do you find writing a dual timeline book (which is so enjoyable to read) difficult, or do enjoy switching between the time periods/characters?
Both! I do enjoy switching between time periods and characters because there are such strong connections between the two and I think – I hope – it enhances both stories and brings a richness to the book in the way that the different threads come together. That said, I find dual timeline books very difficult to write, firstly because I’m not by nature a writer who plans carefully. I prefer to write organically and for the book to develop as I go along. With dual time though, you need to plot out a lot of the connections first and this doesn’t come easily to me. Also, with a dual timeline you are effectively trying to tell two stories in one, and both need to be fully-rounded, interesting and rich in their own right as well as fitting neatly together. It’s a tall order within a limited word count.
If you could have met Amy Robsart in real life, what would have asked her?
I’d want to talk to her about the things that interested her and made up her life – did she read, did she like music, was she any good at needlework? I want to get to know her as a real person.
If you could spend the day as any historical figure, who would it be?
That’s a great question! There are a lot of historical figures who fascinate me but I’m not sure I’d want to be them, even if it was only for one day, in case I inadvertently altered the course of history, or was tempted to do something I shouldn’t! And it would depend on which day as well… You wouldn’t want to visit Tudor England as Anne Boleyn only to find she was on trial for her life. You can see I’m not a natural time-traveler. I have too many caveats! However, if I had to choose I think I’d choose to be Jane Austen for a day. I’d love to know her writing process.
Out of all of the novels you’ve written, do you have a personal favorite?
It’s so difficult to choose favourites, but the book of my heart has to be House of Shadows, my first multiple timeline novel, which is set in the 17th century, the Regency period and the present. It’s based on Ashdown House and on all the research I’ve done over the years into the history of the house, the Craven family who owned it, and Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen. I loved writing that book and it was the fulfilment of a dream.
In addition to writing, you also give talks on historical research and writing. What do you enjoy most about talking to those who share your love of history?
I have a passion for history and I love meeting other people who are enthusiastic and interested it. Not only do the talks enable me to share my own historical knowledge but so often I learn fascinating things from members of the audience. It’s wonderful to chat to like-minded people!
Are you working on your next novel and if so, can we get a sneak peek?
I’m in the process of revising my next book which is called The Last Daughter and will be published in summer 2021. It’s another dual timeline book, this time set during the 15th century Wars of the Roses and the present day. I’ve wanted to write a book featuring King Richard III for a very long time. Finally it’s on the way and it’s time to the modern-day story of a young woman whose sister has gone missing.