Nicola Cornick is a writer and historian who was born and brought up in the north of England. She left the world of academia to become a full-time author and loves to write dual timeframe novels inspired by the history and legends of her local area.
Transported in time and place – Nicola Cornick, The Phantom Tree
As a reader of historical fiction first and a writer later, the concept of being transported through time and space via the medium of books has always intrigued me. As a child I didn’t travel far from home and so my reading became the way in which I learned about different and exotic experiences, from boarding schools to boating holidays. As I grew older the appeal of the past as a “foreign country” took hold of me. I wanted to travel back. I wanted to be transported via my imagination and the words on the page to another time and place, one of magic and vivid experience.
Writing dual time Gothic fiction, I use the idea of transporting a reader in several different ways. Firstly there is the historical research that provides an authentic framework for the book. In the case of The Phantom Tree, I was writing a book set in the later Tudor period of English history, so I read a lot of general political and social histories of the period before focussing in on the details of everyday life in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – what people wore, what they ate, how they travelled. These elements are the threads that come together to create the background tapestry which I hope will help to build the world in which the story takes place.
The next layer of world-building comes from specific details and for this I study letters, portraits and diaries; this feels as though it puts me within touching distance of the people about whom I’m writing, the things that were important to them and their daily pre-occupations. I love the information that material objects can provide to a researcher. The Phantom Tree was inspired in part by a little portrait of a Tudor lady that belongs to a member of my family. As soon as I saw it I was fascinated; I wanted to know who she was and to tell her story. So I studied the style of clothes, the colours, the background imagery, all the while building up an imaginative picture of who she might be.
My favourite part of the research process however, comes from visiting the place where I am setting a book and experiencing it for myself. The Phantom Tree is set in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire and I spent many hours wandering along the paths and bridleways, losing myself amongst the trees. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what Savernake would have been like four hundred years ago. Studying the forest through the seasons, the plants, animals and insects, the way that the mist hangs over the fields in the autumn and the sun cuts through the leaves in the summer… All of these give richness and texture to the imaginative world I hope to create. So do the local myths and legends that I build into the story. Visiting Wolf Hall, the iconic home of the Seymour family in the forest, was the ultimate inspiration, especially when I went on a tour of the Tudor sewers under the house! You can’t get closer to the traces of history than that! [And yes, that’s Nicola coming up from the sewers!]
I’ve never been able to paint but I visualise the process of creating my imaginary world as a picture in which layer upon layer of detail is added, from the frame that surrounds it to the tiniest figure in the corner. I aim to take all the different elements that have made up my research and through vivid description, conjure a time and place that is waiting to welcome the reader in.
Below is an extract from the book where the heroine, Mary Seymour, experiences the forest as a child.
“Forests were full of concealment and surprise and I had known that from the beginning. I took delight in exploring Savernake. It was by no means an empty land. It seethed with people: Sir Edward’s Ranger, the foresters, the villagers whose pigs grubbed for nuts in the undergrowth in the autumn, the poachers who risked their lives to take the Queen’s deer, thieves, gypsies, runaways, witches. I saw them all and avoided them as much as I could, slipping between the trees like a wraith, like a hind.
Now that I had a bedchamber to myself it was easy enough to slip away at night, simply by climbing down the ivy that covered the old brick wall of the manor. I knew every ancient oak in the forest now including the one that marked the boundary of Edward’s land with its huge bulging belly. It was rumoured to be the oldest tree in the woods, already ancient when the Conqueror had claimed Savernake along with the rest of the kingdom, a tree in possession of old magic. I had heard Dame Margery whispering to the scullery maid, with many gestures to ward off evil, that the witches sought its power to summon the devil. I could imagine that they did and I shuddered to think of it. Old magic was dangerous and unpredictable. Even though I had never dealt in it myself but I had an instinct for it, never knowing where my knowledge had come from, only knowing that I saw and heard things that others did not. However the threat of heresy, of witchcraft, haunted my every step. I thought of my mother and longed for an ordinary life, free of visions, untouched by magic.”
Many thanks for sharing your perspective with us, Nicola. I’m sure readers will enjoy being transported to Tudor times in Wolf Hall and Savernake Forest.
The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick
“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”
Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.
The painting is more than just a beautiful object for Alison – it holds the key to a past life, the unlocking of the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.
But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.