An Author's Arctic Voyage

Historical author Nicola Cornick’s new series starter was inspired by her own Arctic adventure. Learn how a winter wonderland became fodder for the regency romance, Whisper of Scandal. And don’t miss the excerpt of this new novel at the end of the post!

Unusual backgrounds and settings have always inspired me. I love to read them and I love to write them. Right from my very first book, which featured a Somerset cider wassail, I’ve enjoyed incorporating different elements into my Regency historicals. Whether this takes the form of a plot twist or a setting doesn’t really matter but there is always something unusual going on!

With Whisper of Scandal I have taken this to a new level by setting the book in Regency London – and the Arctic. Two years ago I was on a small cruise ship sailing around the island of Spitzbergen in the Arctic Circle. It was the most extraordinary trip of my life. The land was stunning – remote, lonely, beautiful. The history of the island was fascinating and I knew I wanted to set a book there. So the idea for Whisper of Scandal was born.


Once I started to research the history of Arctic exploration I could see that there was rich inspiration for a historical author. There were many expeditions during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to try to find a trade route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the North East passage. There were lots of young Navy officers anxious for adventure and promotion, including Horatio Nelson. They were resourceful, daring and extremely brave.


Unlike our comfortable ship, nineteenth century wooden sailing vessels offered very primitive conditions. It’s no wonder that my heroine Joanna did not enjoy the journey north on her ship Sea Witch! Heat, light and ventilation were inadequate and food was biscuits and salted meat. The crew were given box-cloth jackets, the heavy wool fabric worn by coachmen, and there was double pay. But the rigging and the spray literally froze, there was frostbite, and the prospect of all sorts of injury and sickness, even the chance of being eaten by polar bears. We saw a number of these huge predators in the wild and they were magnificent.


Nineteenth century Arctic crews had to have many talents. They needed to be able to do sewing, carpentry, sail-making, net-making, shoemaking and barbering as well as being required to have proficiency on three musical instruments. They had to be fit enough to haul sledges and navigate by the stars. When we were in the far North, though, there were no stars to navigate by as we had 24 hour daylight, which was very disorientating. You would go to bed in the light, wake and 2am to find the sun overhead, go to sleep again and wake again to broad daylight. 

If the expedition ships became trapped in the ice there was sometimes no alternative other than to over-winter, as it was called, finding a sheltered bay and hoping to survive the cold and the ice. There was total darkness in the winter called Morketiden, broken only by the moonlight. Cabin fever was a problem. Men risked madness, disease or both. Tempers frayed and the Navy realised it had to keep people busy. They therefore drew up a programme of activities: muster on deck at quarter to nine and running around the ship on the ice from ten until twelve on a torchlit track. With rather dark humour they called this a run around “Rotten Row”, named after Hyde Park! The musical and theatrical entertainments that the nineteenth century sailors put on in the evening were not so different from the barbecue and party that we enjoyed on deck one night under the midnight sun. And we too spent one memorable night downing vodka shots with the captain! 

Whisper of Scandal is the first in a trilogy of books with unusual backgrounds and I hope you have enjoyed a taste of my inspiration. For book 2 in the series, One Wicked Sin, I drew on the records of Napoleonic prisoners of War in England. My heroine, Lottie Palliser, is a courtesan who accepts the role of mistress to the most dangerous renegade prisoner of them all, Ethan Ryder, one of Napoleon’s most trusted cavalry commanders. It’s a book full of passion and treason and the conflict of loyalties that war can bring. Then in book 3, Mistress by Midnight, I use as backdrop another unusual event in British history; the London Beer Flood of 1814. Three books, three very different backgrounds!

- Nicola Cornick

Craving more Cornick? You can enjoy this EXCERPT of Whisper of Scandal. The series starter is available now. One Wicked Sin will be released in November and the series will conclude with Mistress by Midnight in December.