The RONA shortlists: Christina Courtenay on The Gilded Fan

Richard Lee

Christina Courtenay is shortlisted for the Romantic Historical Novel Prize. See the other shortlisted historical titles for the Romantic Novel of The Year. The winner will be announced on Monday 17th March 2014.


What was the initial inspiration for this story ? Did the idea stay true throughout the writing? What elements came unexpectedly, serendipitously, fortuitously? 

The initial inspiration for The Gilded Fan was a rock ballad by Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (Temple of the King, which has Oriental references in the lyrics).  For some reason listening to that made a scene pop into my head and this grew into a story about a half-Japanese girl who has to travel to England just as the Civil War is about to start.  The basic idea remained the same, but the book went through umpteen rewrites (as they do).

Seredipitously, I was able to visit Japan and travel to Nagasaki to see Dejima, the site where foreign traders were permitted to stay while trading with the Japanese in the 17th century.  Originally, it was a tiny man-made island, which the foreigners were not allowed to leave – they couldn’t go onto the mainland.  It was wonderful to see it first-hand and experience how very small it was!

My favourite scene in the book is when my heroine surprises the (much bigger) hero by knocking him flat on his back with a well-executed judo-style manouvre – not something he’d ever have expected, I’m sure.

History and romance, or romance and history? Do you feel you write history first, romance second, or the other way round? How did the history inform the romance in this novel? How was romance ‘different’ then, and what remains the same? How have you exploited that in this novel? Are there areas of romance that you feel you cannot explore in a historical context (or in a modern context)?

I write romance first, with the history as background.  For me, the love story is the most important element, although of course I want to get all the historical facts as accurate as I possibly can.

For this particular novel, I used real historical events quite a lot – for example, the Japanese ruler evicted all foreigners in 1641, which gave me the perfect reason for my heroine to have to leave.  And of course, a year later when she arrives in England, the Civil War is just starting, so she has to get involved with that.  Plymouth, where she ends up, was the only town in the West Country not to fall to the Royalists at all, which made for a very interesting background.  (Especially as I personally prefer the Royalist cause so had to try to see things from a different perspective.)

The heroine, despite being trained in fighting techniques and other manly pursuits, doesn’t feel she is independent.  She is used to obeying the head of the family, whoever that might be, no matter the cost to herself.  I did exploit that for the story.   I don’t feel there are any areas of romance that can’t be explored though, it just depends on what suits a particular story.

Which writers have most influenced your work? Where would you like your writing to go next? What do you think is missing for modern readers? What kinds of things are writers doing now that is better than older school writers of historical romance?

I’ve been inspired by lots of different authors. Georgette Heyer, Barbara Erskine, Ellis Peters and Susanna Kearsley are among my favourites.  With my own writing, I would like to continue to write more novels of this kind, but also more time slip stories as they are my own personal favourites.

As to what writers are doing now that is better, I think perhaps the fact that they are less wordy with shorter descriptions and they get to the actual story faster.  I do love the classic historical romances, but I think readers today have less time and patience, and want to get to the action rather than having 100 pages of scene-setting first.

Cathie Earnshaw or Elizabeth Bennett? – Elizabeth Benneth – love her wit!

Shabby chic or National Trust? – Love both.

Jamie Fraser or the Scarlet Pimpernel? – Jamie Fraser any day

Call the Midwife or Downton Abbey? – Neither, although Downton Abbey if I had to choose

Glastonbury Abbey or Wells Cathedral?? – Glastonbury Abbey, so atmospheric.

Dinner with… Tony Robinson or Dan Snow? – Neither, thanks!

Share a panel with… Lucy Worsley or Bettany Hughes? – Bettany Hughes

Movie or theatre? – Love going to the movies

Wolf Hall or The Other Boleyn Girl? – Wolf Hall

15 Folgate Street, or the Duke Humphrey Library? – Both!

Rococco or Greek Revival? – Both


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