Friday, June 6, 2014

My Writing Process: A Little Music, a Lot of Coffee

By Nancy Bilyeau

The Sister Queens
It's my turn to leap--or would the correct verb be hop?--onto the My Writing Process blog tour. I've been tagged by two talented novelists: David Abrams, author of the award-winning satiric war novel Fobbit, and Sophie Perinot, who wrote The Sister Queens, one of my favorite historical novels (get to know her in my interview.) I was supposed to blog in April to follow up on Sophie's lead, and, well, that didn't happen. Explanation to follow, a respectable one, I hope. David tagged me much more recently, and I decided to go ahead and talk process. This is always an interesting exercise because when you have to answer these questions, it makes you realize things about how you do your work. In my case, I faced the fact that my process is a little contradictory.

The idea here is to answer four questions, then pass the hat to other authors to answer the same--it's a great way to learn about some new writers. I'll tag my chosen at the bottom of this post. Don't miss them!

Ready? Let's go...

1. What are you working on?

I've just finished my third novel, The Tapestry and turned it in to my editor at Touchstone/Simon&Schuster. I love writing a series and so I eagerly signed on to writing a third book in one year's time. My first novel, The Crown, took five years to research and write. I left my editing job at InStyle magazine to devote myself to writing the second novel, The Chalice, and completed it in 14 months. Somehow I thought that even though I'd returned to magazine editing full-time, and I have two children at home, I could write a third novel in a year. I'm very proud that I finished my book--and excited about the story and the characters and the history I'm bringing to life--but it wasn't easy. Some things fell by the wayside, including my first opportunity to blog about my process. Sorry, Sophie! I expect to receive my editor's notes any minute, and then must jump on the edits of the book, to ensure it will be ready for a March 2015 publication date.

Signing The Chalice at BEA

My next project is top-secret. Sorry, my agent insists. But I can tell you that while it's also a historical thriller, it's a more personal story than anything I've written before.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Bishop Gardiner, antagonist
My books are a fusion of historical novel and thriller. My protagonist, Joanna Stafford, is fictional, as are several other key characters, but I also populate the books with real people from history, ranging from Henry VIII and Bishop Stephen Gardiner to George Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. There are other Tudor-era mysteries and thrillers on the market, including the excellent books penned by C.J. Sansom, C.W. Gortner and S.J. Parris. My books differ from those in my protagonist's calling in life and her point of view: When The Crown begins, she is a Dominican novice, during a time when Henry VIII was determined to break from Rome. There are few (if any) novels set in the Tudor era that take the Catholic side in the Reformation. I'm fortunate to find a readership of people intrigued by this perspective. As my English friend Harriet says, "It's interesting to read about this from the point of view of the losers!" The final point of difference is the touch of mysticism running through my novels, drawing on historically accurate beliefs in relics, prophecy and sorcery.

3.) Why do you write what you do?

Glenda Jackson, an unforgettable Elizabeth I.
I'm writing the books I would love to read. I've been a voracious fan of historical fiction since I was 12 years old, and that's about the time I fell in love with the Tudor period as well. I was so smitten with the PBS series "Elizabeth R," starring the incomparable Glenda Jackson, that it launched me on a life of buying just about every biography and nonfiction book written on the Tudor period. I never thought I would write a book set in that time myself, I was a magazine editor and writer dabbling in screenwriting. Then, in 2005, I was invited to participate in a fiction workshop; I'd never published even a short story at that point. I walked into the workshop with a tentative plan to write a mystery set in the 16th century. Once I decided on my main character, a half-Spanish novice hoping to become a nun, her story took hold of me, body and soul. Joanna Stafford— intelligent, stubborn, pious, loyal, impulsive, hot-tempered—is someone who is very much alive to me.

4.) How does your writing process work?

Because I come from the magazine world, I follow some of the principles of magazine writing. One is that the "lede," the beginning, is very important. With each of my novels, I worked hard on the opening paragraph and in particular the first sentence:

The Crown: "When a burning is announced, the taverns off Smithfield Square order extra barrels of ale, but when the person to be executed is a woman and one of noble birth, the ale comes by the cartload."

The Chalice: "When preparing for martyrdom on the night of December 28, 1538, I did not think of those I love."

In constructing my novels, I follow a loose outline. By loose I don't mean that I haven't any idea of where the book is going. I figure out major plot points and an ending before I start writing. But I think it's important to keep the writing open to improvisation, to surprises. I feel that when books are plotted in detail ahead and follow it exactly, the story has a faintly predictable air. When I am tapping on my keyboard and inspiration hits, it can lead to some exciting choices. It almost feels like someone whispering in my ear, "I'm here! I'm here!"

I believe in revising, that is another thing I bring with me from magazines. I never get writer's block, because I know that even the roughest prose can be revised and made smooth. But still,  I can't write as fast as some other authors. Stephen King thinks novelists should be able to produce 2,000 words a day. Even if I have the whole day to write, I rarely can manage more than 500. It might be because my books are written in a specific style: first person narration, stripped of modern expressions. My engine simply runs out of gas after 500 words or so.

Inspiration: The Cloisters Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

My favorite time to write is early morning, just before dawn. I listen to some music--I particularly like composers Trevor Morris and Wojciech Kilar--drink strong coffee and then fling myself at the keyboard. If I'm not happy with what I'm writing, I take long walks alone. When I need serious inspiration, I head for St Patrick's Cathedral or the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That's it! Please check out the posts from these wonderful writers next week:

Peter Andrews is a full-time, independent writer of speeches, articles, novels, screenplays, and blogs. He has dozens of short stories and hundreds of nonfiction articles in print. He has worked professionally in PR, and as a Web producer, speechwriter, and radio producer. He is the author of the popular How To Write Fast Blog,

Beth von Staats is a historical fiction short story writer and administrator/owner of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers ( Beth's short story compilation focuses on the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I through the life experiences of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and a host of other Tudor era historical figures. Some of her short stories are published on the website.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading about your process. I really enjoy your books and look forward to each one......