Monday, March 28, 2016

Crossing the Atlantic for My Historical Novel

By Nancy Bilyeau


On a July day in 2010, I took a train 40 minutes south of London Charing Cross to the town of Dartford. Armed with a well-studied map, I walked through the center of town, past shops and pubs on the High Street, past blocks of small houses, to a building called the Manor Gatehouse on Priory Road. Just inside is a registration office to record the births, marriages, and deaths that occur in Kent. The property is also a popular place for nuptials: Two rooms provide a place to hold the ceremony, and the sweeping walled garden yields some exquisite photos afterward. “Make your dreams come true,” boasts the advertisements.


My dream was indeed coming true as I stood in the garden, staring at the red-brick building, but it had nothing to do with a wedding. My husband of 20 years and two children were thousands of miles away in New York City. I’d come alone to England, at considerable expense, to see, among other things, this gatehouse, part of a royal manor raised by orders of King Henry VIII in 1538. It was built on the rubble of a demolished priory for Dominican sisters. And it is one of the places that appears in my novels.

My desire to write fiction set in England long ago comes from my love of that genre, a deep and lasting love that began when I was a child, watching “Elizabeth R” on “Masterpiece Theatre” with my parents in suburban Detroit. Today my daughter reads the adventures of Percy Jackson, by Rick Riordan. When I was her age, I devoured Mary Stewart’s tales of Merlin. I was a teenage bookworm; I went to bed with novels by Norah Lofts, Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton, reading until my eyes failed. My sister still jokes about how she’d be woken by a thundering noise. It was my library books falling off the bed as I turned over in my sleep.

I kept reading historical novels – and mysteries, too – as I grew older. I found the work of E.L. Doctorow, Mary Renault, Bernard Cornwell, Ellis Peters, Robert Graves, Caleb Carr, Ken Follett, Sarah Waters. I also devoured nonfiction about history, from the lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine all the way to the reign of Queen Victoria. But it was the 16th century that pulled at me the hardest. I cherished my books by Jasper Ridley, Garrett Mattingly and, most of all, Antonia Fraser. My pregnancy with my first child became difficult in the final two months, when I had to stop working as a magazine editor and go to bed, lying on my side to keep my son from being born prematurely. I was both frightened and bored, trapped in the tiny bedroom of our Upper West Side apartment, its window facing a narrow passageway. It was an unusually hot June. If I turned on the air conditioning, I froze; if I switched it off, I soon boiled again. Desperate to take my mind off this, I opened my paperback of Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots and read that opening chapter for the umpteenth time:

“The winter of 1542 was marked by tempestuous weather throughout the British Isles: in the north, on the borders of Scotland and England, there were heavy snow-falls in December and frosts so savage that by January the ships were frozen into the harbor at Newcastle…”

 I’ll be forever grateful to Fraser’s elegant, evocative prose for getting me through those weeks.



Ten years ago, in a fiction workshop I joined on impulse, I decided to try to write a novel that built on my devotion to English history and my knowledge of the time. I chose the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII and created a main character of a Dominican novice caught in the crosswinds of time.

I loved plotting my story, creating characters and ratcheting up the suspense. But months turned into years; the research became my obsession. I wanted to get it all right. In a strange way I felt I owed it to my beloved 16th century. I felt that a working knowledge of the Tudor time was not enough to write these novels. I needed to know what material a habit or a doublet was made of; how fast the horses drew the wagons; how large a bedroom would be; what a nun ate for breakfast. I turned to my journalist side and ended up “reporting” my book. Through email I chased down experts. For example, I found a curatorial intern at the Tower of London who sent me details of prisoners’ confinement, such as a PDF of the diet sheet of the king’s doomed uncle, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset. (He actually ate quite well.)

The details of the lives of the Dominican sisters were the most elusive of all. Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries destroyed their centuries’ old priory. For all of the Tudor nuns, not much remains, except for a few letters and wills. I read all the books I could find about medieval English monastics, and also the traditions of the abbeys in France and the Netherlands in the 16th century. A breakthrough came when I found at the New York Public Library, main branch, a book that helped me understand the lives of those who took vows in the 16th century: F.A. Gasquet’s English Monastic Life, published in 1904.

I knew that I wouldn’t uncover hidden treasures if I were to go in person to Dartford. I’d learned pretty much all I could thanks to my years of reading and the two helpful men who worked at the town’s small museum. But I wanted to walk the same ground that my Sister Joanna Stafford walked, in Dartford and in London. I zeroed in on a discount fare on Expedia and booked it, my hands trembling.

Why was I so overcome with emotion over arranging this trip? I was far from a sheltered person. I lived in New York City! As a journalist I’d been flown places. One magazine sent me to Austin, Texas, to interview Laura Bush. I’d had to be pretty tough from the beginning of my career. At my first job, a newspaper in Florida, I saw corpses, interviewed the police. I was once chased off someone’s property by two Dobermans.

Yet the nervous excitement over traveling to England to research my novels didn’t let up, it just kept building. I was set to take a red-eye flight from JFK to London. Expecting the food at the airport to be dire, I ate a cheese sandwich that evening, kissed my husband and children, and made my way to the front of our apartment, to take a cab to the airport. There was no line at the Virgin Atlantic counter; I was quite early for the flight. In the international terminal I spotted the glittering Caviar House and Prunier and, on impulse, ordered champagne. Next to me a couple dined on Chardonnay, crab legs and salad. So much for cruddy food at the airport! I sipped my drink and scribbled in a brown-leather Italian journal I’d bought just for this trip (it was too heavy to be easily toted around but I was determined to do this old school).

Some of the giddiness wore off after I found my seat in the back of the enormous plane: 63K. My neighbor was a man jabbering into his cell phone, calling his friend “Dude” every five seconds and complaining that the weather made his face break out and while in New York he’d fought with his girlfriend. But finally he had no choice but to turn off his phone and once that happened, he settled down.

The plane groaned to life. I wrote in my journal at 10:46 pm: “I am in this giant dark beast gliding down the runway. All the lights had to be turned off. There are tiny spotlights for reading. We are turning…we are in the air. Millions of sparkling lights below. The plane banks. I see a star. The Atlantic.”

I slept no more than 90 minutes on that flight. I kept lifting the window shade to peer at the black ocean. Once dawn peeked over the horizon, there was no question of rest. At 3:30 am East Coast Time, I had lemon cake and coffee. I was ready to go. Not even a grueling line at Heathrow’s customs could defeat me. I’d been advised to take a nap at the hotel, to orient myself to the new time zone. But I changed clothes and ran back onto the Strand. London awaited me.

It was late in the day when I found myself at the bank of the Thames and a statue of Boudicca, ferocious female warrior. It was also where the tour boats pick up customers. I had grown to loathe the tour buses and boats of New York City. But I eagerly paid for one here, for this was my way to the Tower of London. My main character, Sister Joanna, spent months in the Tower in The Crown. I couldn’t wait to walk across the grounds, peer into the cells.

After finishing our tour, the last one of the day, I could feel the exhaustion creeping over me. I headed for one of the fish-and-chips stalls facing the Tower of London and sat at a folding table, outside, nibbling the food. I gazed on the walls raised by William the Conqueror, the green where Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard lost their lives, the river that Princess Elizabeth’s boat took to convey her to her imprisonment.

And I was completely happy.



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This essay was written for Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales By English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2. For more information, go here




4 comments:

  1. Nice post Nancy - and just as an aside can I agree with you about Doctorow? His novel "The March" is one of the unsung gems of Historical Fiction

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  2. Enjoyed this, except your travel bug is contagious!

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  3. Thank you! And Doctorow amazes me.

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