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.


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

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Who Was the OTHER Other Boleyn Girl?

I enjoy blogging on English Historical Fiction Authors. I've been a member since 2011! To coincide with the paperback release of The Tapestry, I turned to the Boleyn family and wrote about a woman who's long intrigued me, one who was born with the same name as Henry VIII's second wife.

Anne Boleyn, whose married name was Anne Shelton, got caught in the middle of a horrible family... well, the word "fight" doesn't begin to cover this, since Henry VIII set out to break the will of his eldest daughter, Mary Tudor, and may very well have considered having her killed. And Anne Shelton, who the king and queen were counting on to play the heavy, didn't want to do it.

To learn more, read my blog post here.

Bonus: I found an intriguing link between the Boleyn family and Prince William.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

'The Tapestry' Goes On Sale as a Paperback Today!

I'm delighted to tell you that today, March 22nd, The Tapestry is available in paperback. The entire trilogy, The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, is out in paperback, hardcover, ebook and audiobook.

Yes, I'm feeling emotional. This all began with the publication in 2012 of my debut, The Crown, which was fortunate enough to be an Oprah pick and earn reviews in Oprah, Parade, Entertainment Weekly, and Woman's Day. It's been a lot of work and, if you'll excuse the cliche, a roller-coaster ride: thrilling highs and teary lows. I'm very grateful to the team at Touchstone (S&S) and to the friends who supported me and the experts who helped me with fact checking. 

 Now it's the turn of The Tapestry!


April 1540: Henry VIII's Palace of Whitehall is the last place on earth Joanna Stafford wants to be. But a summons from the king cannot be refused! After her priory was destroyed, Joanna, a young Dominican novice, vowed to live a quiet life. That all changes when the king takes an interest in her tapestry talent. With a ruthless monarch tiring of his fourth wife and amoral noblemen driven by hidden agendas, Joanna becomes entangled in Tudor court politics. Her close friend, Catherine Howard, is rumored to be the king's mistress, and Joanna is determined to protect her from becoming the king's next wife—and victim. All the while, Joanna tries to stay ahead of a plot against her own life, directed by men in the shadows with power and access. Who can she trust—the constable who once saved her life or the friar she can’t forget? Wife or nun, subject or spy, Joanna must finally choose her fate.


“Nancy Bilyeau's passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy, and this third book will not fail to thrill readers. Warmly recommended!” (Bestselling author Alison Weir)

“Bilyeau’s rendering of the court and its diverse personalities and the very smells and sounds of the streets are intensely evoked. A lot of fun, and highly recommended.” (Historical Novel Society, Editor's Choice)

“Fans of the Tudor era, you’re in for a treat!” 
InStyle magazine

“Illuminated by Bilyeau’s vivid prose, minor players of Tudor England emerge from the shadows.”
Kirkus Reviews

"This final book in the Joanna Stafford series brings more mystery, danger and intrigue in Tudor England. Readers familiar with the story of Henry VIII and his many wives will recognize some of the events. However, Bilyeau gives us more. She provides historical detail of conditions in England and Europe and treats us to lesser-known possibilities and motives for the tragic events that unfold. Bilyeau creates a fascinating framework for this story of a popular historical period." 
Romantic Times review

"This is a true historical thriller. It's a Tudor novel full of suspense, intrigue, brutality, and death, It's a well researched page turner. If you're looking for an exciting historical read, this will be on your list."
— review 

“A master of atmosphere, Nancy Bilyeau imbues her novel with the sense of dread and oppression lurking behind the royal glamour; in her descriptions and characterizations . . . Bilyeau breathes life into history.”(Laura Andersen, author of The Boleyn King

"A rip-roaring Tudor adventure from Nancy Bilyeau! Novice nun turned tapestry weaver Joanna Stafford returns to the court of Henry VIII. She's that great rarity of historical fiction: a fiercely independent woman who is still firmly of her time. A mystery as richly woven as any of Joanna's tapestries." (Kate Quinn, author of Lady of the Eternal City)

"The Tapestry takes its history seriously, but that doesn't stop it from being a supremely deft, clever and pacy entertainment. This is Nancy Bilyeau's most thrilling - and enlightening - novel in the Joanna Stafford series yet." (Andrew Pyper, International Thriller Writers Award winner of The Demonologist and The Damned)


The trilogy is on sale in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. The Crown and The Chalice are on sale in Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Poland, with publication of The Tapestry coming soon in Germany.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Leaving England Behind in My Tudor Trilogy

In my novels featuring Sister Joanna Stafford, a headstrong novice at a Dominican Order outside of London, the story leaves England not once but twice.

What? you may be thinking.

Isn't the point of writing Tudor fiction to dig deep into the excitement of the English court? Yes and no.

Obviously I'm interested in life at the court of Henry VIII, or I wouldn't have written these books. But there were fascinating monarchs living outside of England during the same period, from Valois to Hapsburg and many more. Rome, Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Regensburg, Lisbon, Antwerp. There are locations both beautiful and terrifying to write about.

I received a reader letter last week that supported Joanna's journeys.

Hi Nancy:
Absolutely love your Sister Joanna books, so does my mom, who is 93. I’ve always been a history buff and really admire writers who have the ability to weave a novel around historical events and characters. You’ve definitely got that dialed in.
I happened to pick up The Chalice, after reading the book jacket synopsis and discovered part of the story is set in Belgium, where I was born. Ghent to be precise. Needless to say I have been to Het Gravensteen, as a visitor, of course and the other locations you mention. Brought back some nice memories.
My mother was born in Germany (lived 11 years in Belgium after WW2) and she equally loves history. She liked The Tapestry a lot because part of the story is set in Germany. After reading The Chalice, I went out and bought both The Crown and The Tapestry . Awesome, awesome storytelling!!! 

For those who haven't read The Chalice, Joanna is imprisoned in Het Gravensteen in Ghent after she opposes the powerful. I picked her stone prison with care. It was built in 1180 by Phillip, count of Flanders, modeled after crusaders' castles. Later it became a center of the feudal court, a place of trials. The accused were held there before trial and sometimes tortured to wring confessions from them. There was no escape.

Eerie, isn't it? And that's the other reason I set my characters loose in my books. They are suspense-fiction, and thrillers need to move. Modern thrillers send characters around the world, by sports car, jet and high-speed train. Now those travel options aren't available to me in 1539. :) But with some imagination, my characters can set sail! To be honest, the chapters I've written in which Joanna is traveling to Antwerp, Ghent, Calais, Brussels, Regensburg or Heidelberg, sometimes on a mission and sometimes hurtling through them in fear of her life, are some of the most exhilarating to create. I feel more "free" somehow when my characters are set loose outside of England. I wonder if other historical novelists feel the same way...

Thursday, March 17, 2016

My Family & the Legend of the O'Neills

When I was nine years old, I was pulled from class on St. Patrick's Day as the student who looked the most Irish at Daniel Webster Elementary School in Livonia, Michigan, and paraded around during a brief celebration. It wasn't just the green shirt my mother handed me for the day, it's my appearance: red hair, pale freckled complexion, and bluish-green eyes.

Now, I'm only part Irish. I'm also French, English, German, and Dutch. A typical American mix. The Irish descent comes through my grandfather, Francis Aloysius O'Neill. His grandfather immigrated from Ireland in the mid-19th century, settling in Indiana. My grandfather was an accountant who became a businessman in Chicago, the city of my birth.

I learned about the Bloody Hand of O'Neill from my Uncle Frank, who followed my grandfather into business. Uncle Frank always took a lively interest in family history.  He told me that our family "crest" was a severed bloody hand in honor of a centuries' old legend. An ancient O'Neill king cut off his own hand. It was during a boat race--the winner would be given an island, and he hacked it off and threw it so he could be the first to "touch" a coveted island and thus win it for his clan.

Say what?

Having a pragmatic mind (on occasion), I got stuck on the proposition that someone cut off his hand mid-race and then, amid the shock, pain and blood loss, threw it a long distance. Even if it were possible, who would want to? We in the extended family of O'Neills can, it's true, perform acts not entirely in our best interest. Hand-severing mid-race is rather extreme.

                                                             Hugh O'Neill

I've long been proud of the achievements of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, who gave Queen Elizabeth I such a hard time. He was a military strategist and skilled politician. If anyone's hand was to be hacked, it wouldn't be his.

Imagine my surprise when, several years ago, I did some idle Googling and found a wealth of family crests featuring a bloody hand.
The usual crest

More extreme!

A bit more poking about revealed re-tellings of the ancient king's self-severing. The stories vary dramatically. The O'Neill was actually an Irish mercenary on a Viking longboat closing in in Ulster and scooped the prize for himself through his hand toss. Or was he an even older clan leader who claimed the entire island of Ireland? A favorite theory: The hero in question was Niall of the Nine Hostages (a name that sounds like a joint brainstorming session between George R.R. Martin and Charlaine Harris), who lived in the Fifth Century.

According to the University of Notre Dame's O'Neill Hall:

"The furious race narrowed to two boaters and Niall, seeing his rival edging ahead, made a decision. He pulled out his battle axe, severed his left hand, and with his right hand threw it to shore, claiming the land for his descendants forever. The name O'Neill derives from 'uá Niáll.' "

To read the entire article, go here.

The O'Neill hand is actually the subject of an entire book published in 2007, Derek Lundy's The Bloody Red Hand: A Journey Through Truth, Myth and Terror in Northern Ireland. Its appearance holds a far greater importance than a symbol for one family. "The severed red hand still seems to be the perfect symbol for the province of Northern Ireland known officially as Northern Ireland," Lundy writes.

Or is it?

I found some articles published in recent years calling for a "reassessment of the ancient symbol." In other words, time to get rid of the hand.

Which I certainly understand. But at the same time ...  it's a shame.


Dedicating my blog post to Uncle Frank.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Taking a Chance On An Indie Bookstore

I went to Virginia last weekend, to visit my mother in her memory-care unit and spend time with my sister, who lives nearby.

Seeing my mother, who doesn't know her grandchildren's names or ages or what day of the week it is, can be very hard. This is a woman who watched Wall Street Week in Review every Friday, traveled to China, read every serious political biography.  I follow my sister's guidance on coping with the visits, which is to surround them with positive experiences: a garden tour, a museum, a walk by the river. 

This time I suggested stopping by a bookstore I'd wanted to find for over a year: One More Page Books, in Falls Church. I met one of the managers at Book Expo America, when I signed paperbacks of my second novel, The Chalice, at the Mystery Writers of America booth, and she seemed nice.

"This is always a risk," I warned my sister on the way to One More Page in her car. Some independent bookstores don't care for historical mysteries and fail to order them. Once I took my tender-hearted young son along when checking out a literary bookstore in Manhattan. When the clerk snootily said "Oh, no," to my question whether they'd ordered my first novel from Simon & Schuster, he cried on the sidewalk later. "They don't like you," he said. I hastily pointed out that it's nothing personal. But I hadn't taken a family member along on one of my expeditions to brick-and-mortar land since that tear-stained day.

It was a cool, cloudy Saturday morning when we slipped inside One More Page. Feeling nervous, I made my way to the fiction shelf, zeroed in on "B," and spotted The Chalice. I sighed with relief. My work was there. I decided to "out" myself and say hello to the manager, not the same person I met at BEA. She couldn't have been friendlier, and we had a lively conversation about historical novels on her sales table, from books by Lyndsay Faye and Leslie Parry to Sophie Perinot and Stephanie Dray. This is a store that happily carries historical fiction. Whew! I hope that when The Tapestry paperback comes out, they will stock it too.

My sister snapped a picture, and we were back in the car, on our way to see our mother. It was still a tough visit. Afterward, we headed for the National Gallery in Washington DC, and I tried to soothe my troubled soul by looking at Rembrandt and Holbein. 

But I'm grateful to One More Page, for starting the day with a feeling of warmth and welcome. It's not only for professional reasons that I support the independent bookstores, a vital force in the health of the publishing industry. It's also because personally, it feels nice to be part of their world.