January 25, 2012 at 10:52 am , by Ladies' Lounge
First-time novelist and today’s guest blogger Nancy Bilyeau was a features editor at Ladies’ Home Journal for three years. Here, Bilyeau tells the story of how her new novel, The Crown, morphed from a pipe dream into a reality. Plus, find out how to win a copy of her book at the end of the post!
“I want to write a novel set in sixteenth century England.”
That’s what I told the four people sitting in a circle in a small 5th-floor apartment in the West Village seven years ago. In a “What the heck?” spirit, I’d joined a fiction workshop held every Monday night. I wasn’t sure what kind of novel I wanted to write except the century I’d place it in. I’d loved Tudor history since I was 11 years old and saw The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth with my parents. Over the years, I kept coming back to biographies and historical fiction set in the 16th century. I enjoyed the drama of the personalities, the wars and the divorces, the excitement of the Renaissance—even the fashion.
I wanted to write a woman’s story, but I felt that plenty had already been written about the queens and princesses and ladies-in-waiting. I settled on a protagonist, Joanna Stafford, who was a nun. Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries when he broke from Rome and I was drawn to that turmoil. While most Tudor historical fiction takes the side of the Reformation, I thought it would be more interesting to explore what happened to the nuns, friars and monks whose lives were upended by this sweeping transformation.
My first pages were not good and my writing group, while perfectly polite, let me know. But I kept at it. I decided to make my story a thriller, and loved nothing more than losing myself in research and plotting my story. I read everything I could find on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the people at its center. My kind of book isn’t researched through Google: I spent hours at the New York Public Library, poring through the collections. I discovered some of the most exciting, little-known facts in books written more than a century ago. In some cases those writers had access to sources lost to us. I also started corresponding through emails with historians and curators in England. It took months for me to find out what a prisoner would eat while imprisoned in the Tower of London, but I did it! When I got a copy of a 16th century daily “meal sheet” (think mutton, mutton and more mutton), I danced around my apartment.
As with most working moms (I was a full-time magazine editor with two young children), time was a problem. I used vacations to work on my book; on weekends I’d steal a couple of hours here and there, toting my laptop to Starbucks. Sometimes I was exhausted or not in the mood, but I forced myself to tap out the sentences. To increase my output, I began getting up at 5 a.m. and writing until 7, when I had to wake up the kids. By this time I’d been working on my novel for five years. I couldn’t bear the thought of not finishing it, but even if I did, would I be able to sell it? My son has special needs and I worried that the last thing I should be doing was devoting energy to my own creative pursuits. What kind of mother stumbles around with her head in Tudor England? And yet I felt so excited when crafting my chapters and coming up with a new plot twist that when my attention returned to my family, it was with a smile.
I’d gone so far, and my dreams of being published were so fierce, I determined I just had to finish this book. I set my birthday, June 16, 2010, as the deadline. I made it—but I slept no more than four hours the night of June 15. At my annual birthday lunch with my college roommates, I could barely keep my eyes open.
Finally, I had a finished manuscript, clocking in at some 400 pages. By now, after five years of living with it on a daily, hourly, basis, I wanted nothing more than to get this novel off my hands, so I sent it to an agent. She rejected it; she liked my writing style, she said, but feared she couldn’t sell it in today’s “tough fiction market.” I sent it to another agent, but she wasn’t taking new clients. That was discouraging, but in my case, third time’s charm. I found someone who loves the Tudor period as much as I do and he signed me less than a week after receiving my first inquiry. To my amazement, he sold my book in an auction to Touchstone/Simon & Schuster and then to seven foreign publishers. Eighteen months later, The Crown has gone on sale. Sometimes I can’t believe it, that all the doubts in my head turned out to be wrong.
Not only is my first book in bookstores all over the country but I’ve also finished the second and am starting research on the third. Yes, it’s going to be a series: Move over, Stephanie Meyer. Now I wish someone would set up a block on my Internet so I can write my next book, instead of spending every waking minute checking The Crown’s Amazon rankings!
Intrigued? We’re giving away 10 copies of The Crown! Just post a comment below and you’ll automatically be entered to win!
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