From One of LHJ’s Own: “Why I Wrote a Historical Thriller” (And a book giveaway!)

January 25, 2012 at 10:52 am , by

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.

Nancy Bilyeau at the Cloisters in New York City. This medieval monastery-turned-museum helped inspire Bilyeau’s conception of the monastery in The Crown.

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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88 Responses to “From One of LHJ’s Own: “Why I Wrote a Historical Thriller” (And a book giveaway!)”

  1. Sounds like a must read!

  2. I would love to beable to read this story its sounds amazingly interesting!

  3. I love reading ‘period” novels.

  4. Looks like a great thriller that would keep a person in suspense!

  5. I would love to win this book. I enjoy reading books that are set in 16th century England.

  6. I’d love to check it out!

  7. Congratulations, Nancy! I love your story and am, anxious to read the book!

  8. I love historical fictions! I especially love that a features editor could add novelist to her resume. So many people don’t get to live their dreams and she did! A very inspiring story! The book must be great!

  9. This will be a real thriller and winner. Can’t wait to read it.

  10. I loved reading about the process she took to write the book. It inspired me to try my own hand at writing. Looking forward to reading her book.

  11. I’d love to win a free book. Sounds like a very good story. i never win anything, but….might as well try.

  12. I would love to win a copy – sounds exciting!

  13. Historical fiction, based in the time of the Tudors, but about a non-royal? AWESOME! Thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  14. Excellent!

  15. This is on my “Fire” wishlist.

  16. Sounds like a great book! Would love to win one of the copies.

  17. Sounds great! I would love to read it!

  18. I read ALL the time and I love thrillers – it would be sweet to get a copy of this book!

  19. This looks very interesting! Love books … love winning books!

  20. I love a good thriller and this is intriguing.
    If I don’t win it, I’ll definitey purchase it.

  21. What a welcome change for those of us who like historical fiction – on that is not written about the kings, queens etc.! Thank you!!!

  22. What an amazing labor of love! I look forward to immersing myself in your world.

  23. I’d love to read this!

  24. I only read fiction if it’s based on historical events. Sounds like an interesting read from the perspective of the nuns, friars and monks of the Reformation era.

  25. I love watching historical dramas and I’m sure I will enjoy reading the Crown.

  26. Sounds like a great book ! Can’t wait to read it !

  27. I love anything historical and know I would enjoy this book.

  28. Sounds like it will keep you reading,reading until thee end

  29. Wow! Sounds so exciting! I really look forward to reading this. History rocks!

  30. What an inspiring story for writers everywhere! Congratulations Nancy. I will definitely read this book and would love to win it.

  31. I love historical reading…sounds really interesting.

  32. I will recommend it to my book club! Thanks for sharing!!!

  33. The fascination of this time period has gripped me also. I remember parts of books I read in my pre-teen years like it was yesterday. Your comments on how this was also your favorite time in history echoed with mine. I’m so happy for you having accomplished this dream.

  34. Rule Breaker, Thriller – Mystery, Love Them,
    A must read!

  35. I often find people laughing at my love of history but Trivial Pursuit is conquered by my love and I almost always win! Many of my facts are learned knowledge from historical fiction. Can’t wait to get my fingers onto this new book!!!

  36. Very intriguing!!!

  37. Would very much like a free book, sounds very good

  38. Sounds like a fascinating story. 16th Century England has always been one of my favorite time periods to study. I would love to win a copy, and if I don’t I might end up getting it on Amazon. Good luck with your series.

  39. Can’t wait to read it. Winning it would be Great!

  40. I would like to read this book,it looks good.

  41. I love historical fiction and thrillers, so this sounds very good!

  42. Can’t read enough.

  43. Sounds great would love to read!

  44. Seldom read books, my attention span prefers magazines like the Journal – but when I do read a book, period pieces are the ONLY way to go! Would love to share with favorite friend.

  45. What a great blog…love hearing about how she kept at it! It took a lot of dedication.
    Would love to win a copy and am intrigued enough to buy it if I don’t!

  46. I look forward to reading your book. I love historical fiction!

  47. What an inspiring and heartwarming explanation of how you wrote your book! Not only do I love the strong women of this era, but also a compelling story. I cannot wait to read your book. Good luck for tremendous sales on the whole series!

  48. I would love to have this book ! Thank you : )

  49. I would love to have a copy of this book.
    Thank you !!

  50. I’m a reading fool. Pick me, please!

  51. Thrillers are fabulous, no matter era they occur.

  52. Sounds brilliant.

  53. Have been looking forward to reading this book ever since I first heard about it. Would love to win a copy.

  54. Sounds like my favorite kind of read!

  55. I love novels about strong women – please include me in the contest – thank you!

  56. Love historical fiction and the Tudor period is a favorite.

  57. Would love to win this book! The Tudors have long been a topic of interest to me. Who knows maybe Anne Boleyn was one of my past lives?

  58. This sounds amazing! Would love to win the book.

  59. The Tudors are my favorite topic to read about. This definitely sounds like a new spin on a much loved time and place. Thanks for the giveaway!

  60. historical fiction is one of my most favorite genres, but haven’t read too much specifically about the Tudors.

  61. This sounds like a great read! I want one!

  62. This sounds like a great read. I want one!

  63. Reading is #1 on my list of favorite pastimes. I would love to read this book. Historical fiction is the best.

  64. I absolutely LOVE historical fiction! It is so easy to transport yourself into a different century if it is a well-written novel especially one that deals with a history. I have read a lot of Tudor history and am quite familiar with that period but the author is right, there is not really anything extensive, or at least not a full novel, about that time in Henry’s reign dealing with the Reformation. Very interesting new take. I feel as if maybe I can see what Anne of Cleves was seeing and feeling when she first came to England and saw all those monestaries that were destroyed. Wow! Can’t wait!

  65. Congratulations on the book! It sounds very interesting.

  66. If this is anything like the quality of “The Dovekeepers” which was researched for 5 years, and tells the tale of 5 women whose lives became intertwined as refugees from the Romans at Masada, then I will love this thriller. Historical novels are my new passion, but I expect the research to show in the writing. And I expect to be entertained as well. Can you meet that challenge?

  67. The 6 Wives of Henry the VIII sure was compelling and it’s easy to understand how that could grab and hold your imagination. Here’s hoping that your Amazon ranking shows more stamina than Henry’s patience with his wives.

  68. Sounds like a good read.

  69. I wasn’t planning to enter any more give-away drawings because of the size of my TBR stack but this book sounds so fascinating. I love the historical fiction mysteries.

  70. I know a couple of people besides myself who’d truly enjoy reading this.

  71. Sounds great. I’d love to read it.

  72. “Day of judgement, day of wrath”…adore the Gregorian chant from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead….the music made the clip even more intriguing! I would love, love, love to win this book. I devour historical, thrilling period pieces. I will tell everyone about this book so they can purchase their own copy. I absolutely cannot bear to part with books I enjoy. PLEASE PICK ME! ;-)

  73. Im currently studying Tudor England at school – the complexity of the personalities means it never gets dull! Always a new face at court.
    Hopefully going on to specialise in Early Modern History at uni in October… cant wait!
    – sounds like a great read.

  74. I love a good history mystery, and family legend tells me my husband’s family is descended from the Tudors. What a great combination! I’d love to have this book.

  75. So interesting. I definitely want to read this!

  76. I absolutely love novels based in the 16th century! My favorite book is The Other Boleyn Girl. I am very excited for you, and I look forward to reading your book! :-)

  77. Love the Tudors period!

  78. I enjoy reading thrillers. I just plain love to read books. I admire Nancy Bilyeau for taking the time and desire to write this book. I am amazed when I read books that authors can come up with all the twists and turns. We should remember more all the investigating the author does to make the book so exciting. Thank you

  79. My philosophy is like the Irish author, C.S. Lewis, you can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me! I love historical novels and gothic type thrillers so this sounds like a good read.

  80. I love the history of early modern England. I would like to read this book to find out how Ms Bilyeau weaves the history of early modern England with the flashbacks of Anglo-Saxon England. The Crown sounds like a fascinating thriller!

  81. I’m a BIG fan of Historical Fiction and I would love, love, love to read this Novel. I’ve been wanting too ever since I’ve heard about it.

  82. I am a historical fiction writer too and would love to win a copy of Nancy’s book. Well done on making the grade!

  83. Please enter me! It is a must read.

  84. I was inspired b your journey to getting published. I’ve almost completed writing my first novel … and reading about your success gives me hope that dreams CAN come true. I look forward to reading your book. Congratulations!

  85. I applaud your tenacity and appreciate the time and toil necessary to the birthing of The Crown. Congratulations on your success, and thank you for putting all the information of the period at our fingertips. What a boon to inquiring minds! It sounds as if The Crown could be a counterpart to the great historical novels of Norah Lofts, one of my favorite English authors. Be assured that your book would occupy a special place alongside those on my bookshelf.

  86. My daughter who is 13 loves historical fiction. would this book be age appropriate?

  87. Yes, correctly.

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  88. It is the amusing answer

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