The Writing of a Tudor Thriller


by Nancy Bilyeau

The idea for the novel that became “The Crown” came to me in a fiction writer’s workshop in the West Village, in New York City. I was a magazine editor—my last staff job was as deputy editor of “InStyle”—but I’d wanted to write fiction when I was in high school and university. I kept wondering if I would ever get back to it. Finally I decided to accept an invitation to a small group run a novelist named Rosemarie Santini.
“I want to write a novel set in sixteenth century England.”

That’s what I told the four people sitting in a circle in this 5th-floor walk-up seven years ago. 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—and I adored 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.
I decided to make my story a thriller. There are murders in The Crown and an urgent search for an object of mystical importance. My kind of book isn’t researched through Google: I spent hours at the New York Public Library, poring through the collections. I started corresponding through emails with historians and curators in England. For inspiration I haunted the rooms and passageways of The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a great collection of medieval art, ranging from tapestries to statues and paintings, and re-created arches and tombs from 12th and 13th century European monasteries. One place I was drawn to over and over was the “Chapter House”-- a simple square room with a stone floor and benches against the walls. Every monastery had one—it’s where the nuns would receive “correction” from the prioress. I talked the Cloisters into letting me bring my laptop into the museum in a clear bag, and I’d write in the Chapter House, soaking up the monastic mood. I had to write pretty frantically because the battery in my old computer didn’t last much longer than two hours.
It took five years to write my book. I had to wake up at 5 a.m. on the weekdays and write for two hours until it was time to wake up my kids. Once I finished, I found a literary agent and he managed to put together an auction. He sold it within a month. I’m very lucky. Now when I visit the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, I don’t have to beg the guards to let me bring my computer into the collections. I can just enjoy it.
Pictured above: The UK, US and Dutch covers of The Crown

For more information about Nancy and The Crown, visit

No comments :

Post a Comment

Made With Love By The Dutch Lady Designs