AUTHORESS: Nancy Bilyeau, you have a book coming out tomorrow! Give us the details.
NANCY: Yes, on January 10 my debut novel "drops" in North America. I love using that word--drops. It's called "The Crown," it's a historical thriller set in Tudor England. The main character is a Catholic novice who breaks the rules by running away from her Dominican Order to go to Smithfield, where her cousin is to be executed for treason in 1537. That sets in motion the story of my book, which is about murder and longing and betrayal and a dangerous quest to find an object of enormous mystical importance.
AUTHORESS: Of course, I've read it and and LOVED it, which makes this interview especially enjoyable!
I'm a huge devotee of Tudor history, so the setting of your novel is one of my favorite things about it. How do you approach the level of research required to pull off a successful historical? How much time do you spend researching versus the actual writing?
NANCY: Oh I love that you love it--you have no idea. When you said, "You have to write a sequel just for me," it was hard for me not to say, "I will! I will!" The truth is, I was two-thirds done with the sequel when you emailed me that. :)
OK. The research has a lot of different levels to it. First, I've been interested in Tudor history since I was about 11 years old. I've enjoyed reading historical fiction, biographies and nonfiction studies of English history my whole life, with a special place in my heart for the Tudors. So when I first thought about writing a novel, I instantly decided it had to be set in the 16th century. I went into the creating of the story with a solid base of knowledge. For my first book I couldn't have picked a time period unfamiliar to me--that would be too hard, to research from the ground up. But that was just the foundation. When I was actually writing it, often I'd have to break away and spend a half day or a few days or more to do spot research. What would Smithfield look like during an execution? Which tower would Joanna, my main character, be imprisoned in at the Tower of London? What did nuns and novices "do" in the priory? In my second book, I spent a full week doing intense research just on medieval astrology. Still, I know this is not the usual thing, that what other novelists do--Dan Brown or Ken Follett, for instance--is research for a year or more FIRST and then start the writing. That's not for me. I research as I go. Then when I had the first draft done, I went back and dove deeper into areas in which I wanted more details. Also I "interviewed" experts, such as a historian familiar with Malmesbury Abbey, the curator at the Dartford Borough Museum, an intern at the Tower of London. I bought or checked out many, many books. I have 45 books in my bibliography.
AUTHORESS: Which, to me, is truly amazing. And is what I believe sets historicals apart. (I mean, plotting AND that level of research?? That's a remarkable sphere of existence!)
So you've got your well-researched setting and a cast of likable characters. How do you go about plotting a thriller that keeps a reader turning the pages (aside from becoming utterly invested in one Brother Edmund, that is!)?
NANCY: The plotting is the aspect of my work I am least able to explain. I do keep the conflicts and obstacles coming because I learned screenwriting before thriller writing (I have three unsold screenplays to my name). If you want to be a screenwriter you embrace early on that there must be conflict on every page. The other thing I learned from scriptwriting is something called "set up and pay off." That is not exactly like clues. It is when a seemingly unimportant line of dialogue or action us "set up" early in the story so it can pay off later. You've read my book, Authoress, so you know, for instance, that there is a reason I bring up the Dark Ages nunnery on the hill outside Dartford Priory and keep coming back to it in subtle ways.
But...plotting. I am not one of those writers who plans everything on 3x5 cards or outlines extensively. I know basically where I want to go, but I allow for surprises. Extensive outlining kills the creative pleasure for me. I just "feel" that my plot has to do this or that. My gut instincts guide me. Now before you think I am some sort of mystical sage, I have been reading mysteries and thrillers for years and I am obsessed with mysteries on TV--I adore Brother Cadfael, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Dagliesh, Monk, and, most recently, a delicious series set in Rome called "Zen." Because I'm so saturated with the genre I love, I feel like "THIS should happen now--and then THAT." I am very good at solving mysteries, too. My husband is always impressed with how quickly I solve, or at least he pretends to be.
But it is from the grand masters of the thriller genre--people like Dan Brown and Barry Eisler and Katherine Neville and Douglas Preston--that I learned end-of-chapter hooks. I know from reading them how much I like to be socked in the stomach with a shock or twist. So I just make it happen. I often know what twist I want to reveal at the end of the chapter and I work toward it. But from Point A to Point B, I allow for some small surprises.
AUTHORESS: Your answer, of course, supports my long-held conviction that in order to write well, one must read well.
So, how did you make the leap from screenwriting to novel writing? Might there be more screenwriting in your future?
NANCY: I started writing screenplays two years before I began "The Crown." I've finished three scripts. Two of them have won some competitions, and I have a manager. But I've never sold any of them. They are the sorts of screenplays that would require a big budget. I relate to George RR Martin, who wrote scripts first and was told they were too expensive. Once he was told, "You can have a castle or horses in your movie, but not both." So he went on to write the "Game of Thrones" novels. When I wrote "The Crown" I didn't have to worry that, for example, I was writing an extensive section set in the Tower of London in 1537. It's my world--and welcome to it. LOL.
I find it easy to jump back and forth between screenplays and novels. It's storytelling. I use some of the techniques I learned in scriptwriting in my fiction. Such as keep the obstacles coming. That is important in movie writing, to keep the tension level at a certain point.
I love both and I want to keep writing screenplays. They are a whole lot of fun. And who knows? Maybe the world will decide to finance my ideas. It happened to George RR Martin!
AUTHORESS: Clearly I'll have to ask you to write the screenplay when Josh sells my first movie rights.
Speaking of which -- tell us a little about how you hooked up with the imitable Josh Getzler. And what makes yours a heavenly match!
NANCY: I tried two other agents before I signed with Josh. As a magazine editor I had met them and thought they could represent me. But the first one said that while she thought I had talent she didn't think she "could sell it in today's tough fiction market." Ha! The second agent said she was not taking new people and sort of retiring. Everyone says use your contacts, referrals, etc. There is a big problem with that--people you know or have a connection with might not have any interest in in your kind of book. An agent who sells a lot of celebrity tell-alls or nonfiction health books or chick lit is not going to be much good with a historical thriller. The agents are hooked in with various editors whose tastes they know. I thought, "I have to find an agent who likes MY kind of novel." So I went on Publishers Marketplace and did some searching. I fed in "thriller" and "historical" and one of the agents who popped up was Josh Getzler. I loved his website, I thought he sounded fun. He wrote that he loved historicals--"send me your devious doges and impious cardinals." That turn of phrase made me send him an email the next morning. I told him a little bit about my book and attached five pages, which is what he requested. He got back to me same day. In no time we were joking in emails about the Showtime series "The Tudors" and people getting "the chop." It turned out that our sons were in the same school a few years previously and we probably met at that time but I didn't remember him and he didn't know I was a writer. After reading the pages, Josh requested the whole book the next day--by this time it was Thursday before the Fourth of July weekend. He called me on the 4th and said he wanted to represent me. I felt he "got" the book and I said yes. I was joking with one of his other clients on Facebook the other day--we are the slush pile writers, we agreed. Because yeah, at the time I was the deputy editor of InStyle magazine but I was slush. I didn't use a referral or anything; he didn't meet me at a conference. I just took a shot based on his website.
AUTHORESS: And the rest is history! (Wow. Bad pun...)
I've seen SO MUCH good press about THE CROWN over the past few weeks. How has social media played a role in this? Do you feel your approach to social media promotion has made a difference?
NANCY: I think social media helps a lot. I've been a Facebook addict for about four years, and in the last year I've grown to love Twitter. At first I just couldn't get into Twitter because I didn't see why I needed it. But a very smart friend, Bret Watson of Watson Adventures, gave me some advice: create an identity that has something to do with your book. So I came up with tudorscribe--no one else had it--and it has proved to be a really great way to "meet" other historical fiction writers and people who are passionate about history. You wouldn't believe the playfulness on Twitter when it comes to Tudor England: You've got "Elizabeth" flirting with "Leicester," and "Henry VIII" issuing bellicose threats. LOL.
All of my activity on Facebook, twitter, and goodreads has raised my profile and helped me meet fellow writers and experts in my area. But it didn't get me a review directly in print media. That came because I was a magazine editor for a number of years and I've met some of the editors who oversee books. We sent out advance galleys of my book with handwritten notes from me. That helped a lot in getting reviews.
I think some of the bloggers are aware of my Facebook page or my tweets as Tudorscribe, and while that doesn't automatically lead to a positive review, it's good that there's awareness. Everything helps!
AUTHORESS: So, any final words? A delectable quote from Brother Edmund, perhaps? (Yes, I'm shameless...)
NANCY: You don't know how much I love the fact that you have a hankering for my Brother Edmund Sommerville, the sensitive, learned but tormented Dominican friar who helps Sister Joanna solve the mystery of The Crown. I will remind you of the passage of the book where they stand in the entranceway of Malmesbury Abbey. Inside are the secrets they've traveled so far to learn. Monks sing Vespers within the ruined abbey--they must follow the singing. But before they cross the threshold, Brother Edmund stops her to make a certain confession to her (can't give it away here) and then says, "I am a very weak man, you and I both know this. Yet it is your faith and your belief in me that have sustained me these many weeks. I pledge to you, with my life, that I will never violate your trust."
There--you just got your Brother Edmund fix!
Ah, Authoress, as I hover on the brink of publication, all I can say is the word that perfectly describes my state of being is the one I learned from our mutually beloved agent a couple of weeks ago: schpilkes. I had never heard it before, and you know me, I had to research it. A Yiddish plural noun, meaning "pins." Schpilkes means impatience and nervousness before an event--like sitting on pins.
Wish me luck getting through the schpilkes.
AUTHORESS: You will make it through the schpilkes with flying colors!
Thank you for the Brother Edmund fix and a delightful interview!