Interview with author Nancy Bilyeau: Writing About Spirit & Workshopping Novels to Completion

nancyI’ve been awaiting this interview, and I am delighted to present author Nancy Bilyeau, writer of the historical thrillers: The Crown, The Chalice, along with a third novel in- the-works The Covenat.  The series follows the life of an aristocratic young Dominican nun, Joanna Stafford, and her quest to save a legendary crown and to survive the tumultuous Tudor times of King Henry VIII in England.  These are engaging and fast-paced reads.

And The Chalice is currently on e-book promotion for the month of June, don’t miss this amazing deal:  $2.99!

Q: Where did your inspiration for The Crown and The Chalice come from?

Crown cover

1st book in the series

My passion for Tudor history. I’ve been reading about the 16th century since I was 11 years old. When I decided to take the plunge and try to write a novel, I thought it made the most sense to set my story in the Tudor era. I love mysteries and thrillers, so I fused the two genres: historical fiction and thriller. It was important to me to write a female protagonist. Who would be at the center of my thriller? I didn’t want to write about a royal or lady of the court; I was eager to create my own fictional character and for her to be someone original to readers familiar with these types of books. So I came up with the idea of writing about the life of a Dominican novice at the point of dissolution of the Catholic Church. I thought it would yield intense drama, that she is coping with this cataclysmic change at the same time that she is thrust into .I thought it would yield intense drama, that she is coping with this cataclysmic change at the same time that she is thrust into a mystery with a dangerous mission.

Q: While writing The Crown and The Chalice do you feel like you gained any new spiritual insights from researching and creating these books, and if so, how? 

That’s an interesting question. I did not set out to write these books with a religious agenda. For one thing, I don’t have an agenda. I was brought up by agnostic parents and with little sense of a spiritual life. However, it’s more complicated than that. My mother’s family is Irish American; she attended Catholic schools but left the church in her twenties. However, my grandparents babysat me when we lived in Chicago, and when I was an infant, they had me secretly baptized. My grandmother told my mother about it when I was 19. My grandfather had just died, and she was ill—she wanted us to know. Ever since then, I’ve been intrigued by the Catholic Church. When I set out to write The Crown, I had never met a nun. I plunged into years of research, and the more I learned about the women who entered religious life in the Plantagenet and early Tudor era, the more they fascinated me. I met a modern-day Dominican sister; she read The Chalice in manuscript form and gave me some corrections. She’s a very nice, smart person—and funny—and knowing her is wonderful. I have a great deal of respect for nuns, past and present. And I feel protective of them.

Q: Could you tell us more about your protagonist nun Joanna’s Dominican Order during mid-16th century England and the mysticism of the seers you write about in your new novel The Chalice  — are there interesting tidbits you know now but couldn’t include in the novel? 

The Dominican priory in Dartford was a very interesting place. Edward III put time and thought and money into establishing it in the 14th century. I should back up and add that his father, Edward II, made the first initiatives to creating a convent for the women of the Dominican order. He set up endowments and obtained the papal license but was deposed before the sisters could travel from France to England. Perhaps Edward III–who in turn deposed his mother Queen Isabella and her lover and took power when he reached the age of 17 –felt some link to his father and that is what motivated him? I am speculating. Certainly there were other matters of importance in the kingdom, such as invading France and surviving the Bubonic Plague!

chalice PDF IW

2nd book of the series but can read as a stand alone novel too!

But the priory was established in the 1350s. Edward III had a goal of reaching a convent of 40 nuns, but it never quite reached that number. For the next 180 years it attracted women from the gentry and the aristocracy and even the royal family–the youngest child of Edward IV, Princess Bridget, took vows. Dartford earned a reputation for “strict discipline and plain living.” Much of a nun’s day and night was taken up by prayer and service to God. There was a small library there with beautiful illuminated manuscripts. In the larger community of Dartford, the priory played an important role: the sisters taught local girls to read, they gave alms to the poor, and they sponsored an almshouse for those who had no other place to live.

That all came to an end in 1538, when the priory was “surrendered” to Henry VIII and demolished. Everyone was ejected. It was a painful and confusing time. The following year, The Act of Six Articles became law, which forbade anyone who had ever taken a vow of chastity from marrying. Nuns could no longer carry out their vocations, but they couldn’t get married and start families either. There was no place for them in society.

Dominican mysticism was so interesting in this period. I wish I could have found a way to talk about Savonarola in my books. The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola preached about his prophetic visions to growing crowds in late 15th century Florence—that the corruption of society would be wiped away by the coming of a scourge. When the French king invaded Italy, this was widely seen as fulfillment of Savonarola’s prophecy.

Q: What challenges, if any, did you encounter while writing these books with spiritual foundations? 

I was determined to create characters whose spiritual values were true to the 16th century. I did worry that readers would not be able to relate to Joanna Stafford, especially since I write the books in this series in the first person and you have no choice but to get into Joanna’s head. Not every author goes this route. I have read other novels set in medieval England and the 16th century with characters who are cynical about religion, even agnostic. That is common now, of course, but it really wasn’t a mindset that would have been possible then. Read the letters of the time, or books by the religious such as “The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena.”

I am happy to say that no one has emailed or otherwise contacted me to say that the books are “too religious.” It’s the opposite, I think readers want to experience a different way of looking at life than we have now.

Q:  Author Stephanie Cowell recently wrote a blog post for English Historic Fiction Authors blog called “Nuns, monks, priests and believers: writing about spiritual matters in English historical fiction,” she wrote: “It is difficult to write about spiritual matters.  They are the most intimate of our feelings and more difficult to express in words than physics…”. What are your thoughts about writing about spiritual matters?

I try to weave it into my characters’ daily lives: going to Mass, making Confession, praying. It frames their worldview. I don’t stop the story for my protagonist to overtly discuss how she feels about God.

Q:  I recently read an interview with you where you mentioned that you wrote The Chalice “workshopping it.” Would you please share with us the process of writing a novel, “workshopping it” to completion.  I was very intrigued when I read this!

I share my work with small groups of other writers, either reading it out loud or sending chapters back and forth online. To me, this is essential. I sometimes feel as if something is coming across a certain way in my story and the reality is—not quite. I need that sounding board to know what is unclear or not paced right or lacking emotion. I revise a great deal, maybe that’s part of being a magazine writer or editor—I like feedback. I can’t imagine writing an entire book in a vacuum and sending it to my agent or book editor.

Q: Do you have any particular workshops you’d like to recommend to writers?

I’ve taken classes at Gotham Writer’s Workshop, there were several great online fiction courses (an advanced one taught by novelist Russell Rowland) and a mystery-writing special class taught by Greg Fallis.

Q: Please tell us about the success process of the Amazon Daily $1.99 special, how did it all go down? Soaring THE CROWN to 1 # status in all literary categories!

That was exciting. In the United States my books are published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Amazon decided to make The Crown the Kindle Daily Deal for one day, which means not only that the e-book price is lowered to $1.99 but there is plenty of promotion. I will never forget the experience of watching the number go lower and lower and lower, until it reached No. 1 in America. Not all Kindle Daily Deals make it to No 1, so I am really honored and grateful. To be honest, it overwhelmed me, and the next day I had something of a headache and found it hard to get out of bed. My children were outraged.

The Chalice is part of a different promotion for the month of June: on Amazon in the United States, the e-book costs $2.99. I am happy to be able to deliver this savings. 

Thank you Nancy for this interview and looking forward to your next release of the series! 

 To Buy The Crown and The Chalice click below!

Interview with Historical Novel Society presenter and author Susan Higginbotham

susan_portraitIt is my pleasure to introduce historical novelist Susan Higginbotham, author of 5 novels set in medieval England or the Tudor era. At present she is completing a novel about historical figure Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, in addition to a non-fiction book about the Woodenville family.  She will be co-presenting at the Historical Novel Society Conference this June 21-13 in St. Petersburg, FL:  “The Feisty Heroine Sold into Marriage Who Hates Bear Baiting: Clichés in HF and How to Avoid Them”.


Clichés the bane of every novelist, sounds like a good session!

Q: How do you find the people and topics of your books?

Sometimes a person’s story will intrigue me, like that of Eleanor de Clare
in “The Traitor’s Wife,” my first novel. In other cases, I’ve been drawn
to people who have been misjudged or misrepresented, such as Margaret of
Anjou or Frances Grey. My last novel, “Her Highness, the Traitor,” was
originally supposed to have a single heroine, Frances Grey, but when I
began doing the research, I was so moved by some writings of Jane Dudley,
Duchess of Northumberland, that I ended up giving half of the novel to

Usually, when person’s story keeps nagging at me, I know it’s a sign that
he or she belongs in one of my novels.

Q: Do you follow a specific writing and/or research process?


Susan’s latest release!

I do a lot of my basic research before starting my novel, but I never
really  stop researching as I’m writing. A question will arise, such as
where a person was staying at a particular time, that requires
investigation, or I’ll stumble across something that make me rethink an
aspect of my novel. In my last novel, I ended up having to adjust the
ending in order to accommodate a record I found about Frances Grey’s
marriage date.

In research, I use as many primary sources as possible, and I’ve learned
never to take what I read in a secondary source for granted! I also make
extensive use of articles in scholarly journals–I’ve found that they
often contain nuggets of information that can’t be found in books. They’re
also an excellent source for finding information about lesser known
historical characters.

Like many historical novelists, I enjoy research as much or more than
writing, so it’s sometimes a matter of telling myself that it’s time to
stop researching and get to writing!

Q: What book was the most fun for you to write?

Probably “The Stolen Crown,” where Richard III is a major character. The
Richard who appears in my novel isn’t Shakespeare’s villain, but he’s
definitely not the nice guy who’s fashionable in current historical
fiction, so he was a fun character to write.

Q: For you, what is the line between fiction and fact?

While readers shouldn’t get their history solely from historical fiction,
the fact is that many of them do. With that in mind, I believe very
strongly in sticking to the facts as closely as possible, and in a
novelist informing the reader in an author’s note when known facts have
been altered. Because there’s so much we don’t know or have to guess
about, being faithful to history doesn’t cage an author’s imagination.

I also believe that authors should avoid tarnishing a historical figure’s
reputation without a sound factual basis for doing so. I’ve read several
novels where various male characters are portrayed as being rapists, for
instance, without any historical basis for such a depiction. It’s usually
a way of making a bad guy even more unsympathetic, and as such is a cheap
and lazy device. We can still have our heroes and villains, of course–but
I think we owe some respect and fidelity to historical figures who can no
longer defend themselves.

Thank you Susan for the interview and see you at the HNS Conference!



Interview with bestselling author Barbara Kyle & an Exclusive clip from Chapter One of her upcoming next novel!

Barbara_Kyle_Author_PhotoIt is my pleasure to introduce the skilled storyteller  Barbara Kyle, writer of  “The Thornleigh Saga” series, with whom I am honored to be co-leading the week-long 2014 Writing & Yoga Workshop in Brazil. One of the things I love about Barbara’s books is the quality of the writing: she has an extremely broad descriptive vocabulary, making her novels a sheer pleasure to read.  Her dialogue blows me away in its originality and cleverness, along with her ability to bring the Tudor time period into full life.

Barbara: Thanks for the invitation, Stephanie. It’s a pleasure to reach out to your readers.

 Q: How long have you been a novelist and how did you get started writing?

My first novel was published by Penguin in 1994 so it’s been twenty-one years. Since then I’ve had eight more books published, including three thrillers for Warner Books that I wrote under a male pseudonym (Stephen Kyle) and five historical novels, my Tudor-era “Thornleigh” series, for Kensington.

I started the way most writers do, with short stories. They were pretty awful, full of high-flown language and no point! But I learn quickly, and after a year or so I wrote a short story that won a contest. It wasn’t a exalted contest, just one run by the library association in my county, but it meant the world to me, that affirmation that makes you feel, Yes, I’m a writer.

Barabra's latest release!

Barabra’s latest release!

Q: Would you please share with us information about your latest release: BLOOD BETWEEN QUEENS?

With pleasure. BLOOD BETWEEN QUEENS is my fifth “Thornleigh” novel,  a saga that follows the rise of a middle-class English family through three turbulent Tudor reigns.

The story begins when Mary Queen of Scots flees to England to escape her enemies and throws herself on the mercy of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. Mary, however, has set her sights on the Elizabeth’s throne, and Elizabeth enlists her most trusted subjects to protect it. Justine Thornleigh is delighting in the thrill of Elizabeth’s visit to her family’s estate when the festivities are cut short by Mary’s arrival. To Justine’s surprise, the Thornleighs appoint her to serve as a spy in Mary’s court. But Justine comes to sympathize with Mary, and when Elizabeth holds Mary under house arrest and launches an inquiry into the accusations that she murdered her husband, the crisis splits the Thornleigh family apart.

Like many history lovers I’m fascinated by the deadly rivalry between the two cousin-queens. When Mary arrived in England she could never have suspected that Elizabeth would keep her under house arrest for the next nineteen years, and finally, after Mary’s incessant plotting for Elizabeth’s crown, execute her. For over four hundred years this story has enthralled the world. I have learned that Mary generates high emotions in people – they either love her or hate her. As for my own opinion, I don’t want to give any spoilers so I’ll just say that BLOOD BETWEEN QUEENS takes no prisoners!

Q: I recently read a blog interview with you where you talked about working with “Hinges in History” would you explain to us this working philosophy?

The “hinges of history” is a powerful image, isn’t it? A swinging door: an opening, a closing. What I mean by the phrase is the crucial turning points, the pivotal events in history. Often such events are driven by larger-than-life personalities like Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I. Their actions had a tremendous impact on the people of England and the world. One example is Henry’s extraordinary creation of a national church just so he could divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. Another is Elizabeth’s decision to put her cousin Mary Queen of Scots under house arrest. I set my “Thornleigh” novels during these pivotal events to test my characters’ mettle as they’re forced to make hard choices about loyalty, duty, family, and love.

Q: Not only are you a successful novelist, you also lead “Masters Writing Workshops” will you share with us about why you choose to help others with the craft of writing?

I really enjoy helping emerging writers. It’s such a pleasure to see a writer have a “light bulb” moment at hearing the principles of writing that I teach. When I started writing years ago I learned a lot from mentors, and I’m happy now to pass along what I’ve learned to others. It’s part of the artistic tradition, whether in writing, painting, music or dance – we all learn from practitioners who’ve had success in their field.

Q: And will you tell us a bit about your workshops and the success of other writers that have taken them?

I give workshops for many writers groups and writers conferences, and I offer my own Master Class twice a year in my home city of Toronto. The Master Class is a full weekend workshop limited to ten people, and during it each writer brings the first thirty pages of their work-in-progress – whether a novel, memoir, or narrative non-fiction – and we critique it in a friendly, supportive atmosphere. By Kafka Comes to Americathe way, writers can also subscribe to my online series of video workshops “Writing Fiction That Sells” – your readers can watch an excerpt of it on my website Also, I’m looking forward to April 2014 when you and I, Stephanie, will run a week-long combination writing plus yoga workshop in Brazil. That’s going to be a treat!

As for the success of writers who’ve learned from me, many have gone on to have their books published. One that I’m very proud of is KAFKA COMES TO AMERICA, a memoir by Steven T. Wax, a U.S. federal Public Defender for the District of Oregon. It received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

Q: Can you reveal a snippet of your next novel?

 I’d be glad to. I’ve just finished writing it and have sent the manuscript to my publisher. It’s Book #6 in my “Thornleigh” saga. (By the way, each book in the series stands alone; readers need not have read the previous ones to enjoy the story.) This book brings back a young Scottish woman, Fenella Doorn, who was a minor character in THE QUEEN’S GAMBLE. Her story in that novel was so intriguing I gave her the “starring” role in this new one, set ten years later, in 1572. Here’s how Chapter One starts:

Fenella Doorn watched the unfamiliar wreck of a ship ghosting into her bay. Crippled by cannon fire, she thought. What else could do such damage? The foremast was blown away, as well as half the mainmast where a jury rig clung to the jagged stump, and shot holes tattered the sails on the mizzen. And yet, to Fenella’s experienced eye the vessel had an air of defiance. Demi-cannons hulked in the shadowed gun ports. This ship was a fighter, battered but not beaten. With fight still in her, was she friend or foe?

Or faux friend. Fenella kept her anxious gaze fixed on the vessel as she started down the footpath from the cliff overlooking La Coupée Bay. Old Johan followed her, scuffling to keep up. The English Isle of Sark was the smallest of the four Channel Islands, just a mile long and scarcely a mile and a half wide, so from the cliff top Fenella could see much of the surrounding sea. The few hundred farmers and fishermen who called the island home were never far from the sound of waves smacking the forty miles of rocky coast. Fenella, born a Scot and bred from generations of fishermen, was as familiar with the pulse of the sea as with her own heartbeat.

Delicious! Thank you Barbara for the interview and sharing with us this clip, looking forward to the novel’s release!

 To Buy the Kindle Version of Barbara’s latest release:

Blood Between Queens!