It’s a blog tour day today, and thanks to Amy at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, I have a guest post for you from Nancy Bilyeau, along with her lovely historical fiction novel – The Chalice!
About Nancy Bilyeau:
Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown, is a writer and magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. Her latest position is features editor of Du Jour magazine. A native of the Midwest, she graduated from the University of Michigan. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Creating a Heroine
When I decided to tackle a historical thriller, I never for a moment thought I’d write anything but a female protagonist. The question was, what kind of woman would I set loose in the 16th century? I didn’t want to write the story of a queen or princess because they had dominated Tudor fiction for years. I yearned to do something different. Also, I wanted to craft a suspense plot with a mystery to be solved, and I just thought it would be too implausible—if not ridiculous—to have Queen Elizabeth solving crimes in her spare time. But would a more ordinary woman of an English village be able to insert herself into high-stakes situations in a realistic fashion?
After thinking about it for a long time, I created a fictional woman pursuing a life I found intriguing: a novice named Sister Joanna Stafford. Placing a Catholic novice in the midst of the Dissolution of the Monasteries would give the story a lot of drama, I hoped. I did a lot of research about medieval women in priories along with life in the Tudor era. This work helped me write how she functioned, what she did every day. But her character—what makes her tick. That had to come not from historical research but from novel-writing craft.
I’d like to share some of the things that guided me in creating Sister Joanna. I’ve found that putting a lot of time into constructing a character on the front end made it easier to write her in action. Through The Crown and The Chalice, I rarely “lost” a sense of Joanna. I always knew instinctively what she would do next. That’s a helpful position to be in, because then you can focus on plot and pacing and atmosphere, as well as all the secondary characters.
1.) She’s different. I thought it would help me set Sister Joanna apart from other women and even other nuns—make her special and thus of particular interest—if she was different. And so Joanna’s father is a Stafford, which was a real-life aristocratic English family, but her mother is from a Castilian high-born family. This is a time when foreigners were feared and disliked in England and so Joanna being half-Spanish and, moreover, looking half-Spanish with her black hair and olive skin, gives her a bit of an outsider status and certain challenges.
2.) She has flaws large and small. I don’t like it when the main character in a novel is too perfect. Strong, smart and fearless people just aren’t that interesting. Sister Joanna is highly intelligent and honest, but has a problem with her temper. She gets angry and then she says or does things impulsively. She knows this is a problem but it’s hard for her to manage these feelings. That is her main character flaw. A much smaller one is she has a terrible sense of direction. That is something I possess—I really have no natural sense of direction—and so it is easy for me to write about how frustrating that can be.
3.) She is kind. On the other hand, writers can neglect to make the protagonists likeable enough to make readers want to keep turning pages. Screenwriters follow an adage called “Save the Cat.” Have your main character do something kind and thoughtful early on in the story for no ulterior motive to accomplish that level of identification. (Like saving a cat.) My Sister Joanna is extremely loyal to her friends in both books, and she also has a nice way with children. In the first book, the children of the dying laundress prefer her to every other nun, and in the second book, Joanna loves Arthur, her orphaned relative, and is actually doing a good job of raising him although she doesn’t realize it.
4.) She can get herself out of trouble. I think it’s important for a protagonist—particularly a female protagonist—to overcome huge obstacles through her own intelligence, resourcefulness, and courage. You don’t want to put the character in danger and then have her persevere through contrived circumstances, coincidence or always being rescued by others. In The Crown, Joanna thinks on her feet, including speaking Spanish to another character at a critical moment. In The Chalice, Joanna uses her brains but also she is physically tested. She has to actually fight her way out of real danger. I have to be honest with you, those are some of the most enjoyable scenes of all for me to write!
Thank you for inviting me on your blog. I really enjoyed writing this guest post.
Thank you for visiting, Nancy! I enjoyed your guest post, and I really enjoyed The Chalice!
In the next novel from Nancy Bilyeau after her acclaimed debut The Crown, novice Joanna Stafford plunges into an even more dangerous conspiracy as she comes up against some of the most powerful men of her era.
In 1538, England is in the midst of bloody power struggles between crown and cross that threaten to tear the country apart. Joanna Stafford has seen what lies inside the king’s torture rooms and risks imprisonment again, when she is caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting the King. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna understands she may have to assume her role in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each more omniscient than the last.
Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lays at the center of these deadly prophecies…
Oh, wow. I’ll nitpick first, because it’s such a small thing, but I noticed. It’s called The Chalice, and there is a chalice, but holy wow did we have to wait to get there…
Ok, I’m done. The rest of the book – from the characters to the intrigue to the political wrangling, is pretty darn fabulous! I got sucked in from the prologue, wondering just who this Joanna Stafford was, what she was doing, and what would happen to her. What I got from The Chalice are the answers, embedded into a well-told story set during a time most of us have read about, but with more well-known casts of characters.
Joanna’s quiet life as a Dominican nun is interrupted by a King’s whim, when all the monasteries are disbanded, its inhabitants turned out, and its treasures relocated to the King’s treasury. Now she has to figure out how to live out there, where monks and nuns are viewed with suspicion and derision. She isn’t doing too badly, having figured out what she needs to be able to set up her own income, but life throws a surprise in Joanna’s path – this one in the form of nobility who insist on Joanna’s living with them.
She accepts, and finds that life can be a lot more dangerous than uncertain.
Joanna is quietly strong, and stubborn. Well, mostly quietly, because sometimes her mouth opens and words pour out at inopportune times… She’s fiercely loyal, and tries to do what she thinks is right, not letting anyone – even the ever-capricious fates – push her around. Forget prophecy, she’s in control of her own destiny!
Then politics rears its ugly head, and Joanna finds herself dragged into schemes conspiring against the King.
Nancy Bilyeau packs a lot of information into The Chalice, yet it all flows together smoothly. I loved that Joanna is a non-player in the court by choice, and is insignificant enough to get away with it yet just important enough to have a few of the powerful in her corner. I liked the intrigues, but the story was focused more on prophecy than the back-stabbing power plays you usually find in historical fiction set in Henry’s court – it’s still there, but it was a side dish instead of the main course – which is a refreshing take on the genre and time.
I really enjoyed The Chalice, now I have to go pick up The Crown to catch up on Joanna Stafford’s past… Pick this one up (or win a copy!) if you love historical fiction!
drey’s rating: Excellent!
Title: The Chalice
Author: Nancy Bilyeau
Hardcover: 482 pages
Publisher: Touchstone, 2013
Purchase at IndieBound, Amazon, The Book Depository
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Have you read The Chalice? What did you think? And if you haven’t, read on to win your own copy!
Thanks to the publisher and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, I have one copy of The Chalice for you. This one’s open to US residents. To enter, fill out the form below before April 26th. Good luck!