By Dawn Ius
Few eras inspire more passion—and controversy—than the Tudor Dynasty, a period of tumultuous change in England, and of course remembered for many of King Henry VIII’s exploits. Between denouncing his religion to marry Anne Boleyn and then beheading her, to his most well-known legacy of being somewhat of a (ruthless) womanizer, it’s no wonder the Tudors have front lined hundreds of books, TV shows and movies, and even today continue to feed the pop culture machine.
As an author entering the well-documented Tudor era, it might be easy to get lost in the milieu—but Nancy Bilyeau, author of the award-winning Joanna Stafford series, has carved out her own niche by writing thrilling plots set within the “real” time, while focusing not only on the more recognizable characters of the past, but also on some of the lesser knowns—like Sir Walter Hungerford, for instance, who was executed alongside Thomas Cromwell and, according to Bilyeau, may—or may not—have been a debauched madman.
“Almost everyone writes fiction in the Tudor era from the Protestant side of the Reformation,” she says. “I don’t. I have given a great deal of thought to how it felt to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries when you were a committed Catholic. As a daughter of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, I know what it’s like to be divided—I am drawn to stories of religious strife. An English friend of mine said, ‘This is so interesting, to hear about history from the losers.’”
Bilyeau’s fascination with these historical characters stems from a deep-rooted love of English history. While her library is well-packed with non-fiction texts, this is only the beginning of her extensive fact-finding mission for each book. As a trained Journalist, whose editorial credentials include Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, Bilyeau understands the value—and importance—of a well-researched novel. Particularly in the case of her Tudor-inspired thrillers.
“There are few readers more knowledgeable about the facts than those who like Tudor fiction,” she says. “You have to work really hard in this area to get the details right.”
If the devil is indeed in the details, Bilyeau has it down to a science. For example, Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, is a major character throughout the Stafford series—an antagonist, though his motives are somewhat unclear at times.
“One of his nicknames from history is ‘Wily Winchester,’” Bilyeau says. “I read a contemporary letter from someone who despised Gardiner, describing him physically as having, among other attributes, freakishly large hands. I use that repeatedly as a touchstone for how I describe him too. While he’s deep in thought, he’s tapping his long white fingers. I take details from history and work them into fiction.”
For THE TAPESTRY, the third book in the series, Bilyeau pits her protagonist against none other than Henry VIII, after Stafford’s intricate tapestry weaving draws the King’s attention. Stafford’s quest for a “quieter life” are thwarted when moments after she arrives at Whitehall Palace, she dodges an assassin and then is entangled in dangerous court politics as she tries to save her friend Catherine Howard from becoming one of the King’s mistresses. Stafford is determined to protect the young, beautiful, naïve Catherine from becoming the King’s next wife and possibly, victim.
No question Stafford is the woman for the job.
“Joanna is intelligent, educated, pious, loyal, and thinks well on her feet,” Bilyeau says. “But she is also rigid in her beliefs and thinking, stubborn, and impulsive. Her greatest weakness is her temper. She has grown more confident through the course of the books, and who knows, maybe I have too.”
Although it took five years to write, Bilyeau netted an agent shortly after she finished the first book in the series, The Crown. His enthusiasm encouraged her to develop Stafford as a series character, which appealed to Bilyeau’s other writing passions—screenwriting for television and movies. Though her screenplays have not yet been optioned by a producer, she approaches the elements of writing a series in much the same way.
“It is wonderful to take your creation through these different adventures,” she says. “I don’t struggle with keeping (Stafford) fresh and I love writing a series. It’s in the business of doing it that this becomes challenging. How do I let people know who liked the first two books that the third is out? It’s very hard. I am all over social media and my publisher does do a lot with media and marketing. But still, people are so busy.”
Not to mention, there’s a heightened level of competition in the marketplace. For Bilyeau, whose books aren’t classified as “bodice rippers,” despite some impressive sexual tension, she continues to work hard to not only stand out among the many Tudor-inspired books on the shelves, but also to showcase her particular twist on the historical thriller genre.
“There are few things that have made me as happy or plunged me into greater misery than publishing fiction,” she says. “You have to have nerves of steel for this. Publishing is a certain amount of chaos. I try to stay calm and focus on the writing.”
Which, at the end of the day, is what Bilyeau’s tremendous fan base hopes for. With THE TAPESTRY now out, Bilyeau is currently focussing on writing a standalone, not set in the Tudor era. But for now, mum’s the word—“agent’s orders!”
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning series of historical thrillers set in Tudor England. A native of Michigan, she has worked in the magazine industry for more than 20 years, including Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, In Style, and DuJour. She lives in Queens with her husband and two children.
To learn more about Nancy, please visit her website.