Nancy Bilyeau advises to ‘Go big or stay home’
That might not be the motto you’d expect for the writing of a book set in a 16th century Dominican priory. But one day while plotting my first novel I had that moment—the excited stirring in the stomach when you are seized with a big new idea. In my case, it was when I decided to make my historical mystery a thriller.
The first thing I knew about my debut was that I wanted to set it in Tudor England, a period I’d been reading about for years. The second thing was that I wanted to try my hand at a murder mystery, a genre I adore. But then I decided to take it up another notch, to create a true thriller with a mystical quest and the highest of stakes.
I had already begun writing the book in the first person—my protagonist was Sister Joanna Stafford, a young half-English, half-Spanish novice with a bit of an anger management problem. And so I was dealing with the challenge of writing a murder plot from the point of view of just one person. Now I would need to generate even more suspense through this narrative perspective. And while many historical thriller writers solve this tough problem by jumping around in different times and varying first with third, I considered this technique but decided not to. This story was going to be set entirely in the 1530s.
A thriller has to move around and my story would—but in a timeframe and using means that would be historically consistent. In modern thrillers, the protagonist jumps on a sleek jet to plunge into new time zones in a matter of hours. In the 16th century it could take all day to ride a horse a few miles down a muddy road. But no, that wasn’t going to stop my Sister Joanna! I sent her to the Tower of London, to a burning at the stake at Smithfield, to aristocratic castles hung with tapestries. I sent Sister Joanna to Stonehenge, for Pete’s sake.
Like I said, go big or stay home. It was one of the best moments of inspiration I ever had.