Author Interview: The Tapestry, by Nancy Bilyeau

This is an exciting time for Tudor fans! Nancy Bilyeau has released The Tapestry, the final book in the Joanna Stafford Series, historical thrillers set in the heart of the Tudor court. The trilogy made its debut in 2012 when The Crown earned rave reviews – and thanks in part to a warm recommendation by Oprah quickly went to No. 1 on The Chalice followed in 2013, also soared on the charts, and now the third installment is making another big splash.

I just found this series now (I know, I know, where was I?) and now I know I need to go back and read the first two. I have to know more about the fictional character Nancy Bilyeau has crafted – because all of her choices allowed her to culminate in this book. I am thankful that Nancy let me interview her to quench some of my curiosity – and perhaps pique yours!

First, a bit of context from the book description (yes there’s an excerpt; it will follow the interview):

April 1540. Henry VIII’s Palace of Whitehall is the last place on earth Joanna Stafford wants to be. But a summons from the king cannot be refused! After her priory was destroyed, Joanna, a young Dominican novice, vowed to live a quiet life, weaving tapestries and shunning dangerous conspiracies. That all changes when the king takes an interest in her tapestry talent.

With a ruthless monarch tiring of his fourth wife and amoral noblemen driven by hidden agendas, Joanna becomes entangled in Tudor court politics. Her close friend, Catherine Howard, is rumored to be the king’s mistress, and Joanna is determined to protect her from becoming the king’s next wife—and victim. All the while, Joanna tries to stay ahead of a plot against her own life, directed by men in the shadows with power and access. Who can she trust – the constable who once saved her life or the friar she can’t forget? Wife or nun, subject or spy, rebel or courtier, Joanna must finally choose her fate.

And now, on to the interview…

 Janet Wertman: Let me start by saying congratulations – but then move quickly to the question that is consuming me: how did you come to Joanna Stafford as a character (she is perfect!)? Was it a flash of insight or a slow logic build?

 Nancy Bilyeau: Both! I was very logical and methodical—well, as methodical as I can be—in coming up with Joanna. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to write novels with a Dominican novice as the protagonist. I wanted to try to write fiction but my overarching goal was to produce a historical mystery. The Tudor period was a time I’d been reading about since I was 11 years old. The question was: Who is the main character? I didn’t want to write a royal or lady in waiting as my MC, not for a thriller. What kind of woman would have some mobility in that time, some education, a strong perspective? I was stumped. One day it was like a lightbulb switching on: a nun! I decided I wanted to put her in a “real” family and after some mulling it over, I chose the Staffords, a doomed aristocratic family. Then I had to pick her Catholic “order.” I was leaning toward Benedictine when I stumbled on the fact that there was a single order of Dominican sisters in England. That appealed to me. I discovered some intriguing facts about that priory when researching, such as Edward III being obsessed with creating it and a real princess lived and died there, Bridget of York. I came up with all of this in 2005, and was able to use it throughout the series.

JW: An equally compelling question: how did you come to such a gripping plot? There was suspense oozing from every page…is that true of the first two books as well?

 NB: I’m a mystery and thriller fanatic, so thank you. I devour suspense-driven books (I just finished an excellent mystery, The Invisible Guardian, by Spanish author Dolores Redondo) as well as television series (I highly recommend River, starring Stellan Skarsgard, on Netflix). I’ve always got a book going and I consider myself a Netflix hostage. I don’t quite understand people who cut off other artists’ work while they’re writing, and even when they’re not writing. I go to fiction conferences or group chapter meetings and meet authors who don’t know what movies or TV shows are out there and the only books they can talk about are their own. It’s kind of weird! I study suspense fiction, both as a fan and as a student of it. I work hard in my revisions to foreshadow things to come and to keep conflict high. I love writing twists, few things make me happier. And I try to make sure there is real emotion at stake. That is important.

JW: What was the hardest part of writing this book? Was this as much of a factor in the first two?

 NB: The part of the book in which she leaves England. I feel that fiction set in the 16th century is too Tudor-centric. There are other amazing people and places to write about. In The Chalice, as part of the plot, Joanna Stafford leaves England for Antwerp, Ghent and Calais. I loved crafting that. So for The Tapestry, I thought it would be a lot of fun to set her loose in Germany as part of the thriller plot. When it came time to write those chapters I had the basic plot outline but I needed to learn a lot more on Germany in 1540. Guess what? There are almost no English language books on the subject. Yes there are biographies on Luther, but that’s about it. I found books like a description of the Peasants War by Friedrich Engels, edited by Karl Marx. I didn’t see that one coming! But I really needed to learn about daily life in the country and major cities and about the rulers of that time, what the religious division was doing on all levels. It was a huge challenge. I eventually tracked down a few books in English, one written in the early 20th century. And a German friend helped me out via emails. There were some incredibly interesting people in Germany in the 16th century. It’s frustrating. Meanwhile, there are 100 books about Anne Boleyn.

JW: Tell me more about your research process! I know you are meticulous about this – I hear you actually persuaded a curatorial intern at the Tower of London to send you details of prisoners’ confinements. I would love to hear more.

NB: I have been a reporter and editor so I like to dig. It’s about persistence more than special training. With the Tower of London, I sent an email to the CONTACT US link on the Tower of London website, just like anyone else. No insider techniques or magic Rolodex. After a lot of waiting and nudging, I was paired up with a fantastic intern. I found out what prisoners ate and where they slept. I also found a wonderful man with Historical Royal Palaces, and a local historian who helped me with Malmesbury Abbey in The Crown. I’m forever in debt to the staffers at the Dartford museum. I find many people willing to help a writer. I just had to do some follow-up sometimes.

JW: What is next?! Do you have any ideas about what your next novel and/or series will be about? Are you ready to share?

 NB: It’s top secret, I’m afraid. Agent’s orders. It’s not in the Joanna Stafford series but I can tell you it’s suspenseful and set in a past century. 🙂


And now, as promised, the excerpt. It’s from the first page, so there are no spoilers:

London, May 1537

When a burning is announced, the taverns off Smithfield Square order extra barrels of ale, but when the person to be executed is a woman and one of noble birth, the ale comes by the cartload. I rode in one of those carts on Friday of Whitsun week, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King Henry the Eighth, to offer prayers for the soul of the condemned traitor, Lady Margaret Bulmer.

 I heard the cry go out as I made my way west on Cheapside Street, clutching the London map I’d sketched from a book in secret two nights before. I was moving faster now that I’d reached a wide and cobbled street, but my legs throbbed. I’d spent the morning trudging through mud.

“Smithfield–are ye bound for Smithfield?” It was a cheerful voice, as if the destination were a St. George’s Day fair. Just ahead, in front of a tannery, I saw who had shouted: a burly man flicking the backs of four horses hitched to a large cart. A half dozen heads peeked above the rails.

“Hold!” I shouted as loudly as I could. “I wish to go to Smithfield.”


The Tapestry is available in multiple media – paperback, hard cover, ebook and audiobook – so however you love to enjoy books, you’re in luck!

Nancy herself is available on the web, on Facebook, and on Twitter, if you’d like to follow her there…


Easter Sunday 1536 – and 2016!

Easter Sunday, 1536 – a momentous day for Jane Seymour. It was the day that Eustace Chapuys bowed to Anne Boleyn as Queen at mass. Paradoxically, that was the gesture that paved the way for Henry to leave his wife. And now it’s a momentous day for me – the day my first book, Jane the Quene, opens for preorders.

I have been working on the book for more than thirty years, though in different incarnations. It was really in the last three years that I got serious and embarked on a long-term journey. The transformation happened when I got the idea to consider a trilogy, since the story of the Seymours is itself a three-act play. It hit me immediately that this was the lesson that my karate sensei had hammered into me: if you want to break a board, you don’t aim at it, you aim beyond it. Aiming at a single book never worked, but aiming at a trilogy gave me a target beyond the board.

In honor of the moment, I thought it appropriate to offer an excerpt. The book is structured, like my blog, around specific days. The excerpt I have chosen comes halfway through the book, and while I hate to divulge any “spoilers,” this is part of the entry for today (the actual dates are off, but Easter Sunday is Easter Sunday!) and therefore the only way to go. I hope you enjoy!



April 18, 1536…1 p.m.

Easter Sunday. The court was at Greenwich Palace, the favorite choice for important holy days because of the magnificence of its Chapel Royal, larger than many churches, with pompous marble and gilt softened by light filtered through massive stained glass windows. The King and Queen proceeded down the corridor, their gentlemen and ladies following behind. They walked slowly and formally, her hand on top of his. He had chosen cloth of gold for his coat; she had selected the same fabric for her pleated gown. It was clear that they had planned their outfits together. Indeed, when the King arrived in the Queen’s apartments that morning to fetch her for the parade to the chapel, he whispered a quiet “perfect” before kissing her hand. He hadn’t even noticed Jane, at least he hadn’t paid her any notice. Several ladies stole glances at her, but Jane ignored them. She understood.

The King and Queen entered the vestry, then paused. Lady Rochford was waiting for them. She curtsied, then nodded. The King looked at his wife and took a deep breath before nodding back. Lady Rochford opened the door to the chapel and the royal couple entered. The ladies began to follow, but the Queen stopped suddenly and turned around. She curtsied. All eyes went to the recipient of the reverence, Eustace Chapuys.

This was the carefully planned moment. The King had explained its significance to Jane the other day, the day Jane had returned to court. Flanked by Edward, she had gone to greet the King in his library. He got down briefly on one knee and kissed her hand, to apologize for the unintended insult of his gift of money and to thank her for returning. The gesture stunned her and she could not respond.

He rose to his feet to put her at ease and called for wine for all of them. When each had a glass, he raised his, and they did likewise. “To new beginnings.”

They engaged in innocuous conversation for a short time, then Cromwell arrived. “Ah, Sir Edward,” he said after the initial greetings. “You will be interested in this. Thomas Cranmer recently gifted the King a magnificent volume. The illustrations are inspiring.”

“Ah? Thank you.”

Cromwell turned briefly to the King. “Will you excuse us for a moment?” Cromwell asked. Without waiting for an answer, he took hold of Edward’s elbow and guided him over to the other side of the room.

The King in turn guided Jane over to the window seat and they made themselves comfortable. He began talking almost immediately, telling her about the court gossip she had missed, about the latest blooms that graced the gardens. He announced his desire to create a new rockery at Windsor, and the two of them spent almost an hour planning it before the King called to Cromwell and Edward to return from their corner. The conversation quickly became serious.

“Earlier I toasted to new beginnings. This Sunday will be an important new beginning for England.”

Jane managed to keep her gaze on the King, but felt Edward steal a glance at her.

“It is the day that Chapuys will bow to my wife or cause a war with England. Cromwell has worked out a scheme.”

Jane’s insides churned. What sort of new beginning was this? First he told Edward that he valued her virtue, now he was working to advance his wife? Did this mean that he accepted Jane’s resolve and respected it? That henceforth he would be happy with his wife? New beginnings. Jane had overplayed her hand and she had lost everything…

“And then I can leave her.”

Jane’s stomach flipped again. “Your pardon, Sire? I do not understand.”

The King looked her deep in the eyes. “I have come to understand that my marriage contravenes God’s rules. It should be as if it never was. When that is done, I shall sue for your hand, Mistress.”

Jane was stunned. She still didn’t understand why Chapuys needed to bow for this to happen, but she pushed that thought aside. Henry had said it. He wanted to marry her. He intended to marry her.

The King turned to Edward. “With your permission, of course. And your father’s.”

Edward opened his mouth but no sound came out. He just nodded his head while he looked for words to speak.

The King gestured for wine. Cromwell brought the flagon, refilling all their glasses with a small smile on his face.

“All of England will celebrate on our wedding day, all the world too. But before that happens, I must have Spain accept the choice I made and my right to make it, however ill-advised it may have been.”

Another flip. “You wish them to deny the Pope and accept you as Supreme Head of the Church?” Jane tried to keep her dismay off her face. They would never do that.

Cromwell broke in. “We do not ask them to deny the Bishop of Rome, only to accept the King’s authority in England. That is an important distinction. All Chapuys needs to do is bow to the Queen.”

Edward found his voice. “Chapuys has refused to do so for nigh on three years. Surely he will not do so now.”

Cromwell smiled. “Ah, but Chapuys has managed to avoid the Queen thus far. If we arrange a confrontation, he will have no choice.”

“Pardon me, Master Cromwell, but he could still refuse,” Jane said.

“That would be an inexcusable breach of protocol, Mistress Jane,” Cromwell said. “It would escalate the situation, even require an apology from Charles to avoid war. Chapuys is too cautious and smart to force his master into such a position.”

“By God, I hope you are right,” said Edward.

“We shall find out on Sunday. They will come face to face at Easter Mass.”


Did you love the excerpt? Let me know in the comments…and preorder here!


Versatile Blogger Award

Versatile Blogger Award

I have been a fan of Judith Arnopp’s books (her latest, A Song of Sixpence, was just published – I interviewed her on this blog just last week, it’s a wonderful read) and that makes me all the more thrilled that she nominated me  for a Versatile Blogger Award. To “accept” the award, I must follow several guidelines:

The Rules for accepting the Award(s):

  1. Display the Award Certificate
  2. Write a post and link back to the blogger who nominated you
  3. Post seven interesting things about yourself
  4. Nominate up to fifteen other bloggers (and why you’ve nominated them)
  5. Inform them of their nomination

So, first, thank you Judith for this wonderful compliment and opportunity. I love your blog too,

Next (since the Certificate heads the post!), seven things about me:

  1. One of the highlights of my youth was being allowed to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library on a day when it was closed to the public and examine (though not touch!) books from Queen Elizabeth’s personal library and actual letters that the young Princess Elizabeth (technically Lady Elizabeth…) had written.
  2. I high-fived Dolores Huerta (co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the National Farmworkers Association).
  3. I have read James Clavell’s Shogun more than a hundred times and hope to read it a hundred more. Best book ever written.
  4. I have a third-degree black belt in Yoshukai Karate. Technically my title is “Sempai” but I prefer “Sensei” (which is applicable to all levels of black belt).
  5. When I was young, my best friend was the daughter  of artist Frank Stella. He used to let us play in his workshop – and draw with grease pens on bare metal that had been molded into sculptures but not yet painted. Somewhere out there, there is a Frank Stella sculpture with a drawing of mine hidden beneath its paint.
  6. My first job (other than babysitting) was as a counter waitress at a donut store (I was 15). I hated yelling out the orders and insisted on running to the grill guy so that I could use a normal tone of voice. I got fired pretty quickly…
  7. I cannot have house plants, I kill them no matter how hard I try. Even cactuses.

And finally, my list of other bloggers that deserve the same kind of recognition, based on the quality of the writing, the uniqueness of the subjects covered, and the level of love displayed in the words on the virtual page. Although Judith nominated several that I would have added here (Claire Ridgway, Beth Von Staats…) I do have a number of wonderful alternatives:

  1. Karina Read – A history major who covers many topics, and for while was an avid Anne Boleyn/Tudor/Medieval/Castle-visiting enthusiast.
  2. Danielle Merchant – Offering the real story behind the infamous Lady Rochford and exploring other Tudor issues.
  3. Susan Abernethy – Fascinating writer of all things history.
  4. Nancy Bilyeau – A writer of Tudor-era historical thrillers.
  5. Catherine Curzon – Glorious Georgian dispatches from the long 18th Century.
  6. Geri Walton Jane – History of the 18th and 19th centuries.
  7. Conor Byrne – A university  student focusing on gender and social issues (he recently published a wonderful new biography of Catherine Howard).
  8. Jude Knight – A writer of historical romance set in late Georgian England.
  9. Natalie Grueninger – Author of the book On The Tudor Trail, she recreates the magic on the blog!
  10. Sharon Bennett Connolly – Her blog name says it all: “History: The Interesting Bits”
  11. Aquileana – A wonderful collection of Greek mythology

Finally, I have to mention the English Historical Fiction Authors – an amazing collection of wonderful bloggers that post a new compelling topic every day. I would nominate every one of their bloggers, it is definitely worth a follow.

I hope you enjoy these  as  much as I do!

Author Interview: A Song of Sixpence, by Judith Arnopp

A Song of Sixpence, but Judith Arnopp

A Song of Sixpence, by Judith Arnopp

I am getting excited – we are just a few days away from the publication of A Song of Sixpence, a new novel by Judith Arnopp that tells the story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck. To celebrate, Judith has let me interview her about the book. This is the first interview I have done for the blog, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it! I also hope you will join me in pre-ordering the book, I have so enjoyed Judith’s other offerings!

A bit of context: Edward IV had two sons, Edward and Richard, both of whom were minors when he died in 1483; he also had a daughter, Elizabeth of York. Edward’s brother Richard was named Lord Protector for his oldest nephew, who was pronounced Edward V. The young King and his brother were conducted to the Tower in great ceremony in preparation for Edward’s coronation – but before that could take place, Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was declared invalid, making their children illegitimate and ineligible for the throne. As a result, Richard changed roles from Lord Protector to King in his own right: Richard III. His nephews never left the Tower, and the rumor arose that they had been murdered there on Richard’s orders. Perhaps because of this suspicion, Richard was an unpopular king, and Henry Tudor led a rebellion against him, killing him at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 to become Henry VII. Henry married Elizabeth of York, arguably heir to the throne in her own right, uniting the country.

In 1490, a young man named Perkin Warbeck appeared on the scene claiming to be Richard of York, the younger of the two murdered princes. Perkin was not the first to make this claim – Lambert Simnel had done so only four years previously. But Perkin saw greater success: he got Margaret of York, Edward IV’s sister and Elizabeth of York’s aunt, to concur that he indeed who he claimed to be. This put Elizabeth in a very awkward position…


Janet Wertman: First, congratulations. This is your – eleventh is it? – novel, most of which have dealt with the Tudor court. You’ve written about Anne Boleyn, Katherine Parr and others – and now Elizabeth of York. How did you decide to write about her, and what inspired you to center intrigue around Perkin Warbeck?

Judith Arnopp: Hi Janet, thank you for hosting me on your lovely blog.

Eleventh novel? I think it is the seventh, you are rushing me – lol. The Tudor period has always fascinated me, especially the women. Since I was a teenager I’ve read everything I can get my hands on but when I began to write professionally I chose another era because people are always saying the Tudors have had too much attention. My first three books were Anglo-Saxon/early medieval (another of my favourite periods). But I had so many readers asking if I’d ‘done anything Tudor’ that I decided to give it a try. The Winchester Goose was my first in the 16th century and that is when people began to notice my work. A Song of Sixpence is my fourth novel in the Tudor period and it won’t be my last.

Perkin Warbeck is intriguing and I am surprised he hasn’t been the subject of more novels. Although I write historical ‘fiction’ I do try to keep to fact as far as possible but with Perkin the records are nebulous, which gave me a much freer hand for his part of the narrative. We will never know his real identity for sure and I could no longer ignore the ‘was he, wasn’t he?’ aspect of his story.

As the mother of the Tudor dynasty Elizabeth has never had a great deal of attention yet her plight was significant. Like it or not she was married to the opposing team, a man she had been raised to loathe. Even if, as we suspect, her mother had been intriguing with Margaret Beaufort on Henry’s part, Elizabeth had no choice in whether to marry him or not. Duty or ambition were the only factors in the union, she put personal desire aside although they did, in the end come to have a great deal of affection for one another.

There is no record that she ever encountered Perkin but she must have wondered about him. He had considerable backing among the heads of Europe and Henry was certainly quite rattled by his claim. In the years between the disappearance of her brothers in 1483 and Warbeck’s arrival on the scene Elizabeth’s life had taken a complete turnaround. Had Warbeck’s cause been successful her conflict would have been immense; imagine having to choose between brother or husband.

A Song of Sixpence charts the transition of her loyalties from those of a Yorkist princess to a Tudor queen.

JW: It sounds from the synopsis that your Perkin Warbeck was a legitimate claimant. If it is not giving away too much, does Elizabeth of York believe that Perkin Warbeck was actually her brother?

 JA: For much of the novel Elizabeth is horribly unsure. Warbeck’s claim has a profound effect upon Elizabeth. She just doesn’t know, and although she pretends to Henry she believes ‘the boy’ is just a pretender, in her heart she is terrified he isn’t. For years she has believed her brothers met a grisly end, so on one hand she wants it to be Richard, but because of her newfound loyalty to Henry and her son, she needs him to be an imposter.

As I said earlier there is no record of them ever having met but they do in the novel and her conflict increases once she realises her little brother is back from the dead, the living image of her father and determined to reinstate York on the throne. Elizabeth never really loses her York loyalties but after Warbeck’s fall discovers a new way of ensuring Plantagenet power lives on.

JW: Where does the title come from?

JA: From the nursery rhyme:

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,

Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house counting out his money,

The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey

The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,

When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.

 We all know the rhyme, don’t we? There are a few different interpretations of the meaning behind it, but I have always preferred the idea that the king in the counting house is Henry VII and the queen in the parlour is Elizabeth of York. Early on in the novel Elizabeth reminisces about her father’s court and how she used to sing to him in exchange for sixpence. Sixpence seems to have been the going rate for a song in those days. There are references to singing for sixpence in contemporary or near contemporary literature; most notably in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night during a drunken conversation between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew.

SIR TOBY BELCH: Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song.” (Twelfth Night, Act II Sc. III)

Of course, no Tudor banquet was complete without minstrels to play the favourite songs. One can easily imagine the king and queen seated with their court at groaning tables, dining on exotic dainties to the strains of fabulous music. I couldn’t resist the image. I don’t recall when I struck by the idea for a title but since it is instantly recognisable it seems to be drawing people to it.

 JW: What was the hardest part of writing your book?

I love writing so although the hours are long and lonely, and the research can be tedious, I don’t really find it difficult. The trickiest part is the editing. During the first draft, when my creative juices are in full flood, I am perfectly happy but then I have to go back and tweak it. Editing is hard. Sometimes, for the sake of the novel, I am forced to remove some of my favourite parts. Then I have to find those pesky errors, anachronisms or just plain rubbish writing. I am a bit obsessive. I go over and over it, and so does my husband, then my beta readers take a look at it. Then it goes to a professional editor and STILL she finds small things wrong.

It is also hard to let go. To finally say, ‘it is finished’ and send it off into the world. It is rather like sending your toddler to school for the first time, a bit of a relief but incredibly sad. Almost immediately I begin to think of what my next baby …erm novel might be. J

JW: How do you research your subjects? Do you try to get it all done before you start writing, or do you prefer to research as you go?

JA: One of my obsessions is perspective which is why I often write with dual narratives. This obsession also prompts me to read widely and obtain as many different takes on a subject as possible. Sometimes I use primary sources but the Tudor period is so well covered that I rarely need to. I have a vast personal library which is growing every day and, once I have exhausted that, I visit the university library and see what they have on their shelves.

A novelist needs to take a stance, it may not always be one I personally believe, but for the sake of the book I pretend to believe. For example to make A Song of Sixpence work I had to assume that Warbeck was in fact the younger of the two princes. In taking that view I then dismissed the confession he made on the scaffold, and assume he made it under duress.

For research purposes it is important to be objective but once I begin to write the fiction I have to be biased in a particular direction or the novel wouldn’t work. I have to believe in what I am writing for the duration of the project.

I research thoroughly before I begin to write, and continue to read extensively during the writing process. I make notes (and often lose them) I have portraits of my characters if I can find them. I study their expression, their clothes, visit their homes if I can, read their letters if any are extant. (Katherine Parr, even if her writing is rather tedious to the modern eye, was especially good for this). Very often the things I learn never make it into the novel but having the knowledge in my head helps to create a believable world.

By the time the novel is finished I feel I know my characters very well. History provides the skeleton and I try to provide the flesh. Since I write in the first person I have to become my characters, love who they love, hate who they hate, and pity who they pity. It is a strange but wonderful way to make a living.

JW: Do you have any ideas about what your next novel will be about? Are you ready to share?

 JA: A few people have asked me to write about Jane Seymour but she isn’t ‘speaking’ to me yet.

JW: I have to say, I am rather glad about that, since I’m writing my own book about her! And perhaps that’s because she’s been too busy speaking to me…

JA: I suspect you’re right, Janet! One voice that is rather insistent is Margaret Beaufort. During the writing of A Song of Sixpence I spent quite a lot of time with Margaret and came to understand her better. She is usually depicted as a staid, pious woman, which of course she probably was. She was immensely powerful and loyal to her son but there would have been more. Philippa Gregory has her down as a bit of a religious nut, an obsessive, but she is so interesting I don’t think she requires that kind of sensationalising. Margaret was an immensely rich heiress. She divorced her first husband at the age of ten – think of that – she married again at twelve, gave birth to Henry at thirteen. That is unthinkable today and it was frowned upon at the time. In A Song of Sixpence, seen through Elizabeth’s eyes, Margaret is quite annoying; an interfering mother-in-law with a rarely seen gentler side. I’d like to return to her childhood and build on that to illustrate how she became the formidably powerful woman she was.

Most experts agree that our early years shape us into the adults we become and I’d like to trace her experiences but she had a long eventful life, it might require a trilogy.

JW: More books to love! Can’t wait – for them AND this one!

 * * *

 Excerpt from A Song of Sixpence:

London ― Autumn 1483

Ink black water slaps against the Tower wharf where deep, impenetrable darkness stinks of bleak, dank death. Strong arms constrict him and the rough blanket covering his head clings to his nose and mouth. The boy struggles, kicks, and wrenches his face free to suck in a lungful of life-saving breath. The blanket smothers him again. He fights against it, twisting his head, jerking his arms, trying to kick; but the hands that hold him tighten. His head is clamped hard against his attacker’s body. He frees one hand, gropes with his fingers until he discovers chain mail, and an unshaven chin. Clenching his fingers into a fist, he lunges out with a wild, inaccurate punch.

With a muffled curse, the man throws back his head but, keeping hold of his prisoner, he hurries onward down narrow, dark steps, turning one corner then another before halting abruptly. The boy hears his assailant’s breath coming short and sharp and knows he too is afraid.

The aroma of brackish water is stronger now. The boy strains to hear mumbled voices, low and rough over scuffling footsteps. The ground seems to dip and his stomach lurches as suddenly they are weightless, floating, and he senses they have boarded a river craft. The invisible world dips and sways sickeningly as they push out from the stability of the wharf for the dangers of the river.

The only sound is the gentle splash of oars as they glide across the water, then far off the clang of a bell and the cry of a boatman. The boy squirms, opens his mouth to scream but the hand clamps down hard again. The men draw in their breath and freeze, waiting anxiously. There’s a long moment, a motionless pause before the oars are taken up again and the small craft begins to move silently across the surface.

River mist billows around them; he can smell it, feels it seeping through his clothes. He shivers, but more from fear than cold.

He knows when they draw close to the bridge. He can feel the tug of the river; hear the increasing rush of the current, the dangerous turbulence beneath. Surely they will not shoot the bridge, especially after dark? Only a fool would risk it.

The boy wriggles, shakes his head, and tries to work his mouth free of the smothering hand. He strains to see through the blinding darkness but all is inky black. The boat gathers pace and, as the noise of the surging river becomes deafening, the man increases his hold, a hurried prayer rumbling in his chest.

The whole world is consumed in chaos, rushing water, clamouring thunder, biting cold. In the fight for survival, the boy continues to battle fruitlessly for breath, struggle for his freedom. The body that holds him hostage tenses like a board and beneath the boy’s ear beats the dull thud of his assailant’s heart. The blanket is suffocatingly hot, his stomach turning as the boat is taken, surging forward, spinning upward before it is hurled down again between the starlings, shooting uncontrollably beneath the bridge.

Then suddenly, the world is calmer. Somehow the boat remains upright on the water. It spins. He hears the men scrabble for the oars, regain control, and his captor relaxes, breathes normally again. Exhausted and helpless, the boy slumps, his fight defeated.

All is still now; all is quiet. The oars splash, the boat glides down river, and soon the aroma of the countryside replaces the stench of the city.

His clothes are soaked with river water; his stomach is empty, his body bruised and aching. As the man releases his hold the boy slumps to the bottom of the boat. He lies unmoving, defeated and afraid.

He sleeps.

The world moves on.

Much later, waking with a start, the boy hears low, dark whisperings; a thick Portuguese accent is answered by another, lighter and less certain. This time when he blinks into the darkness, he notices a faint glimmer of light through the coarse weave of the blanket. He forces himself to lie still, knowing his life could depend upon not moving, but his limbs are so cramped he can resist no longer. He shifts, just a little, but it is too much. His kidnapper hauls him unceremoniously from the wet wooden planks.

The boy’s legs are like string. He stumbles as they snatch off his hood and daylight rushes in, blinding bright. He blinks, screwing up his face, squinting at the swimming features before him, fighting for focus. He sees dark hair; a heavy beard; the glint of a golden earring—and recognition and relief flood through him.

“Brampton!” he exclaims, his voice squeaking, his throat parched. “What the devil are you doing? Take me back at once.”

Brampton tugs at the boy’s tethered arms, drawing him more gently now to the bench beside him.

“I cannot. It is unsafe.”

“Why?” As his hands are untied the boy rubs at each wrist in turn, frowning at the red weals his bonds have left behind. He pushes Plantagenet-bright hair from his eyes, his chin juts forward in outrage. “If my father were here …”

“Well, he is not.”

Brampton’s tone lacks respect, but the boy knows him for a brusque, uncourtly man.

“But where are you taking me? What is happening?”

“To safety. England is no longer the place for you.”

The boy swallows, his shadowed eyes threatening tears. Switching his gaze from one man to the other, he moistens his lips, bites his tongue before trusting his breaking voice. “Where is my brother? Where is Edward?”

Brampton narrows his eyes and looks across the misty river. He runs a huge, rough hand across his beard, grimaces before he replies. His words, when they come, spell out the lost cause of York.

“Dead. As would you be had I left you there.”




A Song of Sixpence is available on Amazon Kindle now, the paperback to follow soon.

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My First Guest Blog Post!

December 8, 2014 - My First Guest Blog Post!

(Photo by gustavofrazao via Deposit Photos)

I am proud to announce a momentous step in my writing journey: I just published my first guest blog post. It is for English Historical Fiction Authors, one of my favorite groups and sites.  Entitled “An Apologia for Thomas Boleyn,” my post examines the life of the much-maligned Sir Thomas Boleyn:

When I started, I thought it would be a relatively easy thing. After all, I had gotten comfortable with the basic premise of my own blog (to deliver interesting takes about the Tudors and what it’s like to write about them) and this was in-line with that mark.  With almost 20 completed posts, I had found my voice (enough of one, anyway…) and gotten into an easy writing rhythm. The topic of Sir Thomas Boleyn was an easy one because of the timing – the date I was given to write the post was the anniversary of Sir Thomas Boleyn’s elevation to the Earldoms of Wiltshire and Ormonde. I already had  a strong opinion on the issue – before I settled down to write about Jane Seymour, I had spent years preparing to write about Anne Boleyn and was comfortable with her family dynamics. Smooth sailing, right? Um, no.

It required more of an effort than I expected.  First, my posts are on the sassy side and about a single page long, while the EHFA runs scholarly articles that are closer to 3 pages long and require citations. Next, I realized that the topic I’d chosen was more complex than I’d realized.  There are so many details necessary to a real understanding of Sir Thomas Boleyn – and many of these can be gleaned only through guesses. We don’t have much evidence to illuminate his relationships with his daughters, we have to infer based on the scant historical record. My own opinions go back and forth. There are so many subtleties to his story, so many twists and turns. Go on any forum with a Tudor theme, and you will see the vitriol that he elicits, even though that is due to our own reframing of his life based on current societal norms.

Still, it was a worthwhile effort. It opened me up to a new style of article, a version that I will add here and there to round out my own blog’s repertoire. It got me thinking that I should go back and add some citations to my own shorter articles, to make it easy for my readers to pursue topics I’ve written about. And of course it gives me great pride to contribute to such a well-respected site.  It is another step on a journey that I am so very grateful to be taking.

If you got here from that post (and even if you didn’t), I’d love to have you share your thoughts…

Book Review: Je Anne Boleyn, by Sandra Vasoli

Je Anne Boleyn Signature - Origin of the Book's Name

Je Anne Boleyn Signature – Origin of the Book’s Name

Je Anne Boleyn is a beautifully written, first-person account of Henry VIII’s courtship of Anne Boleyn. The book begins at their first real exchange, and ends at their marriage.

I read it both as a Tudor fan and as someone who seeks to write about them. As a Tudor fan, I loved the details the author included. Vasoli did an immense amount of research – she even visited the Vatican to inspect Henry’s actual love letters – and it really showed. As a Tudor author, I appreciated things like Vasoli’s choice of Lady Margaret Wyatt as a companion to Anne, someone that Anne could talk to and get out of her own head. Few others in Anne’s life could have fulfilled this role as well.

Bottom line: I loved the book.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure I would. I have had Anne Boleyn’s voice inside my head since I was eight years old, and I tend to dislike accounts in the first person narrative for that reason. But I have to say, Vasoli’s skill made first-person the right choice: it got us deeper into the story, more intimately than third person would have.

[Spoiler alert: I’m about to get a little specific about certain choices the author made, stop reading now if you prefer to be swept along by the tale….]

Vasoli was also able to overcome my tendency to dismiss accounts that in any way go against my long-seated beliefs: she managed to not only keep me hooked but even open my mind. Specifically, I have always believed that Anne did not cede her virginity to Henry until they were in Calais – even after her ennoblement as Marquess of Pembroke.  But Vasoli created a compelling alternative and made me see how Anne could have given into the temptation right before they left for Calais, then agreed to live as husband and wife with him in Calais and beyond.

Most important, Vasoli is the first author I’ve read who made Calais as magical as it deserved to be. No one else has ever come close. Of course, this required that she gloss over the insult of Francois suggesting that his mistress greet Anne, since his wife and his sister had refused or were “unavailable.”  But Vasoli was right to do so.  As readers, we would not have been able to suspend our indignation enough to appreciate the grand scale of Anne’s triumph.

My one complaint? That the sequel was not immediately at hand – I cannot wait to immerse myself in the next installment of this compelling story!

Teaching Rhetoric – AP English Language

Rhetoric Defined, photo by Aga77ta

Rhetoric Defined, photo by Aga77ta

Earlier this year, I purchased two amazing classes that helped my editing immensely. Both were from Margie Lawson, a psychotherapist, writer, and international presenter who has developed innovative editing systems and deep editing techniques praised by thousands of writers, from newbies to New York Times bestsellers. One of Margie’s most popular offerings is her Deep Editing course, in which she teaches writers thirty rhetorical devices and how to use them (not all at a time, mind you…) to strengthen their scenes. Basic but powerful.

Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the capability of writers or speakers to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. I had learned many of these devices in my youth, but at that time I wasn’t yet a writer. As a result, the topic was interesting but not compelling. Not the way it is now.

Meanwhile, my son is in eleventh grade this year, and one of the classes he is taking is AP English Language. Both of my daughters had taken this course, as well as AP English Literature. I never paid much attention – any of the three times. I never bothered to look over the syllabus. I just assumed this was an advanced grammar class.

Imagine my shock when he was cleaning out his schoolbag the other day and pulled out a “cheat sheet” the teacher had created for the students naming and explaining all the rhetorical devices.  I was blown away. He explained that they had started the course with the rhetorical strategies, then had recently moved on to incorporate the devices. I immediately asked for a copy for myself, and started to recount all the different ways I had used many of the points on the list. Even better: he matched me story for story.

I am so thrilled and proud that this is part of the education we offer our youth. The art of persuasive communication is a central element of culture, it should not be postponed until college or limited to students who join the debate club. It absolutely belongs in high school classes to improve students’ outcomes all their lives. Of course, we will all need reminding of some of the details from time to time, but the initial exposure makes all the difference. I only wish there were some way of expanding the class to encompass all high school students…

The One Lovely Blog Award

One Lovely Bog Award

I was nominated by fellow writer Jude Knight for the One Lovely Blog Award. The award recognizes newer or up-and-coming bloggers who share their story or thoughts in a “lovely” manner, giving them recognition and helping them reach more viewers. In order to “accept” the award the nominated blogger must follow several guidelines. I have these guidelines listed below.

The Rules for accepting the Award(s):

  1. Thank and link back to the awesome person who nominated you.
  2. Add the One Lovely Blog Award logo to your post and/or blog.
  3. Share 7 things about yourself.
  4. Nominate 15 other bloggers and comment on their blogs to let them know.

So, first, thank you Jude for this wonderful compliment and opportunity. I love your blog too,

Next (since the logo heads the post!), seven things about me:

  1. One of the highlights of my youth was being allowed to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library on a day when it was closed to the public and examine (though not touch!) books from Queen Elizabeth’s personal library and actual letters that the young Princess Elizabeth (technically Lady Elizabeth…) had written.
  2. I high-fived Dolores Huerta (co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the National Farmworkers Association).
  3. I have read James Clavell’s Shogun more than a hundred times and hope to read it a hundred more. Best book ever written.
  4. I have a third-degree black belt in Yoshukai Karate
  5. When I was young, my best friend was the daughter  of artist Frank Stella. He used to let us play in his workshop – and draw with grease pens on bare metal that had been molded into sculptures but not yet painted. Somewhere out there, there is a Frank Stella sculpture with a drawing of mine hidden beneath its paint.
  6. My first job (other than babysitting) was as a counter waitress at a donut store (I was 15). I hated yelling out the orders and insisted on running to the grill guy so that I could use a normal tone of voice. I got fired pretty quickly…
  7. I cannot have house plants, I kill them no matter how hard I try. Even cactuses.

And finally, 15 bloggers and their blogs that deserve the same kind of recognition. The first one was easy: June Hur,  who writes the wonderful Unfortunately, she was a recent recipient of the award so I couldn’t use her. The next four also leaped to mind:

  1. English Historical Fiction Authors – Amazing collection of bloggers.
  2. The Anne Boleyn Files – The real truth about Anne Boleyn.
  3. Sarah – Blogging about Anne Boleyn,Mary Boleyn and the other Tudors.
  4. Queen Anne Boleyn – another  amazing collection of historical writers.

Unfortunately, I realized that they are neither new nor up and coming – these blogs are well-established and have clearly arrived. So as a compromise, I decided to up my remaining number  slightly to nominate 12 more wonderful, lovely – and more eligible – blogs:

  1. Judith Arnopp  –  Historical novelist writing from a woman’s perspective in the Medieval and Tudor period.
  2. Susan Bordo – Devoted to sharing views on Anne Boleyn and more.
  3. Karina Read – Anne Boleyn/Tudor/Medieval/Castle-visiting enthusiast.
  4. Katherine Butler – Early Modern English Music!
  5. Liana – A history student blogging about gardens.
  6. Keith Garrett Poetry – The title says it all.
  7. Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford – The real story behind the infamous Lady Rochford.
  8. Susan Abernathy – Fascinating writer of all things history.
  9. Sarah Johnson –  News, views, and reviews of historical fiction.
  10. Catherine Curzon – Glorious Georgian dispatches from the long 18th Century.
  11. Geri Walton Jane – History of the 18th and 19th centuries.
  12. Conor Byrne – Historical issues (he is a university  student who just wrote a biography of Catherine Howard).

I hope you enjoy these  as  much as I do!


Backstory or Essential Tidbit? Help Me Decide!


This week, my editor finished critiquing my manuscript, Jane the Quene. As I read through her comments, I noticed that there were several passages she suggested I cut because they slowed the pacing…all backstory details that don’t need to be there but that give a fuller picture of the people and the times.  Let me say, I agree with the pacing argument – but some of these morsels seem essential to slip in elsewhere (in a way that is less distracting than I was apparently being). Of course, I realize I may be wrong about how important this information would be to other Tudor fans – so will you please help me out? Let me know which of these snippets would be most significant (or least significant) to you and I’ll figure out a way to make them work somewhere else (or cut them with fewer qualms). And thank you!

  • Perhaps as an outgrowth of his fear of death and disease, Henry was fascinated with herbs. He made his own remedies, both for himself and for friends, and even took his tools on progress with him. (I have to say, this is the one I care about most – I already know where it would really work).
  • Edward Seymour’s father seduced Edward’s first wife – then went slightly mad from guilt.
  • Henry’s boyhood household included Nicholas Carew, Charles Brandon, William Compton…and Henry Norris.
  • Even Sir Thomas More had recognized that vice existed in the monasteries and advocated that some houses be closed. (This is the one most likely to be simply cut, except that I love the background that prompted More’s condemnation: a prior of a religious house had hired a band of cutthroats to commit murder for him, then as a nod to his position, he made them pray with him in his cell before they left to do the deed).

A Self-Centered Book Review: Robin Maxwell’s The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

A Self-Centered Book Review of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.

Cover – The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn


I well remember when this book came out in May 1998. I was 35 and my husband and I had just moved from New York to Los Angeles to transform our lives. I had given up my partnership at a law firm and planned to stay home with our then-two children, aged four and three, until they were in school full time.  I intended to use that time to finish the book I had been working on for ten years, the story of Anne Boleyn.

I had structured it as a diary that Anne, just before her execution, gives to Lady Bryan to hold for Elizabeth until she becomes queen. Anne’s story becomes a counterpoint to what goes on in Elizabeth’s life as she slowly reads the diary. It was brilliant, if I do say so myself. I even had a title I loved – or rather two that I was trying to choose to between: The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Anna Regina Anglia.  I had finished the first draft and was deep into the editing process, when one day I found myself with a factual question I needed to check out. I switched over to the internet, searched for whatever it was…and found a reference to a book that had just been published.

Can you guess?

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, by Robin Maxwell.  A secret diary kept by Anne Boleyn up until the date of her execution and given to Lady Sommerville to hold for Elizabeth until she becomes queen. The cover even featured the portrait of Anne framed by the words Anna Bolina Anglia Regina. To make things worse, Robin Maxwell was a first-time author who had moved from New Jersey to California to transform her life.  The book I had planned, the life I had planned… someone else’s now. The experience sent me into a tailspin from which I didn’t recover for weeks. Until I resolved to continue with my book but change its focus: I would use Jane Seymour, not Elizabeth, to punctuate Anne’s story.

Once that decision was made, I ordered Maxwell’s book and devoured it within hours of its arrival. She did a very different job than I would have.  Her prose was more purple, and she played too loose with facts, both small (she had Anne’s dog Purquoy die in 1536 not 1534) and large (she had Elizabeth sleep with Dudley). But she included the kinds of details (a carved jewelry box in which Elizabeth kept small treasures) that transported me, and made for a fine read. I gave it four stars on Goodreads.

(FYI, in the fifteen years since this episode, I realized that I needed to tell Jane’s story, not a shadow of Anne’s. My book, Jane the Quene, is all Jane (though Thomas Cromwell is a second point-of-view character to round things out a bit!) and it is a much better book than my old attempt had been. Things work out in life if you’re open to them.)