In the Beginning…
I was a magazine editor who’d written a few (unsold) screenplays when I made it to the fifth floor of a West Village apartment were fiction writers met. I’d been invited to join their group, but only because they needed a minimum of four to keep going. I hadn’t written fiction since high school but the thought of trying it excited and frightened me in equal measure.
From the very first workshop I was hooked, obsessed, determined to write a novel. Each Monday I’d trudge those stairs—no elevator in the pre-war building. It was a hard climb. Now that the fog of fantasy about writing fiction has receded and I am a published author, I realize that pushing myself to ascend to the fifth floor was actually good training! It took five years and many drafts (and other workshops) before I had a manuscript that was good enough to secure a literary agent.
All I had was a time period when I showed up the first night. “I want to write about the 16th century,” I said to the other, rather startled, writers. (This was 2007, before The Other Boleyn Girl and Showtime’s The Tudors.) Since I adored murder mysteries, I thought I’d set one in the reign of Henry the Eighth. Then I decided to make it a thriller too. I fused all the things I loved: Tudor England, a juicy murder, a high-stakes thriller plot.
But picking a protagonist—that took me a while. I wanted to put a woman in the center of the book, and while I didn’t want to make her a royal, I feared it would be too difficult to find reasons for an ordinary woman to be in the center of a tense, fraught situation in 1537. When I decided to try a nun—specifically, a novice of the Dominican order—that led me to some interesting places. This was a time of tremendous upheaval, when Henry VIII made himself head of the church and imposed the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
What would it be like to live in an age of destruction? The more I read about it, and the more I thought about it, I became convinced that the upheaval that Sister Joanna Stafford struggled with was one that readers could relate to today. In fact, I plotted my book and developed my characters when a recession hit New York City and I watched friends lose jobs and homes. A writer friend said to me, “It’s almost like you dealt with disintegration by writing about dissolution.”
Hmmmm. I think she may be right.