When I came up with the idea for my first novel, I began with the time period: the reign of Henry VIII. I’ve always been fascinated with the Tudor age. I enjoy reading historical mysteries and thrillers, and wanted to try to write one myself.
Everyone asks me why I chose a nun as a protagonist—more specifically, a Dominican novice at Dartford Priory in Kent (a place that did exist). I wanted to write the story from a woman’s point of view but not a queen or princess or lady-in-waiting. Already been done quite a bit. I wanted someone outside of the court but doing things that were interesting. Once I’d chosen a novice, I plunged ahead by putting her in the most fraught time: the late 1530s. What would it be like to experience the Dissolution of the Monasteries from inside one? A friend who read my book before it was sold said, “I’ve never really thought about the Reformation from the point of view of the losing side.”
My book is a murder mystery and a thriller, and the two plots intertwine throughout the book. Most thrillers are not written from the first person perspective because it’s harder to generate suspense. If you know that the killer is in the room at the end of the hall because you just spent the last chapter watching him do something horrific—and now the hero is walking toward that room—you’re filled with dread. I can’t do that using the first person POV. But I found I got the character much more when writing the book through her eyes, and so I set myself the challenge of doing it. Other suspense novels use first person, but usually there are two time tracks to the plot: a mystery set in the past and the modern day protagonist trying to solve it. Eventually the two tracks meet. Or the structure is epistolary, such as The Moonstone or Dracula. I think The Historian is effective in its use of first person perspective among various characters on two time tracks, sometimes through letters.
The other challenge I faced was that in a thriller characters really move around—usually at high speeds. And here I had a young woman, Sister Joanna Stafford, living in an enclosed order during a century when traveling a few miles could take all day. Sometimes when writing the book I’d burst out laughing at myself: “Are you insane?” But I tried to be inventive—and bold—and found ways to set my character loose from the priory. At the beginning of the novel she has already left, without permission. Sister Joanna goes in disguise to Smithfield because her cousin is set to be executed there for her role in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Things go wrong—of course—and she ends up in the Tower of London. That was fun to write. Later in the book, Sister Joanna leaves Dartford and, in the classic grand thriller tradition, she goes on the run to solve the thriller question, against a time pressure, and with a man. In this case, a friar. Writing that sequence was even more fun.
The Crown is published by Orion