Saturday, March 2, 2013
Backwards and in High Heels at the Grand Hyatt Hotel
Nancy Bilyeau (Guest Blogger)
Twice I’ve gone to Thrillerfest, the annual writer’s conference held in New York City. For a few days in July those who pen the novels that shoot straight to the bestseller list—and stay there—get together for panels, dinners, drinks, awards. For the most part, they’re friendly, down-to-earth folks. As Karin Slaughter said in 2011, “You’ll never meet a nicer group than thriller authors.”
Some panels are in tiny conference rooms and some Q&A sessions are held in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street. The authors who sit onstage in the ballroom, a microphone in hand, are the Princes of the City. They write the lucrative franchises; their main characters are spies, FBI or ex-FBI, CIA, special ops, private eyes, reporters, lawyers, fixers and, of course, cops. In these thrillers, the main characters dash from one place to the next, hurtling around the globe, using their brains and their fists, in a race against time to save Mankind (or at least a healthy percentage of the race) from disaster.
I respect these authors, their ingenuity, their mastery of craft, and their discipline. Yet once in a while, I can’t help but think of a line I heard about Fred Astaire: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget, Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards—and in high heels.”
You see, my two thriller novels are set in the 16th century, my main character is a Dominican novice, and I write in the first person. My main character is pledged to an enclosed order of nuns in Dartford, Kent. The whole point of an enclosed order is: You can’t leave.
The Fred Astaires of thriller writing have got cars hitting 100 mph on the freeway and jets hitting Mach 10 across the Pacific. I’m dealing with a world where even when I figure out a plausible way for the main character to leave her religious order, it takes all day to travel 50 kilometers on horseback—and that’s only if the roads are dry. They’ve written scenes where their main characters are tapping into the latest in technology to solve crimes, including satellite surveillance. I’ve got ink, a quill, parchment, and if I’m extremely creative, access to a small library of religious books. Their main characters speak multiple languages, know everything about fine wine and cuisine, and have the powerful physiques of trained athletes. My nun is really, really good at weaving tapestries.
I didn’t set out in a fit of perversity to make this as difficult on myself as possible. I’ve always loved the 16th century, so when I decided to write my first novel, I decided to fuse the Tudor novel with the other genre I adore: the mystery. Why did I write it in the first person when everyone knows it’s easier to generate suspense in third person? Because I found my character when I switched to the first. That was when Sister Joanna Stafford came to life.
In my first novel, The Crown, a dead body is found on the proverbial floor (actually, he was propped up in bed). But I also wrapped the murder mystery with a thriller adventure: a Dark Ages king, a crown with mystical powers, a race to obtain it. In my second novel, The Chalice, I write a different sort of thriller plot, driven by a conspiracy that forces my main character to leave England. That’s right, I’ve gone international. Sure, it took two days to sail from London to Antwerp in 1539, but she was on the move!
So does this actually work? Do I produce true thrillers with my backwards dancing? Readers reported back that they stayed up up late at night to finish the book. That's what I hoped to hear: fingers were turning the pages. As for The Chalice, the novel comes out on March 5. All I can do is hope that on the Fred and Ginger dance floor, I can stay up on those heels.
Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor and novelist whose first book, The Crown, made the short list for the Crime Writers Association’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger. The sequel, The Chalice, will be out this week.