How Reading A Historical Thriller About A Nun Helped Me Write Women’s Fiction About A Jewish Family

We’ve talked a lot about reading widely, which is probably the most prevalent advice given by the published authors who’ve graced this blog.  I think one thing that makes it easier to go outside outside our (eh hem, my) comfort zone when reading is the fact that most of us are part of one or more writing communities.  When you know the author of a book that might not be your usual thang, you have another reason to read it.  I’m not saying you should read everything everyone you know writes, I know that’s impossible.  Delightful-sounding, but ambitious, considering most of us have, well, lives.

I digress.

In January I found myself compelled to read THE CROWN, written my fellow debut author Nancy Bilyeau, even though never in my 40-cough-cough (ok, maybe one more – cough) years, had I ever read — or had I ever considered reading — a historical thriller set in Tudor England.  That’s the 1500’s, folks.  Way before the olden days even.

I met Nancy Bilyeau in a debut author group called Book Pregnant.  She’s a social media lackey like me, so we had a lot in common.  Her book came out in January, it was one of the first Book Pregnant books to be published (our books are all being published in 2012 or 2013).  Since I’d just unofficially resolved to read books unlike those I’d read before, Nancy’s was the place to start.  Slowly.  I downloaded the sample.  I was hooked.  I finished the book in two days. I did not analyze the book while I read it (it’s a page-turner, breath-holder, nail-biter) but I realized afterward that not only did I want to read widely for pleasure, but for improving my own writing craft.

Taking myself away from a contemporary, literary-light, realistic work of character-driven fiction (which is what I most often read) allowed my mind to wander (when I was finished reading) the way it does when we’re doing something mindless like the dishes or when I forget my glasses at the gym and can’t read or watch TV.  The fact is — in this case — I was so removed from my own writing that I was actually able to see it more clearly.

So, while a young nun was chasing secrets all over England, and I was learning things about the Catholic Church, kings and nuns and monks, I was also internalizing a deft hand for setting, conflict, mystery and even a little bit of romantic tension.

I think we store our own work in pockets in our brain where we know they fit — and when we read something just like it — we tuck those other stories into the same pockets without paying much attention because the comparisons, lessons, conclusions are obvious. They’re important, those lessons are crucial, but they don’t stretch us in every direction.

When I read something that is nothing like The Glass Wives, my lessons are almost epiphanies. Reading about the monastery and abbey in Tudor England prompted me to enhance some of the setting descriptions in my book.  I loved the visual nature of Nancy’s book, and while my main character, Evie, is driving a mini-van in the suburbs, I was so taken with the images I saw in my head that I wanted to make sure that effect could happen for my readers too.  Nancy’s main character, Joanna, is a strong, driven 26-year-old woman with a strong head and a (mostly) sure heart.  Hey — sounds like Evie, although she’s 45. THE CROWN is steeped in history and the Catholic religion.  The Glass Wives is peppered with Jewish customs, holidays and Yiddish words and phrases.  It’s not the same as Catholic Tudor England, but the weight of its effect on the reader needs to be the same.

Even though I knew nothing about this time period, I easily fell into the rhythm of the cadence.  Context allowed me to derive meaning.  The writing enabled me to learn things without removing me from the story. All good, relatable, universal tools for writers.

There are 30 of us in Book Pregnant (it’s an invisible/secret/private FB group, but we also have a very public blog), and my plan is to read all the books eventually, but this experience has also opened my eyes to more great books out there that I normally might have — no, would have — ignored.  It’s true that the fact that I know Nancy made this even more fun.  I mean, really, what’s not fun about seeing your friend in your local paper — and then realizing it’s written by one of your neighbors, who has been a Chicago Trib reporter for years and also, you guessed it — knows Nancy!

Me in the Chicago suburbs holding The Chicago Tribune with an article about Nancy Bilyeau, my author-friend in NY, and the article was written by my neighbor and friend, Bonnie Miller Rubin. Say that ten-times, fast, I dare you.

This, my friends, is three degrees of writer-separation!  (Better than being Kevin Bacon I tell you.)

The point of all this is…give other writers a chance because you are going to want them to give YOU a chance and because you can and will learn from them.  Don’t know other writers?  Yes you do, you know me!  Just check out the comments section, follow folks on Twitter, leave a note on a thread on one of your favorite author’s FB pages.  I feel fortunate (as you know) to connect here at WFW with women’s fiction writers.  It’s what I do. I write stories and novels about families and friendships that revolve around women.  But — since January, in addition to the literary/women’s fiction that’s usually on my reading menu, I’ve read historical fiction, memoir, humor, Southern fiction and a paranormal romance. I have also read the lauded and laughed-at 50 Shades, but purely in the name of research about grey eyes.  And elevators.  We will not discuss the fact that there are neither grey eyes nor elevators in The Glass Wives.

And let’s just say I am glad my dining room is no longer painted red.

Consider those your spoilers for the day. 😉

Amy xo

PS My opinion of that 50 Shades is that the writing is lackadaisical at best – but this isn’t a review blog – and I get the lure. A friend told me Ryan Gosseling is going to play Christian Grey in the movie. I’m more of a George Clooney gal, but whatever.  I may just have to see the movie too. You know.  For research.

I urge you to learn more about Nancy Bilyeau and THE CROWN by visiting Nancy’s website and by reading the interviews and articles listed here.  THE CHALICE, the much anticipated sequel to THE CROWN, will be published in the UK and Germany.  You can read about Nancy in the Chicago Tribune, the same article that I’m holding and subsequently mailed to Nancy.  Then it will be like zero degrees of separation for all of us!  Click here!  If you’d like to read a review of THE CROWN, click here.  Want an in-depth interview with Nancy? You’ll find that here

Top photo credit:


21 thoughts on “How Reading A Historical Thriller About A Nun Helped Me Write Women’s Fiction About A Jewish Family

  1. Must…read…faster. You’re absolutely right, but knowing my reading time is limited, I find myself being drawn to the genre I know I’ll enjoy and relate to–women’s fiction. You’ve motivated me to put something outside that box on my reading list. And 50 Shades is on my “research” reading list as well. I read all the Twilight books and just finished Hunger Games. Might as well strip away all pretense and read 50 Shades. However, going in the bookstore to buy it may feel a bit like when I was a teen and humiliated to to go in the pharmacy to buy tampons. “Everyone knows!” 🙂


    • Hi Densie! You know, I was resistant at first to read WAY outside what I’m used to reading, but it was revelatory. It didn’t hurt that Nancy’s book was fabulous. In general, I don’t finish books I don’t like, so even getting started when I didn’t know what to expect was daunting. I was well-rewarded. I now have other books on my list that are different from what I usually read, including a biography of Steven Tyler. (oh my) But I will admit that for every “out there” book, I read one or two books of solid, up-market women’s fiction. 🙂


  2. For research. You’re so funny, Amy! As usual, a great post. Nancy’s book is a real page turner that’s steeped in some fascinating times. I loved the take on the cloistered life of an intelligent and insightful young woman.


  3. Can’t wait to read both…The Crown and The Glass Wives I mean. As for 50 Shades, that’s going to have to wait until some fellow traveler leaves it in a hotel room where I find it one day. That’s my favorite way to be exposed to new genres…picking up the English language flotsam and jetsam abandoned on people’s journeys.


  4. couldn’t agree more with you post. I find the wider variety of books I read in terms of genres, the better a writer I think I become. When I wrote my novel The Boy Who Played Guitar, which is set in a school with a choir, because it drew on emotions, pathos and humour in the face of sadness, I read everything from Pride and Prejudice to When God was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman. It definitely helped not only my style, but my thinking process, too. I also find current affairs, interesting stories on the news help, also. I’m half way through my second novel now, which is, bizarrely, based around a category one murder convict. but I am finding myself reading The Hunger Games and Water for Elephants – a strange mix indeed! I’ll keep on reading and hoepfully the writing will all work itself out. Fingers crossed!


  5. I’m just making the leap from creative non-fiction to fiction in my own writing. I find myself reading so much differently, paying attention to structure, character. I happen to really enjoy historical fiction. It’s as close to a history book As I may get.

    Loved The Danish Girl, probably more fiction than history, but great story.


  6. Amy, I couldn’t agree more. For me, living with a biologist, I have found myself riveted by non-fiction books that I would NEVER have picked up on my own–and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found seeds in them that, while may not have turned directly into novels, certainly grew to flower in some form in drafts (Ugh–enough with the lanscaping analogies, Erika!) And I love that picture–and especially the remarkable connection there.


  7. This is so true! When I read outside my preferred genre, I have the most epiphanies (YES!), and it is only then that I forget to pay attention to the writing craft b/c I’m too wrapped up in the story! I love when that happens; it’s a ‘hallelujah’ moment, b/c the more I learn about writing, the less I can turn off my inner critic, and sometimes that’s just a big, fat bummer. Stretching outside the “pockets of our brains” is something all writers should do. You never know what you might learn.

    Case-in-point: I just finished a dystopian YA novel DIVERGENT, and after blocking out all other activities for the day b/c I just had to see what was going to happen, I found myself thinking about deep philosophical things when the story (which was like a wild video game) was over. Who knew?!


  8. Twitter too has introduced me to writers/books I might have overlooked before. I totally get what you’re saying! As fro 50 shades . . . couldn’t get past the first part of the second book. The “inner goddess” language and self talk “Crap” etc. was making me crazy.


  9. Pingback: Author Nancy Bilyeau Says “Take The Plunge And Be Ready For Anything!” | women's fiction writers

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