Guest blogger Helen Bryan is the author of the best-selling World War II novel War Brides, as well as two nonfiction books. Her sweeping new historical love story, The Sisterhood, comes out today.
At some point in
their writing career, most authors have been asked where the idea for a particular
book came from. "What possessed you," readers inquire, "to write
about that?" While I have known authors to claim such diverse sources of
inspiration as divine light, solitary running, or the creative properties of
strong drink, in my experience "possession" gets pretty near the
mark. Ideas can take on a force that drags the author along.
The Sisterhood is a case in point. The seed for this book was
sown long ago, during a visit to a 16th-century Spanish convent whose orphanage
was home to many illegitimate daughters of the aristocracy. These children occupied
a peculiar position between privilege and a fate sealed at birth; they were destined
to become nuns themselves and never leave the convent. In the low-ceilinged rooms
where they lived were cases of odd ecclesiastical "toys" that the
little girls played with to prepare them for their future, and somehow the
convent was full of the children's presence. I had a vague idea that this would
be a good setting for a period novel featuring a beautiful, plucky orphan who
escaped to find love in Spanish America.
Then I forgot
about nuns and runaway orphans until many years and several books later. I was trying
to work on a book set in the United States when I found that the Spanish convent
and its orphan girls kept getting in the way of my progress. I put the American
story on hold and began researching 16th-century Spain.
Research for historical
fiction allows a writer to procrastinate, almost indefinitely, without actually
writing anything. So it is easy to begin: Dip a toe in the water, and before
you know it, you're up to your neck. I began spending days in the British
Library reading about what shaped life in the aftermath of the Christian
overthrow of the Muslim Moors, the role of nuns and convents, the Spanish
conquest in Latin America, and colonial society.
became five; parallel plots unfolded, expanded, and connected. The background
of political tensions between Jews, Christians, and Muslims loomed larger and
larger, and I began to see parallels between the 16th century and the modern world.
This introduced a dimension to the novel that I never anticipated but found
impossible to ignore.
The Sisterhood was not the book I intended to write but the
product of a once vague idea that took on a compelling life of its own—and, in
turn, compelled me.