Nicole Evelina, author of Catherine's Mercy, takes you behind the scenes of writing Chalice Stories' first novel, her writing process, where fact ends and fiction begins, what inspires her, and more.
This is your first book that intertwines a character and Christian faith. How did you go about developing the faith lives of these historical characters?
I have previously written characters who were pagan and Spiritualist, but this is the first one where my characters are Christian. Regardless of their beliefs, my process was the same: learn as much about the faith and how it was practiced in the book’s time period as possible. Then I read accounts from those who practiced that faith to try to get a real-life feel for it beyond the theoretical because very few people practice their faith even close to perfectly. For Catherine, this was easy because I’ve been Catholic my whole life and used to want to become a nun. That meant what I really needed to learn was about the Irish Penal Laws and how they affected the lives of 19th century Irish Catholics. I also had to try to put myself into that period, which meant trying to clear my mind of modern ideas like anything post-Vatican II, and really try to think from a perspective where lay people, especially women, were not viewed well at all by the Church.
Without giving too much away, where in Catherine’s Mercy does the fact end and the fiction begin?
A detailed answer to that question is in the Author’s Notes at the end of the book. Short answer: I tried to stick as close to the truth regarding Catherine as it is known using biographies, Catherine’s extant letters, and lore that is preserved by the Sisters of Mercy. Of course, there are things we can never know, such as the wording of conversations or exactly what really took place during a given event, which is partly where the fiction comes in. I also tried to use real people in Catherine’s life for characters. Daniel O’Connell, William and Catherine Callaghan, Anna Maria Doyle, Elizabeth Harley and many of the Sisters and priests were real people. Margaret and her situation are based on a real domestic servant who came to Catherine for help, but we don’t have any details, so I had to make those up. Grace, Lord Montague and most of the secondary characters are fictional, but the history surrounding them is real.
What do you hope readers will take away from Catherine’s Mercy?
Beyond being entertained and hopefully learning something, I hope that readers will see that anyone with faith and determination can do good in the world. That is certainly a hallmark of Catherine’s life, and I made it part of Grace, Anna Maria and Margaret’s lives as well. I also hope that readers understand that although Catherine is on the path to sainthood in the Catholic Church, she was not perfect; she had flaws, doubts and uncertainty just like the rest of us. Yet look at how much she changed the world for the better!
How did you learn about Catherine McAuley? What inspired you to think of her as a subject for a historical fiction novel?
I’ve been working for a Mercy health care organization for the last 20 years, so I know Catherine’s story very well. It is one every co-worker learns because our mission and heritage are very important to our work. However, as a person in internal communications who has our Mission Department as a client, I had to learn the history of our organization in much more detail than most (and I have enjoyed every minute of it). I was blessed to be selected to go to Dublin, Ireland, and stay at the first House of Mercy and walk in Catherine’s footsteps about 10 years ago for a fundraising project, so I got just about the most in-depth research I could ever ask for even though at the time I had no idea I would ever write her story.
The idea for the novel—or rather short story, because that is how it began its life—came to me in late 2019 when a friend and I discussed plans to develop an anthology of short stories featuring women who overcame abuse to benefit survivors of domestic violence. I knew immediately the story I wanted to tell; it was one that always haunted me. I wanted to play with the question of why a woman such as Catherine—renown for her compassion and generosity—would turn down someone in need. I seriously got the chills when I realized how perfectly that story fit the project.
The anthology never came to be because we couldn’t secure enough writers, but by the time we realized that I had already written Consequences (which is pretty much still intact in the second part of the novel). I self-published it as a short story in June 2021, but it was only available for a short time because my agent wanted me to expand it into a full novel. At first I didn’t want to—I felt like I had said all I wanted to in the short story—but the more I thought about it, the more I warmed to the idea. Before I knew it, I could hear Catherine’s voice in my head (that happens with all my books), Chalice offered me a contract, and I was off writing a full book.
Which character did you most enjoy writing for?
That is a tough one! I really love writing villains, so Lord Montague was fun, but I also have a soft spot for Grace. I think her redemption arc was my favorite.
What’s the biggest challenge of writing fiction? Of writing historical fiction?
I write a specific type of historical fiction called biographical historical fiction. That means that I write about real people and try to tell their life story in a relatively honest fashion while still telling an entertaining story. Finding the balance between fact and fiction is tough and it varies from book to book, based on the needs of the tale. History gives me the bones of the story, but it is up to me to use fiction to give it tissue and bring it to life.
What was your biggest surprise writing Catherine’s Mercy?
Learning about the real-life Wrens of the Curragh, on whom Grace’s “doves” are based. I had never heard of these independent women before and I really enjoyed writing the character of Cressida/Wren, who got her nickname from these women.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently on a bit of a brain break because I just finished writing and publishing five books over the last two years, along with a full time job and many major life changes, including moving out of state and getting married next October. Once my brain settles a bit I’m going to work on proposals for a biography of a nearly-forgotten women’s suffrage leader (my second biography) as well as a dark academia work of historical fiction based in Oxford that also has a non-fiction book tie-in. If Catherine’s Mercy does well, you may just see more about the Sisters of Mercy, too.
Where can readers find out more about you and your books?
My website, nicoleevelina.com, is the best place. I am also on social media as Nicole Evelina Author on Facebook, Threads, Tiktok and Instagram, and as Nicole Evelina on Pinterest, Goodreads, and Bookbub. I LOVE email from readers, so if you want to talk about anything related to my books, feel free to email me.
Catherine's Mercy is available now from ChalicePress.com or wherever you buy books.