Sharon Kay Penman seems superbly equipped to write novels about the medieval era, but she took several detours before finding her calling. She attended three different colleges, graduating in 1969 with a history major. After teaching for a year at a Catholic school in Hawaii, she returned to the mainland and earned a J.D. degree from Rutgers University in 1974.
She then worked for four years as a tax and corporate attorney. Penman says that she hated her legal work. She turned back to her original passion, history, and in her spare time began to write a novel about Richard III. After four years' work on it, the 500-page manuscript was stolen from her car.
She was devastated. It took her five years to begin writing again. But she continued to research the topic, and finally an insurance settlement gave her enough money to quit her job and rewrite the novel. It was a big risk, but her friends and family were encouraging, and in 1978 she was able to spend three months in England, visiting the castles and other sites where her story would take place. Upon returning to America, she finished The Sunne in Splendour. From that time on, her luck changed for the better.
The novel was accepted by Henry Holt, the first publishing house that saw it, and sold 32,000 copies right away. Penman's success with this book bucked a trend away from long historical novels, and established an audience for her later, also successful, novels.
Penman takes pride in the detail and historical accuracy of her books. She seems to enjoy the research process as much as the actual storytelling, and her novels are often praised as fine exemplars of both.