Deborah Swift: How I came to write historical fiction

28 April 2014

By Pan Macmillan

1. When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

I’ve loved to write ever since I could pick up a pencil. When asked at school to write a report on “What I did on my holidays,” I always managed to include a mysterious ghostly presence, impossibly beautiful and intelligent parents involved in espionage, some faithful and adorable dogs we didn’t own, and even a few fictional burglars, so probably I should have realised then that telling stories is a natural inclination for me! When I became a teenager I read and wrote a lot of poetry as it appealed to my subversive side and I have always loved playing with language. Poetry also eventually fitted neatly into the spaces between other things such as career and family, and was my way of exploring my experiences. Eventually I decided to study for an MA in Creative Writing with the idea I’d develop the poems which were gathering dust into a coherent collection. Nobody was more surprised than I was to find I ended up writing a historical novel - The Lady’s Slipper - instead. The book started out life as a poem, but the narrative seemed to demand a lot more space than a poem could provide, so I wrote Chapter One, and enjoyed it so much that I just carried on breathlessly until it was finished. A few years down the line and I’m still hooked on writing historical fiction!

2. Why historical fiction? And how much research do you do for your novels?

History can mirror our own times and it gives me space to explore the things that matter to me personally through fiction. I like to have a theme, or a big abstract idea to hang the whole book on, and this is important to my sense of why the book I am writing matters, and to my idea of myself as a writer, even if the reader doesn’t always ‘get it’, but just sees it as a good story. In The Lady’s Slipper it was about the preservation of our landscape; in The Gilded Lily I was wrestling with the idea of beauty and greed in all its manifestations; and in A Divided Inheritance I was considering whether the fact of having a faith is more important than which particular faith you follow. I love to create interesting characters and history gives me the chance to write about people whose views were radically different from our own, and who inhabit turbulent times. I enjoy the scope and drama of history, partly because of my theatrical background, but also because in reality it is the plot that drives the book. I used to do a lot of historical research for my job as a designer – I worked on costumes and sets for TV and Theatre, so I suppose I already had the necessary research skills. Turning to history just felt natural. I’m inspired by real historical events and use specific visual research as a starting point to work from. From there I ‘imagine outwards,’ like building clay onto an armature. I do more research with every draft I write, and the research gets more detailed as I realise exactly what I need to know. A book takes me about eighteen months to write, and probably a third of that time is solid research.

3. What does a day in the life of Deborah Swift look like?

I write in the mornings if possible, before I get chance to talk myself out of it! I use the afternoons and evenings for research, social networking and my day job. I fit my husband and a social life in there somewhere too! Mainly I write on the computer, but I also have a lot of very scruffy notebooks I carry about, with mad jottings scrawled on them in biro such as “make sure so-and-so is already having treasonous thoughts by chapter 4,” “don’t forget to add more backstory to the drowning,” and “what did a bucket cost in 1660”….

4. Who are your favourite authors?

My main influences are actually plays, as I can’t help but be heavily influenced by all the drama I’ve seen on stage. I tend to think naturally in three acts, and in terms of scenes, stage directions and dialogue. I’m a great Shakespeare fan and still love to see live performance. But I do read a wide variety of authors. I am reading Kate Forsyth’s ‘Bitter Greens’, another 17th Century novel, at the moment. I love Mary Renault’s classic fiction which I think is masterful and never dates. I recently re-read Philippa Gregory’s Tradescant trilogy and was impressed all over again by its lightly-worn research. I admire Tracy Chevalier and Rose Tremain as writers and wish I could have such an economical style. I also really enjoy the Tudor novels of CJ Sansom. As for contemporary women’s fiction, I love the storytelling skills of Jodi Picoult and Kate Morton.

5. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Write! You can’t be a writer unless you do. But write what you enjoy, because each novel will possibly be years in the making. Have persistence, and the willingness to edit and re-edit your work. Oh, and don’t give up the day job!