Join me as I chat with Deborah Swift, author of four novels listed on Art In Fiction, including The Lady's Slipper and the Women of Pepys' Diaries Series, all set in England in the 17th century.
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Hello and welcome to Season 2 of The Art In Fiction Podcast. I'm your host Carol Cram, a novelist and avid reader of books inspired by the arts.
This episode features historical novelist Deborah Swift. Four of her novels are listed on Art In Fiction: The Lady’s Slipper ( Visual Arts), Entertaining Mr Pepys (Theater), and A Plague on Mr Pepys and Pleasing Mr Pepys (Literature).
Deborah has worked as a set and costume designer for theater and TV. She also developed a degree course in Theatre Arts at the Arden School of Theatre, where she taught scenography and the history of design. In 2007 she took an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, and since then has juggled writing with teaching. She lives in an old schoolhouse in a small village in the north of England, close to the mountains and the sea.
Welcome to the Art In Fiction podcast, Deborah.
Thanks very much for inviting me, Carol.
You've written so many novels. I am totally inspired. I think you just said you are launching your 15th?
That's right. I'm working on my 15th. The 14th is about to be launched. So, the 15th is finished because we're always a little bit ahead with the finishing and the launching.
That’s amazing. I am in awe. I am on my fifth and, as we were talking about before we started, it doesn't seem to get any easier, does it, no matter how many you write.
No. It doesn't. I always say to my husband, never again, like, when I first started writing the Pepys books, I wrote book number one, Pleasing Mr. Pepys. And after I said, oh, never again, but I was contracted for two more.
And after the second one, I said, oh, never again. And he said, you're going to say that after the third, aren't you? And I said, yes, I am. And that was the way of it. They never get any easier. Even when you're in the same story world with the same sort of characters, somehow the plotting doesn't get any easier.
And also, you always want to improve. Your next book always has to be better than the one before, or you're always developing a craft. And so, you're always challenging yourself to make it a better read, a more interesting read. And I think that's the case for all writers. They're trying to improve their craft all the time and so it's never going to be an easy answer where you can just churn them out.
I know, I wish it was. I used to think that would happen after I did my first one. And I thought, well, maybe after my second. Yeah, no.
Today I want to chat with you about the novels that are related in some way to the arts and are listed on Art In Fiction. We have The Lady’s Slipper in the Visual Arts category and the three novels in the Women of Pepys’ Diaries series. Two that are listed in Literature and one in Theater.
So, I want to start with The Lady's Slipper, which I read several years ago, long before I started Art In Fiction, and before I finished my debut novel. I have to tell you I was actually in London and I went into Foyles bookstore looking for something to read on the train, as you do. And I remember plucking your novel off the shelf.
And there was something about it that appealed to me. I think it was because it had something to do with painting and I was at that time working on my debut novel, The Towers of Tuscany. So, I bought it and then devoured it over the next few days while traveling around England and then when I went to Italy to do some of my research.
So, your novel actually really inspired me not only to finish Towers, but eventually to start Art In Fiction because I just knew there had to be lots of arts-inspired novels out there.
So, can you give us a quick summary of The Lady's Slipper?
Well, The Lady’s Slipper, when I first started writing it, I was in a creative writing group and the lady's slipper is an orchid. And my idea was that somebody would become so obsessed with this orchid that they would get involved in a murder and things like that. And I remember somebody saying to me, well, how can anybody be that obsessed over a flower? And I thought to myself, well, what sort of person would be obsessed over a flower? And the answer came: an artist.
I'd seen the flower, which was a rare wildflower and the only one of which existed in our country in England at that time. And I thought, well, I'd like to write something about it and initially I thought it's a poem, but then, it just struck me that it would make a story. It would make a very good story.
So, I began to write it and literally constructed it from those two premises, the flower itself, which was very rare, and the artist who wanted it to paint it. And her idea was because it was so rare, she was going to preserve in paint, but she was also going to try and preserve it for posterity.
And I thought this was an interesting idea and also decided to set it in the English Civil War because then there was also battle over land and over the countryside. And I thought that would be an interesting period in which to put it. So that's how it started.
And I still really love it as a book. I think because I was so innocent; then my whole writing life was about exploring ideas I really liked. I hadn't really any thoughts of who might read it or anything like that. And so, it was just really a bit of an outpouring from the heart.
Yes, I think our debut novels are like that. And I think we're always trying to get back to that innocence. That's interesting that you say that the way we wrote the first one where, you know, sort of no expectations, just write our passion. And almost when you, when you start to get more successful, it's almost more difficult, isn't it, as we said earlier.
I just loved The Lady’s Slipper, as I said, I totally enjoyed it and I loved that it was set in the Civil War, the English Civil War. I'm a Canadian, but I don't know that much about the English Civil War. We never learned it in school, believe it or not. So why did you choose that era?
I think one of the reasons was it was a time when we were trying to decide what was the best way for the country to be governed. And England had a king who had been dethroned, if you like, and Parliament had taken over. So, I set it just after that period, because when a great upheaval like that has taken place in the country and you've lost your monarch, and the government has suddenly changed, the reverberations of that continued for quite a long time afterwards. And I wanted to explore the idea that even when events have happened, it still takes a long time to come to terms with them.
And this is echoed in the fact that the main protagonist is grieving. She's grieving for the loss of her sister. Her sister died young and many people in the book are grieving for either the loss of their loved ones or they’re grieving that their side had lost, if you like.
So, they're grieving for the fact that the King had gone and that they were now left with a different sort of government happening in the country. So, it was about that, really. I wanted to explore aftermaths in a way. I thought that was an interesting way of approaching it. Most people approach things by going right into the heart of the battle, but for me, it was much more about the sorts of things that happen afterwards and how difficult it is to come to terms with change, that your life might radically change, and you then have to try and deal with those changes.
I love that whole thing about aftermaths. That's very interesting, like, you know, picking up the pieces.
Yes. And I think one of the other reasons I chose the period was because it was a period of great religious upheaval as well. It was the time actually just when people were about to set sail from England and go and discover the New World. And in fact, in the book that is as well that somebody does travel across to America and people were looking for new answers, new ways of worship.
And this was very interesting in England because we had something like 150 different sects of religious orders because the whole order had changed. And so, I found that very interesting when people were trying to decide, you know, not only who was the head of the country, but who was their ultimate head? Um, was it, what sort of God were they worshiping? So very interesting to look at as well, actually,
It reminds me that my ancestors, if you go way back, left England during this period. I believe they were Anglicans during Cromwell’s time. So, they had to get out. They weren't Puritans and they actually went first to the United States. And then eventually they all came up to Canada a long time later.
But that's interesting that that's when the New World was starting to be colonized.
Now, all four of the novels that I've listed on Art In Fiction are set in the 17th century as are several of your other novels. So, we talked a little bit about the Civil War, but what is it about the 17th century that appeals to you?
You know what, it was just that I got stuck in a sort of rabbit hole of research. I started in the 17th century with a very clear idea with the lady's slipper that this would be an appropriate time to set this particular book because it was all to do with fighting over territory. And the flower was something which embodied that in a symbolic way.
And then when I was researching, I had no idea then that I was going to be a historical novelist and I knew nothing about the 17th century and had to start researching. And of course, the more you research, the more interested you get, and the more you find other things about that period that you also find interesting.
And so, although I intended to leave the 17th century and go to a different century, almost everything I was reading was about that period. And it just became very fascinating, and I just became so interested in it that I sort of got stuck there and I more or less have been there ever since. I've had a brief foray into World War Two, which was also an interesting period of sort of dissent and change, but I’ve stuck with the 17th century simply because I've come across it more than anything else, because that's what I've been reading. I've got hundreds of research books about this, lots of papers and things. So yes, I got stuck there.
It is a fascinating century, for sure. You were mentioning earlier that you would do a reading from The Lady’s Slipper.
Yeah. So, I'd love to do a reading from this particular book. I think I don't very often revisit it. And you forget what your novels are like by the time you've written 15, you've forgotten what the first one is about.
It’s actually a pleasure to open it because by then it seems to be yours, you know, seems to be your words that you're still arguing over in your head, but you're still trying to edit. It's out there. It's been published, you know, it's been on a bookshelf and it's now a secondhand book in lots of places because it's old. And so, it's actually a real pleasure to visit again.
I’m going to read a bit right from the beginning. And just so people know, the lady's slipper is an orchid. And it was a wildflower that was very rare. And the only one in England that's since been bred. It's a big success story for the Kew Gardens who did all this and managed to reintroduce it back into the wild.
She lifted the lady’s slipper onto the table and stared at its strange, almost unearthly appearance. It was essential to catch the moment before the flower faded. She could not quite believe she'd stolen it. She, Alice Ibbetson, was a thief. There were thieves in the stocks on the green—people who were rough and dirty, covered in slops. Like everyone else, she ignored them, but felt a sting of guilt as she went about her business.
Of course, this was a little different. She was not really a thief but a rescuer preserving nature's wonders. She was perspiring slightly and wiped her fingers down her skirt. Nobody had seen a lady’s slipper flower for more than twenty years. If her skill was enough, in future times little girls like Flora would be able to pick them and put them in water with the buttercups.
She must find a better hiding place, for word would soon be out that it was gone. People called her eccentric because of her passion for plants, but she was not the only person who'd be interested in the orchid. The botanists would want it—the new breed of men, men like Geoffrey, who traded in foreign and unusual specimens. It's always surprised her how news of a rarity could travel, as if somehow it was carried like a scent on the air. Plantsmen have a sixth sense; like homing pigeons they know by instinct when something calls them home, and this orchid would certainly draw them.
She positioned the plant on the table where the pearly light from the long casement windows lit up the flower petals and showed off that delicate transparency. The need in her to fix its beauty on paper was urgent. Her fingers itched to take off the brush. She would just make a quick sketch. It was barely dawn—Wheeler would not be awake yet, and although he might guess who had taken it, she doubted if he would have the effrontery to come to the house.
She remembered the first time she'd been introduced to him, at Lady Swainson’s house. She had been curious to meet him then, for she'd heard about these odd followers of George Fox, men who quaked in their boots at the word of the Lord. She had been ready to scoff at him but found him so unlike what she was expecting that she was quite unable to do so. She had imagined a small tremulous mouse of a man, not such a tall, energetic, capable-looking person.
Alice repositioned the plant to face her. Just one turn of the sandglass, that should be enough time to capture the rhythmic line of the petals. She drew quickly, then behind to grind the pigments in a stone bowl, adding water drop by drop from a small flagon. A dribble of gum was added next, imported at great expense from India. The scrape of the grindstone and the motion of stirring the paint was soothing. It was a ritual she had always enjoyed; the sound of the spatula turning in the bowl took her back to her childhood. She saw again her father's laced-cuffed hand weigh down on hers as he showed her how to press the gum into the soot.
She traced the forms and spaces of the stems and leaves, sketching the outline in fine sepia brushstrokes. Soon she became engrossed in a world where the only sounds were of sable on paper, the tinkle of rinsing the brushes, and the rising and falling rhythm of her breath. The flower took life on the paper, blooming out of the ivory spaces, waxing slowly into existence. But the light shifted imperceptibly, and she failed to notice that the sand had long since trickled away in the glass.
She did not hear the knocking for a few moments. A rapping on the front door. When sound suddenly cut through her reverie, her brush jumped and skidded across the page. Alarmed, she placed the board silently on the table and tilted her head round the corner of the door. From this position she could not see who was there; the caller was obscured by a topiary box tree. The person stepped back to look at the upstairs windows, and with the jolt Alice recognized the solid dark figure. It was Wheeler. She shrunk back inside the summer house.
Oh, thank you. That was great. I took me right back to that novel and how much I enjoyed it. And, and that sort of danger, in a way, that she feels, you know, having stolen the lady's slipper and then drawing it. It must be fun to go back to it.
It's great fun. And actually, it reminds me when I was reading it just then that at the time I did the lots of research into orchids and the people who were fanatical about them. And there were some marvelous stories of people like Victorian ladies who climbed cliffs to try and reach these rare specimens. And some people who were just so fanatical about them, that some of the stories were very amusing. And it took me back to that whole research period.
They're amazing flowers, for sure. Thank you very much for that. I just love getting taken back.
Time for a short break.
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And now back to the show!
I wanted to talk about the Women of Pepys Diaries series. So, what was the genesis of this series?
The thing about Pepys’s diary is that it's marvelous for telling you everything you need to know about the 17th century, particularly in England and in London. And I've used the diary a lot for my research, and I kept going back to it, but little details, things about what people ate to what they wore, the type of events that people would go to, the theaters, the bear baiting, those sorts of little details. And I found his diaries absolutely fascinating and kept returning to them for that reason and for the language that he used, which helped me to tune into getting a mindset for the 17th century.
And the whole time I was doing it, I was thinking about his wife, who, who was only ever referred to by the term, my wife. At first, I thought this was really strange that, why would he say that? And in fact, it turns out that this is a mark of respect. It's not just that he's incredibly rude about her. It is a mark of respect in that period to refer to the person as your wife.
But I became very interested in her and what she was doing while he'd write down the events of the day and then she'd appear some of the time. And then other times she'd disappeared. She may be absent for four or five days. And you think, well, what's she doing in that time? And then she'd reappear, obviously when she was important to his life, she'd appear. And then this other time she'd disappear. And it was the same with all the women in the diary. They were like ghostly presences that hovered somewhere in the background, sort of secondary to his life. And I thought they must've had very interesting lives, these women, if we could only find out a little bit more about them.
So, I began to dig around a bit and to try and find a bit more about these women. And of course, there's hardly anything written about them. What is written is in his diary, and it's surprising how much information you can glean about them from his diary.
So, he'll tell you that the person came in at four o'clock and brought the tea in, and then they disappear. And then later on, they're there to comb his hair or help him get ready for bed. And so, you can then make up what happens in between.
And so that's how the novels began. And I started by using the main character of his wife in the first novel, and his maidservant, who he felt fell in love with, fell heavily in love, with was the other main character in the first book.
Because the three women, the three main women, one in each of the three novels were real, weren't they? I mean, in addition to his wife.
They were real women. They were all real women. And I researched as much as I could about their life from things like the birth and death records. And also, other people had written about them. So, John Evelyn kept a diary as well and his diary also refers to some of these people. So, you can piece together little bits from different sources, different real sources. And then you can also piece together the sort of things that you think they might have been doing. For example, Elizabeth Pepys spends a lot of time going away from the house and going to the Exchange, which is the main sort of shopping mall, I suppose, of 17th-century London.
And by researching the Exchange, you can then find out the sorts of things that she might've done and who she might've met. And Pepys gives us a lot of information about the characters and tells us things like his wife had gone to have music lessons with a certain character, or that she'd gone to Saint Bartholomew's Fair and had her fortune told.
And so, you can then begin to reconstruct by looking up Saint Bartholomew's Fair. You can begin to reconstruct what might've happened there, and you can sort of, it takes a trail of research. So, for that particular part where she was having a fortune told, I then looked up fortune tellers of the 17th century and found one I thought was plausible, and so forth. So, you're beginning to reconstruct. It's a bit like creating a sculpture. You start with an armature, which is the diary. And then you build on top of that with your bits of clay, until you find that you've got something that feels three-dimensional.
And what struck me in these novels was the personality of Samuel Pepys. He certainly comes off as a bit of a roué, and not particularly nice. Now, is there evidence for that in the diaries?
I think his own diary, obviously, is from his point of view. So, he sees everything through his own particular lens, which is where he is the central player and everybody else is sort of secondary to him. And he's a character with lots of complexity. So that was interesting to look at in that, you know, he does have lots of affairs, but he also really regrets having the affairs and vows not to do it again.
He actually writes about the affairs in his diary?
Yes. He writes about the affairs in his diary in quite, what’s the word, graphic terms. And then he confesses all in his diary and then he says he wishes he hadn't done this. And he, you know, he feels sorry for his wife. He tells us a lot about their marital arguments. You know, what they argue over. He does the typical things of blaming his wife when he loses something. And it's very much l like any modern marriage, I suppose.
It's just that he is very much a larger-than-life character. And because he has written the diary, you get the impression, that everything is all about him. But if you read between the lines, you can find parts where his wife gets the better of him. You know, there's one point where she actually, in the diary, I thought, can I put this in the book? It seems a bit over the top where she actually goes for him with a pair of red, hot tongs, which have been resting in the fireplace and threatens to pull his nose off with these tongs. You know, there, there are those sorts of scenes, if I remember rightly, which I included in the novel and I thought, well, I mean, there's going to believe this, but these are actually what, what happened there actually, what he writes that's happened in the diary. So yes, it's interesting to then fictionalize that.
Yes, it makes me want to go and read his diaries again, which I haven't looked at for a long, long time. I just love that you've got that wonderful primary source that then you filled the blanks in about the women.
One of the things I thought was very interesting to do was the fact because I've got three different women, they all have a different, slightly different view of him, which helped me to sort of round him off a bit because you know, the first novel he was mostly having an affair with the maid. He wasn't really nice to his wife. And I thought, well, it gives a sort of impression that that's all he was.
And so, in the second one, I showed a little bit more about him as a person who was in control of the Navy and the shipyards and things like that.
And in the third one, he's very much a friend, he’s the social man about town. So, the three women have slightly different opinions of him, and they show us different sides of Pepys, or at least that was my intention. I hope I've succeeded in that, in showing some slightly different sides to Pepys and also to show that he'd had a variety of relationships with lots of different women and they weren't all of the sort of master-servant relationship.
Yes. I actually, I was just thinking, it's like, well, like all of us, we all have relationships and we're different people with different other people, right? You are one way with your husband. You're another way with your best friend, et cetera. So, you kind of caught that with the way that these three women interacted with Pepys.
But also, I think one of the things that I was very keen to do, which some people don't like this, but, but it was something I deliberately intended to do is I enjoyed Pepys’s diary a lot, but I don't think many people read it because they find it just very long and quite indigestible. And I really wanted to make some entertainment from his diary. He was a person who loved his entertainment. That's really clear from the diary. He loved music. He spent quite a lot of time writing music, playing music. He loved the theater. He was a massive theater goer. He liked books. He was really into the whole idea of being entertained and entertaining yourself through your own, if you like, your own efforts. And so, I really wanted to bring that across in the books and not make them too heavy.
So, they became entertainments. And I think I've actually put an entertainment at the front of the books and they're designed to entertain rather than to be incredibly worthy, historical novels. I think people often are put off by the title. They look at it—Mr. Pepys—oh, dear. It's going to be terribly dull history. Then I'm not going to be able to deal with, you know, reading Pepys’s diary from a woman's point of view, but actually he's incredibly lively. And that's what I wanted to bring across and try and bring it into a more modern context. So, people could enjoy the whole idea of his lifestyle, his entertaining lifestyle.
Yes. And he actually isn't a huge part of the novels. Really the focus is on these women's stories. Like, I just finished Entertaining Mr. Pepys, which I loved because it was set partially in the theater. And my third novel is also set in the theater, although 150 years later. So, what was the theater like during this period?
Well, it was fascinating. I mean, I used to work in the theater, and I still really loved the idea of doing one which had this aspect to it. And it was right at the beginning of theater for women, if you like. It was the first time women appeared on the stage and the main character in my book is Bird, she's called Bird because I'd already got loads of Elizabeths. And, uh, we'd already got Elizabeth Pepys, who was his wife, and, uh, several other Elizabeths, so I couldn't have her being Elizabeth, although that was her name.
She was nicknamed Bird because of her singing voice. So, Bird appears on the stage next to Nell Gwynne and just taking over from where men used to play the women's parts. And in the novel, there's also a character who is very resentful of the fact that he's no longer able to play the parts he really enjoys playing, which is the parts of the women.
I thought it was just a fascinating period. It was the first time that women in the audience could see actually women on the stage reflecting themselves in a true sort of way. Before that, the women were all played by men so that must have been strange as an audience member to look at yourself reflected, but as the wrong sex. So, I found that was very interesting and also it made me explore a little bit more into the whole area of playing people on stage and sexuality on stage and what that meant, both in that period and it made me reflect on it for today's audiences, what that might mean to them.
I found it very frustrating as a journey to go on and I'm still learning about all that and my feelings around that.
Well, because the theater is very close to my heart as well. And that's why I enjoyed the fact that, you know, this was a little earlier than the period that I wrote in, but just also you did capture with Bird how she felt when she stepped onto the stage. And I thought that was very realistic, the sort of high she got really about being an actress.
I think it was extra high for her or at least I hoped I'd conveyed it was extra high because of the fact that women were so unable to have a voice. They weren't able to have a voice in so many ways. And this was the only place where they could actually do things like argue with their husband. You couldn't really argue with your husband in public anywhere else. Because it just wasn't acceptable, but you could do it on the stage. And I think many women found this really empowering, not only to see their husbands being told off on stage or to see their lives reflected in that way.
And I think people who are playing those parts found an immense freedom in being able to do that. Maybe they'd never been able to say to the husband, you know, I don't like what you're doing, but they could do it in character as a person on stage. So, I think it was immensely empowering for women.
Yes. Incredibly liberating. I mean, really, for many, many years, even to this day, one of the places where women can still really, really excel is the performing arts. You know, it was one of the only places back 150, 200 years ago that a woman could gain success independently, not through her marriage or her money or whatever, but as a professional who was in the performing arts and the theater and in music. This was the beginning of it, wasn’t it?
And there's also, I think it's one of those things where it was a double-edged sword, you know, that the, like, today that the media interest in women on the stage was enormous because they were new and they were always being encouraged to take off more clothes. And so, there was also sort of difficulty around that as well as, as well as the interest and the success of having the attention. There was also unwanted attention, which you have to deal with. And I think that's still the case. We're still dealing with that sort of #MeToo phenomenon.
And I think it was exactly that then. And so, I've found that added extra interest to me. When I was writing the book, I started to think about that, there were lots of things that they made women doing the 17th century, like breeches roles, which were the roles where they, they have to wear men's britches in order to show off their legs. This was a time when people just had their legs hidden by skirts all the time. To actually see a woman's bottom by seeing her in britches was actually quite racy and women were sort of coerced into doing this, even though they may not feel that they wanted to.
So, it's fairly fascinating and it affected playwrights and how the pieces were written as well. And nearly all the pieces have music so that you could hear women sing, which was, again, something that added to the entertainment.
Most of those plays were written by men, weren't they.
They were written by men, but I did find Aphra Behm, you see. Now we think of her as incredibly influential because she was one of the few women playwrights of the era, but then she probably wasn't quite as influential as she is now. But I did find that reading her work helped to give me a bit of an insight into how women might speak. But again, you're trying to then translate that into something that's modern that people can read easily. You don't want any forsooth or archaic language in there. You need to try and capture something of it, but without it being too, too unwieldy for the reader to read.
Exactly. And just before I leave the Women of Pepys’ Diaries series, I just wanted to mention the character of Christopher Knepp in Entertaining Mr. Pepys, who of course is the bullying husband of Bird, but I was fascinated how you developed him. I mean, he comes across, of course, as the villain and I don't want to add any spoilers, but you do actually make him better as the time goes on. And that must've been quite a challenge to make his redemption convincing.
Yes. And I'm still not quite sure I've managed it because that's always the way you're sort of treading a knife edge. I think partly it's because in the real history she has to go on and carry on living with him for a lot of years afterwards and so there are things that are unacceptable today, like people beating their wives, it's just not acceptable. It was acceptable then, but it doesn't make it any less painful. So, I thought, well, how's that? How is this going to work its way out? But I think there's a certain incident in the book that brings them together where they endure a tragedy and that's what brings them together. And that's what enabled him to have some sort of redemption because he suddenly has to share something with Bird that changes him and changes her and they both have to change together.
And then they have to decide whether they're going to go separate ways or whether they're going to try and make something of their marriage. I find it very interesting. And it took me a lot of thinking about and rewrites and throwing a lot of it in the bin on the way.
I'm still not a hundred percent convinced that I've managed to make it completely watertight, but it's like, well, historical fiction is a bit of a juggle. You're trying to juggle the real life, the real lives that you've researched, and you know, the facts and those facts have to be there with the things that, you know, readers don't want, do want, and what historical fiction readers expect. And so often there's quite a bit of juggling that goes on in that sort of area where you're trying to work with your readers, the history and with your own instincts to try and make those three things fit together in the best possible way. And there's not always an easy answer.
No, there's not because we have these expectations of modernity that are completely out the window when we're talking about historical fiction. We can't impose our values on the 17th century, but then you know, it wasn't very palatable, as you said, you know, men did beat their wives and it was perfectly legal.
I think you actually did a very good job because I was struck by the difficulty of what you were trying to do with the character of Knepp and you did succeed with it. I thought you did very, very well with it, but it is problematical. Absolutely. But that's okay. I mean, you know, do we want everything all sugarcoated? No.
Yes. I think, I think historical fiction is such a juggle. There are so many things going on. I mean, it's, it's, uh, you're, you're trying to fit yourself in so many molds. I never find it easy.
There's always at least one point in the novel where I think I just must give up, but nearly always there's something that pulls me through it. At the end of the day, I manage to get something on the paper and it's every book you always think next time I'll do this better. Next time I'll do this better. And that’s one of the reasons I keep on writing is that no, I haven't become a, you know, I haven't become a Booker Prize winner, but I hope I've entertained people.
And by keeping working on it and becoming more satisfied with what I do and for me, that's, that's the satisfaction in writing. So, I'm not only writing for my readers, but I’m also actually writing for myself to try and find a way of telling stories that works both with the history and to give people a plot and characters that work for them.
The real measure of success I have found with novel writing is exactly what you just said, is getting better and improving and exploring for yourself. Yes. Obviously for your readers as well. And it's nice to have a little success, but really the success is getting to do it.
I think so. I mean, every day I'm sitting here in my office, I'm sitting in my office now and I'm talking to you, but I'm sitting in my office in front of a screen and I have to find the motivation, the interest and the excitement about my story to keep writing day after day after day after day and after you've been working on a novel for a year and you've got the novel in front of you, there's a great achievement to that because you have actually had to persevere. It's not something where I think people think you just sit down and you write one draft and that's it in a muse-like way, the muse comes and you just write, and it's not like that at all. Sometimes it's like pulling teeth, other times it's like plain sailing, but whatever happens each day, you have to sit yourself down in front of the screen and just apply your fingers to the keyboard.
And so, I think, the one thing I've learned about this whole business of being a historical novelist is that perseverance is the key. And that's why I've got these books stacked up on my shelf is because I've actually sat down every day for however many hours and applied myself to the idea of writing a book. And, as time goes on and we have now 8 million books released in the year on Amazon and less readers are coming our way. I still don't think that that negates the idea of doing it because the body of work is there, and you can see the body of work in front of you. And I think that's extremely thrilling as a writer to see the work there in these books that I've produced.
It is. It is. It's a great way to spend your time.
Tell us a little bit about your research process. I am totally in awe by how much research is in your books. It’s done extremely well. It's always subservient to the plot and the characters. But tell us a little bit about your researching.
Well, like all people I start with Wikipedia when I'm trying to find something new. You know, there's nothing sort of, uh, unusual about that. It’s Google and Wikipedia to begin with because they give you a place to go. Recently, I was looking up for my latest novel a particular type of medicine called Venice treacle, and I needed to know what was in it. So, I just put, went to Wikipedia and it gave me the ingredients and a little bit about it. And then at the bottom, there was a series of links or articles. And usually that's where I end up with the articles at the bottom. And I found I used something called JStor, which is the academic papers. I'm sure you've come across it. I use that quite a lot and download quite a few papers from there.
They seem to have very obscure things. So recently I wanted to know about Benedictine nuns in 17th-century, Italy and I typed in Benedictine nuns in the 17th century into JStor and three or four articles came up, which I always think is amazing. You know, there is this knowledge out there and thanks to the internet, we can actually get hold of it.
I mean, when I was writing The Lady’s Slipper, we hadn't got so much internet then. So, a lot of that was in libraries. I did research in libraries. I went to the Quaker Library in Lancaster and looked up things in there, but I do love books. I love my books. I think you can get much more information from a good book. So usually when I'm researching, I might order seven, eight, nine books from the Internet, which have specialist books on particular things.
At the moment I've got, I'm just looking at it, Women in Italy from 1540 to 1640, which is a book that probably not many other people will read, but it's something I needed to read for what I’m writing. So, I do research on lots of books, but also I think we can go to museums and things like that. I like to get out and about. It's really dull if you just sit in front of your desk all the time, and it's a brilliant excuse to go to a museum and see actual artifacts from the period.
And certainly, when I've been researching some of the books I've gone and looked at things. With Pepys’s books, I went down to the Greenwich Museum and looked at some of the artifacts there. Lots of museums have got things that you can look at and then they creep into your novels. The sorts of tankards people use, or the sorts of pottery and things like that.
I’m finding I'm really missing the opportunity to be able to travel. I had a research trip all planned to England last year and of course had to cancel it because it's true, you see so much in museums that just spark your imagination.
I just wanted to ask you one or two questions related to the writing process itself. I actually just saw a tweet go by about your work that calls your novels compulsively readable, which I think is a marvelous description. So, if you were telling a writer, what are some tips that you have to make your novels compulsively readable?
Oh dear, now that's a hard question. Several things, I think the thing is the person has to be able to follow a character there. That's number one, the only compulsion that anybody has to read a book is because they're interested in the character that they're following. So, it might be one character. And sometimes in my books, I've got three characters that you're following, but you have to know who you're following, and you have to have a reason to follow them.
So, I mean, one of the things is they need to have some sort of goals so you're following a character that has a reason for the book. For example, in The Lady’s Slipper, the reason was she wants it to preserve the flower for posterity, and that was her whole motivation for everything that happened. And most of my books have got a character that has a strong motivation.
For Bird Knepp, it was about getting on stage and having her voice heard. And her voice had always been silenced by her husband. So, I think you need a strong character to begin with.
Also, for historical fiction, I think you need a strong sense of setting because that's why people read the book. I mean, I think historical fiction readers read it for several reasons, but I can't really generalize, everybody's different, but I think they read it for the fact that they want to know more about the setting. You know, they want to go back to the past, but they want to live in the past with somebody that they can empathize with and travel that journey that they are on. So, I think you do need to immerse the person in your historical period, as much as you can without overwhelming them with too much detail.
And I think one of the things I'd say is that not too much detail because a person has to imagine. When you're reading a book, you have to imagine and construct every scene in your head. And if the person provides you with pages and pages of information that you've then got too much and it can become very, very, very wearing very quickly, because there's just too much to imagine. You can't imagine that much.
So, I think often you can just choose one or two details so that the person who's reading can imagine the one or two really fine details that you've placed there. That if you, like, symbolize the whole of the setting, rather than trying to describe every piece of wallpaper, every window frame. And I often see people write things like, or beginning writers say things like, he picked up the pewter tankard and put it on the oak table.
It's telling us really what we already know, because most people would imagine an oak table or a wooden table of some sort. Most people would imagine some sort of pewter tankard and the person in the scene probably pays no attention to that. It's just a tankard on that table. Too much of the wooden this and the pewter that. It's just an extra thing for the person to imagine that they don't really need too much in. So, I think that would be my one of my top tips: don't overcause the historical detail.
That's perfect. And I do find that you do that very, very well with your specific details. There's just enough to really give a feeling for the sights and the smells and particularly the smells of the 17th century period. When I read novels, and as I'm sure you do as well as a novelist, you're looking for ideas too, about how to do it better yourself.
I'm always trying to do that, to try and find better ways of doing it. But I think one of the things is that when you're actually writing and you've got all this information in front of you, you want to use a lot of it. And there are different sorts of readers. I have a very good friend who writes amazingly detailed historical fiction, biographical fiction, and her work is brilliant, but it's not something I can do. And her readers love it, but they're not my readers.
And so, I think you have to sort of realize that there are different sorts of historical fiction and they like different weights of detail, depending on what they're reading. Some like a lot of detail and very weighty sorts of historical biographical novels where the history is absolutely correct. Other people like much lighter historical romantic fiction where there's less detail and it's more about the relationships.
So, I think there's a big span of it.
You’re right. There are different levels of historical fiction in what people want. I think, of course, as you do, you just have to write the stories that you want to write in the way you want to write them. That's the main thing, right?
Yeah, I think so. And I think as well, you get a sense of who your readers are and what they like. And so, you play a bit more to that. Once you know who likes your books and they tell you, then they'll tell you, they'll write to you and say, I really love this part where this happened. Or I really liked that scene where this happened. And as soon as you get that feedback, you want to give them more of events. You know, you want to give them more of what they like, rather than less of what they like.
It’s a little bit of a mixed blessing sometimes though. It goes back to what we were talking about with our debut novels, how it was lovely just to be innocent and really not know what readers like, we just wrote our book.
In retrospect you would do things differently. You finish a book and it's all done, and you send it out there, and then five years later, you're a different writer because you've written another three books or four books and you've moved on and you look back and you think, oh, that was, it makes you wince when you look back at your earlier books and you think, how can I possibly have written that?
But because you've moved on as a writer, or at least I, I feel like I may have moved on. Not always in a good way. Sometimes you move on and you've moved in a slightly different direction that doesn't suit your readers, or you feel that you've just gone off, away from your own way, your own heart, in terms of the writing. So, you know, it's always a journey.
It is a journey. Thank you so much, Deborah, for chatting with me today, this has been just fascinating.
Thanks for having me, Carol. It's been really nice to chat.