What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
My first book, The Lady’s Slipper’is set in the 17th century, which remains a period I find endlessly fascinating. The novel explores the fate of a wild orchid, which is also functions in the book as a symbol for the land. I wanted to set the novel in an era where territory was really important – hence the English Civil War. At first I was interested in the romantic notion of Roundheads and Cavaliers, but even a small amount of research soon showed me that this simplistic label hid a much more nuanced and complex history.
I loved the fact that this era was a time of great constitutional and religious upheaval, and the persecution of the Quakers features in the plot. The Civil War was also one of the few times when the English people have taken up arms against themselves. So after it ended the country was still riven by religious and social divides, and this gave me huge potential for conflict within the book. The natural order in England had been undermined by the fact that we no longer knew how to govern ourselves, did not know if we wanted a King or a Parliament, and I wanted this to be reflected in the individuals in the novel.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
My approach has been honed to make it efficient for my personal writing process. Research for me happens in three phases – initial broad brush research to fix salient times and dates, the place the novel is set (i.e. London, Seville, Jersey) and big historical events, such as rebellions, earthquakes or wars. This is what I call my ‘telescope’ phase. In the second phase I sit down to write a first draft whilst researching things that might affect the storyline as I go – such as real-life biographical events in the characters’ lives; events like births marriages and deaths. Once I have a very rough draft, I then know what my story contains. Perhaps there’s a scene on a ship, or in a foundry, or one of the characters is a nun. This is where I go back to do more in depth research to flesh out the story and do re-writes. I try to use some real sources not just secondary sources or online. I call this my ‘microscope’ phase. If possible I like to get a look at real artefacts, or documents.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
We all stand on the shoulders of our historian friends when writing a novel. For my own purposes researching the 17th century I have often turned to David Cressy’s Birth Marriage and Death – Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England which provides an excellent framework to think about domestic life in the Stuart era. Antonia Fraser’s ‘The Weaker Vessel’ about women in 17th century helped me to understand more about the constraints that could be by-passed by women in certain circumstances. Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate by Paul Lay is also an enjoyable read for an insight into the Interregnum. I also enjoy collections of first-hand accounts such as The English Civil War At First Hand by Tristram Hunt, which open up more doorways to particular areas of research. These are all ‘generalist’ books, but I’m just as likely to be reading Shire Guides to obscure crafts, or JStor research papers on little-known mining techniques. I seem to need a huge library for each novel, as there’s always so much I don’t know!
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
You might like to read my article here, which gives you seven tips! http://carolcmcgrath.co.uk/seven-tips-for-writing-historical-fiction-by-deborah-swift/
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
Nell Gwyn. As an ordinary commoner she must have been sharp enough to survive life in Charles’s court, where other women of more noble birth were vying for his attention. One of the things that also appeals is that she was a comedienne, renowned for her quick wit. And she would have needed it; for her affair with the King lasted 17 years – all through the Plague, the Great Fire, endless possible political revolts, and a war with the Dutch.
Her meteoric fame must have shown many other women that it was possible to rise above your rank; that wit and a sense of humour were as important as your appearance, and that having a profession was something a woman could do. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls her ‘the living antithesis of puritanism’ – in other words she embodies the spirit of the Restoration in a way no other figure can.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
All of them! I empathize with their pain!
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
For me it’s nearly always the protagonist, but then they are inseparable from their historical context. The plot develops from those two things – the flaws of the character juxtaposed with the difficulties brought up by the particular events of the period. But of course the plot has to entertain. We are not there simply to inform, but must provide thrills, excitement, and be able to move the reader.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a trilogy of stand-alone novels. The first novel, The Poison Keeper is finished and in production. It’s about Giulia Tofana who supposedly poisoned six hundred men in 17th century Italy. The second one I’m working on now enters the world of an Italian convent and the studio of the sculptor Bernini in Rome. The third one is currently a spark somewhere in the back of my head!