A blog called Royalty Free Fiction caught my eye the other day. So I decided to contact Deborah Swift to see what she’s up to. Deborah, a writer and blogger, graciously agreed to be interviewed.
What prompted you to create the Royalty Free Fiction blog? How have readers responded to it? I wanted a forum where people could find historical fiction which has no ‘marquee name’ (ie a King or Queen or other Royalty) to help it sell. Examples such as ‘Water for Elephants’ by Sara Gruen, or ‘Cold Mountain’ by Charles Frazier. These ‘royalty free’ titles are often brilliant books but easily overlooked by the reading public. I have to say that mostly it is writers who have responded to the blog, but they are readers too – reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. Generally the response to the ‘royalty free’ idea has been very positive, and I’d encourage any authors whose historical novels are in print (not just ebooks) to have a look at the site if they’d like their book to feature. (As long as they aren’t about Royalty of course!)
You participate in four blogs. What have you found to be the best aspects of blogging? Participating in an online community and finding a space to meet other writers and also readers. I love to read and talk books – not just historicals but whatever I am reading. I like to hear writers talk about their craft and our changing industry too.
Why do you write historical fiction? History gives me the chance to write about people whose views were radically different from our own, and who inhabited turbulent times. I enjoy the scope and drama of history, partly because of my theatrical background, (I used to be a set and costume designer) but also because in reality it is the plot that drives the book, and history certainly supplies me with a large choice of dangerous contexts! The past can mirror our own experiences and give me space to explore through fiction the things that matter to me personally.
Why did you choose to concentrate on ‘ordinary people with extraordinary stories’ in the 17th Century? It was more of an unconscious choice because of what attracts me as a reader. I have always enjoyed fiction set in the past, and particularly books with strong characters – ordinary people who are affected by the decisions made by those further up the social scale. I find these hidden histories as absorbing as the lives of the royals, which after all are fairly well documented. As a novelist there are rich seams of untapped material here – it’s hard, for example, to change the fate of Charles I, yet the lives of people who lived at his time are equally interesting if less well-known. You only need to take a look into Pepys’s diary!
In my books I have written about artists, herbalists, swordsmen, astrologers, wig-makers, lace-traders and kitchen maids as well as the landed gentry. My research shows that traders and servants were more affected by climactic events, for example the Plague and the Great Fire, than their superiors who had the financial means to escape the troubles that beset the cities. Royal households were also insulated from the results of droughts or failed harvests and other fluctuations in the economy.
As for my passion for the seventeenth century, I would argue that this is the time when England began to really consider the big questions – who are we, how should we be governed, what do we believe in? As well as being a time of Civil Wars in England, new religious and political belief systems sprang up in the wake of them. It was a time of great intelligent debate, and I wanted to reflect this in my books to see whether the same issues are still with us.
So, do I have a brand? There is a lot of talk about branding for authors at the moment, but I don’t really think of myself as a brand in a very calculated way. I just write what I would like to read and hope that my way of peeping into history will appeal to some readers.
What do you think attracts readers to your books? I hope a personal recommendation, or the reviews that my books have received. Of course the covers are designed by my publisher to attract the female historical fiction fan, but I also have had letters from male readers who have borrowed the books from their wives and been surprised by the strength of my male protagonists . I like to write from one or two viewpoints so that the reader gets a vision of the age that is more multi-dimensional, and in all my books so far one of these viewpoints has been male.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? I do basic research first, and then deepen the research the more drafts I do. Obviously as the plot develops I need more specific information, so for me the writing and researching run parallel to each other. I like to use books much more than the internet so I do a lot of reading. I have books marked up with sticky markers with things I want to remember or need to refer to.
I do have an outline in mind – but it is only perhaps twelve to fifteen A4 pages long. This is enough for me to have a sense of what happens when, and a check that I do have enough potential plot to sustain a long novel. It also gives me an idea of where the big scenes will be and a sense of direction for the ending. After that, I let my characters lead the novel and am not afraid to change the outline if I find something better.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how? I like literary historical fiction, writers like Rose Tremain and Tracy Chevalier, people who can really conjure the vision of an age before your eyes. Like most writers I am influenced by what I am reading at the time, very often admiring other writers’ skills, so the answer is probably anyone and everyone!
But I would say it is hard to escape childhood and formative influences. I wanted to write since I was six years old and realized that someone might read my story if I wrote it down. I am not sure I would be the same writer had I not read Dickens, the Brontes and Shakespeare at school. And Enid Blyton, read under the covers by torchlight, (though obviously not historical) taught me that something has to happen, that there must be lashings of plot to make the reader keep turning the pages.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Someone who tells a cracking good story and makes the past spring to life in the mind of the reader. For me I also like a novel to have depth, to be thought-provoking and make me look at life differently afterwards.
What brand are you trying to create for yourself? My books are my brand. And as writing for me is a somewhat alchemical process about exploring my ideas and setting them against different contexts, I’m not sure I can pin my writing down to creating a brand. Though I guess readers would probably say they can tell my books by their ‘voice’.
Beyond your blogs, what do you do to connect with readers? My email address is on my website and blog – the internet is everyone’s first port of call these days.! I do library talks, visits to the Women’s Institute, radio chat shows. Given my limited time I make myself as available as possible.
What do you know about your readers? The ones I meet are nearly all women, but not all solely historical fiction fans. Many read other types of commercial women’s fiction too. Many are library users, some are members of book groups and most have some interest in history. About twenty percent own a reading device (eg kindle), the rest still buy traditional books. Of course there are lots of unseen readers who click ‘buy’ on Amazon and I’ve no idea who they are unless they write a review or write to me.
What data do you collect about your readers? I have a form I give out usually when I do talks, but otherwise collecting data is done by observation and instinct. (For example if I have a fan letter from a ‘Hilda’ I can make a fair guess at an age!) I have not enough time to collect data systematically, and even if I did it would not make much difference at all to what I want to write. I write primarily to give a good story a voice, and I hope the story will then find its readers – I don’t really try to fish for readers in advance by finding out their preferences. Though naturally I publicize the book as much as I can once it is finished by targeting library groups, book groups and so forth.
What strategies guide your writing career? I’d love to say I have a strategy! But unfortunately I haven’t. I just enjoy my writing and see where it goes. I have just finished a book set in the 20th century, which may or may not appeal to my existing readers. The idea wouldn’t let me go until I’d written it, and the research nearly killed me! But as a strategy it probably wasn’t ideal, considering I’ve built up a following for earlier historicals. Nevertheless, for me the excitement of the creative process has got to be paramount, above any other sort of marketing or publishing strategy, because I know I will probably spend eighteen months of my life on my own in a room researching and writing it, and I’ve got to feel I really want to write it.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? Nothing. Except perhaps start writing towards publication earlier, so I’d have been able to spend more years doing what I love!
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Yes, don’t be intimidated by other writers. There are so many great books out there, (and the number has grown exponentially since indie publishing) and it is easy to think you have nothing new or worthwhile to say. But there will always be room for the thrill of discovering a new view of the past.
Many thanks, Deborah. You’ve offered an interesting perspective on writing as well as blogging.