Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why I write historical fiction - Deborah Swift

A few years ago I would have been surprised to find I had produced a historical novel. So why write one?
Before I came to write The Lady's Slipper, most of my writing was contemporary. I read a lot of contemporary fiction, and was a member of a book group that read mostly literary fiction.So what won me over to writing historicals?

The answer is that it wasn't a case of me deciding on a period and then setting the novel there, it was more that my characters demanded certain conditions to flourish and tell their story. I started with a character who wanted to paint an orchid - I had seen the rare lady's-slipper orchid myself and wanted to write (initially) a poem about it. This desire was subverted into my character's desire to capture it in paint. From then on the character grew and developed. I thought for the flower to have impact I needed a time when ideas about botany and images of flowers were new and fresh. Perhaps a time before mass printing, a time when herbs and flowers were used for healing. This led me to the 17th century when herbalists such as Nicolas Culpeper were just making their mark on history and the science of botany was in its infancy.

The idea of the medicinal use of the lady's-slipper then sparked the character of Margaret the herbalist, whose views on "the web of the world" were a very different religion from the conformist view of the time, and would probably be pigeon-holed as 'pagan' today. I have always been interested in the different ways that faiths have shaped the world and this tied in nicely with the burgeoning Quaker movement, viewed in the 17th century as radical and dangerous. I couldn't resist having a Quaker character, so Richard Wheeler  - the soldier turned quaker - was born. In addition, the Quaker movement started close to my home, and visits to the still surviving 17th century historical sites fascinated me.

My creative writing class were always telling me that conflict drives a novel so I was also keen to exploit enmity between the Quakers and the ruling class, and to create an atmosphere of unease. The English Civil War where the King had been beheaded by his own people supplied the background disturbance I needed.So my first book's period grew from the desire to find a setting for my characters and not the other way round. The setting has a function to allow me to explore certain ideas and let them flourish to the maximum effect.

The book I am just finishing now and which is about to land on my agents and editors desk - tomorrow if I can get it done, is set in a different period, which has difficulties in that it involved a whole new area of research in a whole new country. As with the first two I was looking for a time and place where my characters and ideas would collide in the most satisfying way and that led me to turn of the 17th century in Seville, with its clash of Islamic and Iberian cultures, the threat of the Inquisition, and its reputation for swordsmanship and bravado.So I'm afraid my characters had to be taken away from their usual English comfort, the drizzle and the cold, and into the heat, dust and passion of Spain.

17th century Seville
My second book, The Gilded Lily (out later in the year) is set in England through necessity as it features Ella, one of the characters from The Lady's Slipper. It is a very different book though as it is set in Restoration London, a choice made so that I could exploit the desire for wealth and luxury which is a part of Ella's character. Ella is considered beautiful and her sister Sadie, plain, so I needed an environment where the attitudes to beauty would be able to feature heavily in the plot. How would the two girls fortunes differ because of their difference in appearance? The period of the Restoration is perfect because after the monarchy returned everyone was obsessed with fashion and glamour, and the theatricality and artificiality of this led me to be able to explore the idea of storytelling, how the girls re-invented themselves, and how we all shape our own stories.

In all my books I start with the characters and then find the way to give them maximum rein through the setting. I used to be a scenographer so I draw on my experience of how a theatre setting can interact with the action in my writing. I choose history because I can examine contemporary ideas as if in a mirror. I am sure many other writers do the same, and would be really interested to hear what the process is like for them. I find I enjoy the researching part of writing enormously, and the wonderful excuse it gives me to hang around museums, historic houses, art galleries and libraries. And I have had to catch up quickly with my reading of historicals. I've discovered some fantastic writers in the  genre, who have given me further insights into our rich heritage, and  so I cannot imagine that I will run out of ideas from the wealth of our history, and I guess that will keep me writing historical fiction for a while yet!

You can find out more about my writing on my blog
Thanks for reading!


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