Deborah Swift | The Women in Samuel Pepys’s Diary

Today I’m delighted to welcome Deborah Swift to Author Chats. One of my inspirations when I first started writing historical fiction, Deborah’s brilliant seventeenth-century series around Samuel Pepys has a permanent place on my bookshelf. Deborah, thanks so much for stopping by (and I LOVED The Treasure Seekers too!). Let’s chat!
What is the first book that made you cry?
The first book to make me cry was an adaptation of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I still have the copy which was awarded to me as a school prize for art at the age of seven. I can still remember the slightly metallic smell of the powder paint we were given to use and the rough sugar paper to paint our pictures. My picture was a very fat robin with bright red chest sitting on a rather small tree. Reading the book made me angry at the treatment of poor Ginger and long for a brave horse like Black Beauty. The story gave me a love of horses which lasted all through my childhood, and led me to devour books about horses and ponies for decades, as well as to spend many years with my own pony and enjoying competition riding and eventing. Favourite children’s authors of the time were Ruby Fergusson and the Pullein Thompson sisters.
Do you want each of your books to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections or themes between each book?
All my books are stand-alone books, although there are links between them. Once immersed in a story world I’m often reluctant to leave it, so I enjoy looking at that world from a different perspective. My linked books all have different protagonists. After writing ‘The Lady’s Slipper’, people said that their most hated character was Ella, the maid, who appears to be completely heartless. ‘Don’t write a book about her,’ they said. ‘Write about Stephen instead; he was lovely.’ Nobody wanted to read a book about Ella, but for me, that made her an interesting choice because I knew I would have to redeem her somehow, and bring the reader to understand why she was the way she was, and why she made the choices she did. So ‘The Gilded Lily’ had her as the main point of view character. Stephen’s book is still unwritten!
My series about the women in Pepys’s Diary takes a different woman each time, yet they are all in Pepys’ world. Each one views him differently, so a gradual picture of this flawed but fascinating man can be built up by reading the differing views of the women he is close to. I have no overall master-plan about what I write, though like all writers I see my favourite themes played out in many of my books.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
The first book was a pleasure and I could take as long as I liked. I had no idea about markets, or bookshops or any of the knowledge about the business side of writing. After the first was published I was contracted for second, with a deadline and a set of expectations that the second book be ‘like the first one but different.’ This meant I had to be more organized, settle on an approximate word count, and be disciplined about time. I was also terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it again!
Because of the terror, I’m now quite organized, and approach every day with the idea of a word count. I know my books ‘grow’ with editing, as I deepen character and flesh out backgrounds with better research, so my first draft is always about 15% short of what the final book will be. Since the first publication experience I’ve been self-published, traditionally published, and digitally published. Each experience has taught me something, and I’ve learnt now that not all my books are the same, and each might demand a different approach. My long 17th Century books do well in Kindle Unlimited, whereas my WW2 books sell twice as many as the 17th Century ones do, because of the bigger potential readership.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I’m a fan of novels by Barbara Ewing who writes gripping historical fiction, but is hardly ever spoken of and much under-rated. I like particularly The Trespass, The Fraud and The Mesmerist – the latter was made into a film, but the film was a disappointment in comparison with the book. (Isn’t that so often the case!)
Tell us about your newest release, Deborah.
What kind of research did you do, and how long did it take you?
‘Entertaining Mr Pepys’ is my newest release, and was the last in my trilogy of books based on the indefatigable women in Pepys’ Diary. I have been poring over his diary now for years, and was both sad and somewhat relieved to see the back of it!
Because of the nature of the books, tied by necessity to the word of Pepys, the timeline caused me unending problems. I checked and double-checked what Pepys said the characters in the novel were supposed to have been doing from day to day and was rigid about sticking to it. Elisabeth Knepp (my main character) appears over a short period of time, but often disappears for weeks on end. My job was to fill in what she was doing when she was absent from the diary. Elisabeth Knepp was re-named ‘Bird’ in my book because a) she was a brilliant singer and b) I already had three different Elizabeths to deal with, one of whom was Pepys’ wife. Bird was part of the King’s Theatre Company so I trawled many books on Restoration Theatre, and academic papers on Jstor, looking for information or inspiration.
Some leeway would have been possible – Pepys could have been lying to preserve his reputation, or mistaken, but I decided in the end that that would be cheating. The reader expects my books to be based on the diaries, not books taking liberties with the diaries, so the events had to stick closely to what Pepys recorded.
What did you edit out of this book?
I had a whole thread on the Jesuits that had to be removed. The book takes place during the Great Fire of London, for which Jesuits were blamed. One of my main characters is an actor called Stefan, who is hiding his Catholicism from the world by taking on the persona of an actor and hiding in plain sight. I had quite a few chapters on his background, his Catholic family, and how he fled to London and why, including hiding in priest-holes, daring escapes in the night, etc etc. In the end the two chapters were replaced with one sentence summarizing it all. By then I’d discovered that Stefan’s character had a much more arresting secret than his Catholicism, and I wanted to play that up more. By concentrating on his current dilemma, which was that women were taking all his best roles, I could get more insights into his most pressing tensions. So it was a question of balance.
What would you want readers to think when they reach “the end.”
I write my novels as pure entertainment for the reader. I often hear historical fiction authors talk about the history and their research, because it is a good way of piquing interest in the book. But for me, the story is paramount. Bird’s story is one of a woman trying to fight her way out of the misogynistic mores of the day to find her authentic voice, and to be able to articulate it on stage. Her story is one of empowerment against the odds, and it’s important to me that the story speaks to our modern sensibilities and is not just a slice of nostalgia for the past, or a history lesson. I hope people will read the book and think, ‘Well, that was way more interesting and entertaining than I thought it would be!’
Resonance is important too; some sense that the characters are alive, and are continuing to live on, once the book is shut. It would be great if people stood back from the washing up bowl and thought, ‘I wonder what happened to Livvy and Stefan when they got to France, and how they’re getting on?’ much as you might wonder about a neighbour on a trip away.

Quick Q & A
Tea or Coffee

Tea – but real tea leaves, not tea bags.
Dark or Milk Chocolate
Either. Any chocolate donations gratefully received!
When were you the happiest?I’m pretty happy most of the time. It comes with growing older and seeing that what you thought was desperately important at the time actually … wasn’t.
Favourite Children’s Book
The Treasure Seekers – Edith Nesbit – led to much searching for hidden treasure as a child, and current obsession with TV program Fake or Fortune.
Favourite Adult Novel
There are a few obvious ones that everyone chooses, but other than that – Toss-up between ‘Four Letters of Love’ by Niall Williams and ‘The Chymical Wedding’ by Lindsay Clarke.

Thank you so much for hosting me Elizabeth.
My pleasure! Come back soon with your new WWII release, please! Here’s how you can find Deborah online: