From the Stage to the Page - Becoming a Writer of Historical Fiction by Deborah Swift
I have had several careers in my life, moving from one thing to the next as circumstances changed. In my fifties, I had a change of focus in my work life and made another switch - from teaching set and costume design to writing a novel. It is never too late to embark on something new!
Earlier in my life I worked as a designer for theatre and TV but the work is very long hours – I can vividly remember ‘all-nighters’ where we painted the stage floor-cloth overnight, fueled by coffee and chocolate biscuits. Costume fittings were usually after rehearsals in the evenings. So once I had children, it didn’t fit with family life too well, and I was looking for an alternative with a better work/life balance. I had a transitional period where I did freelance design work and taught history of the theatre and history of design to university students. In a way in the theatre I was always working with words – dissecting a play, really getting to know it, is a good way to get under the skin of its story. And you learn a lot about how drama is driven by character and conflict, and how to condense that into action.
I have always written poems and stories for my own pleasure and eventually I took the plunge and went to study for an MA in Creative Writing. These courses sometimes get a bad press, but I was lucky; the course was brilliant, and I met some other exceptional writers. On the course I learnt the bare bones of structuring a novel, and was lucky enough to have extensive critiques of my first novel by my fellow students. I filled a few waste-paper bins whilst I was there!
My first novel was only historical because I needed a background that suited my story, but I have always read a lot of historical fiction, and now I can see that some uncanny instinct must have led me to set my novel in the past. I like to learn something whilst I’m being entertained, and I find other eras fascinating. For me, I think the process of re-imagining history began with having to re-imagine settings for plays. So I had to do research in a similar way as I do now, to find out what people wore, and what their environment might be like. I’m used to looking at artworks and analyzing them for visual information, and studying texts. Plays are very condensed stories, which need to move quickly and be told in a couple of hours, which is good training for writing a novel. And working in the theatre you pick up an ear for dialogue that will move the action forward.
This year will see my millionth word in print after completing eleven novels, all of them historical fiction. Once I started I just became hooked and couldn’t stop! My first novel was set in the seventeenth century, an era I keep returning to because it is a time of pivotal change in English history, a time riven by war, plague, religious turmoil and political upheaval. Entertaining Mr Pepys is the third book fictionalizing one of the real-life women portrayed in Pepys’ Diary, and covers the year of 1666 when the Great Fire of London erased the old city to make way for the one we know today. It returns to my love of the theatre, and tells the story of one of the first actresses on the English stage. Returning from the page to the stage was a thrill for me, and the book was a joy to write.
‘Entertaining Mr Pepys’ is published by Accent Press in ebook, paperback & audio.
You can buy the book here
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