Deborah Swift is a historical novelist who writes about ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary events of the past. Deborah has published twelve novels to date, and mentors other writers via The History Quill. She lives in the North of England on the Cumbrian border, close to the mountains and the sea.
Time to chat with Deborah!
What is your latest book?
My latest book is called The Lifeline and it’s due for release very soon. It’s the story of Astrid, a teacher who is escaping Nazi-occupied Norway, and her former lover who tries to rescue her via The Shetland Bus. The Shetland Bus was a clandestine operation that helped the Resistance in war-torn Norway by using small fishing boats to get agents in and out of Norway from Shetland. The operation took place in pitch black seas at the height of the winter storms and demanded immense bravery and resilience.
I also have another book I’ve just finished, The Poison Keeper set in 17th Century Naples and scheduled for next year. I’ve been writing in two historical periods – WW2 and the 17th Century. Of course it’s not sensible from a marketing perspective, as they are separate genres, but they are periods that interest me because they are both periods of immense change.
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
It depends on the book. Generally I start with Chapter 1, but if I get massively excited about a scene and can’t wait to write it, I’ll sometimes write it out of order. And later, after the first draft is done, I will need to write scenes out of order because they’re filling gaps, or I need an extra scene to explain something. After all this time, I’ve realized that one of the most important things for a reader is clarity, and so I might need extra scenes to make sure the reader understands the character’s motivation, or what happened to them after the scene is finished.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I am a compulsive editor, so I edit as a go along and also edit at the end. I think this comes from originally being a poet, where every single word was really carefully chosen. My usual routine is to write a draft one day and edit it the next. As the story progresses I often need to wind back and re-edit sections, so I am in a continuous loop of editing. As a visual metaphor I think of it like backstitch in embroidery – I am moving forward but also going back a little each step of the journey. As I tend to use multiple points of view, near the end of the process I’ll edit from each character’s point of view to make sure their voice and opinions are consistent and that their part of the story makes logistical sense.
How much of your own personality goes into your characters?
Every single one of my characters is me to a certain extent. And yet not quite. They are me imagining myself into a different life, and a different time. I think life experience is really important for a novelist, as the more you have experienced, the more there is to draw on. When I was a lot younger I had a really disastrous painful love affair. But now, years later, that experience is something I can use. The raw truth of it; not an imagining of it, but a real description of what that felt like. So in a way, I’m using autobiography alongside my imagination. The closer the internal experience is to my authentic feeling, the more successful it seems to be on the page.
Have you ever imagined what your characters are doing after you’ve finished a book or series?
I think it is essential, not only for me, but for the reader. For a book to ‘live’ in the reader in the particular way I’m aiming at, is for the reader to want to imagine a continuation of the story. I want to make the reader wonder what happened to my characters next, but I still want to provide a satisfying ending. Some sense of their lives continuing (albeit in another dimension) is what will make the book resonate with the reader after the last page is turned.
Are you ever able to turn your writer’s brain off? Is this a blessing or a curse?
Someone on Twitter said that being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life. And it’s true! My writer’s brain is always on the go. If I’m reading, I’m working out how this or that effect was achieved by the writer. In one way it has ruined reading for me, but in another way it’s enriched it. I’m a person that loves my craft, and likes the feeling of improvement it can bring to my work. Of course readers often don’t notice, and to be honest excellent writing has no effect whatsoever on sales – a familiar genre and familiar storyline will always sell better than something unfamiliar, however brilliantly written.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
No. No-one reads my work in progress except me. Often the publisher is the first person to see it. I did try beta readers once, but it didn’t work for me. All three wanted me to write a different book than the one I’d already written. So I’ve gone back to my old method of it just being me and the keyboard, followed by either the publisher or KDP self-publishing. However, I do always have an editor who copy-edits my work, checks for inconsistencies (especially in research or timeline) and irons out any obvious bloopers. I think the problem of sending work out to ‘a committee’ is that you end up trying to please everyone. In the end they will be only three readers from maybe thousands, and it is more important to have confidence in the story I want to tell, and the way I want to tell it. Also, I think I’m a bit of a control freak over my work, and have very specific ideas about what it’s trying to achieve.
Have you received reactions/feedback to your work that has surprised you? In what way?
I think I’m often surprised to find the US market is not the same as the UK market and they have different reactions to my books. It is very tempting to think that all markets are the same, when in fact they are quite different. The US market is very sensitive to certain content which the UK market doesn’t even notice. On one or two occasions the US reviews tell me there’s too much swearing or blasphemy or violence or adultery, but readers from the UK market, Canada or Australia have never once mentioned these things. The content of my books is so mild in these areas as not to be even noticeable to me. After debating whether or not to change these things, I decided in the end not to, although I really don’t want to offend anyone with the content of my books.
We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
I used to work as a designer, in a different field, so I’m completely obsessed by cover design. This doesn’t mean I always get it right, but it’s important to me that my books are ‘well-dressed’ and attractive. I certainly judge books by their covers and I’m type-obsessed too, so a nice font will often sway me to buy a book more than a good blurb!
Every day brings forth new changes and shifts in the world of publishing. Any predictions about the future?
I’m lucky in that I’ve been published by a big publisher, a small publisher, and also self-published, so I’ve seen most permutations. My prediction right now is that traditional publishers are getting more savvy about digital publishing and upping their game. This will make it harder to stand out as a small indie because they have more marketing money to spend on their big names. Indie authors have been growing their mailing lists so will certainly give them a run for their money. Both will be fighting to get visibility on Amazon, the world’s biggest book platform. Like always, a good book will go nowhere without some sort of paid for marketing, as there’s now just too much competition. So as an indie you’ll probably need to invest more cash up front than you used to have to, or choose a niche which is less crowded.
Trains, planes, automobiles, or boats?
Definitely trains. I rather fancy a seat on The Orient Express, or the Venice-Simplon Express. When I was in China we went on a sleeper train and I loved that – the gentle rocking through the night, and then the bringing of hot green tea in the morning. I hate boats as I get really seasick and on a school trip across to Holland I threw up over the teacher’s shoes. I was never very popular in his class after that! Planes seem to be environmentally disastrous, though I do have to use them as my daughter lives in Dublin, and as I said, boats and me don’t get on and the Irish Sea is a monster.
If you could duplicate the knowledge from any single person’s head and have it magically put into your own brain, whose knowledge would you like to have? And why.
Wouldn’t we all like to have Leonardo’s brain?! Actually, mine would be to have the knowledge of a really efficient geeky web-developer or computer programmer who was taught touch-typing at school. Then I’d be able to touch type, sort out my own website and computer glitches, understand my iPhone, put Facebook back to how it was – you get the general idea. Though on second thoughts, living with that person inside my head could be rather irritating, as I’m sure their priorities might not be quite the same as mine.
What was the most valuable class you ever took in school? Why?
When I had to take Latin at school I hated it. It was just so complicated, and the teacher was a dusty old man in a gown that looked as though he’d come from a horror movie. But just that sprinkling of Latin (only three years’ worth) has given me so much. Not only can I now make some sort of intelligent guess at foreign languages, but the Latin roots are in many of our own words. I also belatedly enjoy trying to translate mottoes on old buildings, heraldry or gravestones. Now I wish I’d done Latin for longer and stuck at it with a bit more determination.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
Dancing. I’ve always loved any sort of dancing. During Covid lockdown I’ve done Zoom classes on all sorts of dance styles and really enjoyed them. At the moment most live classes are on pause, so I’ve had to get my fix via Zoom. This has actually been great as I’ve now been taught by dance teachers all over the world and been able to try out things where there’s no class local to me. Last week I did the Cha Cha with someone from Belfast, and tap dancing with someone from Devon. In the past I’ve danced Contemporary, Tango, Rock n’Roll, Salsa, Ballroom, and folk dancing. I’ll try any sort of dance from Zumba to ballet. At home I dance in my kitchen or any time I hear music. But hey, it’s a great antidote to the writing life.
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