Writing about life on the lam in the 1660s... An Interview with Deborah Swift, author of The Gilded Lily
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to win a free copy of Deborah Swift's atmospheric The Gilded Lily (St. Martin's Griffin, 2012), a historical novel set in Restoration England. She was gracious enough to let me interview her on my blog today.
The official synopsis:
Ella Appleby believes she is destined for better things than slaving as a housemaid and dodging the blows of her drunken father. When her employer dies suddenly, she seizes her chance--taking his valuables and fleeing the countryside with her sister for the golden prospects of London. But London may not be the promised land she expects. Work is hard to find, until Ella takes up with a dashing and dubious gentleman with ties to the London underworld. Meanwhile, her old employer's twin brother is in hot pursuit of the sisters.
Set in a London of atmospheric coffee houses, gilded mansions, and shady pawnshops hidden from rich men's view, Deborah Swift's The Gilded Lily is a dazzling novel of historical adventure.
What inspired you to write The Gilded Lily?
When I originally began The Gilded Lily I was interested in the fact that the ideal of women’s beauty has changed over time. The years when England was suddenly released from the grip of Puritanism seemed an ideal choice to set a novel about beauty and greed. In many ways the 1660s were like the 1960s and at that time there was a great flowering of interest in fashion, the theatre, beautiful women (and men!) and a more laissez-faire lifestyle. The Gilded Lily in the novel is the name of a place where women go to buy perfumes and potions, an enterprise I thought fitted well into this new culture of hedonism.
Why did you set your story in 166o?
I have always been fascinated by the Restoration – I used to design theatre costumes and did a couple of plays from this period and just loved the whole look. It was a very narrow period of celebration between Puritan rule and the outbreak of the Plague and then the Fire of London in 1665 and 1666.
But also London in the 17th century had a much darker face hidden beneath the glamour – it was a much less tolerant society than our own, a magnification of all our vices of bigotry, fear of another’s differences and cruelty to others less fortunate than ourselves. Class structures were more fiercely guarded and it was hard to claw your way upward to a reasonable standard of living.
How did you go about researching your story? Did your work as a set and costume designer for the BBC inform your research?
I usually spend about six months altogether researching before writing. Most of the research is about ordinary every day objects we take for granted – such as the price of a pair of gloves, or how far a hired horse can gallop in a day. (I spent a lot of time figuring out this conundrum too!-SC). My previous job helps in that I already have research methods in place, and a good basic knowledge of most periods from my experience designing plays. I also have some contacts who are experts in their field who I can ask when I'm stuck! I use books, the internet and museums. Sometimes I need to write to people or interview them for the information I need. For this novel I had to research pawn-broking, wig-making and gunpowder manufacture as well as the apothecary’s ingredients for beauty products.
If you had lived in the 1660s, what kind of occupation/station/life could you imagine yourself having? Or put another way, if you wrote yourself into the novel, what kind of character would you be?
Well not gunpowder manufacturing or wig-making, that's for sure! Ella and Sadie try these and they are not my idea of fun! Most working women worked cripplingly long hours for little pay so I think I would prefer to be the rich daughter of a man who could afford to send me to The Gilded Lily for my perfumes and potions. On second thoughts, perhaps not, as most of the skin creams contained white lead, mercury, or other dangerous substances. But I did read that there were lots of bookstalls in St Paul's Church, so perhaps I'd be a bookseller! Or even print up my own anonymous chapbooks or pamphlets.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned while writing your novel?
One of the most surprising was that the average age of the population of London at that time was very young. Of course people generally died younger, and 85,000 men had been lost in the Civil Wars, and young men took their places. Some men were sitting in Parliament at only 16 years old. Large gangs of youths - displaced from their homes or who had been soldiers in the armies - roamed the city searching for employment. What a place to put two naive country girls!
How long did it take you to write The Gilded Lily? How many drafts did it take?
It took just over eighteen months, though I had been mulling the idea for longer. I do a rough draft first with only basic research to draft the storyline. Then I research in more depth and the storyline develops and deepens. Sometimes it changes if the research leads me in a different direction. A third draft is about smaller details and characterisation. After that I draft and edit until I think it's ready, which can be about changing whole sections, or about worrying over a single word.
What advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
Don't be in too much of a hurry to get the book out there. Editing is vital. In your editing process you can check through each character's scenes for consistency to make sure they are real people. If you are self-publishing make sure you get a professional editor. I'm lucky in that I have a publisher and a great editorial team behind my books. There are many good books being self-published now which could have been GREAT books, given an outside editorial eye. We need great books and great new writers so why settle for anything less?
And what are you working on now?
My next book is called 'A Divided Inheritance'. It is set in Stuart England and Golden Age Spain and tells the story of a lace trader's daughter who has to travel to Seville to save her beloved home and rescue her inheritance from her firebrand cousin. It will be out in October 2013.
It will be hard to wait till October, that's for sure! Thank you, Dee!
Deborah can be reached through her website (www.deborahswift.co.uk), Blog (www.deborahswift.blogspot.com)or through twitter @swiftstory.
I'm excited to have historian Sam Thomas join me today to discuss his first novel, The Midwife's Tale, a historical mystery set in mid-seventeenth century York.
Sam and I connected about a year ago, when we realized that (1) we're both trained as early modern English historians; (2) we both have debut novels coming out with Minotaur Books this year; and (3) both our mysteries are set in nearly the same time period. (I'm encouraging Sam to think about doing a cross-over piece, so that his midwife can bring my Lucy Campion into the world. But I digress.)
The Official Description:
It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
Bridget joins forces with Martha Hawkins, a servant who’s far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be. To save Esther from the stake, they must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a deeply sinister secret life, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.
A midwife at work
The Midwife's Tale is told through the first person perspective of Lady Bridget Hodgson, a 30-year old twice-widowed midwife and real historical figure. How much is known of the true Bridget, and how much of her personality/character did you invent? Did you ever feel constrained writing a fictionalized account of a real person?
That’s a great question! We know a fair bit about Bridget, and I include some of it here. A lot of the basics are true: She was twice widowed, first to a man named Luke Thurgood, then to Phineas Hodgson, who was the son of the Lord Mayor of the York. (And yes, Phineas seems to have been every bit the loser I portray him as.) Bridget also had a deputy named Martha, though I had to invent much more of her background.
It is also pretty clear that she was a very strong woman. She came from an ancient family and wanted people to know it. She also named all of her goddaughters (as well as her own daughter) ‘Bridget’, presumably after herself. Who does that?
I did, however, make some cuts. For my first book I had a heck of a time writing her home life, so I made her childless, though the historical Bridget was survived by two daughters. There are also rumors that she had two sons, both of whom were hanged as highwaymen, which is amazing, but I’m not sure I believe it.
Similarly, is the case at the heart of The Midwife's Tale based on a true case from the archives? How did you go about doing your research?
The case itself is entirely fictional, though a lot of the supporting characters are real.
As for the research it was a lot of digging. I stumbled across Bridget’s will when I was working on another project, and it provided dozens of names for me to chase down: friends, family, and best of all, godchildren, which allowed me to identify a handful of clients.
Once you have names, you can then dig into baptismal registers, tax records, probate documents, legal records, histories of York…it’s endless, really.
I also got very lucky that Bridget was once sued for defamation, which allowed me do dig even further into her social life and the history of her practice.
Besides being a compelling read, your story gets at some of the larger historical themes around gender, politics and religion that shaped this time period. In what ways did you consciously try to illuminate these larger trends? How did you balance the need for historical accuracy with creative license?
I consciously wanted to connect ‘big’ and ‘little’ history. The novel takes place in the midst of a rebellion against the king, so I made the crime at its heart a domestic rebellion in which a wife is accused of murdering her husband. This was a time when people were intensely concerned about maintaining order at the national and domestic levels, and I wanted to see how they would react when that order was challenged. (Oddly – or not – I do much the same thing in my historical work, favoring microhisotry, in which big stories are told through the lives of average individuals.)
In doing your research, what was one of the most interesting things you learned?
I think it was how complicated life as a midwife could be. Not only did they deliver children, they were part of the legal system, investigating crimes ranging from infanticide, to rape, to witchcraft.
It really makes midwives the perfect sleuths!
I'm taking a quick break from my blog hiatus to do an interview with up-and-coming crime fiction writer, Greg Bardsley, author of Cash Out (just released by Harper Perennial). Greg and I not only share an agent, the indomitable David Hale Smith, but also the bond of seeing our novels released more or less around the same time. (My book won't be out 'til April 2013, but who's counting?).
From the official publicity blurb:
Cash Out "is nonstop, mercilessly hilarious, no-holds-barred fiction for fans of The Hangover and Office Space—an outrageous tall tale that follows one desperate, disgruntled Silicon Valley exec through a surreal three-day scramble to cash out his stock options and leave behind his hated high-tech job before outrageous villains (and even crazier friends) completely destroy him." – Harper Perennial
What inspired "Cash Out?"
You know, as cuckoo as some elements of the book are, Cash Out was inspired by some heavier themes.
It started when I began to think back on what it was like to live here on the San Francisco peninsula in the late 1990s. It was such a remarkable time. The Internet was exploding, billions of dollars were amassing, and irrational exuberance reigned. The Peninsula was ground zero for this explosion. The word, after all, was out: This was where one came to quickly acquire unimaginable wealth, extreme luxury, insane property fortunes and a bit of business immortality. This was where 25-year-olds retired. This is where Elton John performed at your corporate Christmas party, and where marching bands arrived at your doorstep to deliver job offers, where college grads with no experience started off at $100,000. Where power and money, always aphrodisiacs, now were supercharged by a prevailing sense of entitlement, forming a powerful new cocktail of narcissistic indulgence.
What kind of people did this world this attract? Read Cash Out for my take.
Regardless, the end result was that these folks pushed out longtime Bay Area residents, drove home prices into the stratosphere and forever affected the region, its pre-existing culture, its pristine landscape and even its inherent values of inclusion and tolerance. Artists' lofts were transformed into business-incubation offices, hippies were replaced by 6-foot-4 money guys with cell phones pressed against their cheeks, coastal townies are were laughed at and dismissed, longtime residents were pushed into the boonies and the remaining native Californians on the peninsula struggled to maintain not only their sense of self and place, but also their values.
This place had changed.
So I was thinking about of all of this when I met a former WD-40 public relations guy who had become one of the first one hundred employees at Google. And I found myself wondering, What would I do if I were in his shoes and could cash out?
From there, I came up with an idea for a guy who’d be just three days away from cashing out when, suddenly, all hell breaks loose and everything he values in life is at risk.
"Cash Out" is set in 2008--is that when you started to write it? How long did it take you to complete the novel?
I actually set it in 1999, but we changed the date after Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial bought the book and came up with some good reasons to advance the date to 2008. He felt the story could be more accessible for readers, considering the economic crisis that ensued that year. And he was dead-on.
I began to write Cash Out in late 2008, but really started to accelerate my work a year later. It’s hard to know how long it took to write, but my guess is it took about two years. I wrote late at night, after my wife and kids had fallen asleep. Some days I wrote at lunch, or when the family was out for an hour. Some nights I couldn’t stop, and I’d write into the very early morning. I guess you could say the first draft of Cash Out was written during a thousand stolen moments over the course of a few years.
You've got some pretty zany characters and circumstances in this novel. How much, if any, of your book is autobiographical?
In writing the book, I decided to stick with what I knew best. So in some ways, I gave my protagonist, Dan Jordan, some of my own traits and circumstances. Like me, Dan would be a speechwriter in Silicon Valley working with an array of really smart and interesting people. Like me, he’d feel tired and overworked and worried about losing himself in frothy white waters of the Valley. Like me, he’d have a wife and two boys he’d love with all his heart. And like me, he’d reexamine some of the big decisions he’d made over the years. Unlike me, he’d be days away from cashing out a fortune.
People always ask me, who inspired these other characters in the book? So let me clear up a few things and come clean about some others. ... Yes, the book does include a scene where an obnoxious fatty “upper decks” into the water basin of a toilet. But, no, I have never been on the receiving (or giving) end of one of those. ... Yes, the book does feature a man who slathers himself in cocoa butter and throws buck knives at his garage door. But no, he was not inspired by anyone in the peninsula. ... No, I have never been three days from being able to cash out. And no, I have never seen a man eat a rat on a stick in the break room. (Greg, your life is so sheltered --SC)
I've been joined here today (virtually!) by a long-time reader of mysteries, Danna, who blogs at the wonderful Cozy Mystery List Blog.
I've been following Danna's blog for a while. As a reader it's an invaluable place to discover new-to-me mysteries. As a writer, I've gleaned some great insights from her readers about what they think works well and what doesn't in a mystery. So Danna has been gracious enough to share some of her thoughts here.
Tell us a little about yourself--have you always been a big reader?
I grew up in a military family. The longest time I lived in one location (four years) was when my father was stationed in Spain. Looking back, I guess I could say that the one "constant" (besides my family, of course!) were my books. They could travel with me and keep me company during the time it took to make new friends. I have my master's degree in education and have taught school in both middle and high schools. I thought for sure I would continue teaching school in Colorado, but I married a military man which meant going back to the nomadic life of my childhood.
When did you start reading mysteries?
I began reading mysteries when I started reading my sister's "hand-me-down" Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery books. From there, I graduated to Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and "Victoria Holt-type" mystery books. (My grandmother's house was full of books, and her local library was a place she and I visited many times.)
Is this your favorite genre?
Obviously, with a site that has "Cozy Mystery" in its name, cozy mysteries are my favorite genre. However, I read police procedurals, true crime, and when I have time, non mystery themed books. (Non mystery author E. F. Benson is my all-time favorite author.) My husband's taste in books is much wider than mine, so he occasionally finds something he thinks I absolutely have got to read. ("The Hiding Place" by Corrie ten Boom is one of his recent "finds" - and I can't say enough good things about that book.)
Why did you begin to blog about mysteries?
Years ago I belonged to several online mystery reading groups. I made two very good mystery-reading friends in two of those groups. When I found that I needed a system for cataloging the books I read (buying the same books twice), I started making a list of all the mystery authors I read and liked and included authors who I didn't like - so I wouldn't end up buying their books ever again.
When my friends found out about my systemized lists of authors and books, one of them asked if I would share it. I then began adding their favorite (and least favorite) authors to my list. From there, I started my site - with a lot of computer/technical help from my husband. I had been frustrated trying to expand my list of cozy mystery authors. At the time (2006) there weren't any internet sites that were devoted to cozy mysteries (at least not that I knew of).
And then an unexpected thing happened: I started getting e-mail from people all over the world, asking for help in identifying authors, or for suggestions about what to read, etc. My husband saw that I spent quite a bit of time answering these letters, and suggested that I start a blog. He finally convinced me, and the response to my blog was an even bigger surprise to me!
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.