14 June 2018

Special Guest Interview with Deborah Swift, Author of A Plague on Mr Pepys


Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

The second novel in the Mr Pepys series by popular historical novelist Deborah Swift, featuring the Great Plague

I'm pleased to welcome author Deborah Swift to The Writing Desk today:

Tell us about your latest book

A Plague on Mr Pepys tells the story of Bess Bagwell, Samuel Pepys’ most enduring mistress. She is mentioned more than any other of his ‘amours’ although she is married to someone else. So why does she do it? What drives a woman to such a long-standing affair? And more surprisingly, why does her husband apparently condone it?

In one way, the book is a classic triangle, with Bess at its apex, but on the other hand it is an exploration into how the wheels of 17th century society are kept moving through hidden liaisons, underhand deals and corruption. This is none more so than in the time of the Great Plague, when lives are at stake, but also great profit can be made in the manufacture of quack medicine, and by exploiting people’s fear.

I also wanted to write about what makes a family; how relationships are forged through surviving adversity. This is the second of my novels featuring real-life women in Pepys Diary, and I really enjoyed constructing a very different story for Bess than I did for Deb Willet.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I like to write in the mornings and have organised my other work to do this. Like most writers who are not yet retired, I have a day job, teaching in Adult Education, but luckily I am self-employed so I can juggle my time. So my morning writing time is sacrosanct! Actually, having a fixed timetable really helps, as think to be entirely desk bound is not very healthy. I’m a big advocate for Yoga, Tai Chi, dancing, bracing walks, and anything else that gets the body moving after a morning at my desk.

What advice do you have for new writers?

There is so much advice out there. A lot of it gives you formulas about things like three acts, plot points, stakes, and so forth. It can be overwhelming. But in the end, it comes down to you and the page. Most advice is meaningless when faced with your own story and your own characters. You just have to figure it all out for yourself. Particularly with historical fiction where some parts of the story are fixed and others are moveable, you have to rely on your own story instinct. And now there are so many different ways to get your book before readers, and that too is an individual choice. So my advice would be – have courage! You can do it. There is a reader out there who will love your book, and you just need to make sure you finish it and get it into their hands.


What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

To be honest, it’s straightforward advertising. If nobody sees your book, nobody will buy it. So it’s worth paying for that. It doesn’t have to be mega bucks, just a little goes a long way, if you target the right readers. And the best place to put an ad is where people buy books - on Amazon.

When I was first published I did a lot of library talks, book talks, blogging, and other activities that took up lots of time. Now I still do those things if I think they will give me pleasure, but I realise that the number of books they sell is miniscule compared with even a simple and cheap paid ad which runs while you write. Historical fiction is a niche genre, and within that niche is my period, which is even smaller. So the advantage of a small niche is that you can target very specifically, and it need not cost you an arm and a leg.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research.

I hadn’t realised how much the medical catastrophe of the plague was also an economic and social catastrophe for London. For example, in the parish of Cripplegate there were eight thousand bodies to bury in 1665, and every grave had to be dug and paid for. The constant tolling of the ‘passing bell’ created its own expenses. The bells wore out and cracked and had to be repaired, and the repair of the eight bells (to pay men to heave them down, pay the foundry, heave them up again etc) cost 25% of the Parish budget.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

As you might expect, in a book featuring the plague, there are deaths. And they are not pretty. So how much detail does the reader need, how much should be left to the imagination? Does the detail help or hinder the emotional impact of the scene? So that was something that required a lot of thought.

But also the first scene in any book is really hard, because there you are setting up the reader’s expectations, and I wanted to make it clear that although the book has ‘plague’ in the title, it is not all doom and gloom. There is plenty of lively action from Bess our vivid and outspoken protagonist, and Pepys himself is a colourful larger-than-life character.

 What are you planning to write next?

The next book in the series is ‘Entertaining Mr Pepys’ which I am working on now. It is the final book in the trilogy, about Elizabeth Knepp, nicknamed ‘Bird’ because of her singing voice. She is taken on as an actress in the newly-formed King’s Players, and meets Mr Pepys at the theatre. The theatre of this era; the time of Nell Gwyn and the playwrights Dryden and Aphra Behn, is particularly vibrant, and I’m enjoying bringing this woman’s journey to life. And it features the Great Fire, which will be enormous fun to write!

Deborah Swift



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About the Author

Deborah Swift lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District and worked as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV. After gaining an MA in Creative Writing in 2007 Deborah now teach classes and courses in writing and provides editorial advice to writers and authors. Find out more at Deborah's website www.deborahswift.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @swiftstory.

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