Writing superheroes: Deborah Swift

Wait, that’s not Queen Elizabeth…that’s a superhero! Read on and find out more…

superhero copy

All good superhero stories, have a sequel–something else happens after his first foe is vanquished.  How does your sequel begin (after the publication of you first/most recent book….)

My very early efforts were at school and have thankfully been lost. When we were asked to write what we did in our holidays I invariably made it up, inventing lost treasure or Robin Hood-like exploits to make our mundane life sound more exciting, and I remember that mine were always the longest essays in the class. The teacher probably dreaded another twenty five pages of Deborah-Swiftoverblown prose from me! ‘Very imaginative’ was a comment often scrawled across my work in red ink – I was never sure if it was a compliment or not. In those days we wrote by hand, with a cartridge pen, and I remember my wrist aching and the frustration of having to stop whilst I got out another cartridge. (Though I do remember too the thrill of being able to get cartridges with turquoise ink, and how, after that, the teacher must have been forewarned and been able to pour herself a stiff drink before tackling my writing.) 


All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.

I’m a pretty mild-mannered superhero, in fact I can probably be categorised as ‘NerdGirl’ so my secret identity is probably the hidden one with the underpants on the outside and the big cloak! On the outside I seem to be the one with the glasses and the pile of research books, and on the inside I’m fighting off evil letter by letter on my keyboard.


Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?

My partner in crime is my husband, whose superpower is to rustle up egg on toast from nowhere. I’m often too engrossed in what I’m doing to remember to eat. My other partner in crime is more of a ‘supergroup.’ They are my novelists group who meet once a month to discuss our writing, the industry of books and publishing, and to test which variety of chocolate biscuits is superior to the rest.


Where do you get your superpowers from?

I mostly pinch mine from other people. That is, I fish for them in the non-fiction books I read, and in the research I do. My superpowers are put on the burner, melted down and then welded together to look seamless. In reality they are forged from all the bits of history and writing advice that go into my cauldron.


Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?

It has the door firmly shut. I hate being interrupted when I’m plotting. It has two computers ready to go – one desktop facing the wall, with access to the internet, and a laptop which has no internet connection. I use the laptop when I’m feeling the least disciplined, so I can’t spend all day chatting on my ‘batphone’. The room is full of books, and even though I recently got two new bookcases, the books still won’t all fit on the shelves. If I’ve enjoyed a book I like to keep it, and since becoming a novelist myself I find there is so much craft to admire in every book. If anything, my opinions about other people’s books have become more generous rather than more critical. 


What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?

I get plenty of exercise. Writing is sedentary and the scenarios deliberately stressful, so some sort of antidote is essential. I enjoy hiking, yoga and tai chi, and do something physical every day. Getting away from the desk is also great for sorting out plot problems, mulling over character, and staying in touch with the real world. It also means I can still fit into my superhero tights.


out of; (c) Warwick Shire Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationGranted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?

I rather fancy the whole Elizabeth I regalia. She was probably one of the most powerful women on earth, and I’m curious to know just how much all that stuff weighed, with its genuine gold embroidery, real gems, and strings of heavy pearls. Whether I could do much rescuing in it, is a moot point. 


What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?

My kryptonite is the work of other writers. I need regular doses, and am inspired by all sorts of fiction. Recent favourite intravenous shots have come from Jessie Burton’s ‘The Miniaturist’, and Ken Follett’s ‘The Eye of the Needle.’ I also find Radio programmes immensely inspiring, because it is all about the words painting a picture. I listen to the Radio much more often than I watch TV, and sometimes jot down phrases that appeal to me.

My biggest challenge is not in the writing, but in finding a story that has enough mass appeal to tempt readers to buy. I write what interests me, and what I love to read. This is not necessarily what most other people want to read, so I have to test out my premise on lots of other readers first to check whether it is something that will ultimately sell. This is a balancing act – to write what I love to write and am inspired by, but also to bear in mind how frustrating it would be to spend eighteen months researching and writing to find no-one wants to read the story.


What was the supervillian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?

I am working on a book based around Pepys’s Diary, and the research was enormous and painstaking. For a fiction writer being tied so closely to a daily fixed diary was a challenge. It was incredibly frustrating not to be able to bend the timeline or the weather to achieve a particular effect – such as to increase tension by shortening the time between episodes. What it made me do was to look for other ways to achieve the same effect, so I think the whole experience has changed my writing and help it evolve for the better.


What important lessons have you learned along the way?

I learnt my most important lesson by becoming a more observant reader. That in the end, the quality of the story is more important than the quality of the writing. The latter is more easily fixed, but for a novel without a strong story no amount of good writing will save it. Having said that, a strong story does not necessarily mean the book must be commercial rather than literary. 


What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?

My most memorable experience was my very first book launch at the beautiful 17th century Townend House, with family and friends and all the promise of a writing future to come. I remember the man from the bookshop explaining to me how and where to sign the books, and how wobbly those first few signatures were!Townend


If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?

I wouldn’t change anything, as I would rather look forward than look back. I forget my books quickly once I have put them out into the world, and become totally involved in the world of the next book. There is just not enough space in my head for anything else! What I wouldn’t change is the enormously valuable experience of working with a good editor. Small changes can be significant and change the whole feel of a novel.


What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.

The internet is awash with writing advice, most of it of the ‘show don’t tell’ variety. I have read a lot of books on writing over the years, but here are two that have stood out for me: ‘Self Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Browne and King, and ‘179 Ways to Save a Novel’ by Peter Selgin. Both of these offer a bit more in the way of detail and subtlety. It is hard to find writing advice that is not aimed at ‘beginner writers’ and these have one or two gems that made me think.


Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.Shadow-on-the-Highway-11

I have a new book out, ‘Shadow on the Highway’ part of a trilogy for young adults, based on the Royalist Highwaywoman Lady Katherine Fanshawe. But I would really like to highlight my most recent adult novel, ‘A Divided Inheritance’, in which my strait-laced English rose,Elspet Leviston, must search for her wayward cousin in the heat and passion of Golden Age Seville. There she meets the mysterious swordmaster Senor Alvarez, and must learn to fence like a man if she is to regain her inheritance. I loved writing the book, and it takes the reader on a physical and emotional journey through a little-known and poignant slice of history. If you love strong female characters and unusual settings, you’ll love this!


What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?

I am working on the second book of the Highway trilogy, ‘Spirit of the Highway’, another young adult book set in the English Civil War, and featuring the ghost of Ralph Chaplin, Lady Katherine’s lover. I’m just finishing my book based around Pepys’s diary, and I’m doing tentative research for a book set in the time of Mary Queen of Scots in Scotland. 


Many thanks Maria for this interview, it’s much appreciated, and I’ve enjoyed answering your questions!


    You can find Deborah at:

Website~Amazon US~Facebook~Amazon Uk~Twitter@swiftstory



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