by Deborah Swift
Like most writers I'm a prolific reader. This week I took a look at my reading pattern to see what I read, and how much I read, and whether this has changed over the last few years.
When I had my first book published in 2010 nearly all my reading was in paperback or hardback. At the Historical Novelists Conference in that same year, someone showed me the Kindle. Fascinated, yet also baffled, by this new technology I bought one. I still have the same ancient model and do most of my digital reading on that machine. I often use it when travelling on public transport or when on holiday, and I use it to carry some research books I can't do without.
Digital -- Kindle
This week on the Kindle I have been reading a historical novel recommended to me by a friend of a friend. The book had been self-published for a short while but failed to find an audience, and the author had withdrawn it from sale. What did I think? Would I read it and give an opinion? My heart sank. I get many of these requests and although the friend said it was a 'brilliant' book, I'd been burnt by this before and found myself spending precious reading time wading through a book that should be confined to a bottom drawer.
But joy of joys! This was a gem. Well-written; unusual history, set in a little-known time and location. I found myself burning with enthusiasm for the book and wondering how on earth I could get it better known. Then realising; I can't even get my own books better known, let alone someone else's. Still, I'm working on it, and can at least send word out to everyone I know. The Lacemaker by Sukey Hughes, if anyone out there is listening.
'The Illumination of Ursula Flight' by Anna-Marie Crowhurst. I'm writing a book about Mary Knepp, an actress in Restoration London, and this book sounded worryingly close to what I was writing. Curious, and slightly aggrieved at someone poaching my territory (I know, that's ridiculous) I dived in. Phew. Not like my book at all, but great to see the world I was writing about through another writer's eyes. I constantly find myself veering between wanting to read things set in 'my own era' and being terrified of being influenced by them. And I am constantly humbled by other people's writing skills. A highly recommended read.
The other book I've been reading on Kindle this week is my own. I often send my own books to Kindle as then I can spot errors more easily, and read it as a digital reader might. The book sits differently on the page in kindle format. I'm aware that many readers have abandoned paper altogether and read on their phones, but I'm not one of them. And this is something people often forget, that reading your own work takes just as long as reading someone else's -- that as well as writing the darned things, we have to actually read them too. If I become engrossed in my own book and forget to take notes, then that's a good sign. Historical fiction never seems to be short, does it? All three of these books amounted to over 1000 pages!
Digital -- The PC
I read a lot of research documents on the PC -- Gutenberg Library Texts, papers from various universities, and relevant passages from Google book searches. I can't pretend I don't use Wikipedia - it's excellent for getting a quick overview of what I need to know. Last week I was reading Broken Boundaries; Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama from the University of Kentucky. I am a great Googler and search for relevant papers that might help my current novel - at the moment it's papers on Restoration Drama and The Fire of London; I'm researching these for the third in my trilogy about Pepys' Women.
My research books are in hardback if I can get them. Here's the current pile of books I'm dipping in and out of. Over the last few years in what I'm calling my 'Pepys Period' I've used them so much that most of them have been read cover to cover. Of course there are paperbacks in there too, but I hate research books on Kindle; they're just too difficult to bookmark or navigate, and real books are much easier to find on my desk. Also there's something very satisfying about research in solid form. I've read quite a few excerpts from these books in the past week whilst fact-checking my novel. I occasionally buy fiction in hardback, but only as a gift for someone else. My groaning shelves wouldn't support it! One of my most interesting research books this week was "And So To Bed" A Comedy by J B Fagan, a play first published in 1926 about Samuel Pepys and his wife, and featuring Charles II. A very enjoyable light-hearted romp. My edition was from AbeBooks, who do out of print editions by post.
I love Twitter and it has persuaded me to buy quite a few books, many by indie writers. Some authors I see frequently online are never in bookstores, and some authors I see frequently in bookstores have no online presence. I only have a few paperbacks by indie authors, because most I buy on Kindle. I still buy full-price paperback fiction from bookshops because I enjoy to browse there. The House Between Tides by Sarah Maine came from my local bookshop, Carnforth Books, and it attracted me because it's set in The Outer Hebrides in Scotland, a wild and nartural place, and the title appealed to me. It's a Victorian/present day dual narrative, and I'm nearly at the end of it, and really enjoying the atmosphere the writer creates. This has been my bedtime reading. I had never heard of the author, but I'm glad I took the risk as the book is gripping and well-written. The local bookshop does a good job of curating the stock so that there are big-name authors but also debut novelists on the shelves.
Coffee time reading
I love my Historical Novel Society Magazine and often read it cover to cover. Mine arrived a couple of days ago, and it helps to keep me in touch with the industry, with what other people are writing, and with what is 'hot' in historical fiction. I spotted a couple of books in there that will be on my reading list for the near future. I also get various other industry magazines such as The Society of Authors Magazine, and of course I read blog posts of authors who I know or have read, (like this blog) and articles from BBC History and Historia Magazines online.
Books and Time
When I added up my reading for this week, it seemed enormous. And this is a typical week. I read far more than I did before I was a writer, and I used to be a bookworm then. Whenever I'm not writing I seem to be reading, and now we are so wired up to our digital machines, I'm reading more or less constantly. The digital world has broadened my reading in one way, but also made some of my reading feel rushed. I try not to skim, but I'm aware that I often do, and that this doesn't give time and attention to the person who has devoted time to writing it. We are all drowning in content, but it is only really with a novel that I can savour the content and immerse myself in what I'm reading.
As a historical fiction writer I find I am actually spending far more time reading than actually writing. Reading used to be something where I had to set aside a quiet time and space and buy or borrow a physical book. Now I have several documents open on my PC all the time and can flip from one to the other. And it's delicious, to someone who loves reading, to have unlimited access to so much stuff -- and so much of it with free access. But I also feel its dangerous side, that it could become an addiction.
I remember complaining to my mother, 'I've nothing to read!' and having to save my pocket money for my next book. Those hard choices, are gone. Those spaces, where the mind is free of a book, are also precious. I'm learning to build those spaces in, to clear the palate.
How do you read? What do you read? Are you a Kindle fan or a paperback reader? How do you prioritise your reading time?
Do feel free to find me on Twitter @swiftstory or on my website www.deborahswift.com