Monday 13 August 2018

A Historical Fiction Writer's Reading Week

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 The book had been self-published for a short while but failed to find an audience, and the author had withdrawn it from sale.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.

Also read on the Kindle this week, '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 


Carol McGrath said...

I loved this post. You are a fast reader and prolific. I am the opposite really. I want to read the dual time set in the Hebrides and the Lace Maker both. At the moment I'm reading Birdcage Walk and Maggie O'Farrell's This Will Be the Place slowly. Both are good novels of course. I also like the idea of putting my own novel on kindle to see better the editing I need. Your Pepys is doing well now and that certainly is deserved. One of my favourite reads this summer.

Deborah Swift said...

Thanks Carol. The Lacemaker is not available right now. And the author may re-title it before re-publication since another book has appeared with the same title. Once its available somewhere I'll let you know. Thanks for your compliment about a Plague on Mr Pepys. Must read This Will be the Place, but my TBR list is horrendous right now!

Michele said...

I mostly read on my Kindle. I've had it a handful of years now, and mostly still read hardcopy books when I first got it, but over the intervening years, I've moved to mostly reading ebooks because my chronic knee pain means carrying even a paperback book in my backpack can be too much additional weight. If I'm reading actual physical books then they tend to be either library books, or books I already own and haven't yet or can't replace with a digital copy. (A couple I have both physical and ebooks but that's because either an author or a publisher gave me the physical book but I bought the digital one because of the aforementioned knee pain.)

I read constantly. I was up until stupid o'clock last night finishing off my (grumpy) re-read of Harry Potter 5. It's been ages since I've managed to stay awake reading until that late - usually the insomnia's caught up with me before then.

As for what I read: SFF; historical fiction (esp romance); a small amount of contemporary literature (what usually gets mislabelled as women's lit); children's & YA - hence the Potter re-read!; Golden Age murder mysteries/detective novels (big fan of Josephine Tey, DL Sayers (Vane & Wimsey, not solo Wimsey), and Ngaio Marsh). Also biographies & memoirs; nature writing; histories; and Shakespeare (yeah, I read Will for pleasure!).

Lynne Benton said...

Really interesting post, Carol. I am also an avid reader, and have been all my life, and I never thought I would adapt from "real books" to a Kindle - until I tried it! Now it is definitely my preferred way to read, and not only because I can carry an entire library around with me. It's also very comfortable to hold, and I can adjust the font size if necessary so it's easy to read. And like you I find it very useful to download my WIP on to it to go through. Thank you for this post!

Ann Turnbull said...

Fascinating post, Deborah. And it's good to know I'm not the only person who still has an original Kindle, still going strong, though its battery seems to need boosting more often now. Writing historical fiction does create a huge amount of research reading. I am in awe of people who do as much and are as knowledgeable as you. Despite the fascination of research and the thrill when you find something that just fits your story, I much prefer reading fiction and will save up novels for a treat between research books. Reading fiction always feels to me like the most important thing in life, and I resent the time that newspapers and magazines take up. How do people manage to read The Guardian? Recently I've begun reading (and writing) poetry, which is a joy to read - so clear and beautiful on the page, and mostly short!

Deborah Swift said...

In case you are wondering (one always does) why a post has been deleted; and whether or not it was interesting, its because it was advertising escort girls. I imagine that the word 'girls' on our blog attracted this sort of spam.

Thanks to all of you who have replied so far - it's really interesting to read I'm not the only reading addict, and also to find out how many of you have embraced digital reading. Though I read a lot of books in other formats I do love the digital too, and can't imagine being without it now.

Marian said...

Interesting post. I will read a book on my iPad when I am traveling but apart from that I like a “real” book. Looking forward to reading your book and the books that were recommended. Thank you. This is my favorite blog, love the History Girls.

Donna S said...

Super post, really enjoyed it. I am an avid reader and always have been. The past 17 years were spent working in a library and I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven. A real dream job and I loved it. Now I am retired and thought I would have time to read more but do not. Am reluctant to try digital books. I enjoy holding, feeling and smelling real books too much. I like historical fiction, historical mystery, some urban fantasy and even Stephen King now and then, depends on my mood.