Writing Historical Fiction based
on a Diary
By Deborah Swift
Pepys Diary is the most famous diary in England. When
I first had the idea of writing a book based on the women in Pepys’ Diary, I
imagined it would be easy. Pepys would tell me what the women were doing, and
all I had to do was re-imagine their lives from a different perspective. Of
course this was naïve, and the process turned out to be far more complex than I
could have imagined. To construct a historical novel from a diary is an interesting
exercise in patience, perseverance and painstaking reading.
In the first novel, (Pleasing Mr Pepys) the
three women in the novel were those literally the closest to him; his wife, his
maidservant, and the woman who lived next door. As I began to piece together a
life for them, I soon saw that his wife Elisabeth might be in the diary every
day for months, and then suddenly disappear – there would be no reference to
her for weeks. Presumably though, she was still in his bed every night, and
running the household. Deb Willet’s story spanned months of intense entries,
before she was dismissed for her affair with Pepys, and after that she only appeared
Effectively this meant that if I were to follow the
chronology in the diary, Pepys himself had control over the pace of the story
and what was important to him, disenfranchising the women. To take control back
for these women, I needed to compress the parts that were mundane, even if
those entries were long, and expand upon those where very little was written,
because in these gaps the more interesting story was taking place. This had its
problems though. For example I couldn’t just re-locate characters at will. If Elisabeth
Pepys had decided to go abroad, or leave him for example, he surely would have
mentioned it in his diary. Maids still had to fix fires as usual, even if their
lives were unravelling.
The first page of Pepys diary.
Because of this, all the women in the trilogy became
more furtive, and their adventures more hidden than I had originally intended,
because their ‘ordinary life’ must continue and not arouse Pepys’ suspicion.
Undoubtedly though, this led to much more interesting stories, and much of the
tension lies in the fact Pepys is oblivious to what is going on right under his
Pepys’ diary is a gift for a novelist as he was
interested in everything – science, art, literature – and he supplies us with
many small details that give an insight into 17th Century London.
The downside is that things can’t be ‘made up’ for effect. No use thinking I
could add atmosphere with a storm, when Pepys tells us quite clearly the
weather was sunny and dry.
When it came to writing the second and third books,
many of the characters’ lives overlapped. So – should I try to refer to the
other women’s stories in the new books, or ignore them? Both Bess Bagwell (in A
Plague on Mr Pepys) and Bird Knepp (Entertaining Mr Pepys) lived
through the Plague, but in very different ways and with different experiences.
Could I write the same event twice? In the first book, Deb Willet the maid arrives
in London after the devastation of the Great Fire, whereas in the third book
Bird Knepp rescues her husband’s horses from the Great Fire.
A map of the damage caused by the Great Fire.
The chronology of the books was a constant concern,
with me checking and re-checking Pepys’ diary entries to check the women’s
stories would be congruent not only with the diaries, but with each other.
Difficulty of the Diary Form
might think that in a novel based on a diary, this might be the natural form
for a writer to choose, but I made a deliberate decision not to use the journal
form. This was because then the reader is only party to reflection after the
event and does not witness the actual scene in real time. This has a distancing
effect, and I wanted to really immerse the reader in the time.
each woman is a very different character, in a sense, all the women in the diaries
are aspects of myself. A frightening thought, but it was the only way I could
inhabit them, because I was imagining myself into the gaps. So the diary
instead of pushing me towards the more factual, actually pushed me to the more
fictional – one of the paradoxes of writing from a historical diary, but one
which was its joy and ultimate reward.
Entertaining Mr Pepys
By Deborah Swift
Elizabeth ‘Bird’ Carpenter has a wonderful singing voice, and
music is her chief passion. When her father persuades her to marry horse-dealer
Christopher Knepp, she suspects she is marrying beneath her station, but
nothing prepares her for the reality of life with Knepp. Her father has
betrayed her trust, for Knepp cares only for his horses; he is a tyrant and a
bully, and will allow Bird no life of her own.
When Knepp goes away, she grasps her chance and, encouraged by
her maidservant Livvy, makes a secret visit to the theatre. Entranced by the
music, the glitter and glamour of the surroundings, and the free and outspoken
manner of the women on the stage, she falls in love with the theatre and is
determined to forge a path of her own as an actress.
But life in the theatre was never going to be straightforward –
for a jealous rival wants to spoil her plans, and worse, Knepp forbids it, and
Bird must use all her wit and intelligence to change his mind.
Based on events depicted in the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys,
Entertaining Mr Pepys brings London in the 17th Century to life. It includes
the vibrant characters of the day such as the diarist himself and actress Nell
Gwynne, and features a dazzling and gripping finale during the Great Fire of
The third in Deborah Swift’s atmospheric trilogy, bringing to
life the women in Pepys’ Diary. Each novel features a different character and
can be read as a stand-alone book.
The Coffee Pot Book Club
Read the full review HERE!
Pick up your copy of
Entertaining Mr Pepys
Deborah Swift is the author of three previous historical novels for
adults, The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all
published by Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, as well as the Highway Trilogy for
teens (and anyone young at heart!). Her first novel was shortlisted for the
Impress prize for new novelists.
She lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake
District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.