Literary North East, Meet the author

Five minutes with Helen Steadman

Helen Steadman is an author, editor and proofreader who lives in the North Pennines. Her latest book Widdershins was inspired by witch trials in Newcastle and she takes five minutes to tell us more about it.

What inspired you to write Widdershins?

After reading Hilary Mantel’s amazing Wolf Hall, I decided to write a historical novel for the MA I was about to start at the Manchester Writing School (Manchester Metropolitan University), but I had no clue what I wanted to write about.

The idea of witches came to me in a flash when I was wandering about the woods one day, but it wasn’t a subject I knew a great deal about. Of course, I knew about the more well-known histories of the Pendle witches, the Witchfinder General and the Salem witch trials. I also had some vague ideas about witches from childhood passions about fortune telling and age-inappropriate reading material. (I loved reading the Pan Books of Horror that one of my grandmothers used to bring me and Dennis Wheatley books like To The Devil, A Daughter ­– it’s a wonder I slept through my formative years!) So, apart from some vague background, I had a huge amount of research ahead of me, which felt pretty daunting, but also exciting as it’s such a fascinating subject.

What did your research process involve?

I started by scouring the internet for all things witch-related, and I bought loads of secondhand books about witches, witchcraft, witchfinders, witch trials, folk tales, herbal medicine, trees, plants and birds, as well as seventeenth-century history, food, law, clothing, religion, superstition, science, medicine and childbirth. Luckily, I had access to the libraries of the world while studying at MMU. So, I read and read and read.

Widdershins was born in my mind when I read about the Newcastle witch trials in a book by Ralph Gardner, England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade, which was written in 1655. Chapter 53 contains a couple of pages referring to the Newcastle witch trials. I was shocked to learn that 14 women and one man had been executed on Newcastle’s Town Moor on a single day, which is possibly the largest number of people executed on a single day for witchcraft in England. It stuck in my head, and I knew that this would be my story.

Interestingly, the Tyne and Wear Archive has the burial record for the people executed for witchcraft (they are buried in St Andrew’s in Newcastle), and it lists 15 women and one man. The archive also contains the Chamberlain’s accounts for August 1650, and they list the cost to Newcastle Council of the witch trials: £15 19s 2d.

After a huge amount of reading, I decided to carry out some practical research and did some training at Dilston Physic Garden, near Corbridge. (The garden is a brilliant place to while away an afternoon, and there are excellent courses running all year round.) I learned to identify trees by their bark, leaves and berries, and I learned about their various properties. Finally, I made several herbal remedies, including an acorn decoction, elderberry linctus and a hawthorn tincture.After my training, I grew my own little herb garden so I could learn more about growing, harvesting, drying and preparing herbal medicines.

During the research and writing period, I walked in Widdershins country every day, and I spent quite a lot of time walking the River Derwent at both the Shotley Bridge end and at its confluence with the Tyne. I took lots of photos of plants, animals and weather so that I had a good idea about natural cycles, and this really helped me build the characters of the women in the book.

The witchfinder was much harder to write because of his terrible nature. I read books written by two witchfinders themselves – one by the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, and one by John Stearne. I also read a lot of academic research about sexual sadists and psychopaths, which made for fairly grim reading.

Are there any parallels between the persecution of women in Widdershins and the treatment of women in the 21st century?

I think there are certainly parallels between the persecution of women in Widdershins and the treatment of women in the 21st century – and of course, it’s important to remember that men were also victims, although in lesser numbers.

Witch trials seem to have presented an ideal opportunity for communities to rid themselves of burdensome women – whether they were old, impoverished or mentally ill – or merely to settle grudges. Although vast numbers of people in Britain were killed in what amounts to state-sanctioned murder based on the scantest of evidence, there has been no official pardon, despite a number of recent petitions. Switzerland has pardoned the last person executed as a witch, ‘exonerating her as a victim of “judicial murder”’ (Associated Press). Sadly, witch hunts are not relegated to the past, and there are still huge numbers of people being imprisoned and killed around the world under accusations of witchcraft and sorcery. As recently as last year, seven men were reputedly burned for witchcraft in Malawi (Lewis) and in 2015, there were reports from the UN of ‘witches’ being burned alive ahead of a visit by the pope (Esslemont). In 2009, Amnesty International reported that a thousand people had been taken to secret detention centres on grounds of witchcraft.

Sadly, witch hunts are not relegated to the past, and there are still huge numbers of people being imprisoned and killed around the world under accusations of witchcraft and sorcery. As recently as last year, seven men were reputedly burned for witchcraft in Malawi (Lewis) and in 2015, there were reports from the UN of ‘witches’ being burned alive ahead of a visit by the pope (Esslemont). In 2009, Amnesty International reported that a thousand people had been taken to secret detention centres on grounds of witchcraft.

In chilling echoes of the historic witch hunts, these more recent victims seem to have fallen foul of superstition and convenience triggered by scarce resources. Of course, it’s not only people accused of witchcraft who suffer from persecution, imprisonment and execution. Anyone considered to be an outsider is at risk, whether because of sexuality, religion, country of origin, gender, age or health status. And of course, some of the torture techniques used to force fabricated confessions from so-called witches are still in use today, despite being banned by the Geneva Convention.

You’re an editor and proofreader. Does that make it easier or harder to write a book yourself?

I would say both! It could make it harder to write if I let the critical editorial bit of my brain loose, so I try to get around it as much as I can. Later, when I’m in editing mode, it comes in handy. That said, it is very difficult to edit and proofread your own work because your eye tends to see what your mind expects to see, and when you’ve read something dozens of times, it becomes almost impossible.

When I write, I start by doing a first draft using freewriting techniques like morning pages – basically, waking up and just writing a thousand words while still half asleep. I also did a lot of ‘freethinking’, just letting my mind wander while walking in the woods, and then writing down whatever came to mind later that night. I wrote the first draft of Widdershins in no particular order in lots of different notebooks that I had scattered around.

By working in this way, the critical part of my brain wasn’t engaged in the process. I initially had 128,000 words of very scribbly looking writing, and quite a lot of it didn’t make any sense. I put it away for a few months and then typed it up and put it into Scrivener (a program that I highly recommend for writers), which enabled me to chop up the words into rough chapters, move them about, add photos and link to research and so on. Then came a lot of rewriting, chopping and changing and more rewriting. Much later, when I’d found the story nestling among all these words, I started on structural editing, before getting onto line editing and proofreading. The final book is just under 80,000 words, so I’m not the most economical writer, which means that perhaps my editing training made for a much better book!

What’s next for you?

I’m now writing a sequel to Widdershins. My aim is to write the entire novel using morning pages. This is a technique first suggested by Dorothea Brande in her excellent book, Becoming A Writer, and then popularised by Julia Cameron. (Brande’s book is definitely worth reading; I read it after Hilary Mantel said it was the only ‘how-to’ book writers needed to read.)

Doing morning pages is horrible and I hate doing them because I don’t like waking up a minute earlier than strictly necessary, and because I like to wake up gradually with a dawn simulator and four alarms spread out over half an hour.

When I’m doing morning pages, I wake up at 5.50am with a loud and nasty alarm, turn on the bedside lamp, put my specs on, pick up the notebook and pen next to my pillow and start writing. It’s a hideous start to the day, but because the old brain is still in dream mode, some really interesting things come out of my pen. It’s a brilliant solution for anyone suffering from writer’s block, or anyone who is so critical about their own writing that they can’t get started.

I’m also currently working on a PhD at the University of Aberdeen – the end result of that research will be a novel about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers (a group of Lutheran swordmakers who left Solingen in Germany in the late 17th century and came to live in the north east of England). After that, I’m planning to leave the 17th century behind and move into Victorian times. Once I’d finished Widdershins, I started writing a novel about Grace Darling, which needs quite a lot more research before I can do any more with that. And I have half an idea about psychics. If I live long enough, I might eventually inch my way forward into current times…

Widdershins is available now from Impress Books.

Sources

Amnesty International (2009) Hundreds released as Gambian witch hunts end, Amnesty International (8 April 2009).

Associated Press, 2013, Swiss exonerate Europe’s last executed witch, available from BBC World Service: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/26422359/ns/world_news-europe/t/swiss-exonerate-europes-last-executed-witch/#.WTFPUmjys2w.

Briggs, R (1998) Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft, Middlesex: Penguin, p. 225

Burton, D & Grandy, D (2004) Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, p. 361.

Esslemont, T (2015) Witch burning rebels stoke Central African Republic violence Reuters, 25 November, 2015.

Gardiner, R (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare, pp. 114–120.

Gibbons, J 1998, Recent developments in the study of the great European witch hunt, The Pomegranate, 5, Lammas 1998.

Lewis, K (2016) Gang burns seven people to death over witchcraft claims in Malawi, Independent, 2 March 2016.

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