By Helen Steadman
Reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall inspired me to write a historical novel. I had the title, Pushed by Angels, but no ideas beyond historical-research-induced anxiety. In May 2011, I decided to take an MA in Creative Writing, which gave me immediate permission to stop writing until the MA began in October 2013.
Until then, I was determined not to waste all my free time drinking, so I continued taking my dog out for daily woodland walks. One day, I smelt a strange strawberry-like smell and followed my nose uphill. At the top of the rise, the source of the smell became clear: loggers had cut down hundreds of Scots pines, revealing an enormous natural amphitheatre, albeit one populated by oozing stumps. Stunned by the sight, and possibly in an altered state on account of the pine sap, I sat down to wonder what might have happened in this place centuries ago.
Apropos of nothing, Florence Welch jumped into my head, singing ‘We raise it up, this offering’ Sacrifice! Ritual! Rituals could have happened here, magical goings-on. Witches! Armed with nothing more than an overdose of pine sap, I realised that my book had to be about witches. It felt right. An astrologer once tried to convince me that I had been burnt as a witch in a past life and offered to regress me. Thank you, but no. Strangely, the revelation of my book’s subject was equally unwelcome. Why witches? I knew no witchcraft. I knew no witches. Witches would not be easy. This would mean research. Sorry, this would mean Research. And lots of it.
Cue a spending orgy in second-hand online bookshops (to the chagrin of the postie, who came to hate me). Tree medicine lessons were taken, gardens both physic and psychic were visited. The walls filled with old maps. The garden filled with strange plants. The cupboards filled with home-grown lotions, potions and tinctures, and I was haunted by endless moaning:
‘Can I just have a paracetamol, Mam, I can’t stand the taste of silver birch.’
‘Can we have mouthwash from an actual shop? That acorn stuff has made my teeth brown.’
‘Who put hawthorn berries in my good vodka?’
‘The police have been round again.’
Undeterred, I continued. Paranormal groups were joined (mental notes were subsequently made not to confuse paranormal groups with BDSM clubs). Divorce papers rustled in the background, yet still the research went on. County archives were raided, local historians were interrogated, execution records were pored over, and spectacle prescriptions were renewed at a rate hitherto unprecedented.
During this research, I found my story, courtesy of a disgruntled Northumbrian coal trader, Ralph Gardiner. Thanks to his grievances, I discovered that sixteen people had been executed for witchcraft on a single day in Newcastle in 1650. This resulted from the Puritan-ran council (in perhaps the earliest example of local authority performance-related pay) offering a witch-finder twenty shillings per witch caught. Fascinatingly, at the trial, the witch-finder was revealed as a fraud, but only one girl was spared execution, and the witch-finder escaped.
Having been inspired by Hilary Mantel’s makeover of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I was initially tempted to write the witch-finder’s story. However, I could not stop thinking about the girl who got away. Despite further research, I could find no information on who she was or why the other accused ‘witches’ were still executed. This conundrum continued to bother me until I decided that this girl would have to be my story. The lack of information surrounding her mystery proved to be a blessing as it provided the freedom to write an entirely fictional account. So, I had my title, my research was under way, the end of my book was in place, I just had to write myself there…
I began writing by employing a trusty notebook during my walks. However, both the weather and my Scottish Terrier, Archie, had other ideas. After two heart-lurching near-losses of Archie, compounded by soggy-notebook syndrome, I needed a more mobile system.
Enter the Dragon – one purchase of Dragon voice recognition software later, I had the answer to my writerly prayers. First, though, the instructions said that I must train my dragon. But no matter how much time I spent training my dragon, it refused to get along with my Geordie diphthong. So, my dragon was consigned to the growing pile of gadgets that I have bought to help me to write.
Since it was inadvisable to write slowly when Archie was off his leash, and impossible to write at all when he was on it, and since my dragon didn’t like me, I needed a new outdoor-writing system. What was hands-free and would enable me to supervise a feisty Scottish Terrier? Thinking! Thinking fitted the bill perfectly. So, I developed ‘freethinking’, shamelessly plagiarised from Peter Elbow’s term for ‘freewriting’, a method first described by Dorothea Brande.
Armed with my new freethinking technique, I tramped the woods, semi-conscious, but on high sensory alert, taking in the sylvan sights, sounds and smells. Then, directly after work, child-feeding, assorted housework and herb harvesting, I began to write slowly and by hand. Despite having the memory of a goldfish, I managed to convey many of my experiences onto paper.
Being a self-disciplined sort of writer (that accidental BDSM club sojourn was not entirely wasted), I promised to write a thousand words per day in a notebook. I planted notebooks in likely places: bedside, car, conservatory, garden, kitchen and living room. Whenever there was a spare hour, I would lean, sit or lie, and write one thousand words. I wrote without conscious thought, in no particular order, and without thinking about the overall story. Whatever popped into my head while walking in the woods was distilled onto paper that night.
I wrote my first word on 14 January 2014, and, 122,440 words later, I wrote the final word of my first draft on 5 May 2014, having filled five notebooks. There was no apparent order to the writing, but I kept calm with home-grown lemon balm tea, and picked my way through the first draft in order to create a timeline. From this, a story magically emerged – along with a lot of nonsense. I put the whole book away to brew for a few months until I could return to it with fresh eyes, ready for editing.
And then… a mere six years after starting the research, Widdershins was published.
Helen Steadman lives in the foothills of the North Pennines, and she particularly enjoys researching and writing about the history of the north east of England. She is the author of the best-selling historical novel, Widdershins. This novel was inspired by the seventeenth-century witch trials in Newcastle. The sequel, Sunwise, is due to be published later this year by Impress Books. For her PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen, Helen is working on her third novel, Running Wolves, which is about the Shotley Bridge Swordmakers.
‘Did all women have something of the witch about them?’
Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world.
From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft.
Inspired by true events, Widdershins tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them.