'Did all women have something of the witch about them?' asks Helen Steadman's upcoming novel Widdershins.
Described as a tale of women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them, Widdershins will be published by Impress Books on 1st July 2017. Ahead of its release, I was keen to find out what inspires Helen most.
Five Things That Inspire Me
1. Writing a thousand words per day (and then rewriting them twenty times)
It sounds boring, but it’s the best form of inspiration. Sometimes, the words are rubbish or make no sense, but I just keep writing. I don’t have any rituals, routines or habits – I just write however, wherever, whenever.
I plant notebooks in likely places and write without conscious thought, in no particular order and without thinking about the overall story. Then it all gets put away and forgotten about. Some months later, I type it all up into Scrivener (in theory, at least) and start the long haul of rewriting and editing. This is when the real work happens.
For every hour spent writing, I spend twenty rewriting. It’s not the most economical way of writing, but it does the job.
2. Walking in the woods (and listening to imaginary music)
One day in the woods, I followed a strange smell until its source became clear: loggers had cut down hundreds of pines, revealing a natural amphitheatre populated by oozing stumps. Possibly in an altered state on account of the pine sap, I was wondering what might have happened here in the past, when Florence Welch jumped into my head, singing ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’.
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.
Strangely, my book’s subject was 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.
3. So, Research
In 2011, I began researching witches and stumbled across Ralph Gardiner’s England’s Grievance Discovered, in Relation to the Coal Trade. It sounds an unlikely source of inspiration, but it described the Newcastle witch trials where the witch-finder was revealed as a fraud and one girl was freed, but fifteen people were still executed.
I couldn’t understand how this could have happened, and it inspired Widdershins. After lots more reading and practical research, I finally started writing on 14 January 2014 and had 122,440 words by 5 May 2014. I joked at the time that I was looking forward to two years of editing, but that’s what it took me to end up with 80,000 words.
4. Learning by Doing
As part of my practical research for Widdershins, I did some courses at Dilston Physic Garden. One of these courses was ‘Tree Medicine’, and, as the name suggests, I learned how to make medicine from trees.
I learnt to identify trees (very important), and then gathered bark, leaves and berries, and turned them into an acorn decoction, a hawthorn tincture and an elderberry linctus. I also bought some plants from the Physic Garden and from the Herb Patch and set away my own herb garden to learn more about various plants. This inspired lots of writing, quite a bit of which found its way into the book.
Learning from other writers
I’m a speedy touch-typist, which made me productive, but the typed words were never as good as those in my head. One day, I read a tip in the Guardian from Annie Proulx, who recommended writing by hand.
My handwriting is so bad that I can’t read it myself ten seconds after writing it, so this worried me. But I gave it a go, and it made an enormous difference to my writing. The written words still don’t quite match the head words, but they’re a lot nearer the mark. Ever since, I’ve written by hand.
Five Books That Have Inspired Me (well, four books that have inspired me, and one that had the opposite effect)
1. Illywhacker, Peter Carey
Illywhacker tells the life story of a conman, Herbert Badgery. It was such a brilliant book that I found it impossible to write for two decades after comparing my own efforts with this masterpiece.
What I didn’t know then was that between 1964 and 1969, Peter Carey wrote five novels, none of which were published. His first novel, Bliss, was finally published in 1981. In a Guardian webchat, he said he’d have given up had he known how long it would take. Now, he has umpteen books under his belt, and of these, two won the Booker prize, two were shortlisted and two were longlisted. So, the lesson is: persevere.
2. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall is set against the backdrop of Henry Tudor’s court, but it’s told from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective. Historically, Cromwell has not been the most sympathetic of characters, but Hilary Mantel’s deft writing pulled me deep into the heart of Cromwell. I’d never considered writing a historical novel because it felt too daunting, and because studying eighteenth-century politics at college put me right off history.
But after Wolf Hall, I just had to write a historical novel. I had no clue what subject or period I wanted to write about, but just knew that the past was an exciting place and one big enough to avoid bumping into the Whigs!
3. The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
This book is an old friend, and I read it once a year as a treat. It’s a love letter to the natural world, which also tells the very human story of a man called Quoyle who becomes an orphan, a widower and a single parent on pretty much the same day.
Annie Proulx’s writing about the natural world is lyrical, but at the same time, she is economical and creates startling images with few words. The Shipping News resonates with cleverly layered symbolism and there are many literary devices at work in this book, but I’m never conscious of them while reading, because it’s just a beautiful story, beautifully told.
4. The Book of Human Skin, Michelle Lovric
Michelle Lovric takes her readers to eighteenth-century Venice and Peru in this gripping, bizarre and gruesome story. At its heart, this is a tale of sibling rivalry of the highest (or lowest) order. The thoroughly evil Minguillo Fasan is entirely compelling and believable, and as well as this sadistic villain, there’s also a fantastic fanatical nun.
The book is full of dark humour, dark characters and dark goings-on, which make me marvel at the swooping imagination possessed by Michelle Lovric. In all, The Book of Human Skin is a genre-defying novel that convincingly combines history, horror, murder and comedy.
5. Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
This book is about cathedral building in the twelfth century, which is far more exciting than I’ve made it sound. It’s liberally seasoned with impromptu executions, knights, evil monks, babies left to die in the snow, architects, masons, and red-headed men (a vital ingredient in any good book, I feel).
It’s got over a thousand pages, and while it’s wrong to say ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’, when it comes to book buying, I’m always pleased to have a long book to keep me going. The depth of research underpinning Pillars of the Earth is hugely impressive, which makes it a gripping and convincing adventure into the past, and Ken Follett’s 1,105 pages just zip by.
Blurb for Widdershins
'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’s life has been one of suffering and endurance. 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.
To be published 1 July 2017, and now available for pre-order at Waterstones and Amazon.
There is more information and some of my writing on my website: helensteadman.com