Welcome to my writer's log. I'm using this blog as my writer's notebook to keep a record of my writing and research activities. You're quite welcome to swing by and have a look.

By Helen Steadman, Oct 13 2018 11:00AM

Two years ago today, I got the most exciting email of my life when Impress Books popped up in my inbox to say they were interested in publishing my novel, and would I be interested. I managed not to reply instantly shouting YES, YES, YES and composed myself for a whole 35 minutes before hitting send. (I'm lying, of course, I wasn't even a tiny bit composed!) So, it set me thinking about my second novel and its progress, and I thought I'd share it with you.

I’ve had quite a busy summer, working on Sunwise, the sequel to Widdershins. Sunwise picks up immediately where Widdershins left off, in August 1650, just after the Newcastle witch trials took place. And once again, the story is told through the eyes of both witch and witchfinder.

The notebooks I used to write Sunwise
The notebooks I used to write Sunwise

My lovely critique partner, Marita Over (friend, fellow author and poet), gave me lots of feedback and useful suggestions on early drafts, and then it went through many, many rounds of editing by me until I was reasonably happy with it.

First draft of Sunwise in manuscript form
First draft of Sunwise in manuscript form

Then, it was off to Impress Books with the typed-up version, where I held my breath until my editors came back to say they liked it. Since then, Sunwise has been through a couple of rounds of edits with my patient and helpful editors, Julian Webb and Laura Christopher. As with Widdershins, they saved me from some of my worst excesses (oh, how I love to repeat myself, and oh, how gentle they are when pulling me up on it)!

Then, onto the proofreading, first by me, and then by Megan Symons, with her eagle-eyed approach – spotting all kinds of horrible word stacks that had passed me by. It really is true – it’s almost impossible to proofread your own work because your brain is so familiar with the work that it sees what it expects to see, and it’s invaluable to have professional editors and proofreaders carefully reading your work.

I signed off the final typeset proofs in late August. And then came the exciting work on the cover, with suggestions going to and fro between me, Impress Books and the designers, Move Design, until we signed off the cover in September. Now that the text, the cover and the blurb are all approved and ready to go, Sunwise is slated for publication in April 2019. I can’t wait to share the amazing cover with you all – so watch out for the cover reveal in the run up to Christmas.

As part of my research, I spent some time practising how to make corn dollies, and a farmer friend, Michael Murray, was kind enough to provide me with a sheaf of barley to do this. As usual, I got a little carried away and started making countryman's favours. These would be given to a lover, and if they wore the favour over their heart, then the love was returned. I've sent these to Impress Books, and I'm sure my publicist, Lisa Galliano will think of something creative to do with them!

A bushel of corn dollies made by my own fair hand
A bushel of corn dollies made by my own fair hand

For now, I’m busy researching my third novel, which is about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, who came from Solingen in the 17th Century. In the early summer, I forged my own sword (very exciting) and now I’m busy packing for a research trip to Solingen in Germany. No rest for the wicked!

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Sep 3 2018 08:10AM

Hello everyone,

Today, I have an exciting guest post from historical author, Mary Anne Yarde, which is all about the trials and tribulations of researching the sixth century. And if you're interested in history, fantasy or folklore, check out Mary Anne's blog as she features dozens of author articles every month. (Links to her website and blog are at the bottom of the page.) Take it away, Mary Anne!

Best wishes, Helen

I have been fascinated with the life and times of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table since I was a child — I guess growing up a stone’s throw from Glastonbury (The Ancient Isle of Avalon) may have had something to do with that.

My book series, The Du Lac Chronicles, tells the story of what happened after the death of Arthur, and continues the story of his Knights and their sons. But to write about the end of Arthur’s reign, I needed to know about the beginning. A not so easy task, it turned out.

The history of a historical Arthur is not written in stone but is, instead, engraved in folklore, and that brings its own set of challenges.

Firstly, where did Arthur come from? Well, that is an easy question to answer…

King Arthur was English. No, he was Welsh. Arthur was Scottish. He was from Brittany. Oh, for goodness’ sake, he was a Roman General!

Which is right? Arthur is so famous that everyone wants to claim him and, over the years, there have been many names thrown out there as to who he really was. But we mustn’t forget that when we are dealing with Arthur, we are digging up folklore, and that is not the same as excavating relics. We can make Arthur fit wherever we want him to, and that is where the problem lies. It is very easy to make mistakes, and I have read many books that claim to have found the real Arthur, only they haven’t, it is just a theory, sometimes a very shaky one.

The same can be said for Arthur’s famous castle, Camelot. There have been many possible locations for one of the most famous castles in history. Tintagel, Cadbury Hill, Caerlaverock Castle, have all been put forward, and last year it was suggested that a small Roman fort at Slack is where the real Camelot once stood. However, during all this excitement and discoveries we have overlooked a fundamental issue — there was no Camelot. It was an invention of a French poet in 1180! How can you look for something that was never there to begin with?

The Dark Ages, in which my books are set, are equally challenging to research because there is a lack of reliable primary resources. What was written down was written down for a purpose and that purpose was usually politically motivated, which in itself is fascinating, although not so helpful. Now, in these early texts when Arthur is mentioned, there is nothing about him being a king. Nennuis describes him as a warrior on par with Ironman, but no mention of a crown.

It isn’t until the 12th Century when Geoffrey of Monmouth writes his great work that the Arthur we know is born. The History of The Kings of Briton was meant to be a historically accurate account of British History and for many, many, years what Monmouth wrote was considered factually correct. Of course, we now know it was anything but. However, that does not mean that Monmouth’s work is of no particular value. Monmouth borrowed heavily from folklore, and it is his story that drives the legend of Arthur and his Knights forward. I think Monmouth’s book is incredibly important as it tells us a great deal about, not only the era, but also about the people who were listening to his stories. And if we dig a little further, we can discover that it wasn’t only the populous who loved listening to Arthurian tales. Those ever practical monks at Glastonbury Abbey did as well.

Let’s take a journey back to 12th Century England…

A terrible fire had spread through Glastonbury Abbey, and unfortunately for the monks, they did not have the coffers to pay for the repairs. If only they could encourage more pilgrims to come to the Abbey. What could they do?

Thanks to Monmouth’s book “Arthur Fever” had gripped the nation. People would pay good money to go on a pilgrimage to Arthur’s final resting place. All that was needed was a good story and a grave. The monks of Glastonbury announced to the world that they had discovered Arthur’s final resting place. That brought in the crowds. Glastonbury Abbey soon had the coffers to make the repairs and then some. There was as much truth in the story of Glastonbury Abbey and King Arthur’s grave as there was in The History of the Kings of Briton. But for hundreds of years, both the Abbey and Monmouth were believed.

My books are not just set in Britain, but France as well, so I needed to have a good understanding of what was happening in both of these countries in the 5th / 6th Century to keep the history real in the telling. Before we look at any of these countries, we need to look at the powerhouse of the world at this time, and that was the Roman Empire. However, by 476 C.E. the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire had been overthrown. The stability that the Roman Empire had brought to Western Europe for over 1000 years was no more.

But this dawning new era brings some of the most fascinating historical figures that ever lived. These were the days of men such as Clovis. Clovis won a decisive victory against Rome, at the Battle of Soissons in AD 486. But, Clovis’ ambition didn’t stop there. Roman Gaul and parts of Western Germany fell to him as well. He forged a new empire through blood, war, and marriage. He made Paris the capital of his new kingdom, and he was the first King of a united Frank (France).

The Saxons and the Angles crossed the South Sea (The English Channel) to take advantage of vulnerable Britain who, since the Romans had left, had split back into various smaller kingdoms. There was much infighting and unrest. It was the perfect opportunity for the Saxon’s to come over and stake their claim.

Brittany, like Britain, wasn’t one united country, but many, and they were a race of warriors. While they were busy fighting each other, they missed the real threat to the kingdom, which eventually would be their undoing and they would find themselves at the mercy of Frank.

While all this was going on, the Church was creeping into the crevices, and spreading the word of God and, what could be considered of equal value, one language — Latin. It could be argued that it was the Church that united Britain in the end.

This was a time of great unrest and change, but one thing remained constant for the general populous and that was storytelling. Arthur may well have been a general but folklore made him a Christian King and gave him a castle full of noble knights. Arthur and his Knights (most of them anyway) cared about the people they represented. Arthur was a good king, the like of which has never been seen before or after. He was the perfect tool for spreading a type of patriotic propaganda. Arthur was someone you would want to fight by your side. But he also gave ordinary people a sense of belonging and hope. He is, after all, as T.H White put it — The Once and Future King.

I have tried to show what life was like in the 5th /6th Century in my books, but I have been heavily influenced by folklore, because when you are dealing with this period in history, you cannot dismiss it. Brittany, for example, is terribly difficult to research historically during this era, but when it comes to folklore, she is rich and if that is all she is going to give us, then so be it. Folklore is its own particular brand of history, and it is often overlooked by historians, which I think is a shame. You can tell a lot about a people by the stories they tell, and people are still fascinated by this larger-than-life King, which I think, says it all. Arthur may well have been a general, or a knight, he may have been English, he may not, but it doesn’t matter because his story is timeless, it will never grow old.

The Du Lac Prophecy

(Book 4 of The Du Lac Chronicles)

By Mary Anne Yarde

Two Prophesies. Two Noble Households. One Throne.

Distrust and greed threaten to destroy the House of du Lac. Mordred Pendragon strengthens his hold on Brittany and the surrounding kingdoms while Alan, Mordred’s cousin, embarks on a desperate quest to find Arthur’s lost knights. Without the knights and the relics they hold in trust, they cannot defeat Arthur’s only son – but finding the knights is only half of the battle. Convincing them to fight on the side of the Du Lac’s, their sworn enemy, will not be easy.

If Alden, King of Cerniw, cannot bring unity there will be no need for Arthur’s knights. With Budic threatening to invade Alden’s Kingdom, Merton putting love before duty, and Garren disappearing to goodness knows where, what hope does Alden have? If Alden cannot get his House in order, Mordred will destroy them all.

The Du Lac Prophecy is available from:

Amazon US


Amazon UK


Amazon CA


About Mary Anne Yarde

Mary Anne Yarde is the multi award-winning author of the International Bestselling series — The Du Lac Chronicles.

Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury — the fabled Isle of Avalon — was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were a part of her childhood.

Social Media Links:

Website/Blog: https://maryanneyarde.blogspot.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/maryanneyarde/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/maryanneyarde

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Mary-Anne-Yarde/e/B01C1WFATA/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15018472.Mary_Anne_Yarde

By Helen Steadman, Sep 2 2018 08:36PM

Hello everyone,

While out and about reading from my historical novel, Widdershins, and giving talks about the Newcastle witch trials, I'm often asked questions about the first and last people executed as witches. So, as I prepare some new material in readiness for the publication of the sequel, Sunwise, I thought I'd cover some of these issues in my forthcoming talks.

I set off to the Highlands of Scotland in search of answers. In the far north of Scotland is the beautiful town of Dornoch. For being such a small town, it’s fairly well known: Madonna was married to Guy Ritchie there in 2000, and Elon Musk married Talulah Riley there ten years later. Dornoch also features in the novel Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher, although disguised as Creadon.

Dornoch, Sutherland
Dornoch, Sutherland

Dornoch bears the dubious honour of being the town that carried out the last judicial execution for witchcraft in the British Isles in 1727 – in the village of Littletown. The last judicial executions for witchcraft in England were carried out in Devon in 1682 – almost five decades earlier. (Oddly enough, pretty much on the doorstep of my publisher, Impress Books).

All stories of execution are disturbing, especially on trumped up charges of witchcraft, but Janet Horne’s story is particularly harrowing. (It’s worth noting that Janet Horne may not even have been this woman’s name. Witches were often referred to as Janet or Jenny, so this may just be a name applied to her.)

The finger of suspicion was pointed at Janet because her daughter’s hands and feet were deformed to the extent that neighbours claimed they resembled hooves. Janet was accused of transforming her daughter into a horse so that she could ride around and carry out witchcraft. Janet and her daughter were imprisoned to await trial.

Dornoch Jail (though Janet was held in the chapter house of the cathedral)
Dornoch Jail (though Janet was held in the chapter house of the cathedral)

The trial – in common with so many witch trials – left a great deal to be desired in terms of propriety and fairness, and the man carrying out the trial was operating beyond his pay grade, so this was clearly a mistrial. Janet was forced to say the Lord’s Prayer to prove her innocence. Inability to say the Lord’s Prayer was often used as a classic example of demonic infestation. The unfortunate woman made an error and used the wrong tense. On this basis, she and her daughter were both condemned to death.

Fortunately, Janet’s daughter got away, but Janet did not. Her death was horrific by any standards. She was stripped naked and covered in tar and feathers, then placed in a barrel and dragged through the streets in a humiliating procession. When she reached the pyre where she was to be burnt to death, she reportedly laughed and said the fire would keep her warm. This may have been gallows humour, but it’s also possible that she was suffering a form of dementia and didn’t fully understand her fate. She was then burnt to death, which must have been a dreadful end to her life.

Witch Stone, Carnaig Street, Littletown, Dornoch, Sutherland
Witch Stone, Carnaig Street, Littletown, Dornoch, Sutherland

A stone was erected to mark the site of her burning. Oddly, it has the wrong date on it – stating 1722, rather than 1727. It’s sited in what is now someone’s back garden in Carnaig Street, Littletown, Dornoch. Interestingly, the so-called Witch Stone stands in the shade of a small rowan tree. These were often planted to keep away witches. This tree looks relatively recent, but it made me wonder whether the garden owners had deliberately planted the rowan tree – or perhaps there had been an older tree at that site.

Witch Pool, Littletown, Dornoch, Sutherland (near Carnaig Street)
Witch Pool, Littletown, Dornoch, Sutherland (near Carnaig Street)

Nearby is the Witch’s Pool. This is quite well hidden and not signed, and it was only thanks to some helpful men working on a nearby cottage that I was able to find it. (As you look at the year on the Witch Stone, look to your left and go up the hill you see there and you’ll find the pool just before you reach the golf course.) It’s quite a large pool and it was easy to imagine women being swum and ducked there to test them for witchcraft.

Despite protests from some quarters of the church, claiming that the repeal of witchcraft laws was a ‘national sin’, eventually, the law was changed and a charge of witchcraft no longer required execution. Tragically, the change came a decade too late to save poor Janet Horne. And another woman was executed for witchcraft outside the law when a local man, Donald Mackay, decided to take the law into his own hands and murdered a woman he suspected of witchcraft. Fortunately, the law stood and he was hanged on Gallows Hill in 1738 for ‘murdering a witch’. He claimed that his victim had turned into a hare, and so he had hacked off the enchanted hare’s head with a spade.

Stone marking last execution in Dornoch, on Gallows Hill
Stone marking last execution in Dornoch, on Gallows Hill

But even following the apparent enlightenment signalled by a change in the law, it seems that superstition lived on in local hearts. A visit to Dornoch’s museum will reveal a desiccated cat that was found under the church pulpit. Sadly, from medieval times, hundreds of similarly desiccated cats have been found in foundations, walls, attics and cellars – most likely placed there in an attempt to ward off evil. According to the museum in Dornoch, this would have been placed there following the Disruption (a schism in the Church of Scotland) when the church was built in 1844, and for that reason, it is called a ‘disruption cat’.

Disruption Cat in History Links Museum, Dornoch, Sutherland
Disruption Cat in History Links Museum, Dornoch, Sutherland

More information about Janet Horne, Donald Mackay and Disruption Cats is available from the History Links Museum in Dornoch. And if you’re visiting the Scottish Highlands, it’s certainly worth visiting in person – the museum is filled with fascinating information and the staff are very friendly and helpful.

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, May 27 2018 01:30PM

Hello all,

Yesterday, I woke at the crack of dawn (well 5:50 am), drove from County Durham to Aberdeen and then all the way home again by 8:45 pm. As day trips go, it was pretty exhausting. Why did I do a day trip? Because other commitments meant I couldn't stay overnight. Why did I drive? Because Network Rail had announced they would be carrying out essential works and that severe delays should be expected.

Bishop Elphinstone's Tomb at King's College, University of Aberdeen
Bishop Elphinstone's Tomb at King's College, University of Aberdeen

I was taking part in the Aberdeen May Festival, and I read an excerpt from my historical novel, Widdershins, which is all about the Newcastle witch trials. Literary festivals are a great opportunity for authors to meet their readers and to talk about their books. It's quite nerve-wracking getting up in front of a crowd to read out your work, but audiences are always friendly and kind, even if you do stumble on the odd word.

But the real joy of festivals is that you get to hear the work of other writers that you might not necessarily come across otherwise. Time does not permit me to mention all the writers I heard yesterday, but I'd like to mention three Australian writers that really struck me.

In particular, I heard an astonishing piece by Tom Byam Shaw. Both the content of his writing and the performance of his surreal writing completely blew me away - he is certainly one to watch!

It was exciting to find out that I wasn't the only person talking about witches. Ashleigh Angus read her beautiful work on the witch trials in Orkney. Her work was deeply touching, and I'm looking forward to reading more from her.

Adam Keally began his piece by saying that his was not a happy story and that the suicide rates of young men in his country are very troubling, more so in rural areas and even more so for gay men. His work was real and ethereal by turns, and it moved me greatly.

At the 2017 Newcastle literary festival, Books on Tyne, I was terrified when I faced a audience of over 150 people - my knees were definitely knocking when I went on stage. But once again, everyone was very welcoming and my nerves soon vanished. I also went along to the Polari Salon event as part of that festival. There, I heard a wonderful poem by Paul Forbes - its startling and emotive imagery stays with me even now. And there was a very memorable session with performance poet, Sophia Blackwell. To close the festival, I saw Val McDermid reading a short story, and got her to sign my book!

Me with lovely Susan Heads from The Book Trail Literary Travel Agency
Me with lovely Susan Heads from The Book Trail Literary Travel Agency

My third book festival will be the Derwent Valley Literary Festival 2018. This will be the first litfest in the area, stretching from Consett to Blaydon. I have the honour of opening the festival on 16th June, and I'm really looking foward to meeting people who've read Widdershins, and people who are interested in witches, witch trials and witchfinders.

This event is free, but it's best to book a ticket to reserve a place at Eventbrite.

The festival is showcasing lots of other local authors. Come and check out historian Max Adam, author of best-selling Aelfred's Britain. Renowned poet, author and playwright, Tom Kelly, will appear in an online event. Several poets will perform at Poetry in the Park, including multiple-slam-winning poet, Steve Urwin. You can also catch up with local history with Val Scully, author of Molly Bowes. Phil Mews will be coming along to talk about his forthcoming book, Orphan Boys, and there will be lots of much-loved children's authors, including Neil Sullivan, author of Ollie and Nina and...

Poster for Derwent Valley Litfest 2018
Poster for Derwent Valley Litfest 2018

Derwent Valley Litfest has something for everyone, young or old, so please check out the full programme at http://www.derwentvalleylitfest.com/programme/

I'll be going to lots of the events to see local authors and poets, so I hope to see you there!

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, May 24 2018 07:26AM

Where do you write?

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 do a lot of ‘freethinking’, just letting my mind wander while walking in the woods with the dogs, and then writing down whatever comes 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 isn’t engaged in the process, which really helps me to get past that nagging voice of self-doubt.

First drafts (Widdershins on the left and Sunwise on the right)
First drafts (Widdershins on the left and Sunwise on the right)

How do you create writing time in your daily life?

I have a family, dogs, a full-time job, and I’m working on my PhD (and I worked on my MA while writing Widdershins). When my kids were younger, I used to write for an hour after they were in bed, but now they’re older, that doesn’t work anymore. So, although I’m definitely not a morning person, I force myself to get up earlier and I write for an hour before everyone gets up. This works well with morning pages, and it means that my writing is always done before the day starts. I don’t really have any writing rituals, and because I write my first draft by hand, as long as I have pen and paper with me, I can fit in a bit of writing wherever I am.

Morning pages 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 normally 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.

What is your editing process like?

My editing process is a lot longer than my writing process. Because I write by hand, my first task is to type up the first draft. This is always a chore because my handwriting is so shocking that I struggle to read it myself, and because I like to put the first draft away for a few months after writing it so that I forget it. Once it’s brewed under the bed awhile, I type it up and put it into Scrivener (a program that I highly recommend for writers). This enables me to chop up the words into rough chapters, move them about, add photos and link to research and so on. Then comes a lot of rewriting, chopping and changing and more rewriting. Much later, when I find the story nestling among all these words, I start on structural editing, before getting onto line editing and proofreading. For the first draft of Widdershins, I initially had 128,000 words of very scribbly looking writing, and quite a lot of it didn’t make any sense.

The final book is just under 80,000 words, so I’m not the most economical writer, but it works for me.

How do you get your inspiration?

The idea for Widdershins came to me 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.

Widdershins in a witch's kitchen
Widdershins in a witch's kitchen

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.

The practical research I carried out really stayed with me, and I felt that it had helped create convincing cunning women in Widdershins. This has made me consider whether ‘method’ writing is useful to character creation, and so I’m exploring this very issue as part of my PhD at the University of Aberdeen. I’m currently researching a historical novel about a group of master swordmakers who fled Prussia for England in the late 17th century. To help me get into character, I’ve been doing some basic blacksmith training, and over the summer, I’ll be making my own sword!

How do you ensure a character/setting is well developed and believable?

By carrying out an enormous amount of research. I started by scouring the internet for all things witch-related, and I bought loads of second-hand 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 also had access to the academic 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.

Homemade elder linctus and some elder berries
Homemade elder linctus and some elder berries

What is your top tip for new writers or if you could tell your younger self any writing tip, what would you say?

Write a thousand words every day, no matter what. Read everything you can lay your hands on. Have belief in yourself and never give up. From childhood, I loved reading more than anything else, and I yearned to be a writer. I always loved writing stories, but never seemed to quite get my act together (in other words, I spent a lot of time faffing about). And when I read Peter Carey’s amazing novel, Illywhacker, I couldn’t write for two decades because I couldn’t possibly aspire to anything that brilliant. As a big birthday loomed, I decided to get serious and started writing a thousand words a day, every day. It took twelve years from that decision to getting published. On the way, I studied creative writing with the Open University and Manchester Metropolitan University and this is what really began to hone my writing.

So, my advice would be not to let anything deter you. What scared me away from writing was the fear that I didn’t know what to write about, that I didn’t have anything to say, that there were no big themes. My problem was that I bought into the idea of creative genius – that someone leaps out of bed in the morning with a whole book in their head and then just distils it onto paper. And of course, this isn’t how it happens at all. Just start writing, it really helps if you do it by hand, and the story will come. Morning pages and freewriting help a lot. Do a course. The Open University Creative Writing courses were brilliant. Learn to love criticism. During my MA, weekly workshops helped me learn to give and receive constructive criticism. A group of us set up our own critique group, which is still going, and I have a much-trusted critique partner – we can be quite brutal with each other, but it all goes to make our work better.

Widdershins on display at Waterstones in Aberdeen
Widdershins on display at Waterstones in Aberdeen

Something that helped a lot was reading writers’ honest accounts of their writing. I had the opportunity to ask Peter Carey about his own writing one day in a Guardian online interview. I’d learned that he’d written five books before he got published – this surprised me and reassured me greatly as I also have five books hiding under the bed that have never seen the light of day. I asked him, ‘Your persistence is really impressive – to keep on writing after your first books didn’t make it into print – it gives me hope to keep on writing. How did you keep the faith to keep going?

He replied, ‘If I’d known how long it would take, I may well have given up. However I was always writing and by the time one work was being rejected I was onto something else which I knew was so much better. And all along the way there were small encouragements, a piece in an anthology, a novel that was accepted before it wasn’t, and most of all my friend Barry Oakley, a published writer, ten years older. Ted Solotaroff wrote a wonderful essay about all this, “Ten Years in the Cold”. Highly recommended.’ From The Guardian website, https://www.theguardian.com/books/live/2015/jan/02/peter-carey-webchat-amnesia.

So, my advice to writers is: what Peter Carey said…

Helen Steadman’s best-selling historical novel, Widdershins was inspired by the 1650 Newcastle witch trials where 16 people were hanged for witchcraft on a single day. Widdershins was published by Impress Books on 1 July 2017. The sequel, Sunwise, is due to be published in 2019. The kindle version of Widdershins is on special offer until 31 May and is available for only 99p from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Widdershins-Helen-Steadman-ebook/dp/B071JQ99X4/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1485785754&sr=8-1-spell

By Helen Steadman, May 14 2018 01:37PM

Hello everyone,

To celebrate the forthcoming one-year anniversary of my debut historical novel, Widdershins, the lovely people at Love Books Group are running an exclusive giveaway. One lucky winner will receive a signed copy of Widdershins and a fabulous witchy charm bracelet.

The bracelet was bought from Tribes and Vibes, and you can get an idea of what to expect here: https://www.tribesandvibes.co.uk/shoptribesandvibes/prod_1202213-Charm-Bracelet-with-8x-Pagan-Witch-Charms-Sterling-Silver-19cm.html

As you can see, it’s a high-quality bracelet and ideal for anyone interested in pagan issues, witches and witchcraft.

There are eight charms in all: a triquetra, a cauldron, a besom broom, a pentagram, a witch’s hat, a witch on a broomstick, a crystal ball (my personal favourite!) and a book of shadows. (Please note that the charms are attached to the bracelet, but they are not soldered to the bracelet.)

The giveaway is only available to people in the UK (sorry everyone else), and here’s what you need to do to be in with a chance:

# Go to Twitter and set up an account if you don't already have one.

# Find the tweet in this link: https://twitter.com/LoveBooksGroup/status/995965607295283200

# Follow @hsteadman1650

# Follow @LoveBooksGroup

# Tag some friends

# Retweet the post.

To be eligible, please make sure you follow all the steps. Giveaway ends on 21/05/18.

If you’re not the lucky winner, you can console yourself by nabbing a Kindle copy of Widdershins for only 99p until the end of May: https://goo.gl/UWPTNA

Love Books Group will announce the winner.

Good luck, everyone!

Best wishes, Helen x

By Helen Steadman, Apr 30 2018 11:01PM

Happy Beltane to you all!

To help you celebrate, my historical novel, Widdershins, is on special offer for only 99p throughout May 2018. Just follow the link to Amazon to bag a bargain!

Author hides behind novel in front of Green Man in Widdershins country
Author hides behind novel in front of Green Man in Widdershins country

Widdershins was inspired by the seventeenth-century witch trials in Newcastle when sixteen people were executed on the same day for witchcraft. Of course, there's a huge question mark over whether they were witches, or whether they were falsely accused...

As well as covering the harrowing ordeal of the witch trials, the novel also showcases some of the prevailing customs in seventeenth-century England. In Widdershins, the locals celebrate Beltane in fine style. But not everyone is so keen on celebrating the old pagan traditions, and Reverend Foster warns the villagers before the festivities begin:

'Take heed of my warnings ahead of the Beltane celebrations. There is magic in the air and too much licence. The old custom was to make the fields fertile, but many bairns are born ten moons from Beltane.' (From 'Ten Moons' in Widdershins)

In the best tradition of English villagers, they refuse to heed his warning, and have a high old time jumping bonfires, rolling firewheels, eating the carline cake and carrying out a few fertility rites. But it's not all fun and games, and there's a darker side to the merrymaking.

So, if you'd like to know more about how cake can kill you at Beltane, as well as finding out about herbal remedies, English folklore and country traditions, treat yourself to a copy of Widdershins at https://goo.gl/xZ9jiY

Happy reading and best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Mar 10 2018 03:01PM

Last weekend, I finished writing Sunwise, the sequel to Widdershins and sent it off to my publisher, Impress Books. There’s sure to be a lot more rewriting and editing to do before it’s published later this year or early next, but in the meantime, I need to get started on novel number three.

This novel will be inspired by the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, who originated in Solingen, Germany. For now, I’m calling it Running Wolves (a reference to the Solingen blade mark), but as I often change my mind about names, it may well end up being called something else.

As with Widdershins and Sunwise, this novel is set in the seventeenth century, and it needs a huge amount of research to underpin it. I wrote Widdershins for my MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School and I’m writing Running Wolves for my PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen. The name of the research project is ‘Elsewhere to be’.

So far, I’ve carried out a literature review and read lots of books about swords, swordmakers, swordmaking, early metal working, metallurgy, and local history in both Derwentside and Solingen. Next, I buried myself in the archives to study the swordmakers’ correspondence. It was a deeply humbling experience to read letters to and from the swordmakers, which were written over three hundred years ago.

Other research will include practising blacksmithing techniques and later this year, I’ll be making my own sword! This can be a helpful way to carry out research; for Widdershins, I did some herbal medicine training at Dilston Physic Garden, and went on to grow my own herbs and make herbal remedies at home. It was a great way to get inside characters' heads, and it helped me to create the characters of Meg Wetherby, and Annie and Jane Chandler.

Later this year and early next year, I will go to Solingen to visit the blade museum there and to soak up the place where the swordmakers originally lived. And I plan to visit the Koln museum to see the original Solingen indictment that threatened the swordmakers with death if they failed to return home.

In the meantime, though, I plan to talk to the swordmakers’ descendants to find out more about them, and hopefully to see any family heirlooms. I hope that local people with swordmaker ancestors will be interested in letting me interview them, so I’ll be putting out a call on Facebook to seek volunteers.

So, if you know of anyone descended from the Solingen swordmakers, please point them in my direction! I’ve set up a Swordmakers page on my website dedicated to this novel where you can find out more.

All being well, the novel should be ready for publication in late 2019...

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Nov 15 2017 09:15PM

My debut historical novel, Widdershins, was inspired by the Newcastle witch trials that took place in 1650. While I’ve been out and about talking about my book, lots of people have asked me whether there were witches in Derwentside.

During the early part of my research, I went to visit the Consett & District Heritage Initiative HQ, and Arthur Harkness kindly provided me with a package of stories taken from various local history sources, entitled The Derwent Valley Witches (including the information below), for which, many thanks!

In the end, I decided to write about the Newcastle trials, which I learned about from Ralph Gardiner’s fascinating book, England’s Grievance Discovered

The Derwent Valley witch trials happened quarter of a century after the Newcastle trials. So, I may write about these people in due course as I work my way forwards in time, or somebody else might like to pick up their pen as I’m sure there’s at least one novel tucked away here!

Perhaps the most interesting source of information on the Derwent Valley witches is the depositions from York Castle in April 1673. Here, Anne Armstrong, who was evidently an equal-opportunities witchfinder, pointed the finger at thirteen people (conveniently enough, a coven’s worth):

- Anne Forster

- Anne Driden

- Lucy Thompson

- John Crawforth

- William Wright

- Elizabeth Pickering

- Anne Usher

- Michaell Aynesley

- Margaret Aynesley

- Margarett (surname unknown)

- Plus three others (names unknown).

Armstrong’s accusations included being bridled and ridden like a horse to join a coven at Riding Mill. She stated that she’d watched the coven dine with the devil, who was sitting on a gold throne. He presided over a magical table, which filled and refilled with meat and drink. She also reports using cheese as something like a cross between a fortune-telling device and a truth serum. Clearly, seventeenth-century cheese was more potent than its twenty-first century counterpart, which will only give you nightmares if you’re unlucky. In any case, Ms Armstrong might have been suffering from hunger as most of her accusations involve food and drink in one form or another.

Worryingly, many of those accused did go on to confess to all sorts of heinous practices. Perhaps worst of all, Elizabeth Pickering of Whittonstall confessed that she had power over her neighbour’s beasts and that she had killed a neighbour’s child. However, Ms Pickering then went on to accuse several other people. It was fairly common during witch trials for one person to accuse others, perhaps in the hope of saving themselves. And of course, it’s not known what conditions the accused were held in prior to the trials and what methods might have been used to extract these confessions.

So far, I’ve not found out what happened to these people. Hopefully, they were all exonerated and went on to live out their natural lives. If I find out any different, you’ll be the first to know…

If you want to read the depositions for yourself, then they’re available here:


Happy reading (and keep off the cheese), Helen

By Helen Steadman, Oct 14 2017 07:05PM

Well, what a morning!

Some time in mid-July, I realised I need to write a sequel to Widdershins. When I sent off the final proof, I immediately stopped thinking about it. But when the magical period of publication came round, it was always on my mind. Then the characters started bothering me and hanging around in my mind late at night when I was trying to get some (much-needed) sleep.

Eventually, I decided that the only way to get them out of my head was to write them out. Then I had all sorts of panics, and bombarded myself with so many 'what if?' questions that I could barely hold pen to paper. Yes, writer's block, performance anxiety, that difficult second book, whatever you want to call it, had struck.

Whenever I feel stuck with my writing, I turn to morning pages to get me unstuck. That's when I had my brilliant idea: what if I wrote the whole novel by doing morning pages? It was a brilliant idea in theory. It was much less brilliant on the first Monday morning when I had to wake up at 5.45 am.

Normally, I like a gradual awakening. I have three gentle alarms set on my phone, five minutes apart. I also have a dawn simulator and then a loud klaxon-like alarm just in case all else fails. This way, I drift gradually into consciousness and feel reasonably sensible and calm when I wake up.

For morning pages to work properly, it's important to still be in the hypnopompic dream state. That means no more gentle wake-up call. So, all the nice, gentle, soothing alarms were turned off. The lovely dawn simulator and its soft, golden sunrise was turned off. That left the klaxon.

I stored my work in progress to the left of my pillow, along with pen and glasses. The second the alarm went off, I'd turn on the lamp, put on my specs, pick up the pen and start writing. Easier said than done when your eyes aren't focused and you still have sleep paralysis in your hands. Still, it really gets the job done.

So, fast-forward a few months... I started doing my morning pages today, and because it was Saturday and I didn't have to stop for anything (like ordering kids in and out of the shower, or rushing off to work), I just kept going. And then suddenly, I realised, that's it. It's done!

I started writing on 11th July and I finished today on 14th October. So, 95 days and 76,375 words later, the first draft is done. That would be about a hundred hours' worth of writing. But now the real work begins. I'll type it up (least favourite part because I can't read my own writing at the best of times, let alone when it's been written using hands that can't grip a pen properly). Then I'll leave it to brew for a while before I start rewriting and editing. The typing, rewriting and editing part will take me 20 times longer than the writing part. But it's easier in many ways. I can only write in very short bursts of an hour or so a day before my brain hurts, but I can edit for ten hours a day without too many tears (as long as I have regular eye and leg breaks).

All being well, I hope the Widdershins sequel will see the light of day some time in 2018 (fingers crossed)! It might be called Deiseal, or Deosil, or Sunwise, or something completely different...we'll see.

If you've not tried morning pages, I heartily recommend them as a top writing tip. They were first mentioned by Dorothea Brande in her excellent book, Becoming a Writer, and they were popularised by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way. They're extremely hard to do, especially if you're not a morning person, but give them a try and you'll find they improve your work enormously. As an added bonus, your writing is done for the day, so that's a massive tick on the to-do list and one less thing to worry about.

Best wishes, Helen

PS According to Hilary Mantel, Dorothea Brande's book is the only 'how-to' book you need to read. And she knows what she's talking about! (I wonder if Dame HIlary does morning pages. Will add to list of questions to ask next time I see her!)

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