Tips for writers: write by hand, write a thousand words every day, beg for criticism, keep going…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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