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, 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, 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, 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!)

By Helen Steadman, Oct 13 2017 09:17AM

Hello everyone,

Friday the thirteenth has turned out to be quite an auspicious day for me. I don't suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia or friggatriskaidekaphobia, but there's always a tiny fear lurking at the back of my mind saying, 'What if...'.

Anyway, kindly old Facebook reminded me that a year ago on 13th October 2016, Impress Books sent me THAT email saying they would be interested in publishing my story. I was sitting at my desk and saw the email pop up, and almost fell off my chair when I read it. I had a publishing deal!

So, then I remembered pretty quickly that 13th October is officially one of my favourite days of the year!

The last year has been brilliant. Thanks to the fantastic team at Impress Books, my debut novel was published (wearing a beautiful cover and embellished with amazing illustrations). And to put the icing on an already delicious cake, the e-book of Widdershins broke the Kindle Top 100 Books and became a bestseller earlier this week. (If you've not already bought it, the e-book is available for 99p throughout October on Kindle, Kobo and iTunes).

So, a huge thank you to everyone at Impress Books, and to everyone who has helped me and Widdershins along the way.

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Oct 10 2017 08:55PM

Hello everyone,

Well, today has been a funny sort of day. As of yesterday (9 October 2017), my publisher, Impress Books, announced a 99p special offer on the ebook version of Widdershins (my historical novel about the Newcastle witch trials). When I went to bed, I noticed that it had entered the top thousand Kindle books. This was so exciting that I could barely sleep.

When I woke up in the morning, I had another little peek and was shocked to see it was #89. My book had made it into the Top 100 Kindle books... And it was a Number One Bestseller in its category!

Convinced I was still dreaming, I went to make some coffee and feed the dogs. When I came back a bit later, I noticed it had slipped a little. But there it was, still in the Top 100 Kindle books, nestled between JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

And then I noticed my novel was wearing a very special orange badge to say it was a bestseller. Well, I didn't need any coffee after that!

All I know is that the book fairies must have been very busy while I was sleeping. Even if being in the Top 100 books (and number one in my category) only lasts for a day, today has been one of the most exciting days of my writerly life (apart from the day that Impress Books got in touch to say they would like to publish my novel)!

So, I would just like to say thank you very much to everyone who supported me during the writing of Widdershins, and to each and every person who bought it, reviewed it, shared it on social media and told their friends about it. And of course, I am eternally grateful to all the wonderful people at Impress Books for the way they have nurtured my work and the creative ways they have told the wider world about it.

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Oct 3 2017 08:42PM

Hello all,

Just to let you know about some forthcoming readings planned in north east venues. I'll be reading from my novel, Widdershins, and I'll be talking about the Newcastle witch trials, as well as about witches and witchfinders more generally.

(Full details available on my Events Page.)

17th October 2017 at 7pm

Gateshead Central Library

Tickets from: https://gateshead.gov.uk/EventTicketsOnline

(Please note there is a £3 charge, which goes to support the library)

31st October 2017 at 2pm

Consett Library

Tickets from: 01207 505 509

28th November at 4pm

Newcastle City Library (part of the Books on Tyne Literature Festival)

Tickets from: www.booksontyne.co.uk/events/item/widdershins

6th December 2017 at 7pm

Rowlands Gill LIbrary

Tickets from: https://online.gateshead.gov.uk

(Please note, there is a £2 charge, which goes to support the library.)

If you've already bought a copy of Widdershins, please bring it along, and I'll be delighted to sign it for you!

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Sep 17 2017 05:05PM

Hello everyone,

If it ever stops raining, why not pop down to the nearest hedgerow and pick some berries to make a lovely elder linctus? It's very easy to make and tastes delicious on its own or mixed with sparkling water, or even with cider or gin.

Many moons ago, elder was referred to as the medicine chest of country folk and was often used as a general strengthener. Traditionally, it was used for coughs and colds. On the basis of most sympathetic magic where 'like cures like' elder was used for lung conditions as the bare sprigs resemble the inside of lungs.

                              Elder wand, sprig and leaves
Elder wand, sprig and leaves

When I carried out research for my historical novel, Widdershins, which is about herbalists who end up being tried as witches, I went to Dilston Physic Garden to learn how to identify trees and plants and make herbal remedies from them.

Below is the recipe for elder linctus that I usually use, and it's the same one that I adapted for use by Annie and Jane Chandler and Meg Wetherby in Widdershins.

                                                     Elder linctus recipe
Elder linctus recipe

The most important aspect of foraging for any wild food is making sure you know what you're picking. I attach some pictures below that should help with identification, but if you're in any doubt whatsoever, please seek advice from a professional herbalist, or from a tree expert.

                                        Elder linctus, berries and leaves
Elder linctus, berries and leaves

As with all herbs, avoid giving elder to babies and children without seeking medical advice first. And if you're pregnant, taking any medication, or have any medical condition, please seek medical advice before taking elder linctus.

Happy foraging!


By Helen Steadman, Aug 28 2017 10:01AM

Hello everyone,

In the run-up to my historical novel being published, a host of lovely book bloggers reviewed Widdershins, shared articles about the Newcastle witch trials and interviewed me about my writing and research process. I'd like to thank each and every one of them for taking the time to read my book and then write about it.

If you'd like to read these reviews and interviews, they're all listed here, just click on the appropriate link.

What Cathy Read Next


The Book Magnet


Book Fever


Page Turners Nook


Love Books Group


Lisa Reads Books


Jera's Jamboree


Jaffa Reads Too


Food for Bookworms


A Book and Tea


Linda's Book Bag


Paperback Piano


Beady Jan's Books


The Cosy Reader


Book and Brew


The Book Trail


Read by Jess


Amy McLean


Nudge Book Magazine


I think I've remembered all the bloggers, but if I've missed you off, it's because I have a terrible memory, so just tell me and I'll make it up to you!

Happy reading!

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Aug 10 2017 07:08PM

Hello everyone,

Lovely Paul Owen Hunter from Chunkcast 54.8 recently interviewed me about my historical novel, Widdershins. If you'd like to find out more about the Newcastle witch trials, just click here.

Paul also DJs on Monday (7-9) and Wednesday (9-11) nights for North UK Radio. He's happy to take requests and shoutouts. It's a great show, with music for everyone.

Tune in here: (or download the app from iTunes or GooglePlay).

Happy listening!

Best wishes, Helen

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