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, 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...

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 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

By Helen Steadman, Aug 5 2017 05:37PM

Hello everyone,

Today, the lovely book reviewer, Jo Barton of Jaffa Reads Too, invited me to talk to her about what it's like to live and write in the north east of England. In particular, I talk about how I wrote my debut novel, Widdershins. You can also find out more about what started me writing (and what stopped me) in her feature, 'Close to Home'. And, best of all, you get to see a picture of Jaffa (and very handsome he is too).


Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Jul 30 2017 11:38AM

On 21 July 2017, at Waterstones Aberdeen, I read from my novel, Widdershins, (Chapter 7, 'The Hellish Circle'), and I gave a short talk about witchfinders.

I was pleased to meet some lovely local people, as well as support dog, Jasmine, and her trainee Loki.

For anyone who was unable to make it to Waterstones (or for anyone who wants further information), I've attached my notes below.

If anyone would like a copy of Widdershins, it's available to order from Waterstones, Foyles and Blackwells. International readers can get a copy delivered free from Book Depository, and e-readers can get it from Amazon (Kindle), WH Smith (Kobo) and i-Tune store (Apple devices).

If you came to the talk, thank you for coming, it was lovely to meet you, and I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn't make it, then I hope you enjoy the notes.

Best wishes, Helen

Notes from my talk

Good evening everyone and thank you for coming along tonight.

I’m from the north east of England, but for a short time, I’m an honorary citizen of the north east of Scotland while I work on my PhD at your beautiful university. Thank you all so much for coming here tonight to hear me read a little of Widdershins – a grand Scottish word I’ve pinched for my title!

As already mentioned, Widdershins is inspired by true events. In the middle of the 17th century, the people of Newcastle presented the common council with a petition demanding that something be done about the local infestation of witches.

It seems that the Witchfinder General (Matthew Hopkins) was either too busy fettling the witches in the south of England, or his fame hadn’t quite spread that far north. Either way, Newcastle was suffering something of a skills shortage, so it turned to its neighbour and sent two of its sergeants into Scotland to fetch back an expert witchfinder. And the witchfinder wouldn’t have needed too much tempting to cross the border. Newcastle Council paid him twenty shillings per witch, in what was perhaps the earliest example of local authority performance-related pay.

One of the most popular witch-testing techniques was witch pricking – and it seemed that this was the know-how that Newcastle wished to import from Scotland. Witch prickers would pierce a suspect’s skin with a variety of pricking devices ranging from pins and bodkins through to specially designed implements. Typically, an accused witch would be found to have a third nipple or teat about their person – not necessarily near to their chest. This teat, or even just a brown mark, would then be pierced with a needle. If no blood was let, or if no pain was felt, then the accused would be deemed guilty of witchcraft and put to death.

Just think about that for a second. Supernumerary nipples are relatively common in the population. I’m not going to ask if there are any members of the Triple Nipple Club here tonight. But I think it’s safe to say that there’s not a single person among us without a mole, beauty spot, birth mark or skin tag. Most adults have around a dozen of these hidden about our person. So you can see that even the most unskilled witchfinder would be hard-pressed to find a suspect without a mole.

The Scottish witchfinder wasted no time on arrival in Newcastle. He sent a bellman around the town – more or less inviting the locals to send out their witches, which they obligingly did. Thirty people were carted off to trial. Of these thirty, an astonishing twenty-seven were found guilty and set aside. Which tots up to a fairly handsome profit at twenty shillings per head. When you consider that an average working man would consider himself doing well to earn a shilling a day, this was not a bad afternoon’s work.

The witchfinder had something of an interesting technique. He would look for the devil’s mark. Then he would strip the women to the waist, bend them double and prick them in the top of the thigh. If they bled they were innocent, and if they did not, then they were deemed witches.

All was going swimmingly until a ‘personable and goodlike woman’ was tested. I think it’s safe to say that meant she wasn’t child-scaringly ugly… Her thigh was pricked and she was declared to be a child of the devil. At this point, a local naval doctor, one Lieutenant Colonel Hobson, intervened and insisted there was some form of trickery afoot. He demanded that the woman be stood upright (although, interestingly the record does not show that he insisted that the personable woman have her clothing restored). Once her blood had returned to the right parts of her body, he demanded that she be pricked again. This time, she bled. And the witchpricker declared that she was not a child of the devil, and she was set free.

Tragically, and puzzlingly, fifteen women and one man were still hanged on Newcastle’s Town Moor for witchcraft – making it possibly the single largest execution for witchcraft on one day in England.

The witchfinder was allowed to go on his way; he is said to have made his way to Northumberland where he was alleged to be charging three pounds per witch – which is pretty impressive inflation by anyone’s standards. At this point, an outraged former MP, Henry Ogle became suspicious and the witchfinder fled back to Scotland. It is said that he was arrested there and shortly before being executed, confessed to being responsible for the deaths of 220 women… So that’s a sort of happy ending.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to confirm the identity of the Scottish witchfinder, so John Sharpe in Widdershins is my own creation. However, in the course of creating him, I carried out a lot of research into witchfinders.

In particular, I looked at John Kincaid from Tranent, who was my chief suspect. He was certainly operational in the borders, and was famous for being able to find the devil’s mark on witches.

There exists a deposition from him in June 1649 (14 months before the Newcastle trials) at Dirleton Castle, near North Berwick, in which he boasts that he has ‘some skill and dexterity in finding the divillis mark’. The deposition describes his testing of a man and his spouse. He found a devil’s mark on each of them and claimed these marks ‘were not sensible’, indicating that they had no feeling. Insensate flesh was also said to be a sign of being a witch. Upon pricking these insensate marks, they gave forth no blood, which was a sure sign of being a witch. Curiously, the couple in question had volunteered to be tested after the man watched his wife copulating with the devil…

John Kincaid was still at large in 1661 in Dalkeith where he tested a woman who had two devil’s marks about her. He was reported as pricking her with pins of about three inches. So insensate was this woman’s flesh that she could not even tell which part of her body had been pricked… Kincaid administered this test under oath and it was witnessed by seven people, including the local minister.

Most likely, he was using a retractable pricking device – anyone who was a child in the seventies may have had one of those joke plastic daggers with a retractable blade that you could stick in your thigh to terrify your granny.

Perhaps one of Scotland’s most unusual witch prickers was John Dickson (can anyone hazard a guess why I called my witchfinder John?). John Dickson seemed to appear from nowhere and was given a highly lucrative contract in Moray to clear the place of its witches. As well as a daily subsistence rate of six shillings, Dickson was charging an eye-watering six pounds per witch – a sum that makes Newcastle’s twenty shillings per witch look positively frugal.

But John Dickson picked on the wrong person once too often. First, a man called John Hay, who had friends in high places and more than a smattering of the law behind him. Gradually, reports began to be made against this particular witchfinder who was thrown in prison. It was only at this point that an interesting discovery was made. John Dickson turned out to be a woman – Christian Caddell. However, despite sending as many as ten innocent people to the gallows, she was not executed, but instead transported to Barbados.

Finally, no discussion of witchfinders would be complete without a mention of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, and his sidekick John Stearne who were operational in the south of England. The Witchfinder General came from a small town called Manningtree in Essex, which has one other famous resident: Margaret Thatcher. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will…

It seems that Matthew Hopkins was also something of a dab hand at PR – long before PR was invented. To expel any doubts that might have existed in the minds of the good people of Essex, he and John Stearne each published a book setting out their techniques and reasoning behind witchfinding.

These diaries are filled with fascinating (if troubling) insights into what might go through the mind of a man determining whether someone should live or die. In his short book, Hopkins sets out fourteen questions and replies to them. These questions range from whether he is a witch himself, through to whether witchfinders are simply fleecing people. In fairness to Hopkins, he appears to be rather cheaper than the Newcastle witchfinder. Hopkins states he charged only twenty shillings per town. This appears to be excellent value compared with the Newcastle witchfinder’s fee of twenty shillings per witch. However, it’s worth taking Hopkins’ word with a pinch of salt, bearing in mind that one of the town councils in the area spent one-seventh of its annual budget on witchfinding and had to raise taxes as a result…

Some of Hopkins' justifications for finding people guilty of witchcraft are a little on the thin side. One of his favoured ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was a form of sleep deprivation known as ‘waking’, which meant the suspects were kept awake for several nights until they confessed. By way of example, he reports one accused witch, who on her fourth night of being kept awake, confessed to having several familiars and imps. Hopkins lists the imps' names given by the woman as 'Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut &c. which no mortall could invent...' So, this woman's fate has been sealed by her having a vivid imagination and a knack for making up names, which is bad news for any writers in the room…

While Hopkins' book is short, to the point and easy to read, Stearne's book overflows with so many biblical quotations, it is quite hard to get to the point of his defence. Despite using a range of terrible torture techniques to send dozens of (mainly) women to untimely and dreadful deaths, Stearne uses the bible as his defence and ends his book by reminding readers that he was doing God's work. So, I’ll leave you to ponder on his words: 'And so I leave myself to the censure of the world, yet desire it might be left to the Almighty, who knoweth the secrets of all hearts: For, blessed are they that do his commandments, Revel. 22.14.'

Sources for further information

Arnot, H. (1881) ‘Criminal Trials’, appendix, in J. Sands Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, ch. 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.

Gardiner, R. (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare, ch. 53.

Gaule, J. [1646] Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. London: Richard Clutterbuck.

Hopkins, H. (2010) [1647] The Discovery of Witches in Answer to Severall Queries, Lately: Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk and Now Published by Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder, for the Benefit of the Whole Kingdome. Qontro Classics

Newes from Scotland (1591) 'Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last.' London: William Wright (in Special Collection Ferguson Al-a.36 at Glasgow University).

Notestein, W. (2010) [1908] A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. New Haven, CT: Yale University.

Sands, J. (1881) Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, Pitcairns' Justiciary Records, vol 111., p. 602 in Chapter 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.

Steadman, H. (2016) http://helensteadman.com/writers-log/

Steadman, H. (2017) Widdershins, Impress Books, Exeter.

Stearne, J. (1973) [1648] A Confirmation and Discovery of Witch Craft. The Rota.

Tyne & Wear Archives (2011) [1650] Newcastle Chamberlain’s Accounts. Available from: http://blog.twmuseums.org.uk/question-how-much-does-it-cost-to-burn-a-witch-answer-15-19s-2d/.

Webster, D. (1820) Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts on Witchcraft and the Second Sight; with an Original Essay on Witchcraft, Edinburgh: Thomas Webster.

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