INTERVIEW WITH HELEN STEADMAN
Helen Steadman is the author of historical novels Widdershins and Sunwise, both published with Impress Books, and released on July 2017 and April 2019 respectively. Her stories deal with the persecution of women in England in the 17th century, under banners of ridding the land of witches and evil doers, even if those women are known herbalists and healers, loved and respected in their communities.
Read the full interview with Helen Steadman below:
SA: Where does your fascination for this period of history, the 17th century in England and Scotland, come from?
HS: I didn’t really know very much about the 17th century before I started researching Widdershins. I had a passing knowledge of it from school history lessons, but no more than that. As I’ve carried out research for my first two books, my fascination with this century has grown. I’m currently researching a third book, which is set at the end of the 17th century and early 18th century. It was a fascinating time, with so much going on, but I wouldn’t swap lives with any of my characters. There was a fast-moving array of rulers (including Parliament for a time), the Gunpowder Plot, religious turmoil, outbreaks of plague, the Great Fire of London, witch hunts, a surge forward in scientific thinking, and uprisings and wars galore (including the English Civil Wars), so, there was a lot to learn!
SA: What about your interest in witchcraft and witch hunters—where does that come from?
HS: This came almost by accident. After reading Hilary Mantel’s amazing Wolf Hall, I immediately decided to write a historical novel. In retrospect, this was a bit ambitious, as I had no real experience of research, or even of history (apart from general history at school and a bit of 18th century political history at college). I had no idea what to write about, though. One day, I was walking in the woods, and I came across an area where all the trees had just been felled, creating a sort of natural amphitheatre. It set me wondering what might have happened there in times past. A song by Florence + the Machine sprang to mind, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, which set me thinking about rituals and then witches. I didn’t know much about witches beyond workshopping Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, while studying drama at college, and reading Dennis Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter as a child (terrifying).
So, I did some initial research about witches and was amazed to learn that not only had there been witch trials on my doorstep in Newcastle, but that they resulted in possibly the largest number of people being executed as witches on a single day in England. When I read a deposition about what had happened during the trials to one girl in particular, I knew I had my story, and that girl became Jane.
SA: What kind of sources have you researched to accomplish such rich textured material, anecdotes and details, and also language and jargon of the time periods?
HS: The research was massive and daunting at the outset but I just got on with it anyway. The internet was helpful in terms of wide information gathering. I also bought and borrowed a huge number of books, visited archives to look at burial records, and so on. I spoke to local historians and practising witches, and went out ghost-hunting with paranormal groups. My research involved a vast amount of walking, especially along the River Derwent, both next to where I live and also at the Gateshead, where it runs into the River Tyne. I also did a lot of walking in Scotland.
For years, I walked the river and the woodlands, noting the weather, the plant cycles and the animals. In terms of reading, I had to learn all about the political and religious history of England and Scotland, as well as locally, and also about witch-finding techniques, legal systems, executions, food, fashion, folklore, local customs, language, the etymology of words, midwifery, naval surgery and sailing (although I eventually cut most of the seafaring sections out of the book so the last two were not needed in the end). The list was endless, really!
SA: Your research into healing and herbs and medical practices of the time is quite outstanding. Did you research materials related to this specific time period for the novel, or just general herbal medicine that might still be around today?
HS: I researched the healing approaches that were used at the time, which included some lovely reading about leeches and bloodletting! To help with this aspect, I decided to do some training in herbal medicine at Dilston Physic Garden in Northumberland. (They run excellent courses and people come from all over the world to study there. And if you’re in the area, it’s worth paying them a visit as it’s such a lovely spot to spend a few hours.)
I learned how to identify trees and flowers, gathered bark, leaves, berries and seeds, and then turned them into powders, tinctures, linctuses and decoctions. After my training, I planted my own herb garden with many of the herbs I mention in the novel so that I could get familiar with their cycles, and what they looked and smelled like in their fresh and dried states. As well as being fascinating, this practical research really helped me to develop the healers’ characters and to make the remedy descriptions more authentic. Strangely, I didn’t feel the need to try out leeches, so that’s all down to desk research and imagination!
SA: Your story is told from two perspectives, two voices, Jane and John, which are not only very different, but also antagonistic in the narrative. Did you find this challenging? Was one of the voices harder to write than the other? And if so, why?
HS: Originally, I had seven different character perspectives. I then whittled them down to three: John, Jane and Tom. For reasons of length and plotting, I cut out Tom’s perspective. This meant all his seafaring adventures were left on the cutting-room floor, which I felt sad about, especially as Tom was my favourite character, but it was the right thing to do for the story. So, for most of the time I was writing the book, I was seeing through lots of people’s eyes.
John and Jane were the hardest of all the characters to write. Some characters, such as Meg Wetherby and Reverend Foster, wrote themselves and had to be restrained from taking over the narrative. John was very difficult to write because it’s quite hard to inhabit someone so evil. To help me build his character, I read books by the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, and his sidekick, John Stearne, which gave me a real insight into what drove them. I also read depositions by the Scottish witchfinder, John Kincaid. (You don’t have to be called John to be a witchfinder, but it certainly seems to help.) Jane was the hardest of all because it took me quite a long time to get to know her – she felt quite shy in many ways – but immersing myself in her daily activities, such as gathering berries and making elder linctus and so on really helped me to get into her head.
SA: How did you come up with the title, Sunwise?
HS: Ah, thereby hangs a tale… My first book, Widdershins, was originally called Pushed by Angels. This was a reference to the historic belief that the planets moved because they were pushed by angels. I came across this phrase while doing some early research into religion and science at the time, and it felt like a good working title because it encapsulated some of the thinking in the novel, particularly in terms of Reverend Foster, whom I chose to represent a more reasoned representation of religion. My publisher asked whether I’d be willing to change the title and offered some suggestions, one of which was Widdershins – a word used by one of the Scottish characters. (It means against the sun, anti-clockwise and is linked to bad luck, the occult, demonic influences and so on.) Straight away, it jumped out at me, and I preferred it to my original title. When I started writing the sequel, I called it Deiseal, which is clockwise or sunwise, but it can be spelt several different ways, and it’s not immediately obvious how it’s pronounced, so in my head, I just started saying Sunwise, and that’s the name I stuck with.
SA: As a writer, are you more of a plotter, or a panster? Do you know earlier on how you are going to end the book, or is it revealed to you as you go?
HA: Definitely a pantser. Because Widdershins was inspired by the Newcastle witch trials, there were one or two things that had to happen (the trial, for example). But because so little was known about the trials, I had a free hand to write whatever I liked. I’m quite a chaotic writer and write everything by hand in several notebooks that are planted in different rooms in my house. I write whatever comes into my head and don’t think too hard about it. So nothing is in the right order and nothing makes sense, everything is in different tenses and from different perspectives. Characters sometimes have different names, or even no name.
Once I’ve written it all up, I type up all the notebooks. This is a monotonous task, during which I endlessly curse myself for writing in this way and tell myself off for my shockingly bad handwriting. I type everything into Scrivener, which is an ideal programme for me as I can move things about easily and faff to my heart’s content. Then it all goes away for weeks or months until I’ve forgotten what I’ve written, and then I start rewriting and editing. Once I’m happy, I put it all into Word as it’s better for formatting. I calculated once that I spent about twenty times longer on rewriting and editing than I do on actual writing. With Sunwise, I decided to write the whole book as morning pages. So, I just set my alarm early, woke up with a bang and started writing in the notebook I’d left next to my pillow. It’s a pretty horrible start to the day, but it stops me procrastinating and fretting, and because I’m still in a bit of a dream state, some interesting things appear on the page.
SA: Who are your favorite historical fiction authors and why?
Oddly, I haven’t read very many historical novels. As I said earlier, it was reading Wolf Hall that made me want to write a historical novel. I read Wolf Hall as I liked Hilary Mantel’s writing, and then I read A Place of Greater Safety about the French Revolution while waiting for Bring Up the Bodies. She is an amazing writer, both of contemporary and historical fiction, and richly deserves all her accolades and awards. I can’t wait to read the long-awaited third book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Although I was slightly dismayed to see that The Book Depository have it listed for publication on 1 January 2049…