‘Did all women have something of the witch about them?’
Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world.
From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft.
Inspired by true events, ‘Widdershins’ tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Helen Steadman lives in the foothills of the North Pennines, and she particularly enjoys researching and writing about the history of the north east of England. Following her MA in creative writing at Manchester Met, Helen is now completing a PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen. When she s not studying or writing, Helen critiques, edits and proofreads other writers work, and she is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.
MY REVIEW: I would like to thank Helen Steadman and Impress Books for allowing me the opportunity to read an ARC of Widdershins prior to taking part in the cover reveal and being a stop on the blog tour. I can confirm that I chose to read this ARC and all opinions in this review are my own and are completely unbiased.
Inspired by a true story, Widdershins is based on the witch trials of Newcastle in 1650. Coming from this area, when asked if I would like to take part in the blog tour (and cover reveal) I jumped at the chance as I was intrigued to read about some local history, which I had heard of, but wasn’t fully aware of what it actually entailed. Widdershins exceeded my expectations. Helen Steadman – what an amazing novel!!
Widdershins took me on a rollercoaster ride of many emotions. It had me gripped all the way throughout with many a chill running down my spine. The thought that back in 1650 women were executed for just being women made me feel sick, sad and sorrowful. These women were going out of their way to help others in need by creating remedies using natural herbs to soothe pain. However, to men, this was nothing other than going against God’s will. Diabolical! Women were treated badly, verrrrrry badly. It’s sad and heartbreaking to think that this isn’t fiction – it actually happened.
Told from the perspective of two characters, the reader really sees both sides to the tale behind Widdershins, and through this I felt a real connection to the characters and the story itself. Almost like I, myself, was a character in the novel.
The character portrayals are captivating and consuming. First, there is Jane, a young girl residing with her mother and living amongst all of the women who are seen as committing the most heinous of crimes. Then secondly, there’s John, who has suffered nothing but heartache throughout his entire life, losing literally everything. For me, John’s character is the one who made me gasp. It’s an eye opening tale of how one person can change so drastically, it’s terrifying!
Overall, Widdershins is a fantastic novel. You’ll find if you pick it up, you may be best grabbing some snacks for the journey as you’ll not be getting off at any stops until the very end (which I must forewarn … a couple of tissues may come in handy for)! AND get excited for a journey of smells, as whilst I was reading Widdershins, the herbs seeped from the pages … absolutely stunning and tantalising!
FEATURED AUTHOR Q&A
I am very lucky to be interviewing Helen Steadman today as part of my blog tour stop for Widdershins.
Hi Helen, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Hi Laura, thanks very much for inviting me along to talk to you and your readers – I’m delighted to be here!
Tell us a little about yourself and your background? I was born and raised in the North East of England, but I spent my twenties in London before returning to my birthplace. I’ve been writing since I could first hold a pen, but only seriously for the last twelve years, which feels like an age now I think of it! I don’t think I’m very fast off the mark sometimes as it’s taken me a long, long time to get published.
What are your ambitions for your writing career? I’ve recently started writing about Grace Darling, but I need to do a lot more research before that book gets finished. I’m currently doing some research for a PhD, which will result in a novel about some seventeenth-century sword makers who fled Solingen in Germany to come to the north east of England. After that, I’m thinking about Victorian séances, but who knows what could happen.
So, what have you written? In total, I’ve written six and a half books, but only the latest (Widdershins) has made it to publication. The other five and a half are tucked away in ream boxes in a dark recess of my office, never to see the light of day. I see these books as part of serving my time and learning the craft of writing, as well as learning the craft of being rejected.
What is your most recent novel? Widdershins (published 1 July 2017 by Impress Books) is a historical novel inspired by the little-known seventeenth-century Newcastle witch trials where 16 people were executed in a single day on the Town Moor.
Give us an insight into your main character. What does he/she do that is so special? There are two main characters in Widdershins as there is a dual narrative presented by Jane Chandler and John Sharpe. Jane is an apprentice healer, who only wants to help people; she is knowledgeable about nature and how the power of plants can be used to heal the sick and restore people to their proper humour. I’m not sure I’d describe what John does as special, as he goes on to become an infamous witch finder, operating on the border of Scotland and England, and he is a cruel and sadistic man.
What genre are your books? This book is a historical novel, and the next three books I plan to write are also historical novels. I’ve started off in the seventeenth century, and I’m moving gradually forward in time. But that’s not to say I might not branch out and write something more contemporary one day, or even go further back in time.
What draws you to this genre? I loved history as a child, although studying eighteenth-century politics at college put me right off. But after reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I simply had to write a historical novel. I had no clue what subject or period I wanted to write about, but just knew that the past was an exciting place and one big enough to avoid bumping into those boring Whigs!
When did you decide to become a writer? I wanted to become a writer from as soon as I learned how to read and write. I was always making my own comics and magazines and writing stories, plays, poems, and so on. But really, I had no clue how to go about becoming an actual writer. I wrote and acted in plays from being in Brownies through to when I was in college, but then I ground to a halt for quite a long time. I spent a lot of time mooning about worrying about the enormity of writing and being daunted by it. My greatest revelation was not waiting for the muse to arrive and just making myself sit (or lie) down and write a thousand words a day, every day.
Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured? I’m not a very structured person as a rule, so I just write wherever or whenever I can. During all of my writing years, I’ve been a working mother, so when the kids were younger, I’d write for an hour after they’d gone to bed. Nowadays, I write by hand, which makes it easier to fit writing in as I just scatter notebooks in strategic places and write in whichever one I pick up. Because I don’t write the story in any particular order, this works well. Once it’s finished, I type it all up and then pick the story out, sorting the order as I go along because I never know what the story actually is until it’s finished.
Do you aim for a set number of words/pages per day? I try for a thousand words a day, every day. But during researching or editing phases, I let myself off because there are only so many hours in the day. I have to be careful though as it’s easy to tell myself I’m busy editing or researching and then suddenly weeks (or months) can go by with no writing done.
Where do your ideas come from? I tend to get a glimmer of an idea and then work from there. For instance, with this book, I wanted to write about witches, but had no idea in what way. So, I carried out lots of research and from that research, I learned about the Newcastle witch trials. One thing stood out, which was that the witch finder was revealed as a fraud, but while one girl was allowed to go free, the others were still executed. I couldn’t get this travesty out of my mind and knew this had to be my story. So, I started out with the end point – I just had to write myself there.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you? I can’t write to an outline or a plot. Something about planning makes me not want to write the story. Perhaps it’s because once the story is mapped out, it no longer interests me and doesn’t need to be told. Plus, there’s also the element of constraint, which makes me feel as though I’ve written myself into a corner before I’ve started. For me, it’s much more exciting to make it up as I go along.
How long on average does it take you to write a book? Depending on what you mean by ‘writing’, there are two answers to this question. My first answer is that it took me 112 days to write Widdershins: I first put pen to paper on 14 January 2014 and completed a first draft of 122,440 words by 5 May 2014. However, I then spent almost two years editing and writing it until it became the 72,000 words I submitted for my MA in March 2016. Subsequently, I added another 8,000 words. If you consider writing to be everything from initial research (which began at the back end of 2011) through to publication in 2017, then my second answer is that it took me six years. I probably need to speed up a bit!
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively? Over the twelve years that I’ve been writing seriously, I’ve learned a lot about writing and I’ve also learned to be more disciplined about it. For me, it’s no good swigging wine, gazing at the landscape and waiting for the muse to strike (formerly my favourite way to ‘write’). I learned that the big idea isn’t likely to arrive that way. (If it does for you, then thank your stars and make sure you have a notebook to write it down before you forget). I always wondered how writers managed to make everything link up and happen in the right place and also manage things like symbolism and themes. It all felt hugely daunting. The answer, for me at any rate, is that it doesn’t come in a blinding flash, the muse doesn’t whisper it in my ear during moments of heightened consciousness and I don’t awake from a fantastic dream with a whole story in my head. Instead, the big idea appears in small fragments and shards that arrive while carrying out research and doing the everyday notebook writing. Amazing things can sometimes pop out when freewriting or doing morning pages. But they’re rare, so that’s why it’s important to have the discipline of writing every single day. But more importantly, I learned that rewriting is the most important aspect of writing. I spent a couple of months writing and a couple of years rewriting, so that shows where the bulk of the work went in. Editing provides much-needed distance from writing, and I’m happy to draft and redraft as many times as necessary to make it right.
Do you read much and if so which writers inspire you? (Wipes tears of laughter from eyes.) I read so much that I’m surprised I can still see. I read across all sorts of genres and authors, so it’s hard to list only a few writers that inspire me, but I’ll give it a go. Of course, I know that straight after this I’m going to face palm and wonder how I forgot x, y and z writers, but here goes: Martin Amis, Peter Carey, Ken Follett, Joanne Harris, Ken Kesey, Michelle Lovric, Hilary Mantel, Val McDermid, Terry Pratchett, Annie Proulx, Ian Rankin, John Steinbeck and Tom Wolfe.
What is your favourite book and why? Oh, this is really hard. My favourite book is currently The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, which I read at least once a year as a treat. But for a long time, it was Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. And as he wrote three of my favourite ever books: Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda, and Theft: A Love Story, I’d have to say that he’s my favourite writer.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why? It would have to be George Orwell’s 1984. I read this (several times) at school, and it was the most mind-blowing book I’d ever read (and probably still is), full of huge and terrifying ideas. I remember being amazed at the time that one person’s mind could come up with something so huge, complex and shocking. But I also wish I’d written Peter Carey’s Illywhacker. When I read this, I was so stunned by its brilliance that I couldn’t write for about two decades, because I knew nothing I wrote could come near it.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers? Buy a big nail, knock it into your wall, and then go out and buy a bigger nail. Work out whether you’re a plotter or a panster and don’t let anyone tell you that the way you choose to write is the wrong way. It’s your way and that’s what matters. Write every day and never give up. While you must have faith in your writing, you also need to invite criticism and get used to dealing with it. Find a small group of writers whose judgement you trust and share your work regularly. Get used to critiquing other people’s work and get used to accepting criticism of your own work and acting on it. It will improve your writing more than anything else. Take courses. I strongly recommend the Open University courses: Creative Writing A215 and Advanced Creative Writing A363. Read ‘how-to’ books by authors you respect. And definitely read Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Accept at the outset that it’s going to take a long time to get published and that you’re going to face rejection. A miracle may happen and your first book might get snapped up and published following your first submission. But it’s more likely that it won’t. Stephen King bought himself a nail to store his rejections on. When there were too many rejections to fit on the nail, he got himself a spike…
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included? Do as much research as humanly possible. Even if you’re not writing historical novels, research is essential. And it can range from sitting in archives poring over aged documents through to talking to experts in the field. It can also include rolling up your sleeves and doing some ‘method writing’. For Widdershins, I took courses in tree medicine with a local herbalist and then grew my own herbs, harvested them, dried them and turned them into various decoctions, linctus’s and powders. This was enormously helpful to me in terms of developing several of the characters in the book. Imagination is powerful, but you can make it work harder with a little elbow grease.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview. You’re very welcome, Laura. Thanks for inviting me, and I hope your readers gain some useful ideas! Best wishes, Helen
BLOG TOUR DETAILS:
If you would like to follow the Widdershins Blog Tour, you can do so at the following dates:
Amazon UK: Click Here