Today I’m delighted to feature historical novelist Helen Steadman. Helen lives in the foothills of the North Pennines and enjoys researching and writing about the history of the north east of England. Following her MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, she recently completed a PhD at the University of Aberdeen and is currently writing her fourth novel.
Helen’s best-selling first novel, Widdershins and its sequel, Sunwise were inspired by the Newcastle witch trials. Her third novel, The Running Wolf, about a group of 17th century swordmakers who defected from Prussia and moved to England, will be published by Impress Books on 10 November, 2020. Helen is keen on ‘method writing’ and will go to any length in the name of research. For her witch trial books, Helen trained in herbal medicine and grew, harvested and dried her own ingredients to make a range of home remedies (which those at home ungratefully refused to take). For The Running Wolf, Helen undertook blacksmith training, culminating in forging her own sword.
So over to Helen
Which 5 pieces of music/songs would you include in the soundtrack to your life and why?
Thank you very much for inviting me along to your lovely book cafe, Jill. I’ve had a good browse among the other authors and I really enjoyed answering your questions. Despite suffering a life-long lack of self-restraint, I’ve sort of managed to restrict myself to five lots of five.
‘Long-haired Lover from Liverpool’ by Jimmy Osmond was my first record, so it has to be in here. I wish with all my heart that it was something else, but there you have it. In my defence, I was a mere tot. I didn’t even like Jimmy that much. Donny, on the other hand…
‘Love My Way’ by The Psychedelic Furs. I was in the back kitchen, watching The Old Grey Whistle Test on a portable TV when they came on singing this song. I loved them instantly. Of course, it was a black and white portable so technically they were The Monochrome Furs to me for a few years.
‘How Does it Feel (To Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)’ by Crass. I loved playing this loudly as a kid, especially the ending that went ‘One, two, three, four – we don’t want your fucking war’ about 800 times at ear-splitting volume. The lyrics and cover amazed me, and I’d never seen or heard anything like them. Before Crass, all music seemed to be about romance. As a bonus, they were also keen on the war poet, Wilfred Owen.
The Fates, the whole Furia album, because it’s so ethereal and beautiful, but ‘Ritual’ most of all. I spent a huge amount of my late teens listening to this over and over while knitting long, black garments. It felt like the nearest thing to Sylvia Plath on a turntable.
When I wasn’t listening to The Fates and knitting long, black garments, I was generally on a coach bound for London with a packet of shreddies (cereal, not underwear) in my bag for sustenance. There, I would see lots of death metal bands. In particular, Celtic Frost. I commend all their work but especially ‘Circle of the Tyrants’. Who wouldn’t love a band with a frontman called Tom Gabriel Warrior and album covers featuring the artwork of HR Giger?
What 5 things (apart from family and friends) you’d find it hard to live without.
I’m including dogs in with family and friends, otherwise they’d take up my whole list, said she, cheatingly. (Dogs are most certainly family)
Things made of paper and ink: novels, poetry, non-fiction, notebooks, diaries, letters, government records, posters, magazines, journals, burial registers, shopping lists, passenger manifests, newspapers, port books, army records, accounts, recipes, calendars, maps, petitions, bills, photos, court listings, shipping logs, dress patterns, wills… My notebooks usually have a pen wedged down the wiro or clipped to the cover, so I’m counting that as one. (Sorry, there’s a lot of cheating going on here.) If I could only have one, I’d have an eternally refilling notebook and pen so I could write my own books but also write down what I can remember of other people’s work.
Music: All Nick Cave music because five lots of music just aren’t enough, but especially ‘The Mercy Seat’. ‘Venus in Furs’ by The Velvet Underground because six lots of music still aren’t enough. But I feel I must mention Hüsker Dü and The Specials and… Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of bits and pieces: a letter and autographs from The Specials, a Celtic Frost plectrum, a Hüsker Dü drumstick, an access-all-areas backstage pass for Metallica that we won’t talk about here… So, I suppose music is something I’d find it hard to live without. I appreciate it even more because I don’t have a musical bone in my body – can’t sing, can’t play – and am fascinated by people who can.
Carbohydrate in all its beautiful and varied forms, but especially toast. And bagels (toasted). When I lived in Hackney, I used to live a few doors away from the all-night Ridley Road bagel bakery in Dalston market. At the time, I was working weird shifts at the BBC World Service newsroom, so it was handy for popping in at all hours. Once, I ran out of milk in the middle of the night and nipped over in my jim-jams – after all, who would see me? Unfortunately, a band I knew from Newcastle were in there filling up on post-gig bagels, and I had a job explaining away my cute kittycat pyjamas and fluffy tarantula slippers, complete with furry legs (the slippers, not me).
Salt. I love it. When I gave it up once, I kept fainting, so now I’m back to my love affair with my favourite mineral. Also, for about 18 months, salt was the only thing I could taste.
Windows (the glass kind, not the Microsoft kind). I love looking out of windows at home, on trains, anywhere. Perfect for daydreaming. I remember once seeing a huge billboard at King’s Cross station for The Economist, saying something like ‘No one ever got rich looking out of the window’. It made me feel quite sad thinking of people on trains, eyes glued to The Economist in the hope of becoming millionaires, missing all the scenery outside.
Can you offer 5 pieces of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Stop trying to gain weight. Hard though it might be to believe, you’ll have the opposite problem in the not-too distant future.
It’s rarely a good idea to cut your own hair. Or anyone else’s hair. That includes siblings, offspring and pets. Definitely don’t cut colleagues’ hair. Need we say more about dyeing the neighbours’ kids’ hair? Even if they beg you. Can you believe I was turned down for hairdressing college?! This advice still applies, although I’ve been trimming my own fringe since February and nothing too disastrous has happened so far. Perhaps I’ll live to regret this last sentence when I look back on photos from this era.
You can go to university. Yes, you. It won’t cost anything and you’ll get a grant to live on. Even kids like you on free school dinners can go. Better yet, there are universities that offer creative writing degrees. Looking back from the internet age, it seems unbelievable that I had no clue you didn’t have to pay to go to university. Looking back from the student loan age, it seems even more unbelievable.
You don’t have to write a Booker-Prize-winning novel at your first attempt. Peter Carey wasn’t Peter Carey until five or six books in. Ask your favourite writer about their experience of getting published – it will give you hope instead of an almost two-decades’ long bout of writer’s block.
The grand old age of 22 is not too old to start doing something. Likewise 32, 42, 52 or 92. With luck, you’ll live to be all those ages in any case, so you might as well start now. Whatever age you are, just start. Get cracking! Go on.
Tell us 5 things that most people don’t know about you
I’ve got five-and-a half unpublished novels under my bed (well, on a bookshelf). Until recently, it was four complete novels and two incomplete, but I did finish one of the incomplete ones a couple of years ago. I’m glad to have them under my belt – they were my writing apprenticeship – but no one tells you how hard it is to write a book, edit it a million times and have it rejected. And then rinse and repeat a few times. Still, I’m nothing if not tenacious. It took me 12 years from beginning to write seriously (that is, actually writing a thousand words a day instead of mooning about looking out of the window and dreaming about writing) to getting my first published novel in my hands. It was a long slog, but I’d do it again if I had to.
I lost my senses of smell and taste in January 2019 following a nasty virus (but probably not THAT nasty virus). In May this year, they started coming back. I was cycling in the countryside and got a sudden waft of pine sap from a vast pile of cut logs. Apart from heralding the return of two much-missed senses, it was pleasing because the smell of cut Scots pine triggered the urge to write about witches in my first two books, Widdershins and Sunwise, so it felt like a good omen. Since May, I’ve been able to smell and taste all kinds of things – it’s really exciting. Weirdly, there are still some things I can’t smell, like onions and garlic, but I’m hopeful. I always had a borderline bionic sense of smell in the past, so I’ve really missed this particular sense. While undergoing brain scans and batteries of tests, it scared me that two senses could so easily and suddenly switch off and I began to worry about losing my sight and hearing to the extent that I seriously considered learning Braille, just in case. (Considering was as far as it went, but touch wood, all is well and anosmia will soon be a thing of the past.)
I have a phobia of fruit-bearing fruit. You know those tangerines that have babies inside? The stuff of nightmares to me. I’m shuddering now, just thinking about them.
Thanks to my Welsh grandad, I can say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I’m ridiculously proud of this and as a child visiting said grandad in Anglesey, got on the bus one day and proudly asked for ‘a half to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch’. The bus driver didn’t turn a hair, handed me my ticket and said, ‘LlanfairPG would have done, love.’ Crestfallen!
Although I’m terrified of flying, I force myself do it now and again. I made myself fly to Germany and back to visit Solingen when researching my latest novel. I was on my own and quite a wreck, but it was lovely having so much unsupervised access to marzipan. My flying fears were not helped on the return journey when I was taken to one side at Düsseldorf airport and had to remove my boots to have my feet inspected in full view of the other passengers. I was probably picked because I was sweating and shaking like Billy Hayes in the film, Midnight Express, even though I had absolutely nothing to declare. To be fair, the other passengers were probably quite traumatised by having to see my feet.
Tell us 5 things you’d like to do or achieve.
I would like to go to a dentist, quite soon, for a scale and polish. Since my family have refused to act as my proxy nose, I’m afraid to breathe near anyone, for reasons that have nothing to do with infecting someone with COVID-19.
Now that I’ve finally got myself into gear and started writing, I’d like to live long enough to write all the books milling about in my head. Following an equation involving the number of books I want to write, and the time it takes me to research and write them, I need to live until approximately 548 years of age. Better eat more broccoli…
I’ve always wanted to go to New York and Moscow but see section 4 above. Since lockdown, when it looked like I might never leave the house – let alone the country – ever again, I realised that if I get the chance, then I must go there, and soon. Ideally, I would be fully sedated and packed into a crate in the hold for the journey.
This year, or what remains of it, I hope to read Hilary Mantel’s entire Thomas Cromwell trilogy, one after the other. It was reading Wolf Hall that made me decide to write a historical novel because it was so brilliant, but if I’d honestly known ahead of time the sheer volume of research required, I’d have thought again. That said, I fell in love with researching and could spend all my time doing it quite happily. There’s nothing lovelier than falling down a three-hundred-year-old rabbit hole and emerging, hours (or days) later, blinking in the 21st century sunlight.
I’d love to live near the sea – somewhere wild and remote, with dark skies, like the Scottish Highlands or Newfoundland. Scotland, because I love it there and have been lots of times. Newfoundland, because The Shipping News is my favourite book. Obviously, if I moved to Newfoundland, I’d have to sail there or pay for the ‘sedate and crate’ flight option.
Many thanks for joining me today Helen, it’s been fascinating learning more about you. For one, there’s some music choices I need to look up – sadly the only one I recognise is Jimmy Osmond, though he was a bit too young for me (as was Donny!). I love your ability to cram so many things into your ‘Five’ things you can’t live without. I hope you haven’t set a precedent that everyone else feels duty bound to follow (I would use a laughing emoji here if I knew how). I love your dedication to research, that’s something to be admired. I’ve never thought about baby tangerines before, is it just fruit or does it happen when you also chance upon a pregnant green pepper? I can sort of see the creepiness of it. Pleased to know that if I ever visit ‘that’ place in Wales all I need to say is Llanfair PG. If you could resolve your fear of flying I can recommend New York. Good luck with living to be 548, I need to be the same age to read to all the books I keep buying.
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‘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.
The sequel to Helen Steadman’s Widdershins, when Jane s lover, Tom, returns from the navy to find her unhappily married to his betrayer, Jane is caught in an impossible situation. Still reeling from the loss of her mother at the hands of the witch-finder John Sharpe, Jane has no choice but to continue her dangerous work as a healer while keeping her young daughter safe. But, as Tom searches for a way for him and Jane to be together, the witch-finder is still at large. Filled with vengeance, John will stop at nothing in his quest to rid England of the scourge of witchcraft. Inspired by true events, Sunwise tells the story of one woman s struggle for survival in a hostile and superstitious world.
The Running Wolf
When a Prussian smuggler is imprisoned in Morpeth Gaol in the winter of 1703, why does Queen Anne’s powerful right-hand man, The Earl of Nottingham, take such a keen interest?
At the end of the turbulent 17th century, the ties that bind men are fraying, turning neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend and brother against brother. Beneath a seething layer of religious intolerance, community suspicion and political intrigue, The Running Wolf takes us deep into the heart of rebel country in the run-up to the 1715 Jacobite uprising.
Hermann Mohll is a master sword maker from Solingen in Germany who risks his life by breaking his guild oaths and settling in England. While trying to save his family and neighbours from poverty, he is caught smuggling swords and finds himself in Morpeth Gaol facing charges of High Treason.
Determined to hold his tongue and his nerve, Mohll finds himself at the mercy of the corrupt keeper, Robert Tipstaff. The keeper fancies he can persuade the truth out of Mohll and make him face the ultimate justice: hanging, drawing and quartering. But in this tangled web of secrets and lies, just who is telling the truth?
Keep in touch with Helen via:
Website (all about the books and research)
Blog (usually about my books and associated research, with occasional tangents into real life)
Facebook (my books, other people’s books, folklore, historical resources)
Twitter (anything and everything that takes my fancy, plucked from the void at random)
Instagram (mainly badly taken pictures of trees – sorry in advance)