Sunday 29 November 2020

🍴Sunday Brunch with Jaffareadstoo ~ Helen Steadman

On this quiet Sunday morning why don't you put the kettle on, make your favourite breakfast and settle down for Sunday Brunch with Jaffareadstoo

🍴I'm delighted to welcome, author, Helen Steadman to our Sunday Brunch today🍴

🍴Welcome Helen, what favourite food are you bringing to Sunday brunch?

Thanks very much for having me along to brunch today, Jo and Jaffa. I’ve brought lots of wholemeal toast with dark, thick-cut marmalade, and a spot of catnip for Jaffa.

🍴Would you like a pot of English breakfast tea, a strong Americano, or a glass of Bucks Fizz?

Lots of coffee please, but I’m strictly instant because I haven’t the patience to wait for coffee to brew. If you’re doing the brewing, then I’ll happily have a strong Americano, but be prepared for some very rapid conversation...

🍴Where shall we eat brunch – around the kitchen table, in the formal dining room, or outside on the patio? 

Definitely outside, please, wrapped in blankets if necessary, as I love a good picnic. Even better if I can have a cat or two on my knee.

🍴Shall we have music playing in the background? And if so will you share with us a favourite song or piece of music that makes you happy?

If everyone’s happy to listen in, I’d like some Velvet Underground playing ‘Venus in Furs’, although that might not feel very much like a Sunday morning song, so we could maybe go for their ‘Sunday Morning’ after that.

🍴Which of your literary heroes (dead or alive) are joining us for Sunday Brunch today

Let’s have Oscar and Lucinda from Peter Carey’s book of the same name, if we can tear them away from gambling for long enough. I’d also like Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell to pop along if he can take time off from closing down monasteries and suchlike. Finally, I’d like to invite Winston Smith from 1984, if only to see what he makes of Alexa and Siri: ‘Big Brother, what’s the weather going to be like today?’

🍴Which favourite book will you bring to Sunday Brunch?

I’m terrible at deciding, so I might turn up with a pile of books, but certainly E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News would be on the top, along with Peter Carey’s The Illywhacker, Theft, and Oscar & Lucinda, George Orwell’s 1984 and the Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall trilogy. This is why I’m bringing so much toast. Don’t be afraid of me outstaying my welcome, though, as I’m a quick reader and after an Americano or two, I’ll be even quicker.

🍴When you are writing do you still find time to read for pleasure? And is there a book you would like to read but haven’t had time for …yet!

Reading is like breathing to me, so I always have several books on the go at any given time – usually a handful of non-fiction books for research, a novel or three and some poetry. When researching and writing a new novel, I try not to read fiction from that genre to avoid any accidental cross-pollination. I’m itching to read The Mirror and the Light, the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, and now that I’ve signed off the proofs for my latest book, I’m going to read it. But first, I’m going to re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies so I can read all three in sequence.

🍴What’s the oldest book on your bookshelf?

It’s a Complete Works of Shakespeare, published in 1864, but the poor soul isn’t in very good condition.

🍴Where do you find the inspiration for your novels?

It varies. The idea to write about witches for my first two books came to me during a walk in the woods one day, when I came across a natural bowl that had just been cleared of trees, which made me think of ritual places. Florence Welch’s song, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ sprang to mind, and I suddenly decided to write about witches, even though, at that time, I knew little or nothing about witches. Cue a lot of research.

🍴Have you a favourite place to settle down to write and do you find it easier to write in winter or summer?

I can write anytime, anywhere. I wrote the entire first draft of Sunwise in bed because I decided to write it using morning pages. (Essentially, set your alarm an hour early, wake up suddenly, pick up notebook and pen and write whatever comes to mind.) Widdershins was written partially in bed, but also in the garden, the woods and on various beaches. The Running Wolf was written mostly in bed, but also overlooking the sea in the Highlands and the Canaries, some of it was written on location in Solingen, Germany and some was written at Butser Ancient Farm during my swordmaking. Wherever I write, though, my first draft is always written by hand because it slows me down and makes for better writing. Typing up and editing is certainly something that would be better done in winter because summer days and laptop screens don’t go together very well, but it seldom ends up that way. I did manage to build a makeshift typing tent in the garden to cut down the glare, so I could enjoy the fresh air, but most of my typing up and editing takes place at my desk in an office that would make Harry Potter’s bedroom under the stairs look positively spacious.

🍴When writing to a deadline are you easily distracted and if so, how do you bring back focus on your writing?

Every school report I ever had said, ‘Easily distracted and distracts others’, and not much has changed. When I was supposed to be writing The Running Wolf using morning pages, an entirely different novel turned up: Sunwise. But when I started again, the planned novel arrived. A first draft takes me about 120 days to write, and I always write far more than I need, and never in the right order, so for every hour spent on the first draft, I spend about 20 on unwriting, rewriting and editing. For historical novels, research is the most time-consuming aspect and takes years, but it’s also extremely enjoyable. It’s very easy to vanish down rabbit holes during research, so my distraction super-powers often mean going off on wild digressions, but they can sometimes turn up exciting material, so I don’t rein myself in too hard.

🍴Give us four essential items that a writer absolutely needs?

A love of reading. If you want to be a writer and you don’t already have a reading habit, it’s wise to develop one quickly. I’d say everything else is secondary to this. My favourite possession as a child was my library ticket, and the day I was issued with an adult ticket and allowed to borrow 9 books at a time is a standout memory from my childhood.

A critic. Find someone whose opinion you respect and who is willing to critique your work – this could be another writer, or an avid reader. Most importantly, it needs to be someone who is comfortable criticising your work. This can be difficult for the critic and for the writer, so it’s wise to have someone who is not a close friend, colleague or family member. If someone gives you criticism, however uncomfortable it may feel, give it due consideration. It can help to take the criticism and not respond to it for a while, and instead, give yourself time to recover from any wounds (real or imagined) and let your subconscious mull it over. A great way to get criticism is to take a writing course. Having a whole class criticise your work can be a humbling experience, but if you can learn to take it on the chin, nothing will improve your writing more. It will also prepare you for working with publishers, editors and agents, who will all give you ‘notes’.

Paper and pen. Get used to carrying them with you, wherever you go, because ideas and observations will strike you at odd times. By and large, if you don’t write them down, you’ll forget them. It’s handy if the paper is in notebook form for ease of storage and retrieval so you don’t have to scrummage through a bag of scrunched up paper bags and so on (guilty) when it comes to writing up. I’ve got a wide range of notebooks, ranging from cheap and scruffy jotters through to beautiful hardback notebooks (invariably these are much-loved presents from friends and family). 

It doesn’t hurt to take a course. As well as helping you to get used to taking criticism (aka ‘workshopping’) and developing a network of people willing to criticise your work, it will help you to become more critical of your own work as you grow used to criticising your peers’ work. Courses can also be very inspiring and help to provide both discipline and support while writing. The first course I took was A215 Creative Writing at the Open University, swiftly followed by A365 Advanced Creative Writing (I can highly recommend both, by the way). Apart from being immensely enjoyable, I drew an enormous amount of inspiration from the tutors and the coursework, and I felt my writing improved markedly as a result. I then went on to do an MA at Manchester Met and a PhD at Aberdeen, although I don’t think you need to go to these lengths.

🍴What can you tell us about your latest novel or your current work in progress?

I’ve just signed off the final proofs for The Running Wolf, which is about a 17th century swordmaker from Solingen in Germany, who was imprisoned in Morpeth Gaol in Northumberland for sword smuggling. I’m currently researching and writing novel number four, which will be about Grace Darling the Northumberland lighthouse-keeper’s daughter. That said, with my past record, anything might happen and I could end up writing something completely different instead. Luckily, I have an understanding publisher.

When a German 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?

More about Helen

Helen Steadman is a historical novelist. Her best-selling first novel, Widdershins and its sequel, Sunwise were inspired by the Newcastle witch trials. Her third novel, The Running Wolf will be published by Impress Books on 10 November 2020.

Despite the Newcastle witch trials being the largest mass execution of witches on a single day in England, they are not widely known about. Helen is particularly interested in revealing hidden histories and she is a thorough researcher who goes to great lengths in pursuit of historical accuracy. To get under the skin of the cunning women in Widdershins and Sunwise, Helen trained in herbalism and learned how to identify, grow and harvest plants and then made herbal medicines from bark, seeds, flowers and berries.

The Running Wolf is the story of a group of master swordmakers who left Solingen, Germany and moved to Shotley Bridge, England in 1687. As well as carrying out in-depth archive research and visiting forges in Solingen to bring her story to life, Helen also undertook blacksmith training, which culminated in making her own sword.

Helen is now working on her fourth novel, which may or may not be about Grace Darling, daughter of a Northumbrian lighthouse keeper.

🍴Helen, where can we follow you on social media?🍴


  1. Really enjoyed this Sunday brunch. Learning how to make your own sword? Wow. That really is in-depth research. I've never thought of using morning pages to actually write the current book. Think you've planted an interesting seed in my head. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Maggie. I'm so pleased you've enjoyed reading Helen's brunch interview and found it informative.


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