People always tell aspiring writers to write what they know. What I know is travel: from landscape to landscape, country to county. The experience of otherness and strange homecomings in unfamiliar places. My writing has been shaped indelibly by my life as an eternal expat. Wanderlust infected me from an early age. I have been a traveler—and a foreigner—nearly my entire adult life.
Born and raised in Minnesota, I studied German in college. Later I married a Belgian. From the age of twenty-three onward I have lived in Belgium, Austria, and Germany. Then in 2002 we moved to the Pendle region in Lancashire, Northern England. It wasn’t long before the wild moorland cast its spell on me.
The back of our house looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received his ecstatic vision that moved him to find the Quaker religion in 1652. Fewer people know that this region is also steeped in its lore of the Pendle Witches of 1612, the real people at the heart of my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill.
When I moved to the region, I knew nothing of these Lancashire witches but was haunted by the images of witches I saw everywhere I went: on pub signs, private houses, sign posts, and even an entire fleet of commuter buses going into Manchester. At first I assumed that these witches were creatures of folklore and fairy tale. But then I became spellbound by their true and heartbreaking story.
In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged for witchcraft at Lancaster. But the most notorious of the accused, Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison before she came to trial.
This is what the court clerk, Thomas Potts, had to say about her in A Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.
Bess was a cunning woman and healer of longstanding repute and had practiced her craft for decades before anyone dared to interfere with her or stand in her way. I believe she was so frightening to her enemies because she was a woman who embraced her power wholeheartedly.
Once I learned her story, I had to write a novel about her. Other novels have been written about the Pendle Witches, but the ones I’ve read don’t portray the witches in a very good light. I wanted to give the story back to Bess, give this woman what her world denied her—her own voice.
It meant a great deal to me to inhabit the same landscape as my heroine—her saga unfolded almost literally in my backyard. Researching this book wasn’t a mere exercise of reading books, then typing sentences into my computer. To do justice to these real people, I had to go out into the land—literally walk in my characters’ footsteps. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once home to Bess and her family. Now only the foundations remain. I board my horse near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the witchfinder and prosecuting magistrate responsible for sending the Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my chestnut mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess’s voice to well up from the land. Her passion, her tale enveloped me.
As a writer, I am obsessed with history and place, how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the living landscape. No one in Pendle can remain untouched by the witches’ legacy. I hope you will be as moved by their story as I am.
Be sure to come back Tuesday for my review of Daughters of the Witching Hill and to enter the drawing to win your own copy! And visit Mary's website for more information about her and all of her books.