Beth Underdown’s debut novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister was released by Viking in March 2017.
Beth is with me today to talk about her approach to the research process and how important it is to find your own system. Over to you, Beth….
When I started my first novel, I didn’t have a clue what I was up to. I floundered about, making a start on this scene or that subplot, interspersing writing with what began as a fairly scatter-gun approach to research – one week a book of sermons, the next an illustrated herbal, the next a broad political survey of the whole century in which my story was set. As the book progressed, my approach to research changed, and became about looking for answers to specific questions the story had raised. But to start with, my research strategy might best have been described as random.
I like to think that now, starting my second novel, some of what I learned with the first one will save me a bit of time and heartache. I’m hoping, for instance, that I’ve sharpened my instinct for which scenes and which subplots will be needed in this next book – which should be developed, and which should be allowed to die quietly before they embarrass me any further.
But what hasn’t changed, I’m realising, is that scatter-gun approach to the first weeks of research. As it turns out, scatter-gun is what I need.
Last year, after finishing my first novel, I breathed a sigh of relief. Having made it through months of active writing, during which I’d been afraid to read other people’s fiction in case I lost a grip on the voice of my own narrator, suddenly I was free. I started to read some of the great fiction that was coming out at the time: The Essex Serpent. The North Water. His Bloody Project. I also got a teaching job, so I started to read and reread a bunch of classics, to help prepare my seminars: Madame Bovary. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Talented Mr Ripley. But despite these literary riches, I felt a bit bereft, and I didn’t know why. I was reading everything (or as much of everything as I had hours in the day to accommodate). So why did it feel like something was missing?
What I wasn’t reading, I see now, were my scatter-gun books. My weird books. Books published in the sixties and since forgotten. Books consigned to the dustiest end of the library or the forsaken corner of a second-hand bookshop.
Now that I’m starting Novel Two, I’m back among those weird books again. The history of inquests in the British Isles. A mid-Victorian survey on the state of girls’ schools. A compendium of articles from a small regional newspaper. (Opening this last one at random, I landed on a brief story about a local man selling his wife at the town market. Weird books, I’ve missed you.)
I realise now how important it is to my life as a writer to not just read books-of-the-moment, or even only classics, but to read the books nobody else is reading at all. Now, when I see a shelf labelled ‘Local Interest – Miscellaneous’, my writer’s heart lifts.
Beth Underdown was born in Rochdale in 1987. She studied at the University of York and then the University of Manchester, where she is now a Lecturer in Creative Writing.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is her first novel, and is out with Viking in the UK and Ballantine in the US in Spring 2017. The book is based on the life of the 1640s witch finder Matthew Hopkins, whom she first came across while reading a book about seventeenth-century midwifery. As you do.
For more information on Beth, visit her website: http://www.bethunderdown.co.uk
About The Witchfinder’s Sister:
‘The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…’
1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.
But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.
To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?
(The Witchfinder’s Sister is available to buy in most UK bookshops and online.)