I usually select locations for my novels that I already have a bit of knowledge about, having travelled a fair amount and lived in various places. But in The Witch’s Tree, I used my own house as the modernised Sloe Cottage where Selena lives and as Slaugh Cottage in 1682, Grace Cotter’s home. Here’s an excerpt from the novel:
Over three hundred years have passed and the cottage stands solid through many changes. The old staircase has gone, the thatched roof has been tiled, the hearth is not quite as it was. The house hides so many memories, so many years of fingers touching the same walls, being warmed by the same fire.
She knows the house well: it is hers, she will not leave it. She peers through the windows, but her breath leaves no mist on the glass. The old stone well chatters and she whispers words that ripple in the deep water. (The Witch’s Tree prologue)
The house I live in was built in the 1600s; like Selena’s Sloe Cottage, it has had various rooms added: a kitchen, bedrooms, a conservatory. It used to be a farm building; the hall is cobbled, once a run for pigs. The roof was originally thatched but years have transformed the space and it is now tiled. When I was up in the attic once, I came across several strange things, some of which found their way into the novel:
‘I’m right behind you,’ Selena said. The smell of the attic was thick in her nostrils; the air was stone cold.
They crawled through the wooden structure, the light of the beam guiding them into darkness. As Nick shone the torch above them, sticks of straw were visible in the roof space. They stood and gazed up into the eaves.
Selena frowned. ‘Why is there still straw here?’
‘Debris from the thatch – I don’t think slate roofs were a thing in the countryside until the 1800s…’
‘So – this would have been the roof of Grace’s bedroom – or her father and mother’s.’
Nick nodded. ‘Almost certainly – someone would have lain in bed and looked up into this space at a thatched roof.’
They edged forward into darkness, led by a single thin torch beam. (Chapter Thirty Six.)
The main living room in my house has a wide fireplace which would once have been used for cooking. There is an old bread oven in the hearth and a lobby space beyond the room, where Grace would have stored dried goods and herbs. The staircase that would have led to two small bedrooms has gone – it is now an alcove. The hall wall is all rough stone and wood, and there is a witch’s mark or hexafoil engraved there. Finding it during my research for the novel was a really exciting moment:
‘Witch’s marks,’ Nick explained. ‘The daisy wheel shape is a hexafoil.’
Selena frowned. ‘Did a witch live in this farmhouse?’
‘No, it would have been the superstitious people who lived here in the seventeenth century. I think they made the marks to ward off bad luck.’ (Chapter Twenty Six)
There is farmland around the cottage and an old well used to stand in the garden. It was very useful to be able to refer to the older parts of the cottage as I wrote Grace’s story:
Will Cotter turned his eyes back to the fire and watched the flames flicker. His daughter was fond of making light-hearted quips, but he liked her gentle prattle; she kept the home alive with her bubbly chatter and he would seldom ask her to hold her tongue. His eyes were heavy and for a moment he felt warm and soothed in the firelight, then sleep took him.
Grace gave her father one last look, checking he was comfortable, then she moved on light feet to pick up the bucket she had set down in the corner. She had drawn water from the well earlier, and now she cleaned and sliced the parsnips carefully, adding them to the beef bones, potatoes, onions and grains already in the pot. She returned to the fireplace, sidling past her father, easing the blackened cook pot onto its hook over the flames. (Chapter Two.)
The one thing I changed dramatically while writing the novel was the atmosphere of the house. My house is very calm and has a safe and embracing feel to it. However, because Slaugh Cottage has such a legacy from the past and Grace’s story is sad, I wanted to create more of an uncomfortable atmosphere in the cottage for Selena in the present day:
The door to her bedroom creaked; Selena heard it open slowly and she held her breath. There was silence for a while, then someone was inside the room. She inhaled the sweet traces of lavender on the air, then it became a stronger scent. Selena’s eyes were closed, screwed tight now, but she knew instinctively that there was someone standing by the side of the bed, watching her. She wondered whether to open her eyes: whether she would she see the outline of the slender woman in a long dress, or if there would be no one there. Her heart thumped, blood pounding in her ears, and it was suddenly hard to breathe. (Chapter Thirty Seven.)
I’m very comfortable living and working in my cottage and in the novel Selena, in the present day, is mostly very happy there. It is an inspiration for her work and she feels a connection with the past. Although there are times where the location is certainly eerie, Selena is empathic and Grace’s story intrigues her.
The timeslip novel The Witch’s Tree owes a lot to the location of Sloe/Slaugh Cottage: as a reviewer perfectly suggested this week, the house is almost a character in itself.
And of course, let’s not forget the witch’s tree, the blackthorn with its beautiful blossoms in spring, its sharp deadly thorns, and it’s dark, bitter fruit in autumn. Here’s another quotation from The Witch’s Tree:
‘Oh,’ Laura waved a dismissive hand, ‘Blackthorn has an old association with witchcraft.’
Rob gave a small cough. ‘Witches apparently made staffs and wands from the wood of the blackthorn, and the thorns were used to prick wax images of those that they cursed. The crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross is reputed to have been made from the blackthorn.’
Selena shivered. ‘That’s certainly eerie.’
Laura looked around the room. ‘The whole house is eerie. In fact, Chitterwell and Ashcombe are steeped in history of folklore and suchlike…’ (Chapter Twelve.)
The title The Witch’s Tree is perfect for the book, with its pretty blossoms and hidden spikes; Grace’s story is bitter-sweet. In one way, it is beautiful as she is a simple, good soul, and in other ways it is achingly sad because of the turn her life makes when she becomes entangled with Nathaniel, the farmer’s son.
I hope you’ll enjoy The Witch’s Tree and, as you read it, please find a little bit of my own home written between the pages.
Do leave a review if you’ve enjoyed the novel. Thanks.