We asked Roz Watkins how themes of witchcraft and folklore have inspired her writing, putting a fresh twist on the police procedural. Roz is part of The Witching Hour at this year’s Noirwich – tickets are available here!
There’s something about the Derbyshire landscape that pushes you in this direction – everywhere you look there are underground caverns, precipitous cliffs, and random chunks of sinister-shaped stone dotting the countryside. In the ancient woodland near my village, there’s a two-thousand-year-old tree where a woman once lived with her eight children, placing her babies in the boughs, and apparently originating the Rock-a-Bye Baby song. We also have a black pond that’s apparently occupied by an evil mermaid, despite us being as far from the sea as it’s possible to be…
‘The very edge of our knowledge is such an interesting place to be.’
But with The Devil’s Dice, it wasn’t initially very deliberate. This was my first ever book and it definitely evolved rather than being planned.
I knew I wanted a body in a cave (and I knew it would be a patent attorney – I joke about killing off ex-colleagues but it was mainly so I could write about a world I knew!) Then as I started writing the scene where the body’s discovered, I decided the cave would be more interesting if it was a cave house that had been occupied in the past. We have famous cave houses in this area and I’ve always found them intriguing. And if someone is going to live in your cave house, why not make it a strange old woman who cooked up healing potions? (A healer proved useful in the plot, for reasons which I won’t reveal).
Once I had my cave house with a body in it, it seemed natural to add a hidden carving on the back of the cave wall, which had been there over a hundred years and yet appeared to predict the man’s death. This felt like a good ‘hook’ – something a little mysterious. Then I thought I might as well go the whole hog and make the cave haunted too.
My detective, DI Meg Dalton, is very scientific and practical, so it’s particularly difficult for her that the murder seems to have supernatural elements. The deeper Meg looks into the murder, the stranger it gets. It seems that an ancient curse is predicting deaths, especially of people who live in the rock house which teeters on the edge of the quarry. And what’s with all the images of the Grim Reaper appearing everywhere?
I am fascinated by fairy tales and folklore, but in the ones I remember there were a lot of rather passive young women and bold, handsome princes (although I now realise these were not the original tales, but were re-worked in the nineteenth century to instil the values of the day). In any case, I tend to make mine up. I imagined a terrifying underground labyrinth where suspected witches used to be taken to be hanged (and this was another way to torture my main character because it reminded her of some horrible stuff from her past). But I also liked the idea of a witch getting revenge by cursing the man who’d accused her, and this curse surviving for generations. I’m drawn to ‘bad’ women – those who rebel against the system. Sadly, in history, most of them were silenced or just beaten down by the reality of their culture and laws, so I enjoy writing stories where they get their revenge and make their point!
I trained as a scientist, like my detective, and I believe that the supernatural is just something we don’t yet understand. But I love that feeling of not understanding. The very edge of our knowledge is such an interesting place to be. It must have been wonderful to live in a time when everything was less explained than it is now (provided you were rich and preferably male) and you could be at the forefront of discovery. I suppose my stories give me the closest thing to that feeling, as I create weirdness and then find ways to explain it. I hope they allow readers to experience the intrigue of a strange, creepy mystery, together with the satisfaction of a logical, scientific approach to solving it.