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Tuesday 28 February 2012

Tuesday Talk - Three Ships In One

The Rose, The Surprise, The Sea Witch .... 
Three beautiful ships become one beautiful ship

When I originally started writing my Sea Witch series my intention was not to write a series but a one-off adventure novel. I had not bargained on falling for my pirate captain, Jesamiah Acorne  – nor on the character becoming so popular with readers. I wrote Pirate Code as a follow on, and then Bring It Close – which features Blackbeard and explains what really happened to the dastardly fellow. My Jesamiah was responsible for his demise – although Jesamiah made it quite clear that nowhere was his name to be written down concerning his part in the matter. Which is why you will find nothing in the official records.
That is the fun thing about writing fiction – you can quite believably make it up!

In the first Voyage – Sea Witch – I based the star vessel (Sea Witch) partly on the Whydah and partly on Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, because there is a lot of information about both through the discovery of both wrecks. But I did not feel happy with this – neither of them were quite what I wanted for the  Sea Witch.

Then I discovered The Rose, the movie Master and Commander and John F. Miller of Colonial Williamsburg, more or less all at once.
The connection? The replica of the Rose was built by Mr Millar, and she was used as HMS Surprise in the movie. If it is possible to fall in love with an inanimate object, I was in love with a tall ship.

The replica Rose has now been officially re-named as HMS Surprise and is (more or less) permanently moored at San Diego Maritime Museum.

She was built at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1970 by John Millar, based on original 18th century British Admiralty drawings and had a 15-year career of successful adventure/sail-training on the East Coast into the Great Lakes, and the Caribbean, as well as one summer in Europe, educating up to 31 subscribed trainees per week ranging in  ages from 8 to 80.

She was sold to 20th Century Fox in 2001 for the making of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe, the movie being based on several of the books by Patrick O'Brian. The ship was then purchased by the Maritime Museum of San Diego which restored her to full sailing condition and re-registered her as HMS Surprise in honour of her film role. In 2010, she portrayed HMS Providence in the Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

The original  Rose was a 20 gun sixth-rate frigate, built in  Hull, England.

HMS Rose (1757)
Ordered:          13 April 1756  (my birthday 13th April 1953!)
Builder:            Hugh Blaydes, Hull, England
Laid down:       5 June 1756
Launched:        8 March 1757
Fate:    Scuttled on 19 September 1779 in Savannah, Georgia.
Class and type:            20-gun sixth-rate post ship
Tons burthen: 449 bm
Length:             108 ft 11.5 in (33.2 m) (gundeck)
90 ft 10.25 in (27.7 m) (keel)
Beam:  30 ft 6 in (9.3 m)
Draught:          9 ft 7 in (2.9 m)
Sail plan:          Full-rigged ship
Complement:  160
Armament:      20 × 9 pdrs

In the Seven Years' War, Rose was in service in the English Channel and in the Caribbean. This was a global military war involving most of the great powers of the time and affecting Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. Driven by antagonism because of overlapping trade between Great Britain and France and Spain the war was characterised by sieges and arson of towns as well as open battles involving heavy losses of some 900,000 to 1,400,000 people. The war ended in 1763.

In 1768, Rose was sent to the North America. Her activities in suppressing smuggling in the colony of Rhode Island provoked the formation of what became the Continental Navy, precursor of the American Navy.
Under the command of Sir James Wallace, in 1774, Rose was in the Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, to end the smuggling that had made Newport the fourth wealthiest city in America. Rose was larger than American vessels of the time, and Wallace was a capable commander, in consequence the smuggling came to a standstill, which severely affected the Newport economy. Rhode Island's merchants petitioned the colonial legislature to deal with Wallace’s interference. Providing money for the fitting out of a merchant vessel for naval service, the American Navy was born. This first vessel was commissioned as the sloop of war Providence, which became the command of John Paul Jones. On 4 May 1776 Rhode Island declared Independence from Britain - two full months before the rest of the Colonies and the outbreak of the American War of Independence – this was not, as many of us erroneously believe here in Britain, initiated because of the famous event of throwing the tea overboard at the Boston Tea Party. It all began because of Rose.

In July 1776 the Rose played a large part in the British invasion of New York state, firing on fortifications and making forays up the Hudson River. In Britain, Wallace was knighted for  helping to drive George Washington and his troops from New York. Rose also patrolled the northeast coast of America pressing sailors from merchant vessels and acquiring provisions for the British garrison mustered at Boston.

Rose met her end in 1779 when the British were occupying Savanah, Georgia. She was deliberately scuttled in a narrow part of the channel, blocking it. The French fleet was therefore unable to assist the American assault, and Savannah remained in British hands until the end of the war.

Technically, my Sea Witch is not correct for the period I have set her in – the series of Voyages will span from 1715 to at least 1726, possibly even later, depending on the continuing popularity of the books. The design of the Rose, as stated above, was produced in 1757, when several differences had been incorporated – a copper keel for one, and the Dolphin Striker - a short gaff (a wooden spar) under the cap (a strong block of wood to hold two pieces of mast together) of the bowsprit (the spar that sticks out at the front, like a pointing finger) for securing the jib-boom (the outer extension of the bowsprit). The Dolphin Striker is also called a martingale, which refers to the ropes* that connect it to the jib-boom - which should be of interest to horse riders who will be familiar with the piece of harness called a martingale: straps that connect from the girth to the bridle, and thus aid control of the horse.
(* see comments below - I have been taken to task by using the incorrect word 'rope')

So for all scenes set aboard Sea Witch, you could, as easily, be aboard the Rose or HMS Surprise – the only difference, the hull of Sea Witch is painted blue, and her Great Cabin is of light oak panels, with intricate carvings of acorns and oak leaves. And Captain Acorne does not run his ship to strict navy rules – well he wouldn’t, until he received a pardon of amnesty and became co-erced into helping the British Governmen, one way or another as a spy, he was a notorious pirate.

And if you want to know more about him – or Sea Witch…. Well, you could always read the books!

The Sea Witch Voyages published by SilverWood Books
Sea Witch - Voyage One: Helen Hollick
Pirate Code - Voyage Two: Helen Hollick
Bring It Close - Voyage Three:  Helen Hollick
 available from
in hard copy and on Kindle, Nook, etc

The Revolution at Sea Saga : James L. Nelson (based on the start of the War of Independence and the formation of the American Navy) published by Corgi Books
By Force of Arms
The Maddest Idea
Lords of the Ocean
The Continental Risque
All the Brave Fellows

The Jack Aubrey books of Patrick O’Brian published by Harper Collins


A Sea of Words Dean King Henry Holt
The Sailor’s Word Book  Admiral W.H. Smyth Conway Maritime Press
Jack Aubrey Commands Brian Lavery Conway Maritime Press
The Making of Master and Commander Tom McGregor Harper Collins
The Frigate Surprise Brian Lavery & Geoff Hunt  Conway

George Washington’s Secret Navy   James L. Nelson McGraw Hill
George Washington’s Great Gamble       “                       “

I hope you'll come back tomorrow for my new weekly feature:
Wednesday’s Words 

Monday 6 February 2012

Reviling the Reviewer – not always a good idea

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a small piece about author bashing. It was intended as a bit of a blast against the people labelled as “Trolls” on the Internet – people who deliberately cause a rumpus in order to be noticed. In the case of some “reviewers” these verbal attacks are aimed at trashing an author’s work, and on occasion, his or her integrity (especially where historical fiction is concerned).
I argued that to review a book – even if you did not enjoy it – you do not have to be foul and abusive. 
The old “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” quote.
I had a couple of interesting people contact me disagreeing with what I’d written. (Disagreeing in a nice sense – oddly, no trolls emerged. I’m either too fierce or not important enough!)
One correspondent in particular pointed out the other side of things from the reviewer’s perspective. And what set me thinking was one sentence:

“Reviewers are here to recommend a good read; we do not give critiques.”

She was right. Readers read review blogs, partly to discover more about an author, but mainly to decide what books to read next. So reviews should be honest and accurate – although I still emphatically state that they should not be rude or vile towards the author.
If a novel is a load of rubbish, fair enough, but be objective about it, not rude.

One thing that seems to annoy reviewers – rightly - is the obnoxious author who indignantly counterblasts any criticism of his/her book.
This is the sort of author who adds a comment proclaiming the reviewer is an idiot who cannot read or has no awareness of the English language because the book was not rated at 5-stars. “All my other reviewers understood what I was trying to say and have given it five stars. Maybe you had better brush up on your reading skills.”
Unfortunately most of these rants come from self-published or Indie authors. I suppose because the indie market is an open free-for-all at times. Some books get poor reviews because they do not deserve a good one. I’m sorry, but it is time some SP authors realised that their masterpiece was turned down by publisher after publisher and agent after agent for a good reason.
The book is not written very well.

Yes, everyone can write a book – not everyone can write a readable book.

 All too many of these “wow what a great read” reviews (on Amazon, Lulu, Goodreads etc) are so very clearly added by friends and family. Just as it is easy to spot the heckling troll deliberately targeting an author in an obnoxious and rude manner, it is easy to spot the deliberate “fab book” friends and relatives review.
 Look at their previous reviews, just one or two or none. Their only reviews are for this one author. Bit of a giveaway that. And most are not proper reviews just a “I loved this book” format. No detail of the plot, the writing style, the characterisation.
Now I must admit, I do this on Amazon – “Loved the book” sort of comments, but this is because I do not have time to write a full and proper review, and I am adding my personal comment as an author and reader, not a review as a reviewer.  
my Amazon reviews
I have protested about reviews, but not (I hope) rudely. One review was for a previous edition of Sea Witch on Kindle and it was not a good one: “don’t buy this it looks like it’s been set by an idiot” (not the exact words, but you get the gist) The thing is, the reviewer was right. My previous publisher had plonked it on Kindle with no idea how to upload the formatting properly. The result was a heap of nonsense – maybe that is why the company went bust? I had no choice but to add a comment though – that I agreed and this edition has now been removed and replaced by a properly produced one by a more competent publishing company.
What does irritate is that this particular reviewer (last time I looked) had not removed the review. I’m assuming he or she was quite happy to trash an author’s work, but not responsible enough to notice when said author had politely responded.

 As an aside regarding comments/reviews that rubbish an author’s use of punctuation and grammar:  I have come to the conclusion that US and UK ideals are not on the same level playing field. To us in the UK the game the US calls football is rugby. In the same way, our way of expressing things by the use of commas, for instance, is not the same as the US way of expressing things.
Reviewers please note that! Keep in mind UK English is not the same as US English.
That still doesn’t excuse the obvious typo – but read on….
I personally welcome constructive criticism – if I’ve made errors I want to know about them – however, and this is a big “however”: please keep in mind that typesetting and production are often beyond an author’s control. (I site my own novels here – after almost 20 years as an author I have finally got some decent, quality, editions that are properly produced – and I am talking mainstream and indie here. Some editions are out there with hideous typos, despite my efforts of proof reading. If the publisher, for whatever reason, does not correct the errors, or sets the book wrong, there is nothing, as an author, that I can do about it. Nor are the titles of my mainstream traditionally published novels my jurisdiction. I opposed Harold the King being changed to I Am The Chosen King so please rant at the publisher about it, not me. And don’t rate my book with one star because of it!
I must add in here a review left for one of my books that made me laugh outright – and hopefully prospective readers will realise the ridiculousness of it.
All errors are original:

“My hopes for this book were up after reading the reviews here, but I must confess I was very disappointed.
First of all, the plot is confusing. There is no clear line through the book. Second of all, the story is not deep. The characters are not well described, so their feelings and reactions do not seem natural to them. Oh, I did understand the love between the two main characters, but only because it was stated black on white, several times - it is simply not possible for me to feel this love the two characters apparently share. For me, a book is not good if I don't at least can feel sympathy for the main characters, and understand their line of action, and I certainly cannot with this book.
Last, there's an enourmous mount of text used to describe certain more or less uncomfourtable events. An amount not balanced to the amount of text used to describe the characters. It seems unnecessary and wrong for the plot.
So, to me this book is not an example of good writing, not even a good story. Furthermore, there were several errors in this version of the book, which is very disturbing. The only reason why I give this book two stars instead of one is that I actually came through it.
I'm sorry for mistypes and grammatical errors in this review - English is not my main language.”
This reviewer has two other reviews (for novels by different authors. One is:
“I read it through, but exciting - no. I never felt I was there, I never felt sympathy for the heroine, even though I tried. It was boring and not well written. The small parts of the children's story in the beginning of each chapter - not even remotely interesting.”
Ah, well it wasn’t just my book that disappointed then.

My point is – I so dearly want to respond with maybe this reviewer would understand the text, the plot – and not call me a bad writer – if she understood English better.
A classic example of blaming an author when it is your own failing that causes the problem.
Regardless of the rather absurd context of that review, it really is not wise to respond with an indignant protest. Genuine readers will see the silliness for what it is.
 Some authors leave themselves wide open for a rough ride by proclaiming themselves to be what they are not. Write historical fiction on the basis that you are a knowledgeable historian and have thoroughly researched the facts – then I have no sympathy when reviews find error after error, or condemn such an author’s novel as nonsense. I have never claimed to be anything I’m not. I do not possess a history degree (well I do have half of one – never bothered finishing it. I might one day.) My novels are “what might have really happened”. Note the word might.
Similarly if one author – published or prospective – slams another published author’s work as nonsense, then be careful that your own work is all you claim it to be, or you might be on the receiving end of the same sort of public trashing. What you send out comes back threefold.
So do reviews, good or bad, affect sales? General opinion seems to be that even a bad review is not as detrimental as it might first seem.  A good reviewer should be able to state that the book didn’t work for them, and therefore receive a low star rating, but it is  still possible to point out the positives, that people who enjoy such and such will love it. As example, I have received bad reviews because the reader did not like the detail in the battle scenes, or there was too much historical detail. Fair enough – but other readers prefer this sort of novel. As an author, you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. As reviewers, please don’t damn us unnecessarily.
As authors, though, are we expected to just sit back and take it? No, I do not think we are – but there are ways, and ways, of responding to a bad review – if you must respond:
Be polite.
Ok, so it is obvious the reviewer has not read the entire book, but just picked up on one element – let’s say the central character is anti-gay. There is no need to slam the whole book because of this (er… its fiction…..) Say openly “I did not like this book because of its anti-gay stance. I therefore did not finish reading it.” A good, fair comment – what is not acceptable is “This book is rubbish because its anti-gay”. Nor is it acceptable for the author – or agent, or whatever, to retaliate with “well you are a rubbish reviewer because you haven’t read it, so don’t know what it is about.”
Be respectful.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion. So a particular reviewer or person who has left a comment on Amazon has been less than pleasant. Do you really want to lower yourself to their level?
Acknowledge that everyone has their opinion, and you thank them for theirs, although perhaps it would have been nice for the reviewer to have got the protagonists name right: its Jesamiah Acorne, not Jeremy Acorne.
Be Dignified.
Rant back if you really want to – the temptation is especially difficult to resist on Facebook threads – but state your point and leave it at that.

Remember those Trolls I mentioned earlier?
If they look you in the eye and catch your attention, you are in grave danger of turning into a troll yourself…..