29 April 2013

The Lure of Pirates

What is it that intrigues us about pirates – apart from the drop-dead gorgeous Johnny Depp, of course, in his creative role as that scallywag Jack Sparrow (sorry, Captain, Captain Jack Sparrow). Mention pirates and eyes begin to twinkle, a smile broadens. An “Arrrhhh” escapes the lips. Old, young - women, men - boys, girls… Given the choice of dressing as a pirate or a wizard for a fancy dress party I would wager the outright winner would be the pirate.

A few years ago my (ex) agent wanted me to write something fantasy for teenagers; a Harry Potter look-alike. Until then I had only written historical fiction.
I tried to oblige. It didn’t work. I did not want to write about wizards. “What about Pirates?” I said to said ex-agent. “Everyone likes pirates.”

Apart, I was to discover, from said agent.

I created my plot on a beach in Dorset, England. The female lead was to be a healer and a midwife – and a white witch. I named her Tiola Oldstagh an anagram of ‘all that is good.’ I did not want Harry Potter-like spells, she would be more of a gifted wise woman an Obi wan Kenobi type who could use the ‘Force’. There would be a cold-hearted older brother who had bullied my pirate as a boy causing him to run away to sea, leaving the older brother to take all the inheritance. The pirate, of course, would seek revenge but after a fight and a near fatal wound he would meet and fall in love with Tiola – that was until the sea, piracy and the chance of commandeering the beautiful ship – Sea Witch - grew too strong.
I had my location, my plot, and my secondary characters. I sat on a rock in the rain and looked at the leaden grey English Channel and pictured the Caribbean. (I have a good imagination) I looked up. There he was, about a hundred yards away. Battered three cornered hat, jaw line beard, trailing moustache and blue ribbons fluttering from a chaos of black curls tumbling to his shoulders. Long, faded, buckram coat, a cutlass at his hip. He turned, I saw the glint of a golden acorn dangling from one ear. He saluted me, a quick, casual, touch of one finger to the brim of his hat – I had found my pirate captain.

“Hello Jesamiah Acorne,” I said. I had imagined him, but he seemed real at the time and has remained real ever since. I admit it - I am head over heels in love with my pirate. I began to write furiously, even on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day – Jesamiah was about to be drowned in a storm, I couldn’t leave him to the mercy of the elemental spirit of the sea, Tethys, even if I was supposed to be cooking Christmas Dinner and making merry with party hats and Christmas crackers.

I wrote that story out of sheer love for my character (A well respected internationally published UK author has told me the love shows and for that, Sea Witch is probably on of my best books.) I wrote the story for myself and for grown-ups who were quite happy to remain not quite grown-up and enjoy the fun of pirates. Full of hope and excitement I sent the finished manuscript to my agent. I waited three months to eventually be told to go away and write it for teenage boys. Adults, said ex-agent, are not interested in pirates.

Imagination cannot be forced and ideas cannot be summoned by a magic wand, not even when an agent resorts to ridicule as a consequence of an author putting her foot down and firmly saying, ‘Nay, my pirate adventure is for the adult market’. (What? Write it for kids? Delete the sexier scenes my pirate found himself entwined in? Never!) Consequently my agent dropped me, and also told me my mainstream publisher no longer wanted my books. She had the ‘generosity’ to wish me luck in finding another agent (knowing full well I would not be able to) and put the phone down on me.

American acorns are different to....
..... UK Acorns
I had faith in my story. I loved that story and my pirate. Nothing was going to stop me getting it published. To cut a long story short, I decided to self publish Sea Witch (and my entire backlist) although within a few months the small independent publisher I had signed up with introduced a mainstream list, to which I was immediately added. And since then Sourcebooks Inc of North America have taken all my historical fiction novels - The Pendragon's Banner Trilogy; A Hollowe Crown (re-titled Forever Queen) and Harold the King (re-titled I am the Chosen King )
The small UK mainstream publisher went belly-up in the spring of 2011, leaving me marooned again (and not even with a pistol with one shot - I didn't even get my files back). Fortunately, I had found Cathy Helms of www.avalongraphics.org to design new covers for me, and Helen Hart of www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk - it would mean going self publish here in the UK - and a mammoth task of re-editing all my books, because the files I had were all un-proof checked ones - and it would cost me a considerable amount of money, but these were my precious books, I had to keep them in print.

Writing this, these several years later, I am now working on the further voyages of Cpt Jesamiah Acorne – a loveable rogue to equal (dare I say surpass?) Jack Sparrow.
Jesamiah is riding a fast tide with a following wind, gaining fans by the boat-load. Adult fans. Grown ups who enjoy the excitement of a bit of pirate-based adventure fantasy escapism. And well, yes, a charismatic charmer to drool over. (And an intriguing beautiful, white witch for the guys.)

I agree, to a point with my ex-agent ..... at our age we ought to know better.
But come on, we are talking pirates here!

So what is this piratical attraction? Is it the romance of a Golden Age long past or the dream of sun-kissed islands washed by the hush of a sparkling blue sea? The bravado, the sheer couldn’t-care-less, ‘up yours’ attitude of pirates?
The treasure?
The rum?
The freedom?

Ah, the freedom! Pirates were a democratic lot, they did not concern themselves with officers; they elected their captain and marooned him if he turned out to be useless - as many of them did. The crew as a whole discussed where their next piratical cruise would be, scrupulously shared the resulting plundered booty and had rules, even if those rules were ‘more like guidelines’. Marooning was a favoured way of disposal – walking the plank, sadly does not seem to have an existence beyond Peter Pan and Treasure Island. Marooning was not killing, the victim had a chance to survive; Pirates were fussy like that. The vicitm was put ashore with a keg of water, a pistol and shot. Very thoughtful that, when the water was gone he could shoot himself. Suicide was not murder, no one took the blame. All very tidy.

The original Robinson Crusoe, Andrew Selkirk, was marooned; a real man in real history - although strictly speaking he was not marooned, nor was he a pirate. Selkirk disapproved of the captain, claiming the ship was badly run and chose to disembark at an island off the coast of Chile. He was right about the ship. It sank. He miscalculated the marooning bit though. It was four years before another ship sailed by; the story did Daniel Defoe a good turn, though. I wonder if Defoe had an agent?
“Look Daniel old chap, I want you to write something for the younger readers, something with a bit of fantasy in it. Robinson Potter…?”

The movie Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl was fun, but I was a writer of serious historical fiction, my novels meticulously researched, written as “what might have really happened”. Wanting to know the facts about pirates niggled. I started researching.

Surprisingly, the base idea of the (first) Disney movie is accurate - leaving out the cursed treasure, skeletons, magic compass and the fact that Port Royal had virtually been abandoned after an earthquake in 1692. What the heck! Pirates were a drunken, flamboyant lot of rogues who lusted after rum, treasure and the nearest strumpet. (Not necessarily in that order.) The Royal Navy, once it finally got its act together circa 1720 because lucrative trade was being disrupted, hunted the pirates down and hanged them - pyrates ye be warned!

Blackbeard was a fiercesome tyrant, (he features in the third Sea Witch Voyage – Bring It Close) Captain Kid was hanged at Wapping, and Jack Rackham who sailed with two female pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny also met with a short drop and a sudden stop. Mary died of jail fever and Anne Bonny was released because she was pregnant - no one knows what happened to her after that. Popular believe has it that if Rackham and his men had not been drunk below deck and  possessed the guts to fight, they might not have been caught. As it was, the girls fired their pistols and slashed with their cutlasses. The men hid.
(although I'm not certain that was right - see my Journeys to the Past )

Jack Sparrow was a fabulous creation. His trinkets and fine clothes, the swaggering manner, were all real. Johnny Depp is quoted as saying pirates were the rock stars of their time. Yes, but without the money. Most pirates didn’t make their fortune and were a poor, scurvy and syphilis-riddled lot. Most were unwashed, unkempt scoundrels who chewed tobacco, drank whatever they could get their hands on and fornicated as if there was no tomorrow.
Hmm, perhaps Mr Depp was right. Sounds like a rock star after all.

A few pirates made it to the top. Captain Henry Jennings was one. He used his brain, cunning and daring. When a Spanish treasure fleet went down off the coast of Florida, unlike the other pirates who flocked to the scene like sharks to blood, Jennings waited for the Spanish to do all the hard work of salvaging the treasure then calmly raided the warehouse and sailed off with a fortune in his hold. He retired to the Bahamas and lived in style, no doubt to a ripe old age.
The poetic licence of writing fiction gives leave to blatantly plunder reality. In Sea Witch, it’s my pirate who steals that treasure. Although Jennings is there as his side-kick.

My ex-agent did not like the name Acorne either. I was told to change it. I cried forlorn buckets and tried to explain, ‘but that is his name!’ She did not like my story being an adult but fun pirate yarn. “Your character is a drunken womaniser." (er... pirate?) "Women,” she said, “do not like pirate novels. Pirates are for boys. The Pirates of the Caribbean movie was made for families, for boys. You have got it wrong, your target audience does not exist.”

What a put down. It hurt, but I knew she was wrong.
To be fair, even Disney did not realise what they had in Johnny Depp’s Sparrow at first – but he knew how to play the character to interest us ladies. As does my Jesamiah.

I’m sorry if that sounds big-headed but I’ve turned pirate and pirates, above all else, were cock-sure believers in themselves.
It might sound daft but I have gained so much confidence since my Jesamiah arrived on the scene. Rile me and all I have to do is think of him; the steel sound of his cutlass being slowly drawn from its scabbard...

Does wonders for personal moral, having your very own pirate lurking behind your shoulder.

Inspiration at its most droolable!

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