11 November 2014

Tuesday Talk: Meet Susan Keogh's Jack Mallory...

by Susan Keogh

First and foremost, my Jack Mallory trilogy is a sea story. However, there is nearly as much happening on land as well, specifically Charles Town, Carolina (modern day Charleston, South Carolina). So you could say Jack’s two worlds are specific colors: blue and green. I thought I would tell you a bit about those worlds and the real life inspirations behind the settings of my novels.The story starts in 1685, but most of the adventure takes place in 1692.

The first novel, The Prodigal, begins in the Caribbean, both on land and sea, but the majority of the story takes place at sea as Jack’s pirate brig, Prodigal, sails to the waters off the colonial province of Carolina (which included both modern-day North and South Carolinas) as he searches for James Logan, the pirate responsible for the murder of Jack’s father and the kidnapping of his mother. 

The Prodigal herself was inspired by a modern-day replica of the U.S. brig Niagara, which sails out of Erie, Pennsylvania. The Niagara, however, is from the War of 1812, some 120 years after Jack Mallory sails, so her design has many differences from the Prodigal, including her sail plan. For example, the Prodigal did not carry jibs or staysails. Those came into use a bit later. Yet the Niagara is a brig (two-masts), and so I could learn about the sails and rigging and how such a vessel performed by studying her.
I was fortunate enough to sail upon her multiple times, once as a crewmember (and I recommend anyone visiting Erie to sign up for one of their many day sails; it’s an experience you won’t forget)..

Jack Mallory’s time at sea takes him as far north as James Town, Virginia, the oldest settlement in the United States. This visit occurs during the third and most recent novel, The Fortune.

James Town is preserved as a national historic site, another place I highly recommend for a visit. As you can see in the photo I took below during my research trip, archaeological digs continue to progress there, revealing more and more about the history of America’s first settlement.

In the background of the picture is the James River. Temperatures the day of my visit hovered above 100 degrees F. I purposefully went during the same time of year that Jack had gone there so I (a Yankee from Michigan) could get a feel for the environment.

The ending of The Prodigal takes place off the Outer Banks of modern day North Carolina, and this is also where the second book, The Alliance, picks up the story. My visit to the Outer Banks, of course, reflects a much different landscape than back in Jack Mallory’s day—beaches lined with mile after mile of vacation rental homes.

But there are still signs of piracy on those shores.

The sections of the stories that take place on land are primarily set at Leighlin Plantation outside of Charles Town, some twelve miles up the Ashley River. The name of the plantation is taken from a small town in Ireland, the birthplace of the plantation’s owner (the town of Leighlin is known today as Leighlinbridge). Non-Irish readers will no doubt pronounce its name as Lee-lin, but the correct pronunciation is closer to Leck-lin. Leighlin is presented as one of the first Carolina plantations to grow rice, a crop that would eventually become the colony’s greatest export and thus one of the reasons behind the importation of thousands of African slaves.

When I wrote the first draft of The Prodigal, I had laid out the interior of Leighlin House pretty well but was still a bit sketchy about the exterior. It wasn’t until I went to Charleston for my first research trip that I decided what the house truly looked like, both inside and out. I visited three plantations while I was there, one being Drayton Hall, which is a National Trust Historic Site and a place I urge all visitors to Charleston to experience.

Drayton Hall is a magnificently preserved plantation house, originally built in the early 1700’s, its architecture inspired by Andrea Palladio.

Symmetry is in all things. One can virtually cut Drayton Hall down the center and find equal halves in each side. Each of the two floors has a central room—the Great Hall on the first level and another on the second, with two rooms leading off each side. Those chambers are nearly mirror images of one another.

The lowest level of the house is a raised English basement. In Leighlin House, this area is used not only for plantation stores but its connecting rooms are occupied by the house servants and the handful of white workers.

I fell in love with Drayton the first time I toured the house. I knew the minute I stepped inside that this would be the design on which I based Leighlin House. From the outside it seems immense, but the interior somehow provides a feeling of a much smaller house, of a certain intimacy and charm.

When it comes to the land surrounding Leighlin House, I knew I wanted something grand and unique. And there are few places as grand and unique as Middleton Plantation, located just up the Ashley River from Drayton Hall. (A bit of movie trivia for you: the grounds of Middleton were used for a scene in the Mel Gibson Revolutionary War movie “The Patriot.”)

I spent hours on both of my visits wandering the lush, manicured grounds with its glorious, huge gardens. While I didn’t include the intricately-designed garden for Leighlin (I used only a small part of it while the overall design I used for Wildwood Plantation), I knew I wanted to use many of the other features of the land, such as the bluff on which the house sits, the river view, and the ornamental ponds. 

The path in the photo above leads to beautiful green, sweeping terraces. Below the terraces are the two ornamental ponds that form the shape of butterfly wings. While I didn’t get as elaborate as the wings, I did incorporate the ponds into Leighlin’s landscape.

Beyond the ponds would be Leighlin’s main landing, for in those days the river was the only way to travel to and from Charles Town as well as to ship products downriver to be sold and shipped by sea to distant markets.

So now when you read the Jack Mallory trilogy, you will have a good image of where many of the scenes take place. There are sword fights and ship-to-ship battles aboard the Prodigal when Jack is at sea, and when he is ashore there is intrigue and more than one lady to keep him busy, all set to a backdrop of early colonial America.


  1. Thank you for the photos. They bring the ideas of your story to life. I use Pinterest boards when I'm brainstorming a story and I find that photos are useful in leading me down those paths.

    1. Same here Petrea - images can be very powerful as inspiration=joggers!

    2. Thanks, Petrea. I agree with you about the value of visuals when writing. Really helps!

  2. Comment from Caryl Lawrence McAdoo (for some reason Blogger wouldn't let her post) "Loved the history you've provided, Susan, especially with the photographs. A picture really does say a thousand words Jack sounds like a very colorful character, too. Thank you Helen for hosting Susan! I really do need to get to South Carolina and tour Drayton Hall! Blessings from Texas!" Thanks Caryl !

    1. Thanks, Caryl. I hope you get a chance to visit Charleston. If you enjoy the arts, I highly recommend late May/early June when the Spoleto Festival is going on. It is awesome! Plays, concerts, etc. etc.

  3. Love the sound of your book and the places that your research took you. Suspect my days of visiting places for research are limited - by my wheelchair. Trying to research War of 1812 by reading diary of a RN naval officer based on Lake Eire. Maybe a bit of fiction might help as well.

    1. Thanks, Roland. If you are a fan of the War of 1812 and ever get a chance to visit Erie, Pennsylvania, I recommend the Maritime Museum, which is where the brig Niagara is (which I mentioned in this blog post). Her former captain, Walter Rybka, is quite the scholar on the subject.

    2. The good thing about the Internet is that we can travel to many places from the comfort of home - the world has become a lot smaller. I personally think that fiction is also wonderful for visiting places - and for time travel!

  4. Helen et al, and especially Roland: I live in southern California but most of my novel, "Camelot & Vine," is set in England. I wanted it to be authentic so I scoured the web for photos and information. I also enlisted my British friends to give me their impressions of the area, and I received from them photos, ideas, and even maps! It can be done, and people really do want to help.

    1. I've done the same Petrea - and Google Earth can also be quite useful.


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