A good friend of mine read Sea Witch the first of my pirate-based Sea Witch Voyages a short while ago. I was a little stunned by his response – but it got me thinking.
(Ok no sarcastic remarks relating to that last statement please!)
There’s been quite a bit of debate about whether Historical Fiction should be more fiction than fact, or more fact than fiction - and I guess I am including movies & T.V. drama here as well as novels. We all know how entertaining Braveheart was – and how completely unhistorical! On the other hand, read an Elizabeth Chadwick or a Sharon Penman and you know you are getting your money’s worth regarding fact perfectly blending with the fictional made-up bits.
For my Sea Witch Voyages, I twiddle with the facts of history, my sailing detail is as accurate as I can get it – but there is also a huge wedge of outright fantasy. The Voyages are not meant to be taken seriously; they are nautical adventure with a big dash of make-believe.
But here’s what has stumped me. These books are pirate-based (my lead character becomes an ex-pirate by Voyage Two, Pirate Code but that is immaterial in this context).
Here’s the gist of what my friend said:
“I finished Sea Witch yesterday. I loved it. The plot is terrific… There are so many twists and turns, yet the whole novel has a consistent flow to it. The senses of time and place are superb, in fact could hardly be bettered. I heard the noises and felt the movement of the ships. I felt I was on the sea, and the nautical jargon was pitch-perfect. It’s good to have been entertained and educated at the same time.
Normally I would have disliked the paranormal stuff, but actually I enjoyed it even when, towards the end, the contest between Tethys and Tiola came to dominate the action. It was a thrilling battle of wills with an awesome, nautical backdrop. “
So far so good… but…
“I found Jesamiah Acorne a loathsome character (the word is not too strong) from beginning to end. Didn’t that put me off? Strangely not, for reasons which will become apparent. I never wanted Tiola and Jesamiah to come together, and when they parted at Cape Town (that passage was particularly brilliant and unexpected), I didn’t want her to be reunited with him at any stage. There are several reasons why I disliked Jesamiah so much…”
That stunned me. Didn’t like my darling character Jesamiah? The love of my (fictional) life? My hero… my…. Well, you get the drift.
My friend went on to say:
“I don’t find piracy attractive in the slightest. I feel the same way about gangsters and the Mafia. They do horrible things purely for personal gain. No ‘Robin Hood’ motives there. Perhaps I’m being unreasonable and unimaginative by failing to take into account the harsh conditions of the time. The opening scene, which is exciting and graphic, reveals him committing barbarities with only the basest motive.
The character of Stefan van Overstratten is introduced in a reasonably favourable light, unlike Phillipe Mereno, who is quite clearly repulsive from the start. So in the competition for Tiola’s affections, it was natural for me to side with Stefan rather than Jesamiah from the beginning. Only in the second half of the book was Stefan shown to be more nasty. As for Jesamiah, I waited in vain throughout the novel for some noble or redemptive act. He never performed one, his only ‘virtues’ being that he was a good seaman and captain and loved the heroine. But for me he was well ahead of Stefan in the nastiness stakes almost throughout. Only when he was in trouble with the repulsive Phillipe and then finally confronted him did I want him to succeed.”
Well that was pretty blunt. I was a little bit huffy – but this is when I got to thinking to myself: “Hmm. Has he got a good point.”
The majority of Historical Fiction readers want the facts interwoven with their fiction (as writers do we have a ‘duty of care’ to give the facts as best we can?) It does bother me that there are some, shall we say ‘ungenerous’ people out there (mostly on Social Media) who take delight in trashing an author’s hard work because of the tiniest of slips – this I do find irritating. The key word is FICTION. Fiction means made-up, untrue, not fact. If these people want pure, 100% fact then read non-fiction not a STORY.
But where, then, do we stand with writing fiction that is meant to be a “fun tongue-in-cheek read” where the lead character is clearly NOT factually written nor meant to be taken seriously/factually?
I don’t see my Jesamiah as a brute of a pirate. Yes he’s pillaged and plundered, yes he attacks and kills innocent people… but so does James Bond, Indiana Jones, the Three Musketeers, highwaymen…Game of Thrones... In movies, stories, etc we think of pirates as Romantic Heroes: Errol Flynn, Jack Sparrow, Jesamiah Acorne… Don’t we? (and what about Vikings and Vampires?)
Jesamiah is a made-up character. He isn’t real, the stories are meant to be read with an air of suspended belief. But perhaps they shouldn’t be?
Perhaps I should have written something more factual? Although that would have made Sea Witch a completely different novel of course.
Jesamiah has a rapidly expanding fan base. I’ve never had a reader react so “factually” before – well, none who have actually responded to me. (Apart from my ex-agent who loathed the book – but she wanted me to write it for children. I was adamant it was for adults. ) Come to think of it, isn’t Treasure Island full of gruesome characters?
So here’s my question – do we happily accept the made-up when it comes to the in reality bad-guys becoming the heroes of fiction? Are we happy to totally suspend belief when it comes to the romantic rogue of a hero? Or should we be more careful about portraying more factually in our fiction the people who were – let’s face it - the terrorists of their time?
Has my friend missed the point (that the story is made-up fiction and is not meant to be taken seriously) - or has he made a very thought-provoking and valid point? (that even if made-up and not meant to be taken seriously why do we 'romanticise' these louts?)
|Pirates? Valentines or Villains?|
I am really grateful to my friend because he has made me think, and to see a different side to what we tend to blindly accept as OK because its fiction.
But what say you?