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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 June 2007

The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

Brenda Starr -- um, Amanda Elyot -- reporting from the second Historical Novel Society convention, which was held in Albany last weekend. It was a 2-day whirlwind of speeches and seminars, featuring many of our favorite historical novelists, anchored by the marquee names of the lovely Diana Gabaldon and the irrepressible Bernard Cornwell.

I was especially drawn to the lectures on historical research, hoping to pan some gold nuggets from the various speakers' treasure troves of information. To that end, I found Cindy Vallar and James Nelson's terrific seminar on Bringing Pirates to Life particularly informative; in fact, I couldn't take notes fast enough. Confession-time: as a child I used to fantasize about getting captured by pirates. I'm not too sure what that says about me, or my home life. Natually, I couldn't pass up the discussion at the convention.

Vallar and Nelson's suggestions for researching real-life pirates, their haunts, and their behavior, would apply to other historical research as well, of course. Nelson, a maritime historian, cautioned that it's all too easy to get so bogged down in your research (or so in love with your topic) that you never get around to writing the novel. A number of authors, including Cornwell, echoed the sentiment that there comes a point (and only the author can decide when that moment is) where you just have to shove aside the pile of books and start to let your fingers do the walking on the keyboard. Nelson suggested that secondary sources, and even children's lit, which boils the history down to its essentials, is fabulous for getting the big picture--any big picture. Save your research from primary sources for the small picture--the invaluable minutiae that will give your novel both verisimilitude and punch.

Pirates have an evergreen allure, something Hollywood and Disney have capitalized on for years, from Captain Peter Blood to Captain Jack Sparrow. These marauders of the deep have been around for centuries; in fact Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates. And they still exist today on the high seas--they just don't wear frothy jabots at their throats. But when we think of pirates, we're usually picturing those swashbucklers (which Vallar explained isn't really a proper term for pirates, except as it may apply to the dashing and charismatic Errol Flynn in Captain Blood), from the era known as the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1650-1720).

Errol Flynn and supporting cast in Captain Blood
Now, why the Caribbean? First of all, it was warm. Never underestimate the lure of lovely weather. Outdoor professions can become downright unpleasant when you're freezing and wet. Secondly, there was gold. Oro. And Spain was shipping it out by the galleon. At the early cusp of the golden age, there was a political quality to piracy. Men like Sir Francis Drake (a hero to the English but still considered a pirate by the Spanish) were given tacit permission by the crown to board and plunder Spanish vessels. It was England's way of sticking it to an age-old enemy without having to start a war with them.

We have many synonyms for the word "pirate," but to use them interchangeably in your novel might reflect a lack of research. For example:

The word "buccaneer" comes from the wooden frames called "boucons" on which a certain group of barely civilized French poachers living on Hispaniola at the time would smoke their meat, mainly cattle and pigs. Those wild, barely educated men soon became known throughout the world as buccaneers. They were not marauders of the high seas, but used ships as transport, descending on Spanish Caribbean territories, sacking them, and transporting the booty back to their home port of Tortuga (one of two pirate-governed locations, the other being Port Royal in Jamaica). Often it would take several raids to accomplish their mission.

The crowns of France and England quickly discovered that buccaneers could be highly useful as mercenaries, or privateers. The monarchs gave the pirate captains a letter of marque, sanctioning their existence and permitting them to raid Spanish towns for a percentage of the booty. Captain Henry Morgan was one such pirate, sacking Panama City. His punishment? He was dragged back to England and knighted for his pains. But by the end of the 17th century, the buccaneer era was drawing to a close. England, France, and the Netherlands were gaining a foothold in the Caribbean and no longer needed mercenaries to do their dirty work.

Capt. Henry Morgan (1635-88), Welsh Buccaneer
Vallar and Nelson set the record straight on some of the proper terms for pirates, depending on the era and location of the piracy, and exploded some pirate lore as well:

The word "pirate" is generic. You can get away with using it in any setting.
"Buccaneer" refers to pirates of a specific time (the 1600s up to 1720-ish) and place (the Caribbean).

A "privateer" (like Drake or Morgan) had a letter of marque from his monarch giving him permission to attack an enemy ship. The word "privateer" however can be applied to an individual, such as the captain of the ship, to the crew, and to the ship itself. Try using the word 3 times in 1 sentence to hit all the definitions!

A "corsair" was specifically a pirate plying the Mediterranean and North African coast. While the Barbary corsairs were Moslems whose mission was to intercept and otherwise disrupt Christian shipping, especially Spanish vessels, Vallar mentioned that the Knights of Malta were Christian corsairs. If your pirate is neither of these, but is French, you can still refer to him (or her) as a "corsair," as it's the French word for the profession.

Mythbusting: Some of the common physical portrayals of pirates depict them with any number of stereotypical accoutrements--an eyepatch, a peg leg, an earring, and a parrot or monkey on their shoulder. Starting with the first misconception, Cindy Vallar reminded us that anyone in the era who had a bad eye could have an eyepatch.

More than likely, peg legs for pirates are fictional inventions (e.g., Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver in Treasure Island), because such a prosthesis was expensive, and everything a pirate owned or wore, from the froth at his throat to the cutlasses and pistols he sported at his waist or around his neck (many pirates beribboned their pistols and hung them around their necks for easy access, one assumes, as each pistol was capable of firing only a single shot), was "borrowed" from his victims. We think of pirates as looking so devilishly sexy, when actually, pirates wore whatever they could liberate. In that era of peacocks, men in general dressed that way, though perhaps pirates, who found it safer to wear some of the valuables they stole, as opposed to storing them, were a bit flashier.


As for monkeys and parrots, odds are the pirates didn't maintain them as pets, but kept them until they reached a port where, because they were valuable as exotic creatures, the pirate could make good coin by selling them.

As for the gold earring, though sailors, who owned few personal effects, often wore them so that they would still have something to be sold to pay for a proper burial, it's probable that pirates weren't so nice, even if they did sign articles of agreement that prohibited stealing from your mates. A dead pirate with a gold hoop was likely left ignominiously just where he lay, with a ripped earlobe in the bargain.

It was a risky profession; not one for the faint of heart, and rarely the get-rich-quick scheme that dreamers of freedom on the high seas imagined it would be. Pirate captains were a bit like authors: a few made a fabulous income, but most of them found marauding a hard way to make ends meet, and were always keeping a weather eye open for possible mutiny, should they fail to provide for their crew.

So what's your take on pirates: romantic or repulsive? Gritty or glamorous? Would you have liked to sail with a real pirate such as Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, or Edward Teach, or do you prefer the popcorn pirates, sailing from the comfort of your couch with Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp?

14 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

The pirate as a hero never did it for me...I have a hard time buying into the concept of a dashing, passionate but basically good pirate who could care about a women (the heroine) more than the clothes and baubles she wore or her value as a captive for ransome.

My son is soooo into pirates, we read a lot of kids' research books on them and you know, I keep thinking---a REAL pirate would have killed her (the heroine). Bringing a woman on a ship was bad luck.

If you were a pirate, you were BAD. You made your living that way. Hard to sugar coat a real pirate, IMO.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pirates don't work for me -- the glamour faded when we lived in Puerto Rico and there was trouble with modern pirates who were vicious and merciless.

That said, your post was full of useful and interesting information.

Sometime tell us how long this conference has been around. I never heard of it before you mentioned that you were attending. And then another writer friend told me she was going. I know it's not geared for romance writers but students of history transcend genres, right?

7:44 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I've always been fascinated by Mary Reed and Anne Bonny. They were the only girl pirates on the walls of Disney's PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN ride and I always just loved that they were there. If I ever write a pirate book, the heroine will be the pirate!

8:05 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm with Kalen; I have always wanted to write a Lady Pirate book as well. I proposed something on Bonny and Read to my historical fiction editor a while back, but they felt they had "done" lady pirates, having published a novel on the Irish pirate lass, Grace O'Malley (there's a really badly reviewed musical currently on B'way about Grace).

Last weekend's Historical Novel Society convention was the second one they had in the U.S. (The first was in 2005 in Salt Lake City). I don't know how long they've been around, but I believe they did hold conferences in England prior to 2005.

The HNS conference was most definitely for writers (who, yes, are definitely history geeks), with the focus on the authors of historical fiction, as opposed to those writing historical romance. But research is research, and I'm sure many of the current titles for sale last weekend, and on the attending authors' backlists, contain love stories.

I'll be posting on the distinctions/differences between historical fiction and historical romance -- discussions that came up at the convention -- this weekend.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Wow--fascinating blog column! I have always loved pirates!
I highly, highly recommend Lisa Jensen's pirate novel, "Witch from the Sea" (Beagle Bay Books).

11:04 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Like Kathrynn, I've never been a fan of pirates as romantic heroes. Though, if one of my CPs were here, she'd point out that contradicts my Han Solo crush from childhood or my more recent Nathan Fillion as Mal Reynolds love. So I guess I make an exception, but only for space pirates.

My 3-year-old is really into pirates, but of course she doesn't really understand what a pirate is yet. I mean, she's getting her info from Max & Ruby and the Backyardigans. But it's made her more interested in my research books, because to her any man in 18th or early 19th century attire is a pirate. (I'm pretty sure the Duke of Wellington is still spinning in his grave after she gleefully described a lovely equestrian portrait of him as "a pirate! Arr!") I'm hoping this is an early sign I'm raising a history buff...

I was at the HNS conference to, though I don't think we ever crossed paths, Amanda. I was the person at the back of the room at Irene Goodman's Q&A who asked the question about alternate history.

I'll be interested in reading your thoughts on historical romance vs. historical fiction, because my alternate history is my first non-romance manuscript. Of course, it's a genre straddler that would probably be sold on the fantasy racks even though it's "straight" alternate history without paranormal or fantastic elements. I know I can't see myself writing an biographical novel about a famous woman, which seems to be the leading trend in hist fic, though I often enjoy reading them. I can do fictional people in real circumstances or real people in fictional circumstances (the protagonist of my alternate history is a well-known real person; it's just his circumstances that are changed out of recognition!). But fictional biographies just don't grab my muse.

I hope my muse eventually decides to be grabbed by something that'll sell. Silly muse....

12:42 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Ooo, right on, Susan. I love space pirates. Much easier to imagine them without the rape, though I have no idea why. Also, in my imagination they're much cleaner.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Excellent, excellent article!

I'm very much the popcorn variety of pirates. Pirates in romance novels do mean a much higher suspension of belief and it all depends on the writer, some manage it handily, others don't.

Women pirates--vey cool. Even if straight historical editors aren't interested, Amanda, I'm sure the historical romance publishers would be interested.

Amanda, looking forward to your post this weekend.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Yes, Amanda, like Mary said-- your post is full of useful and very interesting information!

I for one didn't know why pirates wore gold earrings--frippery I thought? Wealth flaunting? But I think your take on what happened to that earing (and the ear) after a pirate died is "dead" on!

Okay, sorry for the pun and thanks for myth busting, fun post.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I tried to write a pirate book once, and all my gay male friends generously shared all their Nelson's-Navy-cabin-boy fantasiies. But then one of them suggested I might have to get on a boat. In rough weather. And somehow I never did write that book.

10:33 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating info about pirates and the conference in general. When I was a child, I loved a novel called "Jade" by Sally Watson with a heroine who ends up beocming a pirate and sailing with Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which sent me off to thel library in search of more information about lady pirates (I was always fascinated by historical women who got to do interesting things). I've never got far enough away from Regency/Napoleonic Europe to write about pirates, but if the characters went on a voyage and crossed paths with them...

12:48 AM  
Blogger anne said...

Real pirates in general skeeve me out, specially the mechanized ones of the modern Caribbean. But as someone who lived in Lower Manhattan and is still inclined to roam there on extensive visits, I was always fascinated by the fact that Captain Kydd lived and sailed from there. It's rather bizarre, albeit amusing, to think of a scruffy guy in an earring and going "aaarrr" skulking amid the Suits of Wall Street.

Hang on...that was the proprietor of a doggy boutique I saw doing that last Sunday...

No doubt about it: I prefer to limit my pirate-admiration to Jack Sparrow and Captain Blood, who wasn't a real pirate, anyway, LOL!

2:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I always had a mad crush on Errol Flynn (ever since I saw him in the Robin Hood film, actually), so of course I had to see him in "Captain Blood." There were people LIKE doctor Peter Blood who turned pirate because what their government/monarch was doing was just as evil and they thought someone ought to stand up and rebel (nowadays perhaps you can liken that to people who make it easy for financially strapped senior citizens to get the meds they need from Canada at affordable prices, because our own gov't is in bed with the pharmaceutical lobbies and keeps the prices for much-needed meds very high here in the U.S.) Okay, I'll hop off the political soapbox before I find myself in hot water, but the meds from Canada issue just occurred to me, and I thought of how that might be applied to a modern form of "pirate" who was doing something they felt was morally right, even if it might be not exactly legal. So maybe there are "good pirates" in that sense -- the Peter Blood sense, who are rising up against an oppressive regime; but certainly the most famous real-life pirates such as Blackbeard or Barbarossa (the latter would be a corsair) were not good guys.

5:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I prefer my pirates either funny (Johnny Depp, Pirates of Penzance) or sexy ala Errol Flynn. There two movies about Blackbeard, one with James Purefoy and one with Angus MacFadyen, and they both played him in his long-bearded smelly glory and it didn't work for me. Not romantic enough.

12:52 PM  

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