Monday, May 25, 2015

How to Write a Pirate Story

As a writer, I occasionally mentor young people who are trying to learn the craft. Fiction is a noble art, but it’s an art rather than a science, which means that there is no one way to do it correctly. Still, there are some broad “rules” that can help get it right.

Usually the first rule of writing is to have a clear conflict. This is a good rule, but when it comes to writing about pirates, I like to go one better. Yes, you need to have a conflict. But in my pirate stories, I like to have several conflicts. Such as… Major conflict #1: The pirates capture a ship that is carrying slaves, then have to decide what to do with the human cargo. Then I add some infighting – three groups of pirates with three different agendas. Throw in an attack by the Royal Navy and I’ve got a story.

For your own writing, start with this: If you can’t say what your story is about in one simple sentence, the problem may be your story. Leave out the “ands”. Not, “She runs away and she finds out her dad was a pirate, and she falls in love with a pirate boy and then she gets beaten up by…” No. “It’s about a girl who won’t conform to what is expected of her, runs away to be a pirate and finds her one true love.”

Rule two is to write what you know. Everybody says that, but it doesn’t mean that if you’re a twenty-something American, you can only write about twenty-something Americans. It means that if you are going to write about something you haven’t personally experienced, you had better do your homework.

In my case, this means over ten years of reading about pirates, hand making pirate era clothes, cooking pirate-era food and researching ships and the sea. I started this blog because I was learning so many cool things that I needed to have a place to share them all. So, if you want a crash-course on pirate info, this blog would be a decent place to start.

But this rule isn’t absolute. The only thing is that, if you have no idea at all how some kind of pirate-stuff worked, don’t make that the main part of your story.  If your main character stands at the wheel, driving the ship in the same way he would drive a car through town, it’s going to be obvious that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Rule three is that you need three dimensional characters. Many writers want to make their characters “perfect”. In real life, no one is perfect and if you try to make a character perfect, it’s going to be obvious that you are writing fake people.

The sort of character that fulfills all the wishes of an author has a name. It’s called a Mary-Sue, (or a Gary-Stu, if male) and there is even a test for your pirate character, located here. It’s a scream to read, and is also a really fantastic lesson in what NOT to do in making up fictional people. (This is aimed at people writing Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction, just so you know.)

Real people are messy, contradictory, and downright strange. My female pirate, Scarlet MacGrath, would much rather have stayed home, gotten married, and had some kids. But circumstances put her on the high seas, and a culture that allowed the unfair treatment of women forced her to take the law into her own hands and become a pirate. Now she’s caught somewhere between the love of adventure and the lure of hearth and home. In short, a rounded person.

Those are the big three, and if you get those right, you won’t go far wrong.

Of course, there are others. It goes without saying that you need to be able to write good English. If you don’t know how to write correctly, you can never write vividly. Using the correct word is important, and you can’t just do that by right-clicking and using the thesaurus tool. Every word has a slightly different meaning, and choosing a word that you don’t know can make you look like an amateur.

Sometimes (not often, thank heavens!) I look for as long as an hour to find just the right word.

A significant rule for writers is that you should make your writing about 1/3 action, 1/3 description, and 1/3 dialogue.  This is over the long run, of course. It’s only when you see the writing over about 1,000 words or so that this balance shows itself.

This leads us to dialogue. How do pirates talk? Well, if you did your research, up in step two, you know that pirates came from a variety of backgrounds, and therefore spoke in many different ways. I write my pirates with Irish, English, French, Spanish and Dutch accents, and have watched many YouTube videos which explain to me how these accents work. I’m better at English, Irish and French, so I’m unlikely to have any Spanish characters until I get better at that. Write what you know.

If you don’t want to get tangled up in accents, it’s perfectly okay to just write standard dialogue, with a few colorful words thrown in for flair. The trick is to cut out all the excessively modern words and phrases. Terms like “24/7” “you know” “not like” and “amazing” will pull your reader out of the mythic land of pirates and back into the twenty-first century. And this is really sometimes really hard to find and eliminate these modern words, since they are the ones you say every day.

My answer for a lot of dialogue voices is to watch a movie that is set in the time and place you want to portray. If you listen to the way the people in the movie speak, it can help you construct dialogue for your writing.

This is only part of the huge amount of effort it takes to tell a good story on paper. If you’d like to just cut to the chase and read some good pirate tales instead, click the link to buy copies of my two novels, Gentlemen and Fortune and Bloody Seas, available now on Amazon.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mutiny on the Bounty

Leaving the subject of the Royal Navy and getting back to pirates brings us to the subject of the mutiny on the Bounty. It’s a little out of our time period… The HMS Bounty left England in December of 1787. The Bounty’s mission was related to the Caribbean… the ship was supposed to bring breadfruit trees from Tahiti to England’s Caribbean colonies, where the fruit would provide cheap food for the region’s many slaves. But the ship never made it back. The Bounty’s story takes place in the South Pacific.

A reproduction of the Bounty

HMS Bounty was bought by the Royal Navy just for this mission alone. At 91 feet long and 25 feet at her widest point, she was rated as a cutter, the smallest of the navy’s armed ships. The ship’s crew consisted of 44 sailors, 2 civilian botanists, and Lieutenant William Bligh. Because of the ship’s small size, it was commanded by a lieutenant, who was the only commissioned officer on board.

That’s right. Bligh, one of the most famous British commanders, was called “captain” only as a courtesy.


Cutters like the Bounty also did not have any Royal Marines on board. One of the duties of marines was to support the captain’s authority.

But in the beginning it didn’t seem that marines would be needed. Bligh had assembled many former shipmates for the voyage, including Fletcher Christian, a well-educated young man who had left a potential career as an attorney to join the navy. Christian had served two voyages with Bligh, who had taught the young man the skills of a navigator.

The Bounty had been specially outfitted for the journey, with the stern of the ship, usually the captain’s quarters, converted into a seagoing greenhouse. Bligh shifted his quarters to rooms on the starboard side of the ship. Other officers – the gunner, sailing master, boatswain and surgeon each occupied a tiny, private cabin, and the rest of the crew were crammed into a 36' by 22' foot space at the front of the ship. Headroom was 5’7”.

The voyage was delayed 3 weeks past its originally appointed date, while Bligh waited for the Admiralty to write orders. Contrary winds kept them in port for another month. When they finally sailed in late December, they had lost the window for favorable weather rounding Cape Horn (the tip of South America). Bligh reached Cape Horn in April, and struggled to make the passage for two weeks. Beaten back again and again, Bligh finally gave up, and ran for the Cape of Good Hope (southern tip of Africa).

This route was more successful. Bligh reached Tahiti on October 26, 1788.

The trip had not been uneventful. Bligh had played favorites among his officers, obviously favoring Christian over more experienced men. To cement Christian’s position, Bligh promoted him to acting lieutenant. Originally cheerful and enthusiastic about finding improved ways to keep his crew healthy, Bligh began to suffer from mood swings. He believed he had been passed over for recognition of his previous accomplishments, and may have been disappointed that this voyage was not going especially well.

Also, the surgeon, while treating a member of the crew for asthma, killed him instead.

The Bounty's route to Tahiti
Bligh traded with the Tahitian chief, offering gifts in exchange for the 1,000 breadfruit trees the expedition was supposed to acquire. The chief was happy to comply. But because of the many delays in sailing, no trees were at the correct developmental stage to be transported. The Bounty’s crew would need to wait in Tahiti for 5 months.

The island was a paradise, with moderate temperatures, plentiful food, and women who saw no need to either cover their breasts or remain chaste. Bligh made no effort to control his crew, but expected them to show up for work details as usual. Needless to say, discipline quickly collapsed.

The surgeon drank himself to death in December.

By April 1, 1789, the breadfruit trees were ready. Though unhappy to be leaving paradise and relationships with local women, the sailors packed up the plants, readied the ship to sail, and set sail once again under Bligh’s command.

Bligh’s mood swings were now much worse. Once the captain’s favorite, Christian was now a scapegoat. Bligh sent him ashore on the island of Tonga to collect supplies, failed to give him guns for defense, then called him a coward when Christian was driven off the island by hostile natives. Bligh fell into frequent rages.

A modern painting of Fletcher Christian

The final straw came when Bligh accused Christian of stealing coconuts. Fletcher Christian fell into a state of despair and conceived a mutiny. His position as second-in-command gave him the authority to order other officers off the deck and to hand out weapons to the men he believed would follow him. On April 28th Fletcher Christian mutinied, tied up Captain Bligh, and took command of the ship. Christian was wearing a heavy lead weight around his neck, so if the mutiny failed, he could jump overboard and drown.

The mutineers intended to put Bligh out in the ship’s smallest boat, but fully half the ship’s crew wanted to go with him. Eventually most of these men were crowded into a 23 foot launch and set adrift with a compass, a sextant, and five days’ worth of food and water.

After this the mutineers were divided as to a plan. They had a reliable navigator in Christian, and most men wanted to return to Tahiti. But the Royal Navy hunted mutineers relentlessly. If the authorities learned of the mutiny, they would spare no expense and hunt for years if necessary to bring the rebels to justice.

By rising up against their lawful commander and stealing the ship, the men had become pirates. Piracy, like mutiny, was punishable by death.

Christian brought the boat to the island of Tubai, surveyed the area, decided that it was defensible, and determined to settle there. But they needed women and laborers.

Christian designed a ruse. Returning to Tahiti, he told tales of founding a colony. He secured supplies and took off with several natives, some of whom were kidnapped. They returned to Tubai and tried to set up a colony but the natives of the island drove them off. At this point some of the mutineers wanted to just go back to Tahiti and take their chances.

Location of Pitcairn Island
Christian, his authority floundering, agreed to return. He dropped the men off, and turned the Bounty’s nose to the wind, and settled on the first spot of land he encountered, Pitcairn Island, a spot of land incorrectly located on the charts. Christian burned the Bounty.

The men on Tahiti were picked up by the ship Pandora in 1791, the mutineers taken back to England for trial. Though the Royal Navy continued to search for the rest of the band, the rest of the sailors were never found.

Christian’s group lived peacefully for a while, but insisted on claiming that the Tahitians were property, not people. Fights with the natives, quarrels between the English sailors, and suicide took their toll until only one man remained, the leader of a colony of Polynesian women and mixed race children. Descendants of the group still live on Pitcairn Island.

And Bligh? After encountering cannibals when he tried to put ashore for supplies, Bligh piloted the launch, overloaded with 17 men, for 3,000 nautical miles, using only the sextant and compass. This remains one of the greatest navigational feats of all time. He managed to keep his small company alive on ½ cup of water and 1 ounce of bread a day for 43 days of stormy seas, though several died after finally arriving in the Dutch East Indies, north of Australia.

Bligh's route to the Dutch East Indies

This is a story that has captured the imaginations of generations: Bligh, slowly losing his mind, the sympathetic character of Fletcher Christian, the bloodless mutiny, the years of mystery, the heroic return of the loyal sailors.

It is said that back in the days of sailing, the ships were wood, but the men were iron.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Royal Navy Part 3

Miscellaneous Stuff

A navy surgeon was not considered as important as a doctor, since the position was usually held by men who had learned “in the field” so to say. They had little or no formal training, and mostly performed their duties by passing out patent medicines and lopping off badly damaged or diseased limbs.

Probably because of this, the ship’s physician usually drank to excess, and often injured themselves in the process. If the surgeon became incapable, his assistant, the loblolly boy might be promoted to the position of surgeon.

The loblolly boy got his name from the thin gruel (loblolly) served to men in the sick berth. In the normal progression, he would first be promoted to Surgeon’s Mate, and then to Surgeon, but on a long voyage, the ship might easily need to make a number of promotions due to loss of personnel.

In fact, this was reflected in the Navy’s traditional daily toasts. The list went as follows:

On Sunday – “Absent friends.”
On Monday – “Our ships at sea”
On Tuesday – “Our men.”
On Wednesday – “Ourselves – because no one else is likely to be concerned with us.”
On Thursday – “A bloody war or a sickly season.” This is the one that needs an explanation. Casualties due to either war or sickness opened up opportunities for promotion. This toast is the ultimate form of making the best of a bad thing.
On Friday – “A willing foe and sea-room!”
On Saturday – “To wives and sweethearts… May they never meet.”

Yes, the last one was official, too.

The Royal Navy had another odd tradition regarding toasting. When a toast is proposed to a reigning monarch, it is and always has been, traditional to stand while making it. If the monarch is present, he then stands to acknowledge the toast.

According to legend, King Charles II was eating dinner on a Royal Navy ship Royal Charles when the captain rose and made the traditional toast. The captain and his offers stood, instinctively ducking to avoid the low ceiling and exposed beams.

The king however, was not so used to confined spaces. He stood to his full height to acknowledge the toast, and promptly cracked his head on the ceiling. Then, according to the story, he decreed that henceforth all navy officers would be permitted to toast their monarch while seated. The tradition remains to this day.

Navy officers and sailors, like pirates, needed to be careful of headroom. Ships of the day were not designed with humans in mind. Decks were set up in such a way that the cannons were the proper distance above the surface of the sea, and if that meant that the decks were only 4 feet apart, then the ship’s people had to get by with only 4 feet to stand in.

Crouching was common. Even officers (who might have the luxury of a private cabin 4 x 6 feet) almost never had enough room to stand up straight. Sometimes the space allotted to humans was so scanty that bizarre measures were called for. On at least one navy ship, the entry to the midshipman’s berth was so tiny that it was necessary to crawl into it on all fours.

For all this lack of space, it was permitted to bring pets on board. The only requirement was that the person bringing the pet must pay for any food or other requirement. So, the extremely crowded berth mentioned above might contain, in addition to several teenage boys, dogs, cats or even monkeys and parrots.

It was also possible, depending on the captain, for officers to bring their wives with them. Some captains did this, but more brought mistresses instead. This had something to do with the idea that “honest women” were too “delicate” for life at sea, but a woman who was willing to sleep with a man outside of matrimony was made of sterner stuff.

It wasn’t even entirely impossible for a common sailor to sneak a wife or sweetheart on board. Women disguising themselves as men to get on board a ship were well documented. But that wasn’t always necessary.

Because of chronic lack of funds, navy sailors often went without pay for months, even years. Add to this the fact that many of the men were essentially kidnapped and forced to join the service, and you have a situation ripe for desertion. Regulations punished desertion with death, but this did not have nearly enough effect.

The navy’s answer was to confine the sailors on board the ship for years at a time. When ships came in to port, the sailors were not allowed to go on shore at all. Instead, small boats would come up alongside, trading for fresh food, tobacco, or sex.

It wasn’t unusual for stray women to come in through the cannon ports, and stay for days, even leaving with the ship. Wives were permitted to visit husbands, and there was also a lot of lying about who was married to who. Married or not, these women also stayed sometimes.

So, that was the Royal Navy of the 18th century. Drunk, crowded, smelly, running on the lust for treasure and the hope of sex. Personally, I’ll take the pirates.

I hope you will, too.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Royal Navy Part 2 – Hierarchy

Last week we learned how little the Royal Navy of 1717 had in common with the popular image of the institution. Rather than a uniformed service, run on sober loyalty, it was a mostly-drunken institution, motivated by gold and dependent on graft.

How did one join the navy?

Officers came from families who could afford to “buy” them positons on a ship. Young men joined as Midshipmen – so called because their sleeping quarters were halfway between the common sailors at the front of the vessel and the officers at the stern. Midshipmen were unpaid, and required to have an allowance from home, to be “managed” by the captain.

“Young gentlemen” joined this way at an age somewhere between 6 and 12. It really did take that long to learn all the things an officer needed to know. In addition, this arrangement mirrored that of apprenticeships on land.

Common sailors also joined at very young ages, but usually under different circumstances.

London during the Golden Age of Piracy was crawling with orphans. Hundreds of thousands of displaced peasants flocked to the city yearly, looking for work. Mortality was so high that the city would have de-populated itself every seven years, if not for the continuing influx of people.

As a consequence, parentless children were epidemic. Churches made some efforts, and some private individuals ran charities, but most of these kids were doomed to an early death. The Royal Navy, always in need of sailors, took boys as young as four to serve on their ships.

What could a four-year-old do to earn his keep? As with the officers-in-training, it took a long time to learn skills. Boys also carried messages (necessary on a large ships) and served the vital function of carrying powder to the cannons for both gun drills and actual combat.

Of course, some of these boys were molested, but the same or worse probably awaited them as they roamed the streets alone. The navy fed them, and gave them a place to live, a purpose for living, and even pseudo-family. It also gave them a grown man’s ratio of rum, which was probably shared by the boy’s friends. At least we hope so. Back in the 18th century, there was no “minimum drinking age” and children drank as soon as they stopped nursing.

Hierarchy was perhaps the most important thing in navy. Officers were gentlemen, the height of social order. According to the mores of the time, God himself had ordained that these people were “better” than the lower orders of society.

The center layer of shipboard society was made of the warrant officers, such as gunner, sailmaker and cook. These were roughly analogous to tradesmen. These fellows lived with a single ship throughout its life. So attached were they to the vessel that they often brought their wives with them. These women formed their own separate society.

Cut off from the land, they supported each other through sickness, health, pregnancy and childbirth. Often these women cared for the “young gentlemen” and perhaps the other children as well. Care for the midshipmen fell especially to the gunner’s wife.

Sailors were divided into three classes. Deck hands were those who, due to lack of experience or lack of intelligence, could do little more than clean things and haul on ropes. They were, literally, hands. Even this was semiskilled work, since every object on the ship had a unique name and purpose, and even being allowed to pick up a rope and pull on it required the trust of one’s co-workers.

Sailors, the next group, could do any of several skilled tasks. They were competent workers on the ship. They might, for instance, climb the masts to furl or unfurl sails hundreds of feet above the deck.

Able sailors were said to be capable of “handing” or dragging on ropes, “reefing” or raising, manipulating and furling sails, and “steering” using the ship’s wheel to guide the vessel along a course proscribed by the officers.

The differences between “men” and “gentlemen” was vast and unmoving. Any officer could strike any man at any time, with no punishment (other than, perhaps, a dressing down by the captain if the captain didn’t approve). A man striking another man earned himself a whipping.

But a common man who struck an officer was hanged. Death. Hierarchy was everything. No one on the ship held exactly the same position as anyone else – even when the rank was nominally the same, age, date of last promotion or skill set kept them apart.

Everyone “saluted” those on the level above them (actually to tip the hat, or touch the forehead if no hat was worn), and everyone saluted the quarterdeck, seat of the ship’s power. The quarterdeck was a raised platform at the back of the ship. The ship‘s steering mechanism was located here, along with the hourglass (actually a half-hour glass) that kept the ship’s time, and the ship’s bell which announced this time to the ship in general.

This was also where the national flag flew, and this symbol of the king’s authority gave power to the entire enterprise. In these days, it was believed that kings were chosen by God.

In contrast, pirates cut the decking of their ships level, and on at least one case moved the bell forward, a sign that no man stood above any other. Pirates kept their pay rates and grades of responsibility as level as possible.