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.


  1. This is really a wonderful post.

  2. Hi, thank you for taking the time to post this. It's really helpful and a great nudge in the right direction.

  3. This post was really interesting and it has helped me a lot! Thank you!!:)

  4. Can u write a example story please

    1. I already have! My books, Gentlemen and Fortune, Bloody Seas and Storm Season are available on Amazon.