Write Byte

The Allure of the Pirate Romance

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Writing the Legend

Romance writer Marsha Canham may be new online, but she is a long-time favorite of romance readers. Because of her considerable success with last year's Across a Moonlit Sea, we asked her to comment on the allure of the pirate romance. She obliged with a terrific topic, and created an additional one as well; on writing about legendary heroes.

Here are Marsha's topics. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did:

Real Pirate Romances vs The Perils of Pauline
I have ventured onto the sea for three books -- Bound by the Heart, The Wind & the Sea, and Across A Moonlit Sea. For Moonlit Sea, I had to fight a long and hard battle to get my editor to agree to let me write it. She said a book about action and adventure on the high seas wouldnít sell now that Jane Austen was back in style, and most definately not if I reverted to form and made every chapter end on a cliffhanger, and every other chapter have some twist in the plot or incident of pillaging or blood-letting. The previous book -- Straight For The Heart -- was the result of a similar argument, for I had wanted to write the pirate novel a year earlier. That time, I had bowed to the pressure, thinking an editor of historical romances must know something about the genre. I did as she asked and ended up with a character-driven story about a riverboat gambler (I snuck the water in anyway) and a southern belle who, in my opinion, wasnít good for much more than fluffing her petticoats and stiffening her upper lip.

Sorry, I said, but thatís not my style. I like to write the kind of books I like to read, and I read the kind of books that put me right into the heart of the action and romance, that have my blood pounding and my pulse racing. Pressed into choosing a favorite period or setting, it would probably be a tie between knights and pirates, which is probably why I tend to skip back and forth between the two so much.

I have been a fan of old black and white adventure movies since I was a child. Never one to dress as princesses or fairies or cute little bunnies at Halloween, I was always in face paint and eye patches, wielding wooden swords or six guns or sometimes dragging a hog-tied kid behind me as my hostage. Perhaps it was because I was the only girl in the neighborhood and had to learn how to swing through the trees, circle the wagons, and dig holes to China like one of the guys. Or perhaps it was because my father was a movie buff and used me as an excuse to go to all the Saturday afternoon matinees.

Whatever the reason, when I started writing romances, I thought of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power swashing and buckling their way through one reckless adventure after another. I had read a few hundred romances in my time, but very few of them were able to stir my imagination and have my fingers burning to turn the pages quicker and it wasnít hard to figure out why. I liked my action in heavy doses and gothics, regencies, and contemporaries just werenít able to do the trick. Even in books where the adventure took a stronger lead, the reader wasnít allowed to participate in much of the action; it seemed to all be taking place somewhere off the edge of the page and described in subdued words and romantic pictures for the more tender sensibilities of the main targetted audience--suburban housewives lounging around in sponge rollers, nibbling on bon bons (the image of all romance readers in those early days).

Pirates, for example, shot their cannons and pounded their enemy to oblivion -- usually on one page -- then boarded the surrendered vessel after fierce hand to hand fighting whereupon the roguishly handsome pirate captain, the most dangerous, bloodthirsty villain on the high seas inspected his prisoners only to discover among them the most stunning beauty he had ever laid eyes upon who defied him with her spirit and fearlessness and answered his challenge with a toss of her long blonde tresses! What hero, indeed, would dare despoil such a courageous creature? Despite the hot, lusty thoughts driving him mad with desire, he uncharacteristically--and uniformly--decided he would win her over with his charm instead.

Get real, Virginia. Even Santa farts if he eats too many cookies.

Real pirates, privateers, and bucaneers were not known for their charm or manners. Life at sea was violent and brutal and bloody and so were the habits of the men and women who chose the adventure and risk of a life on board a ship over the more cerebral antics of dandies who frequented the ton. Real pirates ate maggoty bread, drank sour ale, and slept with a cutlass strapped to their side. They served on ships that never saw land for months on end, whose captains maintained discipline with the lash. They raped and killed and pillaged without much thought to moral or political correctness, and if there were any women on board (by choice), they had to be as tough and bloodthirsty as the men. Moreover, if they captured a ship and took female prisoners, and if the captain saw one that stirred his appetite, he would take her then and she would be lucky if he bothered to do it without the rest of the crew watching and cheering him on.

So what, you might ask, is the appeal of writing -- and reading -- about such gritty circumstances?

The appeal is in the very romance of history itself, the romance of something we can only imagine from the safety of a burglar-proof house with its indoor plumbing, thermal pane windows, and refrigerators that dispense ice in cubes or crushed pieces. It is the notion of stepping, however briefly, through a door in time and being transported to another place not quite so safe, where the air is filled with the acrid scent of smoke and gunpowder, where your ears ring from the firing of a full broadside and your feet slip out from beneath you, when the deck lurches and your toes lose their grip on the mixture of blood and ash on the planking. Itís the taste of the salt spray on your lips and the sting of undiluted rum in your throat. Itís the glimpse you get of the sun setting in a blaze of red across the horizon and the experience you share of climbing into the rigging at night when the sky is such an immense vault of endless space, filled with the magic of so many stars and constellations, it should shame the writer who settles for: it was a dark night and the stars were twinkling overhead. It is the pure, exhilarating adventure of meeting the men and women who survived by performing reckless, dangerous, and yes -- heroic deeds, without a thought toward the morality or the political correctness of their actions. They were thieves and reckless adventurers, and both kinds of men have always fascinated us, especially if they manage to escape unscathed.

And if the writer does his or her job properly, you get to feel like youíre right there on deck when the smoke clears and the canvas fills with wind and booms overhead. You share the thrill of meeting a magnificent hero, a man larger than life who laughs in the face of danger as he swoops down out of the rigging, cutlass in hand to save the heroine -- a woman just as bloodied and bruised, who truly has proved herself capable of winning the love of such a man. And if you listen real closely, youíll likely hear me, whooping and hollering along with the rest of the crew as he takes her in his arms and sets sail for the next high seas adventure.

With each pirate romance I write, I tell myself Iíve run out of adventures. I tell myself Iíve put everything I could possibly think of into that particular book and not even my overly fertile imagination could come up with another sea battle or sword fight. I said it after the first two and I said it again after Across a Moonlit Sea. . . but you know. . . somewhere in the back of my mind I have a feeling there might just be another story waiting to be told. And even though Errol and Tyrone are having a blast at the moment in their tournament armor thundering down the lists in The Last Arrow, the weight of all that chain mail is making them look to the sea again, to the lure of a new adventure lurking just over the horizon. . . .

Legends & Other Daunting Heroes
How do you set out to write a book about a legend? An even better question might be: how do you write about a legend that four hundred people have written about ahead of you -- some of whom have done a damn good job? Editors will always give you the standard sage advice. Give it a new slant. Very sage, but since they only see the end product, they can afford to be profoundly flippant. It is on the writerís head to think of an angle none of those four hundred people has thought of before, and to give it a kick-ass plot twist (editorís words, not mine) that will grab and hold a readerís attention.

I first set out to tackle the Robin Hood legend back in Ď91 with Through A Dark Mist. Cleverly -- I thought -- I did not attempt to use Robin Hood himself as a character, but wrote about a heroic knight who travelled in disguise into the forests of Lincoln to harass one of Prince Johnís evil dragon lords. He had all the right qualities; he was a master archer, he performed heroic deeds and managed impossible escapes, he saved the damsel in distress, and slew the evil Dragon to prove he was the stuff of which legends are made. It was my first medieval and I had fun putting every cliff-hanger, plot twist, and story device I could think of into the book.

But my Black Wolf of Lincoln wasnít Robin Hood. He thrilled the editor, the reviewers (Best Historical of the Year) and the readers, but the ghost of Errol Flynn was still standing over my shoulder, shaking his head, telling me I had copped out. Not one to take being called a coward lightly, I ventured back into the greenwood a year later, thinking that perhaps the illigitimate son the Wolf had rescued from the Dragonís lair would be heroic enough to fill the lincoln-green tights. I wrote Eduard FitzRandwulfís story, again with enough plot twists, hair-raising escapes, and general mayhem to elevate him to heroic proportions. . .but halfway through In The Shadow of Midnight, I realized he had come into the book with too many demons to overcome. Memories of a brutal childhood with the Dragon had left him scarred in more ways than one, and I had my hands full just finding him a heroine who could break down his sense of isolation and mistrust and show him that he could love and be loved in return.

Long before I finished it, I could hear Errol getting figity in the background again, waiting to pounce on me for copping out a second time. To humor him, and to placate my own sense of having missed another opportunity, I had some fun with some of the secondary characters. I created Littlejohn and the maid Marienne. I wrote in a Friar who tucked weapons under his cassock, and a little boy named Will who cried so much they called him Will of the Scarlet Eyes. I even gave bit part -- just a walk through that I thought no one would notice -- to Alan, son of Tom, yeoman of the Dale of Sherwood. (Alan aí Dale, get it?) I already had Guy of Gisbourne, brought forward from the first book, so it didnít take someone hitting me on the head with a frying pan to see that all I had to do was rename the Wolfís firstborn son -- who was, co-incidentally acting the part of Eduardís squire -- Robert, and to have the castle seneschal nickname him Robin! And once again, the storyline worked (Best Medieval of the Year), but now it was the readers sending me mail, urging me in the direction of a third book where I would finally have to stop tip-toeing around the edges of the legend and actually dive right in.

All I had to do was come up with a fresh slant on a legend that everyone had been intimately familiar with since childhood.

As anyone who writes medievals will agree, the absolute facts one source of research gives you rarely matches the absolute facts another source swears by. Armor, for instance, can be referred to in French or English terms, since the invading Normans spoke French well into the late 13th century. When I started to research the actual legend of Robin Hood, the only truly irrefutable fact I was able to confirm with any degree of certainty. . . was that Robin Hood never existed. There was a Robert Hode listed as a thief in an obscure court record, but he was plying his trade about a hundred years too late. There was an Earl of Huntingdon, but he would have been eighty at the time of Johnís rule and died without heirs. There was also a cruel, villainous Sheriff of Nottingham during King Johnís reign, but her name was Maude. And there apparently was a man named Locksley, but he was not related in any way to the Earl of Huntingdon. The closest figure in history who actually aggravated the hell out of King John and was outlawed in or around the vicinity of Sherwood at about the same time, was a chap named ffulke FitzWarrin, the Earl of Whittington. The story of his exploits could very likely have inspired some bard to sit and compose the lyrics to the songs that have come down through history -- with the names changed to protect the earlís identity, of course -- songs that recounted the adventures of Robin Hood and his merry men. (ffulke had several brothers and retainers who were outlawed with him). On the legend side, the residents of Nottingham take tourists through Sherwood (reduced from hundreds of thousands of acres of dense forest to a meager ten acre patch of trees) and have erected a plaque to point out the Major Oak -- supposedly the biggest tree in the region, and the one around which Robin built his camp. They are also quick to point out the ruins of Kirklees Abbey where Marion took refuge and where Robin, mortally wounded, shot his last arrow out a window to show his loyal men where to bury him.

The unique angle, then, would be to blend all these scraps of information into a feasible story that explained how a legend might have been born. And because the real legend was already such a fanciful blend of fact and fiction, I decided that none of my characters in The Last Arrow should actually lay claim to the name Robin Hood. Instead, I only offer more innuendo and speculation on how he ended up being a composite of my two main characters, both of whom are magnificently heroic in their own right, and both the stuff of which legends are made. Did I have fun? Absolutely. Am I happy with the outcome? Yes. And equally happy to report that I no longer have Errol Flynn hovering over my shoulder. Would I want to do it again? Tackle another legend -- one that is supposedly set in stone -- and re-tell it through my own rose colored glasses? I donít know. Not right away anyway. I have to let my husband (an Englishman) recover from the shock of learning that Robin Hood wasnít real.

On the other hand, I was surprised recently to discover that Sir Lancelot had a brother. . . .

Marsha Canham

Marsha maintains a web site at http://www.marshacanham.com and welcomes all visitors.

E-mail Marsha
Read Marsha Canham's comments on "The Golden Age of Romance" in this issue of At the Back Fence
Read a DIK Review of Marsha's The Blood of Roses
Read a DIK Review of Marsha's The Iron Rose
Read a DIK Review of Marsha's Pale Moon Rider
Read an AAR Review of Marsha's Midnight Honor
Read an AAR Review of Marsha's My Forever Love
Read an AAR Review of Marsha's Swept Away
Read Marsha's winning entry in the 1997 Purple Prose Parody Contest