As you may know if you read my last post, my novel, Red Sky in the Morning, is currently out on submission. This is very exciting for me because it means that there is a chance it will be published, and there’s a bit of an extra thrill for me because I never expected to write this book in the first place.
Red Sky is about Blackbeard, and it is told from his point of view. People often seem surprised to learn that I have written a novel in the voice of a vicious scoundrel – I guess it doesn’t match with someone so soft-spoken that servers often struggle to hear my order at restaurants, and who doesn’t swear much. (Mostly – ask my husband about the week after I finished watching Deadwood. Or don’t – it’s probably not flattering). Somehow, though, I wrote a book full of foul language, cruel threats, ruthless double-crossing, a lot of hidden knives, and even an instance of torture.
It began when I was Christmas shopping with my sister, and stopped in at Indigo. My mom is an avid reader, like me, so I was probably shopping for her, but I am not a person to need an excuse to browse a bookstore. I have to tell people to keep me away from them instead sometimes. Once I went to Chapters by myself on a Saturday morning, just to browse, and ended up staggering toward the counter with a precarious armload of books. The cashier asked me if I had managed to find everything I was looking for, while I awkwardly piled them onto the counter and tried not to drop my purse. I wish I could say that I refrained from allowing any snarkiness to creep into the tone of my reply.
My history nerd radar immediately detected some great books on the sale table, and I picked up Pirates and Privateers by Charlotte Montague and started skimming through it. I read the introduction to the section on Blackbeard, and was struck by this: “…he became known for his terrifying appearance…and decked himself with pistols, swords and knives, so that people fled from him in terror. However, it is thought that in fact he may never have killed anyone, relying on his appearance alone to terrorize his victims into submission” (Montague, 40).
I had never given a great deal of previous thought to Blackbeard, but, like most people, I had a vague notion of a violent, conscienceless pirate, murdering as needed in order to acquire riches. I was fascinated by the idea that his fearsome reputation might have been rooted in a carefully concocted facade. He created a formidable persona so successfully that we still remember it three hundred years later.
I started researching Blackbeard, finding out as much as I could about his life. I had a feeling that this went further than curiosity, and I was probably on the brink of a new writing project, and as I kept reading and learned more of the historical circumstances, the story started to form in my mind. From all I could discover from reputable sources, it seemed true; Blackbeard had a remarkably clean track record in terms of fatalities and maimings, especially compared to some of his contemporaries like Charles Vane, who sometimes enjoyed sticking lit matches in the eyes of his prisoners.
As I researched and wrote, it became a challenge and a lot of fun to bring Blackbeard to life as an in-depth character. He was complicated and clever, able to terrify fellow pirates into obedience, and equally capable of charming Governors and officials. He could be merciful, even kind, but there were times when he had to prove his mettle as a pirate captain, and carry out some very ruthless actions. His recorded actions indicate that he was also quite self-serving, and I think he wanted to be the one who got away with it all – a man who lived a free, adventurous life of disregard for laws and conventions, and who could eventually retire in comfort and become a semi-respectable man with some regional influence. Henry Morgan, who roved the seas some time before Blackbeard, enjoyed retirement on large landholdings before succumbing to probable liver failure, so it had been done.
The time period was really interesting as well, for the King George I decided to crack down on the piracy that had been escalating since the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, and offered a pardon to any pirates who repented and gave up their thieving ways within the year. Past that time, the law wouldn’t be so forgiving. A complex situation like this seemed made for a schemer like Blackbeard – and it really happened. That’s why history can be so cool.
Blackbeard wasn’t the only remarkable figure I stumbled across in my research, either. Stede Bonnet, a pirate who isn’t too well known nowadays, probably because of his fairly inept tactics, was actually a gentleman and plantation owner in Barbados, with a wife and children, before he randomly decided to be a pirate. I guess midlife crises are nothing new.
All of this came together, and I wrote Red Sky. Phrased like that, it sounds easier than poring over books, making timelines, staying up too late writing when I had to work in the morning, and getting distracted during important conversations because I was wondering how long it might take to sail from Nassau to Charleston, or why a certain kind of cannon was called a ‘basilisk’. Eventually the first draft was done, and after lots of editing, I thought maybe it was good enough to try and sell and began querying agents.
So – there it is, the tale of how I lived vicarious adventures through the eyes of one of the most notorious rogues in history, and wrote a book that I never anticipated I would.