For this edition of The Writer’s Day, I share this summer’s visit to the Whydah exhibit, featuring artifacts from the only confirmed pirate ship so far recovered.
It’s no secret that music is a big part of many of my novels, from inspiring the titles to influencing the plots to being part of the story itself. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Recently my friends at Facebook’s Heroic Fiction League, Nathan Long and John R. Fultz, posted “playlists” of YouTube videos, songs that either their heroes would like, or that captured the mood of their books.
My playlist is a little different. This is the music I wish would play when a reader first opens some of my books.
For my most recent novel, the Eddie LaCrosse pirate tale Wake of the Bloody Angel, I’d love it if readers were blasted with this upon cracking the covers:
For another Eddie LaCrosse tale, Burn Me Deadly, if you consider chapter one as a “teaser,” this would the perfect music to play between chapters one and two:
For Blood Groove, my tale of an Old World vampire unleashed in the Seventies, I’d begin with this under chapter one:
Then, at the moment you finished chapter one:
And finally, the theme for my Firefly Witch e-book chapbooks, the tune the main characters Ry and Tanna would call “their song” and that, in a perfect world, would play whenever you called it up on your e-reader of choice:
(I know, it’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section version and not the original Classics IV, but technically this is the first version I ever heard, and about half the Atlanta Rhythm Section was made up of former members of the Classics IV, so it’s not as heretical as it might seem.)
Any suggestions for some of my other books?
This post is about cover art, and specifically the way characters are portrayed in it.
I want to say up front, I’m not being critical of my own covers. A cover is designed to make potential readers check out the book; once they do, it becomes the writer’s responsibility to keep them interested. It goes without saying that often the covers don’t depict the characters as the author sees them, and over time, even the publisher’s idea of what a character looks like can dramatically change:
When I was writing Wake of the Bloody Angel, I introduced a new, major character, Jane Argo. She’s a sword jockey like Eddie, but she’s also a former pirate hunter, and before that, a pirate herself. Here’s how I describe her, in Eddie’s voice:
She was my height, busty and wide-hipped but with a wasp-narrow waist. Her broad shoulders were as muscular as a galley slave’s, and she wore a large ring on every finger. Her hair fell past her shoulders, and only the faint streaks of gray and slightly deeper smile lines indicated she was older than she sounded.
One day I stumbled across this picture of musician Ginger Doss,* and realized this was pretty much exactly how I saw Jane in my head.
The publisher, or rather artist Larry Rostant, who’s done my last three covers, saw her this way.
To be fair, Mr. Rostant may never have never read the book, which is not an essential part of his job description. And again, it’s a great cover illustration as far as its function goes, which is to induce someone to pick up the book: it has atmosphere, sexiness and style. On its own, it’s a beautiful image. But I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide what this dichotomy represents. In professional publishing, the author has virtually no say-so in the cover. It’s decided by marketers, whose job it is to create an image that will attract attention. And certainly the slender redhead with the no-nonsense scowl does that (as several male readers have informed me).
But here’s the thing: one reason I wrote Jane as a physically big woman, with visible muscles and a hint of grey in her hair, was to break away from the idea of the “butt-kicking waif,” a trope that really annoys me. Much like the whole movie Sucker Punch, the BKW is a way to disguise male fantasy objects behind the mask of alleged female empowerment. Buffy is the prime example, maybe even the originator, but it’s become the default setting for SF and fantasy heroines by creators who want to court the Buffy demographic (and who miss the point behind Buffy entirely). So I wanted to react against that, to show a woman who is both as intelligent as the hero, but also maybe a little stronger, physically. And to have none of that make her any less attractive.
The reviews, thankfully, have noticed that. Almost all of them mention Jane, and my favorite comment so far is this one :
Jane’s an unusual character in that she’s the muscle of the operation. Bledsoe lets her be tough without ever questioning her ability to be so. There’s never a comment by another character that suggests she’s strong for a girl [emphasis in the original].
I have a hard time seeing the woman on the cover fitting that description. She’s beautiful, certainly. She’s got a great expression, too. She fully fits into the overall image. But as with Eddie, I wonder if a more visually accurate presentation would make any difference in sales. And if so…in which direction?
*Ms. Doss knows that she was my image of Jane Argo. Thankfully, she’s delighted.
To commemorate tomorrow’s release of Wake of the Bloody Angel, the fourth Eddie LaCrosse novel, here’s the second book trailer: longer, with different music (by Laura Powers) and a different slant on the story. Hope you enjoy!
After the amazing response to the free download of Jennifer Goree’s song “The Hum and the Shiver” (still available here), I’m delighted to offer another freebie.
Thanks to my wonderful friend Jen Cass, singer and songwriter of this marvelous tune, for allowing me to share it. It’s from her album Skies Burning Red.
When I began thinking about the next Eddie LaCrosse novel, sometime during the final stages of Dark Jenny, I knew I needed a simple hook for it. The previous books had them: The Sword-Edged Blonde came from the song, “Rhiannon,” Burn Me Deadly came from a mash-up of Kiss Me Deadly and the idea of dragons as nuclear weapons, and Dark Jenny was, of course, inspired by King Arthur. So what, I pondered, would be next?
At first I considered the idea of a DaVinci Code-ish (okay, really, a Foucault’s Pendulum-ish) mystery set in my made-up world. That immediately felt impractical, as it would require creating far more history, backstory and mythology than I felt the series could bear. I did try, though, creating a chain of clues for Eddie to discover, each one leading him to the next, in a globe-trotting adventure. But it quickly grew cumbersome, and untrue to the character’s noirish origins. So I downshifted to a more traditional treasure hunt, this time based on my lifelong interest in the Oak Island Money Pit (more on that in another blog post). That led me to the simple hook I needed: pirates.
But what pirates? Which pirate?
I wanted to base my pirates on real ones. And there were a lot of good ones out there. But I needed one who turned pirate for the right sort of reason, one that would inspire someone to hire Eddie to go after him.
And that led me to Black Sam Bellamy, and his ship, the Whydah, which went down in 1717.
The Whydah stands as the only pirate ship whose wreck has been positively identified (her bell, with her name on it, was discovered in 1984; see above illustration). But the story of Black Sam is what really got my attention. He turned pirate not from greed or vengeance, but from love: he wanted to amass a fortune, then return to marry his Cape Cod girlfriend. That was the kind of hook on which I could hang an Eddie LaCrosse story.
Now, as with most initial ideas, the story became its own thing in the telling. Black Edward might do some of the same things as his inspiration Black Sam, but his reasons are eventually revealed to be completely different, as is his ultimate fate. But using the real man as the basis for the story continues something I established with my first Eddie novel, namely to find fantasy analogues for elements of real life whenever possible (that’s why, in that first novel, a horse gets a parking ticket).
So Wake of the Bloody Angel, while it moves into a new setting (see this blog post for more information about that) and introduces new characters, also follows the series’ unspoken (and extremely loose) rules. Because the fun of writing them is in giving readers exactly what they expect, but in ways they don’t anticipate. That way it stays fresh for you, and me.
Okay, so the fourth adventure of sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse, Wake of the Bloody Angel, hits shelves and reading devices this summer. What’s it about, you ask?
Oh, sure, there’s other things: the weight of the past, the nature of truth, the limits of friendship, sea monsters. But the selling point for me, the reason I wanted to write it, is simply that one word: Pirates.
See, not to brag (okay, maybe a little), but I was into pirates before they became cool again. Sure, I liked the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie; but before that I’d also liked the Errol Flynn triumvirate of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and Against All Flags. I liked Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate, and Tyrone Power in The Black Swan. I liked little-known pirate films such as Nate and Hayes, starring Tommy Lee Jones, and Swashbuckler, with Robert Shaw.
And before all those movies, there was the book: Treasure Island. It was the first “real” book I read to both my sons. It has everything a boy expects from a novel: action, adventure, suspense, a hero they can identify with, and one of the great lovable villains, Long John Silver. That it also involves pirates, and treasure, and castaways, and mutiny, and the lore of the mysterious Captain Flint, doesn’t hurt at all.
For each Eddie LaCrosse novel, I try to come up with a new setting. In The Sword-Edged Blonde, we traveled his world to learn about Eddie and his past; Burn Me Deadly concentrated on Eddie’s present, and the town of Neceda where he lives; then, after two novels where we met his friends, Dark Jenny drops Eddie alone and with no allies into the middle of an island kingdom, where he’s suspect number one in a murder. In each case, the idea was to both change the physical location, and a find a new way for Eddie to interact with it.
So for Wake of the Bloody Angel, he goes to sea. With a crew of ex-pirates who are now pirate hunters, and in the company of Jane Argo, currently a sword jockey like Eddie, before that a pirate-hunter, and before that a pirate herself. His quarry is a friend’s former lover, the pirate who made the single greatest haul in all of recorded pirate history, then vanished with it.
That’s my skeleton. The muscles and flesh on it, though, are informed by a lifetime of watching and reading about swashbucklers in action. Eddie is no Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn (well, maybe the slightly-past-his-prime Errol of Against All Flags), but hopefully you’ll enjoy reading about his adventures on the high seas. And watch for more of the novel’s background and inspirations, coming soon.
Want to win an ARC of Wake of the Bloody Angel? Tell me about your favorite pirate in the comments (and make sure to leave an e-mail so I can reach you if you win). Contest ends at midnight, May 6.
After my recent dire experience with The Island, Peter Benchley’s 1979 pirate adventure (see my post here), I was leery of another “best-selling” author tackling the same subject. I was doubly leery when that author was the late Michael Crichton, a writer whose brilliant and innovative ideas are invariably balanced by a nonexistent sense of pacing, characterization and style.
And yet, his 2009 novel Pirate Latitudes surprised me, much as his 1976 novel, Eaters of the Dead. This new book was discovered as a completed manuscript among his computer files after his death, and it has the feel of a pet project. As such, perhaps he paid more attention to crafting a plot that pays off, rather than a series of incidents that simply stop when the book runs out of pages (i.e., Jurassic Park). Whatever the reason, both Latitudes and Eaters avoid the pitfalls of Crichton’s books set in the contemporary world.
Charles Hunter is a privateer in Jamaica’s Port Royal, attacking Spanish ships under the protection of the British governor. When he gets word of a Spanish galleon anchored in an impregnable harbor, he hatches a plan to steal it, and its considerable treasure.
And that’s really it. There’s not a lot of digression, just a straightforward plot with lots of action and damn near every pirate cliche you could want. There are hurricanes, attacks by giant squid, sword fights and cannon broadsides. Hunter is as smooth with the ladies as he is with the waves. Each member of his crew has a specialty, and they all manage to save the day at least once. The villains are suitably rogueish (all could be played by Basil Rathbone), and only the sex and violence make it an adult book. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean for grownups.
Crichton (or his staff) did their research as well, because there are plenty of obscure historical details worked into the story, mostly legitimately. But even at that, there’s something thin about it, a sense that it’s more a film treatment than an actual novel. We learn only enough about the characters to justify their actions, and although the settings are vivid, they still don’t feel like places real people live. Still, perhaps that’s enough. No one should expect depth from the guy who wrote The Lost World.
Here’s the British book trailer (much cooler than the US one):
I started reading Peter Benchley’s 1979 novel The Island sitting in a waiting room, for lack of anything better to read. And the sucker hooked me.
For those who don’t know, the late author was the son of Nathaniel Benchley and the grandson of Robert Benchley, both literary figures of high reknown. He was also the author of Jaws, the novel that was the Twilight of the early Seventies.
Jaws the book is nowhere near as exciting as the classic film adapted from it: it’s a potboiler, filled with contemptible characters that even the author doesn’t seem to like very much. But it sold like gangbusters, and set Benchley on an unsuccessful quest to replicate its success with a series of water-based thrillers (The Deep, Beast and White Shark, one of the worst books by a so-called “major” author I’ve ever had the misfortune to read).
The Island was his second novel after Jaws (following the sunken-treasure tale The Deep) and centers on magazine writer Blair Maynard (a typical name for a Benchley hero; the main character of The Deep was named “Romer Treece,” Beast’s hero was “Whip Dalton,” and so forth). Maynard and his twelve-year-old son, Justin, head into the Caribbean to investigate ship disappearances, but what should have been a father-son lark turns unbelievably grim. They run afoul of an isolated population of inbred descendants of 17th-century pirates who co-opt Justin into their ranks and plan a grisly end for Maynard when he’s no longer useful. These are not the rollicking buccaneers of Errol Flynn and Jonny Depp, but disgusting, bloodthirsty killers with appalling levels of hygiene.
The first third of the novel is a crackling good mystery-adventure with a surprisingly realistic father/son relationship. It was this aspect that caught my eye and kept me reading. Maynard wants to be a good dad, and tries very hard to stay connected to Justin despite being divorced from the boy’s diffident mother. He’s conscious of his status as a role model, and even if he never quite lives up to it, he sincerely tries. And Justin is depicted as a normal kid, neither precocious nor infuriatingly dense.
Unfortunately, once the Maynard lads are captured by the pirates, the novel’s considerable momentum slows to a crawl. Justin vanishes from the story for long stretches, and we spend our time with Maynard senior and the pirate woman who wants him to impregnate her (yep, you read that right). And here’s a tip to you would-be adventure writers out there: if you want to keep your readers on your hero’s side, don’t have the villains give him an enema. In graphic detail. Really. For any reason. If your plot demands it, then you should seriously re-evaluate. Sometimes your fetishes should stay private.
Eventually Maynard realizes that Justin likes the bloodthirsty pirate life, and so the battle becomes one for the boy’s soul. I won’t give away the ending–hell, if you slog through the last third of the book, you deserve the suspense–but its impact is considerably lessened because we don’t see Justin’s gradual transformation from comic-reading ‘tween to Blackbeard-in-waiting. I don’t know what Benchley was after, exactly, but what promised to be a neat modern twist on Treasure Island becomes instead one more sad artifact on the trail of a writer trying to reclaim the buried treasure of his debut novel.