Monday, November 10, 2008

Pirates of the Narrow Seas

As a few of my friends know, I have been writing a novel, entitled Pirates of the Narrow Seas, a historical nautical adventure set in the eighteenth century and featuring a gay protagonist. I'm a fan of nautical fiction, but being gay myself, I got rather tired of all the heterosexual heroes. Churchill is said to have named "rum, sodomy, and the las"' as the traditions of the British naval service, and the Articles of War, which governed naval conduct at sea, prescribed the death penalty for "unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast" . You don't outlaw things you think are irrelevant.

Besides, gay men have always existed, and they had to make a living somehow. At the time gentlemen had to purchase their ranks in the army, but a man with no money could, with a little effort and modest funding, obtain a position as a midshipman in the navy and thereby hope to work himself up through the ranks based on a combination of merit. His rise was more certain and more rapid if he had political influence, but competence and valor could provide a man with a successful career without it.

It also struck me that a gay protagonist had a built in set of challenges that would make his life more difficult and more interesting, and give a fresh approach to a rather hoary genre. Reading the series featuring Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower, Richard Bolitho, and other 20th century nautical series, I was struck how alike they seemed -- due, no doubt, to the authors' -- and audience's -- endless fascination with men like Cochrane and Nelson. I found the works I enjoyed most to be the older works, such as Mr. Midshipman Easy by Marryat -- which is a both a parody and reinforcement of the navy of the early 19th century, and the even earlier Adventures of Roderick Ransom, a picaresque dating to the middle of the 18th century, in which our feckless hero parodies various employments, ranging from gentleman to scholar to doctor to naval officer.

Startlingly, it was in Roderick Ransom that I came across the only gay character I've encountered in the genre. While serving as a surgeon's mate at sea, Ransom serves under tyrant of a captain, who is then replaced by a puffball of a captain. The pouffe show that the stereotype of the effeminate, histrionic gay male was established very early in the West. On the other hand, he is a captain, and although he's suspected of having an affair with his doctor, the doctor at least is portrayed in neutral light and neither of them are censured or punished. Other works from the middle of the 18th century include vignettes with gay characters, but they vanish by the end of the century. One wonders why . . .

Quite aside from that tiny glimpse into the subject of gay men at sea, I found Roderick Ransom to be a very useful reference work with regards to the morals, livelihood and especially the profanity of men on the bottom edge of the middle class at the time. There is comfort in knowing that 'son-of-a-bitch' has been a choice epithet for two and a half centuries. In the whirlwind of the 21st century, some things remain the same.

So, one day in March of this year, I through down the book I was reading, and said, "Bother, I'll write something for my own entertainment." The character, Peter Thorton, a very junior lieutenant in the British navy of the mid-18th century, sprang full grown from my head like Athena leaping from the brow of Zeus. I had only a vague idea where he was going when I launched him. With no goal in mind, content to write whatever tale happened to emerge, whether long or short, I figured I might get a story of some five or six chapters out of him. 130,000 words and forty-six chapters later, we have a novel.

I realized the story had legs somewhere around chapter ten when Thorton, aboard His Britannic Majesty's frigate Ajax, encounters a Spanish galley founding in a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Chained on board was a rogue of a corsair captain, one of nearly two hundred slaves being left to drown as the panicking Spanish abandoned the galley. Released by Thorton, and commanded by Isam Rais al-Tangueli, known thereafter to the English as 'Captain Tangle', the slaves save the galley and promptly begin raiding the Spanish, with Thorton stranded aboard.

Writing for my own entertainment I didn't worry too much about historicity. The first draft came out in a rush in a mere ten days. But as I shared chapters with friends who enjoyed it, I realized it was a romping good tale and there were probably other people that would enjoy it too. That meant I had to address the issue of history. I have great respect for history; I enjoy it. But I didn't want to let the facts get in the way of a good tale, either. Thus my history deviated from the actual history of the middle of the eighteenth century.

I also had to deal with the fact that I was depicting Muslim characters and a Muslim nation with what I felt was a less than thorough education in the subject. I read the Koran and consulted it frequently, and also researched Muslim jurisprudence, discovered that the Maliki school dominated thought in North Africa, and considered my options. I finally decided to make a fictionalized country drawn from historic material. There are a great many fictional countries in literature, but none in the canon of British naval fiction. The British tales are almost always set during the Napoleonic Wars, with excursions into areas and times around that. I was tired of Napoleonic Wars and the rather predictable course of events. For a while I thought the War of Jenkins Ear might suit my purposes, but it didn't, quite, whereas the Seven Years War was immensely longer and more complicated than I really wanted to deal with. As a consequence, the political events of the novel are drawn from a variety of things that happened in the seventeenth century, but chart their own course to serve the purpose of the novel.

I also deliberately kept the scale small, ship-level, with much emphasis on the daily/weekly life at sea. This suited the complicated relationship between Thorton and Tangle, while still providing plenty of scope for individual peril and heroism, storms, duels, battles at sea, and the other action and nautical procedures expected of the genre. It even admits a certain humor, as when the excessively tall Captain Tangle is obliged to go to battle dressed in a pair of pants made from a tablecloth, there not being any trousers aboard to fit him.

I had a great deal of fun writing it, and I'm happy with the way it turned out, while being well aware of some of the criticisms that might be leveled at it. I must say I was very heartened when reading a Hornblower novel I detected an error that made me realize C. S. Forester had never gone to sea -- rising storms do not blow hot, no matter how sweltering the day is: they announce themselves with a clammy heat that chills the sweat on the skin. Hornblower has been turned into numerous movies and even a mini-series in spite of his author being an armchair captain. Maybe my readers will be kind to me.

Once I decided I had a tale worth sharing I had to figure out how to share it. I didn't bother to offer it to any of the publishers of the usual nautical adventures as I figured they wouldn't be receptive to a gay protagonist. Maybe that is small-minded of me. The usual gay small presses don't publish such things unless they are erotica, which Narrows Seas isn't. Oh, there are some steamy scenes in which Tangle does his best to seduce Thorton, but Thorton's too busy being British to succumbed entirely to his blandishments. Thorton's struggle to cope with his sexuality given the extreme repression on one side and potential license on the other side is one of the subtexts. That makes it a 'coming out' story, albeit a very different one than is usual.

It was my daughter that suggested I use the site she enjoys, I have some qualms about using an amateur site, but it's free, and although they don't support Macs, they do support RTF, so I was able to convert my work and get it uploaded with only a moderate amount of hassle. My goal is to be read, so giving away something for free on the Internet seems the cheapest and easiest way to get a readership. I hunted for other sites out there on which to publish a novel length work, tried some of them out and abandoned them, and was annoyed by the pesky sites searching for the naive to con into shelling out hundreds of dollars to get published and 'advised'.

All of which is a long-winded way of suggesting that you give it a read :)


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Fighting for the Right to Vote

Well well. Hank Stuever at the Washington Post has really put his foot in it. He opposes voting early. He is apparently one of those lucky elitists that doesn't have to worry about taking off work to stand in long lines to vote. I have voted every election I've been able to, but there was an election when I couldn't vote because the employer didn't let me take time off work to do it. We were directed to vote before or after work, and don't be late. I couldn't vote before work because the commute and the lines at the poll were too long. I couldn't vote after work because I got to my polling place 5-10 minutes after the polls closed. While my polling place is conveniently near my home, it is not conveniently near my place of work.

(There didn't used to be adequate parking at my polling place either, but that issue was fixed this year. We got parking reasonably close and didn't have to cross a busy street/minor highway on foot to reach the polling place.)

I voted Yes on Maryland's proposal to allow early voting and to expand the locations for voting. I'm not quite sure about how the location thing works, but I'll say yes to anything that makes it easier to vote. More locations and more days on which to cast ballots is a big YES to me. For years pundits have been bemoaning the low voter turnout. Did it ever occur to them that more people would vote if they could?

I was lucky this year -- my day off just happened to coincide with election day. I was able to stroll in at a low volume hour and spend ten minutes and be done. My son, however, was not so lucky. He recently turned eighteen. He's also autistic, and being able to vote is a huge milestone in anybody's life. We tried to register him to vote at the same time we got his learner's permit, at the Motor Vehicle Administration. We never got any paperwork confirming it, so we went to the election board in person and asked them. They looked him up, said he wasn't registered, and that all MVA voter registration applications had been processed. He then registered to vote right there in the election board office and showed the necessary ID: driver's license, social security card, etc.

He never got a voter's registration card, which worried me, but he did get ballot instructions with his polling place and information on how to vote and who the candidates and questions on the ballot were, so we figured we were all right. When he checked in to vote, they had his name and address, but they issued him a provisional ballot. An election judge whisked him away without me. I understand that the right to vote is private and all that, but my son being autistic doesn't cope well with unexpected change. We had prepared him for voting: what issues were important to him, how the candidates stood on those issues, what the constitutional amendments were and what they meant, what the ballot looked like and how to fill it out -- he was informed and prepared to vote.

He spent half an hour in a corner of the gym, reading and filling out paperwork. He's a slow slow reader and writer. The printed word is not the best way to communicate information to him. Papa normally helps him with forms, explaining what they are and what they mean. This time I didn't get to help. A complete stranger with no knowledge of his disability plunked papers in front of him and left him to figure it out on his own. Eventually he got to sit at a voting booth and vote. The paper ballots are not like the computerized ballots, and the paper machines don't look like and don't work the same as the computerized machines that he was prepared for.

He thinks he got to vote for the candidates and issues he wanted, but he isn't sure.

When he came out, we asked an election judge why he was issued a provisional ballot. She didn't know. We got shuffled among three different tables. The upshot was nobody knew. They 'guessed' it was because his Social Security number and driver's license couldn't be verified -- both of which he had showed when he registered and both of which he had on him when he was voting. They assured us that if they could verify his registration, his vote would be counted.

Um, yeah.... I'm supposed to feel confident that his vote is going to be counted after all this? We did everything necessary to register to vote not once but twice and had all the proper paperwork and ID every single time... and they still have doubts about his registration?

And now Mr. Hank Steuver tells us that people who vote early are somehow not part of "We The People", that they're just some kind of hipster fashionsetters not to be taken seriously? Puhleeze.

For some of us, voting isn't easy. Some of us have to fight for the right to vote and make sacrifices. We shouldn't have to jump through triple sets of hoops to get registered to vote. We shouldn't have to make a choice between our job and our vote. We shouldn't have to be baffled and confused by the voting process.

Elections should be organized, accurate, and staffed by people who know what they're doing. Election offices -- and organizations that assist in registering voters -- should do so correctly and promptly. People with disabilities should be able to participate on the same terms as everybody else. I'm still wearing my 'I Voted' sticker. I earned it.