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 :)


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