I’ve always wondered where writers get their inspiration. As a development editor I love helping a story unfold, but I personally can’t sit down and do my own world building. Recently I talked to my friend, author Seven Jane (The Isle of Gold, Black Spot Books, October 2018) about finding inspiration for historical fantasy, and the cross-over–for better or worse–with Hollywood.
I’ve always been a fan of pirate stories and ocean folklore, and I wanted THE ISLE OF GOLD to both fit in with classic tales, like Treasure Island, and stand apart from them—and to not get lost in the sensationalism of Hollywood pirate dramas that retell mythology on their own terms. In writing a historical fantasy of the pirate era the main thing I wanted the story to do was avoid tropes of peg legs, talking parrots, and buried treasure while making use of real mythology and actual ocean phenomenon while abiding by rigorously researched historical truths on the people who sailed, the ships they sailed on, and the lives they lived at sea. In addition to these, this story served as an opportunity to touch on some of today’s most pressing societal issues of diversity and inclusion, from women’s rights, to racism, to romance and love outside of the heternormative.
In terms of the natural world, two uncommon real phenomena that were mentioned in the story were frost flowers and the green flash of light on the ocean (no, Hollywood didn’t make that up for Pirates of the Caribbean!). Frost flowers are delicate ice structures that “bloom” on the surface of the polar oceans in the dead of winter. Likewise, green flashes are most often seen at sunset, last only a second or two, and are essentially a result of light refraction and visual trickery as the sun suddenly and briefly changes colors. Here’s a cool article on the green flashes, which, because they are so unusual, have provided much fodder for paranormal speculation by sailors over the years!
Legends of the mystical island Bracile and the red-sailed ghost ship Caleuche are just as steeped in ocean folklore as the cursed goddess turned sea monster Charybdis and sirens…especially the not so beautiful kind. I wanted to bring in one iconic pirate name, and while I drew from several real pirates in building Winters and Merrin’s characters, Davy Jones came directly from legend—(both as a real man and an idiom for the bottom of this sea). Jökulsárlón, and its neighboring Diamond Beach in Iceland became the perfect setting for a real-world embodiment of Bracile.
The ships, their rigging, and their weaponry was all brought from historical research on 17th century sailing culture. As I began to research these in earnest, a few interesting facts rose to the top, particularly in the lack of diversity on these vessels. While we tend to think of pirates as ragtag crews of every nation and color, it wasn’t necessarily true. In fact, even white men pirates still practiced the normal racism and biases of the time, often trading and profiting from the slave trade themselves. It was rare to see a person of color in a position of power onboard a pirate vessel, much less one who was beloved and respected. For this role, Jomo was introduced. Likewise, with the exception of a very few and very famous female pirates (Anne Bonney, Mary Read, etc.) women were not allowed to sail. In fact, in the pirate code written by Bartholomew Roberts, women were not only forbidden to sail, but to bring one aboard was punishable by death. This alone gave Merrin an incentive to keep her identity and sex a secret from the men on the ship. Lastly, a profession as a whore was just as taboo as sexual empowerment by women of the time (or empowerment of any kind, really) and this norm was challenged by Claudette, Mrs. Emery, and even Evangeline herself. There are subtle hints throughout the story to a more romantic than platonic love between Merrin and Claudette, too, proving the currents of love run according to their own desire, regardless of race or gender—and this also affected the budding romance between Merrin and Tom Birch, was remained understated as falling in love was never Merrin’s goal when she set out to sea.
Writing The Isle of Gold was as fantastic an adventure as the story itself. Part history, part mythology, and part imagination, this story drew as much from real sea phenomenon as it did from some of the oldest sea legends on record, told by a strong protagonist who acts as a lens of crystallization for deeper diversity issues that linger just below the surface of a fantastical pirate adventure.