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Frank Delaney | Pieces of Eight – Rules for Writing about Pirates

September 19, 2014

Frank Delaney, author of the faithful sequel, JIM HAWKINS & THE CURSE OF TREASURE ISLAND, outlines some do’s and don’ts for landlubbers

1. Get your Ship Together. Make sure that you know the difference between a barque, a barquentine and a brigantine; a sloop, a schooner and a ship of the line. The world has few areas where your lack of knowledge will be as ferociously challenged. Nautical experts, and they truly are experts, lurk by every wharf and canvas locker waiting to hoot derision – and perhaps even brandish a cutlass -­‐ at the uninformed, under-­‐researched pirate writer.

2. It’s Never Plain Sailing. Get to know the canvas -­‐ length, depth, breadth. What’s the difference between “square-­‐rigged” and “jerry-­‐rigged”? How do you distinguish between topsail and staysail? And then there’s square topsail. And foresail. And never, never, never describe how a pirate ship is rigged until you can name the type of vessel and draw a sketch of how she’s rigged.

3. Not Knotted? When your Standing Part has a Friction Hitch and you look to a Stopper or a Bend, a Double Overhand would complicate things too much, and a Butterfly may bring tears to your eyes. But a Kleimheist! Now there’s a means of getting yourself up in the world, whereas a Highwayman’s Hitch may take you too close to the Bitter End. Knots are knotty – that’s the plain truth, and you must be able to describe a hitch without a hitch.

4. Hire The Crew. How many men do you need for a mutiny? Here’s a broad rule of thumb: the more masts the more men – but if half of them swabs mutiny, will they be able to rig and run the ship without the other half? Here’s another rule of thumb: when writing about pirates make your own rules of thumb – others are frequently mistaken.

5. Watch Your Language. Do you know when to Avast? What do you do to, with, or for a Mizzen Yard? And what is a Drabbler? If you can’t tell the difference between Leeward and Windward you may well get your Halyard stuck in your Hawsehole and find yourself having to Belay your Lateen and Luff while Hands are Bracing and then Furling. Piracy has a lexicon all its own, and the words will make lovely shapes on your page.

6. You Talkin’ To Me? Not all dialogue is language – and not all language is dialogue. If a buccaneer with an eye-­‐patch shakes your hand and leaves something in your palm, hope it’s not a piece of paper with a black mark on it. It may mean you’ll be keelhauled or, worse, have to walk the plank, and that will definitely send you to Davy Jones’s Locker. So, before your villain (or hero) tips somebody the Black Spot make sure that you know its origins -­‐ and go down to a dockside and ask who Davy Jones was.

7. Off The Charts. Now here’s another area of great and deep expertise. If a map says “Offe Carraccas” (and it did) know that even if it hadn’t come from the steady and copperplate hand of a medieval and probably older cartographer it was still accurate. Maps were the GPS their day, without the annoying voice, and even a lowly pirate knew how to read a map. Be warned – when you begin to research the navigation charts of the Long John Silver era you will lose hours to their magic.

8. Follow The Money. And it will lead you to Spain, who dominated world currency in the time of Blackbeard. The doubloon was the mega-­‐coin, valued at 32 reals (or royals: the coins had monarch’s faces) and the piece-­‐of-­‐eight (cackled you will recall by Capn’ Flint, Long John Silver’s parrot), which preceded the U.S. dollar in world power had the value of 8 reals. Luckily for all pirate writers the world is full of experts on coinage who are ready willing and eager to share their knowledge. As are ship experts, sail experts, linguists, cartographers, etc.. With in-­‐depth research in place all it needs is an original story – and that’s where the writer’s an expert.

Frank Delaney has earned top prizes and best-seller status in a wide variety of formats – prolific author, television and radio broadcaster, journalist, columnist, screenwriter, lecturer, playwright and scholar. His podcast series, Re:Joyce, deconstructing, examining and illuminating James Joyce’s Ulysses line-by-line, in accessible and entertaining five-minute broadcasts, and posted each week on his website and iTunes, has just passed its first million downloads. A lifelong admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson, and originally publishing under the pseudonym, Francis Bryan, Delaney wrote JIM HAWKINS & THE CURSE OF TREASURE ISLAND as a work of affection and homage to the original Treasure Island.

Visit Frank online: Website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads

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