Saturday, July 9, 2011

Tension and conflict on the high seas

Guest Blog by Author Linda Collison

HM Bark Endeavour replica.
Photo taken by John Hill

I’m packing my duffel to go sailing and feeling so conflicted about being at sea again.

Topaz is our sailboat, a 36-foot sloop moored at the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor in Hawaii. Bob and I have sailed her many thousands of blue water miles around the Hawaiian Islands; we’ve sailed to Bora-Bora and back. Oh, that sounds so romantic, I know. But as Samuel Johnson once said, “Being on a boat is like being in prison – with the chance of drowning” Or words to that effect.

I have a love/hate relationship with Topaz. With water. I am both attracted to the ocean and repelled by it, I find voyaging sometimes thrilling, sometimes tedious, and sometimes scary as hell. At sea I struggle with both claustrophobia and agoraphobia. To tell you the truth, I have an abiding fear of deep water and it is this fear, this underlying tension that fuels my writing.

Star-Crossed, my first published novel, was conceived in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean aboard HM Bark Endeavour, an Australian built replica of Captain James Cook’s famed vessel. The Endeavour was a floating time machine that transported me to the mid-18th century during the three weeks I served as ordinary seaman, along with 54 other time travelers sailing from Vancouver to Hawaii. For three weeks we stood our watches, patched sails, braided reef points, scrubbed the deck and the dishes, climbed aloft and out on the footropes of the yards to make and furl sail, took our tricks at the helm. We lived by the striking of the ship’s bell, by the orders of our superior officers, and in the camaraderie of our mates.

Bob and I signed on together and, although we are married, we slept separately in hammocks strung from the deckhead 18’ apart, as per 18th century British Navy regulation. And because my last name begins with a “C” and his begins with an “R” we weren’t even swinging in tandem, but were half a boat length apart. My billet was next to Joe, a former dentist from Southern California. We bumped elbows as we swung in our canvas hammocks, listening to the creaking and groaning of the living ship and the voices of those on watch above us..

At first going aloft was terrifying, but terror soon gave way to exhaustion. Then gradually we started to actually enjoy the process and by the time we reached Hawaii we were scampering gleefully, almost agilely, up the ratlines and we were familiar with the maze of hempen lines that were Endeavour’s rigging.

It was aboard ship on a night watch in the middle of the North Pacific, when the character Patricia showed herself to me and insisted I write her to life. When I got off the ship in Kona, Hawaii, Patricia came with me. For the next six years I researched the Georgian Navy and mid-18th century British history, while writing Patricia’s story. Finding an agent was like finding a needle in a haystack, if you’ll excuse the cliché. It took nearly a year.

In 2006 Star-Crossed was published by Knopf! Now I was sailing with a bone in my teeth, baby! And the reviews were awesome. But Knopf didn’t want to continue the series, though I had written a bomb of a sequel. My agent didn’t think any other publisher would be interested in publishing the sequel to a book Knopf held the rights to. She lost interest, we parted ways. I took a break, published an article in Cruising World, started a new novel, set at sea.

But Patricia would not be forgotten. Nearly five years after the publication of Star-Crossed, I found a publisher. Or should I say my publisher found me – on Facebook – and Surgeon’s Mate; book two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series was published by Fireship Press!

I’m writing the first draft of book three now; Patricia just won’t let me go. It’s never easy, writing down someone else’s life, reliving their fears and desires. She keeps pushing me to deeper water where there’s no land in sight. I’m still afraid of capsizing, of drowning, but that’s what drives me to write my way home.

Follow @lindacollison on twitter or click here to see her website.


  1. They say write what you know. They also say write what you don't know but want to learn. You've hit on what may be the best approach: write what inspires conflict within you. Storytelling is about conflict at its core, after all. Your love/hate relationship with the sea sounds like a great inspiration, and your experience on the Bark Endeavor was fascinating. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Linda,

    I think I see what made Star-Crossed so good. They say it is hardest to write about what scares you the most, but it is so rewarding to the reader.

  3. Wow!!!! What a fantastic adventure you have had with this series :) I'm so envious! I have to say, I had a similar experience when I wrote a Middle Grade Fantasy series about my character, Charlotte. If your character is calling to you, you just have to see it out, no matter what! The best stories are the ones that come from the heart. Mine were never published, unfortunately, but one day they will. Your story needs to be told, published or not :)

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Linda. I wish you all the luck in the world with this!

  4. Linda - I've written a pirate adventure that takes place, for the most part, on an 18th century brigantine. I have never been on one, partly because the opportunity has never arisen (I'm in Texas, after all), and partly because I am prone to motion sickness. Moreover, I am scared of heights, therefore going aloft is something else I probably will never get to do. My point is this: You rock, and I'm super jealous. I will just have to experience it all vicariously. ;)

  5. Emailman, don't give up, my man. Linda didn't.

    Fiction Chick, prone to motion sickness is similar to Linda's fears. It amazes me that you have both written nautical adventures.

  6. I believe in writing what you DON'T know. So much more interesting that way, and the result is so much more fresh and filled with a sense of discovery. I'm a firm believer in the learn-as-you-go approach to writing.

  7. Amazing what our characters put us through. ;) Your books sound very interesting, Linda. I've never been on a sailboat, but we own a small fishing boat. My husband has a passion for the ocean, having worked as a captain of a commercial fishing boat many years ago. I think he would agree with your quote, “Being on a boat is like being in prison – with the chance of drowning.” When you're on a boat with someone, there's no escape. You have to work things out, no choice.

  8. Annie,

    I can't imagine the number of people on that HM Bark Endeavour. Yikes.

    And six years of research?

  9. Melanie, as we all know the research never ends. It becomes a way of life! But at some point you have to submit the manuscript.

    @Annie; sail boat or fishing boat, they're both just life support systems in a potentially deadly environment. The fact that our lives depend on the cooperation, skill, judgement, and sanity of the others on board astounds me. Being on a boat of any sort gives me a heady sense of freedom -- and at the very same time, a sense of doom. Talk about conflicted!

  10. Oooh, very jealous over here! I fell in love with sailing after seeing the movie Master and Commander and gobbling up Patrick O'Brian's nautical series. The cover on Starcrossed is just gorgeous, BTW.

  11. K. M., if you liked Patrick O'Brian, you'll like Star-crossed.

  12. @K.M. Weiland The cover of Star-Crossed won an award from Spectrum, a collection of the best fantasy artwork for each year (even though Star-Crossed is not fantasy but realistic historical fiction.) It is a lovely piece of artwork, thanks for noticing. The artists are Griesbach and Martucci of New York. ( Knopf is topnotch when it comes to finding artists for book jackets!)

    @Melanie You are a darling to say so. POB is one of my favorite authors.


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