A Look Behind the Book…


(Tomorrow, I’ll be at eharlequin with a “talk like a pirate” forum where I’ll share more about the characters and history of this book. Please pop in, so I won’t be alone! To find it, go to eharlequin, then to Forums, Simply Series, and Ahoy Landlubbers! High Seas Stowaway with Amanda McCabe)

In the comments on yesterday’s post, Keira asked if setting inspires story or vice versa. I guess the answer is–both! For High Seas Stowaway, it was two characters in need of the proper place to play out their tale. Bianca and Balthazar both gave up the riches of Venice to follow their own natures, to search out adventure and new, dangerous lands where they could find themselves and the chance for true love. They were both too stubborn and wild-hearted to be contained, even by a place as gorgeous as Venice! They needed the open sea and wild, lush islands–even if they do settle down eventually.

And I could follow my interest in sixteenth century exploration. I would never have wanted such an adventure for myself–I like hot water and knowing exactly where I am, not to mention knowing where my next meal is coming from (and having that meal NOT be weevil-infested hardtack)! But I love reading about it in tales of voyages like those of Magellan, Drake, and (later) Cook. I recently read the new book Champlain’s Dream (which will be on an upcoming post of favorite books of 2008), and loved it. I’ve often wondered what kind of person would pack themselves into a tiny wooden ship, with no completely reliable means of navigation, and launch themselves out into the vast ocean. What would drive them? I found that person in Balthazar.

By 1535, when our story begins, the Spanish were just becoming well-established in the New World, and Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola (now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was its administrative capital. Though it had no gold or silver itself, it was located on the island’s northwest coast between the Windward and the Mona passages, and thus was perfectly placed on the route between Mexico and Panama to Seville. Its port, at the mouth of the Ozama river, formed a natural protective harbor, with anchorage for dozens of ships. It became the main “staging area” for the flotas of treasure ships headed back to Spain, loaded with purloined silver, gold, emeralds, and pearls.

The gallows, where pirates hung rotting for all to see, held a prominent place above the harbor. And the lush, thickly vegetated central valleys of the island made the perfect hiding place for luckier pirates and runaway slaves! Buccans, or wild frontiersman (mostly of French extraction), lived there as well, hunting the wild pigs. Even though Hispaniola had no treasure, it did export sugar and hardwoods from those forests, and housed prosperous cattle ranches and rum distilleries.

And Santo Domingo was not just some rough “frontier town” (though it probably looked like one for someone fresh from Seville!). The governor at the time, Alonso de Feuonmayor, wanted to make his town as “Spanish” as possible. Between 1533 and 1536, he oversaw the building of a great cathedral (which can still be seen today), a fortress, and thick defebsive walls. The town was built atop an easily-defended hill, and given a very European look with houses and ramparts made of yellow stone and reddish-orange brick, with red-tiled roofs. Streets were cobbled, there was a central square, and church bells rang out every hour. A great place for an industrious and intelligent tavern owner like Bianca to prosper!

Another aspect I loved researching was ships and the life of the sea in the 16th century. It was rough, and sorta romantic (to read about anyway), full of a bold adventurous spirit that exactly suited Balthazar. (Though I did tend to gloss over some of the, shall we say, less pleasant aspects! No body odor and scurvy…)

Balthazar and his brother Marc (the hero of A Notorious Woman) are not pirates, though they battle them at times. They are merchants with a booming business and a license to trade in the New World. Balthazar’s ship, the Calypso, is a caravel (like Columbus’s Nina and Pinta). Caravels were smallish and lightly built, fast, responsive, and comparatively stable. Between 60 and 72 feet in length, with a raised quarterdeck and stern and 3 masts, 2 for square-rigged sails and 1 smaller for a lateen rig at stern, it could sail easily in crosswinds. It was nimble and versatile, cost-effective (with a relatively small crew), but also a bit cramped for space. This, of course, provided particular challenges for a romance writer…

When I visited those reproduction ships at Jamestown, I realized something. It would be difficult for Balthazar (who is quite tall) and Bianca (who is not petite) to be sufficiently passionate in that little cabin with its low ceilings and teensy berth. (Visiting research-relevant sites can be immensely helpful, but also can shatter some illusions!) And there would be no privacy at all. This was a challenge, yes, but not impossible. Not for those who are determined!

I learned so much from this book. What rough weather would feel like (I made myself feel a bit queasy thinking about storms), the diet and routine aboard ship, navigation (the use of objects like quadrants, compasses, the cross-staff and “dead reckoning”), careening, mapmaking. I also had to watch the Pirates of the Caribbean movies a few times, which is a tough job but I did it for the book…

A few sources I liked were:
Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations
Angus Konstam, The History of Pirates
Wayne Curtis, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails (yes, this was really research!!!)
Kenneth Andrews, The Spanish Caravel: Trade and Plunder
Carl Sauer, The Early Spanish Main
C.H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America
Jan Rogozinski, A Brief History of the Caravel (a lucky $.50 library sale find!)
Mendel Peterson, The Funnel of Gold
Albert Marrin, The Sea King: Sir Francis Drake and His Times (much later than the time period of my book, but it was very useful for its descriptions of shipboard life and the calling to adventure and discovery)

The history of Spain (and France and England) in the New World is, of course, an extremely complex one, and mostly beyond the scope of my lighthearted story. I would love to revisit it one day, possibly for a work of historical fiction!

Mojito Recipe
2–3 oz rum
1 lime (juiced)
2 tsp sugar
2–4 mint sprigs
Soda water

Lightly muddle mint and sugar with a splash of soda water in a mixing glass until the sugar dissolves. Squeeze the lime into the glass, add the rum, and shake with ice. Strain over cracked ice into a highball glass, top off with soda water, garnish with a mint sprig, and enjoy!

What are some favorite spots you’d like to as story settings???

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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