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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13 years ago

Great post, Amanda! I loved hearing about the research that went into your book.

Settings. Mmm. I’m really interested in Celtic history/prehistory & I’ve started reading up on the Vikings, so I’ll have to go with those.

13 years ago

I enjoyed your post and life on the sea does sound romantic. It’s like a seperate world. I like settings from different times in our country’s history.

Tracey Devlyn
13 years ago

Loved your post, Amanda. I know your book isn’t about pirates, but it did make me long for one. I’ve always loved reading them, but they seem particularly hard to find these days. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. πŸ™‚

Good luck on your new release!

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I love reading about your research, Amanda. That is an impressive list of books and, of course, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were essential.

Did the Spanish also invent Mojitos?

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Great and informative post, Amanda! And another great list of research books for me to tuck away for future use should I ever decide to take to the high seas!

Having visited the wildest, most remote parts of Romania / Transylvania I would love to set a deep, dark Gothic romance there. The forests are so huge, as if they were carved rather than grown. And the air is heavy with the mystery of some powerful unseen force. Very romantic, lonely setting.

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

Tracey, the villain of the story is a pirate (with a sad, romantic past!), so I got to use some of the fun tidbits I found in books about pirates. Hopefully I can expand that into another story some time soon!

Maureen, you are so right–it does sound like a whole different world, a tiny wooden one adrift on a huge sea. It sounds frightening, and yet alluring (to me, anyway, LOL!). I love reading about it, even though I’ve never even been on a cruise in real life.

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“Did the Spanish also invent Mojitos?”

LOL! From what I read, it was invented by a bar owner in Cuba (and Hemingway drank a LOT of them while living there). But I’m sure they were still very important in research. πŸ™‚

Louisa, I really hope you write that Transylvania story! I think the setting is so mysterious, spooky, and Gothic, it would be wonderful. (I actually toyed with setting Balthazar’s story there a long time ago, putting him in the midst of one of their warlord squabbles, but the Caribbean worked better. I still think it would be a fabulous setting)

Keira Soleore
13 years ago

I’m really interested in the grand ole epic Icelandic sagas. The music is surreal and hauntingly beautiful.

It was great to get a look into your research. You’re exhaustively well-researched. No wonder the books always seem to have the right “feel” to them. The setting’s believable, the characters could’ve been actual people. And I love seeing your characters’ personalities reflected in their environment and vice versa. Now I better understand your reply to my question.

Plumbing and hygiene are the rules which we live by and avoid at all costs in our stories. There’s only so much “reality” us modern people can stomach. The thing is that heroes and heroines in those days were every bit as heroic as we make them out to be in our stories. Since they lived in those times, their tolerance for daily nuisances was different from ours. So it is appropriate for us to avoid those problematic issues to avoid giving them more weightage than necessary.

Thank you for this new perspective on Santo Domingo for me. I hadn’t realized that the city was quite as advanced as it was.

Julia Justiss
13 years ago

The new book sounds great, Ammanda! I just picked up my copy and can’t wait to begin. I love how you explore less well known periods like the Caribbean in the Renaissance!

Must try to get by eharlequin tomorrow for some pirate-speak.

13 years ago

What a cool list of books!
Thanks for the Mojito recipe. I had thought that Mojitos were made with that cactus stuff that restaurants who don’t have a full liquor license serve, which is why I’ve steered clear. This recipe sounds yummy!

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

Keira, I just got a review in my email today that talked about how the characters seem to suit their setting, so there must be something in that! πŸ™‚ This would make a good blog post, I think, once I get over the post-holiday brain fog. It’s so important to do all that research, even if it doesn’t all show up in the story, just to make sure the characters come across as authentic and plausible. (And one of the tour guides at Jamestown talked about how the situation aboard ship that seems so horrific to us–with the cramped space and bad hygiene–would not have been so very different from land-life to them.

Jane, LOL! That sounds like what the Mexican restaurant down the street from me serves, and you’re right, it’s nothing like a mojito! They are too yummy.

Elena Greene
13 years ago

Cool research, Amanda, and smart choices re how much to use. I doubt most people want too much reality spoiling their pirate fantasies. πŸ™‚

13 years ago

Louisa, my sister traveled to that part of the world when it opened up. She visited “Dracula’s” castle at twilight and brought me back pictures and hand-knit slippers from the gift shop. My sister’s the adventurous one, she also used to live in Mexico and brought me back a picture of Trotsky’s toilet.

The Transylvanian forests would make a great setting, I think the race of dragon people in Shana Abe’s books originated in the mountains there.

13 years ago

Great blog and I can’t wait to get my hands on your book!

I’d like to see more stories set in turn of the century New York, Boston or California.

Definately Ireland which I’m pretty sure your next book takes place in. Any time period set there would suit me.

I’d love more stories to take place in Russia or any other part of that region. It’s always fascinated me.

Cara King
13 years ago

I think I’d like to read a romance set at Versailles…or maybe Paris…who knows?

Or I know — Norwich! I haven’t read one of those. πŸ˜‰

BTW, I recently watched an episode of the History Channel’s “Conquest” series (a series which tries to recreate how fighting worked in various eras) about Pirates…and it was very interesting to hear their ideas about the different swords and other weapons, and their comparative strengths!

And watching Pirates for research…yeah, that sounds good!