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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Writers falling for their fictional heroes

Some years ago, after Shark Island, the second in the Wiki Coffin series, came out, I received a horrified letter from a fan.  The book had a hot love scene, and she took great exception to it. "You were supposed to be saving him for ME," she complained.

Well, I guess Wiki is a hunk.  As my agent observed, he is hot.  A lot of detail went into creating him, but did I fall in love with him?  Just like his fan?  I must confess I had never thought about that before, not until Helen Hollick, the author of the rousing Sea Witch series, confessed that she had fallen in love with her dashing hero, the pirate Jesamiah Acorne.

So I asked her about it,  and this is what she wrote.

Falling for a Fictional Hero…
by Helen Hollick

The first character I fell in love with was a rabbit. Little Grey Rabbit from the tales by Alison Uttley. Well, I was only three years old!

Several others (characters, not rabbits) followed through the years, mostly entering my little shy (and somewhat lonely) childhood world at night beneath the covers by the romantic light of a torch. I can’t remember many of them now, but most of my fictional heroes and heroines had something to do with animals, especially horses.

I branched out as I ‘grew up’. (Jury is still out on whether I ever actually have grown up….)
Characters came, characters went. Then along came Llewellyn ap Fawr in Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons. I fell for him – what a hunk of a guy! It was somewhat disappointing to realise, some months later when I had the great pleasure, and honour, of meeting Sharon personally that Llewellyn was not a one-reader-man. It turned out that many dozens of readers had fallen in love with him. I guess fair enough. The real man had, after all, been dead for several hundred years.

Meanwhile, I had created my own hero: my version of King Arthur. Did I ‘fall in love’ with him? No, I don’t think I did, I thought of him as more of a really close friend, a brother, a favourite uncle, a mentor – a forever presence in my life. Not surprising really, it took me over ten years to write what was eventually accepted by William Heinemann and materialised in print as my first historical novels, the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy.

But, oh! Finishing that third part! We all know that King Arthur dies at the end of it all. I felt like I was planning an assassination or a divorce after a long-term relationship. In the end, I wrote that very last chapter first, then went back to the beginning to write Book Three.

I am, still, most fond of my Arthur. Even if he isn’t always a ‘nice guy’. (Come on – he was a rough-tough warlord. You don’t get to be King by being nice all the time!) I was somewhat comforted when I received a letter from the fabulous Rosemary Sutcliff, written in her own hand and complete with her famous dolphin signature. In it, she confided that after completing Sword at Sunset, her magnificent novel about Arthur, it took her six weeks to get him out of her head.

Is there something charismatic about ‘Arthur’? Does his ghost continue to haunt the realms of imagination? Is that why he will always be the ‘once and future king’? Why, wherever he appears, writers and readers fall in love with him? That poser of a question aside, I grew fond of my next Character, King Harold II (he of 1066 Battle of Hastings fame), and then King Cnut - better known as Canute, who tried to turn back the tide. (Only actually he didn’t:  the story has got mixed up. He was actually trying to show that he couldn’t turn the tide…) So fond of, admiring of, honoured to research and write about. But not love.

Enter at a swagger, one pirate, stage left. (Page left?)

I met him one drizzly  October Friday afternoon on a beach in Dorset, southern England. I wanted to write something different to my previous historical novels already gathering dust on my bookshelves. I wanted something with a touch of fantasy and a charming rogue of a hero alongside his comely heroine. I wanted a Richard Sharpe, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey-type mixture. There were several young adult novels that partially fitted the bill, but not quite. There were many ‘straight’ nautical novels, but back then in November 2004 nothing remotely like Jack Sparrow’s fun-adventure on the Big Screen in print as a novel. I wanted a darn good adventure tale written for adults, with adult content. I wanted an exciting read that was something akin to that first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. But better.

I decided to write my own.

I had my plot and my research was accumulating. All learnt via books and the Internet. I’ve never been aboard a sailing ship in my life – not one that was moving that is! I had my heroine, my secondary characters. But not my hero of a Captain.

I sat on a rock on that Dorset beach and pondered. I looked up. And there he was standing as bold as brass, as cocky as he later turned out to be. Dressed in full pirate regalia, complete with three-corner hat, pistol, cutlass and a gold acorn-shaped earring dangling from his ear.
He touched his hat, nodded at me.
“Hello Jesamiah Acorne,” I said. *

And that was it. Hook, line and sinker, as they say, I was in love. Who could resist those gorgeous eyes?

I wrote the first draft of Sea Witch in less than three months, the words pouring from me every day except Christmas Day, when I took a (reluctant) break. From the moment I met him, Jesamiah become a real person to me. I know what he looks like, smells like (hmm maybe, given that he’s a pirate that isn’t such a good thing?) I know his voice, how his eyes sparkle, or frown when he’s angry. I know every callus on his hands, every scar on his body. I don’t always know what he is thinking, for often when I am writing he startles me by throwing in something unexpected. I do occasionally wish he would clear off to sea and leave me alone to write his adventures, but this writing process doesn’t quite work like that. Not when your lead character has entered your head, heart and soul as part of you. Not when you can clearly feel him standing behind your shoulder chuckling or grumbling beneath his breath – depending on what you are writing.

He is there now, standing behind me, glass of rum in one hand, in need of a shave (and a bath,) querying, “You’re not going to share all that, are you?”
“Yes, Jes dear, I am. Do you object?”

… He’s sauntered off. (I doubt he’s gone in the direction of the bathroom – more likely the drinks cabinet.) I did, however, distinctly hear the words: “Well, if your readers conclude that you’re barmy, don’t go blaming me.”

Ah, these  fictional characters. You have to be mad to listen to them, let alone love them, don’t you?

* I swear all that is true!

©  Helen Hollick

Helen lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she  wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction, due to be published in 2018

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Helen Hollick said...

Thanks Joan - I've felt Jesamiah grinning all day!

Loretta Livingstone said...

I must admit, having read about Jesamiah, I can definitely feel his allure.