Today, THE FREE CHOICE E-ZINE
chats with author NANCY A. HANSEN
about her new novel, Jezebel Johnston: Devil's Handmaid
. So NANCY
, what's it all about?
|Cover art by Terry Pavlet.|
The novel is my first attempt at writing a straight-up pirate adventure, and is available in both print
formats at Amazon.com
from Airship 27
It takes place in the Caribbean Sea in the mid-1650s, and features a young mixed-race woman barely past girlhood who, because she had a father who was a privateer and grew up listening to his exciting stories, has now fallen in love with a pirate. She decides to leave her home on Tortuga, which is a bustling port filled with all sorts of people including plenty of pirates, and sign aboard her beloved's ship as a boy. She's tall, thin, flat-chested and has rather a deep voice; and with her hair cut short and dressed in male clothing, Jez manages to pull it off. Her intended does not discover her and the deception until they are already out to sea. They have to continue to hide the truth from the captain and the rest of the crew for some very valid reasons. Along the way, Jez learns a whole lot about how rough and brutal a pirate's life actually is, and has some second thoughts about what this buccaneer life is really all about.
A pirate adventure? Not one of the writing genres you're already established in. How did this project come into being?
|Author Nancy A. Hansen|
Yeah, it's a bit of a departure for me, because I'm most noted for my sword & sorcery style of epic/heroic fantasy, and this is more like historical seafaring fiction. So it was a new challenge, but I've been gradually branching out in my writing. I've always had a passion for pirate movies, and I enjoy the kind of mystique which has built up around their nihilist, counterculture, in-your-face sort of existence. Maybe some wayward hippie-culture pining from growing up in the 1960s and 70s surfaced along the way, because I also have an affection for highwaymen and what we traditionally think of as gypsies—no slight intended toward any actual Romany. I know that pirates and highwaymen were vilified by most of society for good reason; because they terrorized, robbed, and
killed people without remorse, and often lived dissolute and quite short lives because of that. They were clearly criminals. Yet I think there's a part of any of us that at times just wants to just chuck it all and go live off the fat of someone else's hard work, especially if it was in a warm climate surrounded by other people who don't give a damn about how outrageous you look or act.
I had originally planned on picking up on a pirate character written by another contemporary author who had absolutely no plans to continue it beyond the one story written, but in the end decided to go with my own setup, because it gives me more flexibility in what I choose to do. Writing a pirate story in general was an idea that I'd been kicking around for a couple of years, and after the winter holidays of 2014, I decided I was ready to do it. I got underway immediately, and while things started off slow, I found myself getting excited about the possibilities.
It's our understanding that this is the first pirate novel for both you and Airship 27, which is surprising, considering the company's long publishing history. Is that true?
|Set sail for adventure!|
Not only is that true, but I know for a fact that the nine interior illustrations were the first pirate artwork that the very talented artist Rob Davis
has ever done. Not sure about cover artist Terry Pavlet, but that's still a lot of firsts. It really means a lot to me that not only was headman and Airship 27
Captain Ron Fortier
wildly enthusiastic about having a novel-length project from me, but he is a big pirate fan too! Terry Pavlet took my vision and turned it into an amazing cover that I've heard many admiring comments about. And those Rob Davis interiors are just… they're just perfect. Rob reads the books, as he's is also the graphics setup man and formatter, as well as a full partner in Airship 27. He really caught the spirit of the tale in each of the black and white drawings. With the way things came together on this novel, we've all felt it was just meant to be something special.
Was this book more difficult to write, compared to your fantasy work or more modern tales?
This was hands-down, the toughest novel I've ever written. It required a ton of research because I'd never tackled a seafaring tale of any kind before, and about the only nautical book I'd read before attempting it was Treasure Island
. There was so much I didn't know, and that became evident from the outset.
|The "known" world, mid-1600s.|
Just in the world of sailing ships, there was so much jargon that I didn't understand. It's like trying to decipher a foreign language with no background in it. I wrote a western short story back in 2012 and ran into the same thing. If you want to write something that sounds authentic, you need to know what you're talking about. In fantasy, you can make up a lot of the rules and terms, so that's far easier—plus I've read a ton of that, so I know the 'flavor' readers are looking for. I barely got past the prologue before I knew I was over my head.
And then as I went along, it got even more involved. The story is set in a very volatile time in the colonial settling of the Americas, where primarily English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dutch concerns from aboard are vying for land and resources in the New World. Borders were shifting all the time, and a lot of what was happening in Europe had a direct affect on how things were handled in their colonies.
Some of the Caribbean islands changed hands frequently over just a few years. Alliances and treaties were made here and broken there. All that competition and strife, coupled with the distance from homeland to colony, had a lot to do with pirating blooming the way it did in the 1600s-1700s. I had to know this stuff because it runs as a subtle, but constantly shifting undercurrent in the stories I'm trying to tell.
I haven't even gotten into some of the more specialized things; like weapons, types of treasure (it varied through eras & with location), the names of ports and who more or less owned them… many things. I got a crash course in history as filtered through the era of buccaneering. When I am working on a book, I usually have Dictionary.com and Google open in case I need to find out something, but they became my closest friends for this one. I walked around mumbling to myself a lot, and bent everyone's ear about what I was learning. Even the dog began to creep off when I was in lecture mode. At night, I read pirate and seafaring tales. They got into my dreams at times.
You have to be pretty single-minded and self-disciplined to voluntarily take on a project like this under the most favorable of conditions. I am not working outside the home, so I had dreams of being able to spend entire lost weeks writing and researching—but life had other ideas. I had no more gotten going with it when I went from part time to full time babysitter for an infant grandchild, with another on the way. My mother was diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, so weekends were devoted to her and whatever family or friends came to visit. Along the way, I had other writing projects and deadlines, so I had to scrape and scramble for time. But it eventually got done, though both the new granddaughter and book took nine months to birth. Some days I got less than a hundred words written.
You certainly have a diverse cast of characters within your bibliography. Is one gender easier to write than another?
I write both male and female characters of all ages, and over time I'm gradually making a more concerted effort to introduce a variety of ethnic/racial backgrounds and gender identities. It is easier to write characters that you're comfortable with, who resemble you in some (basic) way, but that's also lazy, cowardly, and not very representative of the world we live in. I do write a lot of heroic female leads because to me it seems to be an area of action/adventure fiction that has been under served.
My ladies aren't fashion model gorgeous. They wouldn't look good with their feminine assets popping out of catsuits or chain mail bikinis. They're tall, short, skinny, or plump; their hair is mousy and thin or a wild mess. They aren't sporting gym-perfected muscles or runway confidence in their appearance. Some of them have special abilities, but most often they're just a gal swept up by circumstances into history-in-the-making. Something bad or unusual happened, and someone had to stand up and do something about it.
I don't just write about special women though, because I want my stories to appeal to a wide audience, and to be entertaining. Most of all, I want readers to feel they didn't waste their time with the book or short story, and to actually be sorry when it ends. Along the way, there should be a bunch of thrills, an occasional chuckle, a few shocking moments, and a feeling that you got to know someone unique. The story isn't about me, it's about you the reader, seeing life through the eyes of a third party. It's your paper or electronic escape. Well-designed characters are like good old friends. They will come sweep you up into a tale and take you everywhere they go.
What about writing regular human beings, compared to such fantasy races like Elves, Dwarfs, etc?
There's a certain mindset I have to get into when I switch from say, an Elven point of view to a Dwarven one, and then back to a human being. Besides the obvious differences in outward appearance and speech, there are inner nuances that flavor the way even silent characters interact that sets them apart.
|Windriders, circa 2014|
For instance, in The Windriders of Everice
anthology which was released in May 2014, the five short stories within detail the creation and gradual acceptance of a winged horse mounted regiment in an impoverished mountain realm. The second story in the book is told primarily from the POV of a mixed bunch of winged and normal horses in a stable. Now these horses don't speak—not even the winged ones. Other than being able to fly, and being a bit more robust and savvy about fighting techniques, they are just like their earthbound stablemates. And in this tale, they are all alone with no protective humans nearby when a group of menacing creatures come down out of the mountains to attack them. So I had to get inside a horse's head and decide how a herd animal would react to such a threat, and show all that without words to express what's going on—and then differentiate the response between those who could fly and those who can't. Well, I can't fly, and I'm certainly not a horse! I've never owned or ridden one, though I've had a passing acquaintance with a few, and a lifelong love of those graceful and amazing creatures. Somehow, I made it work, and there were a lot of horsey heroics in that story.
I did the same thing with a villainous character that is the center of an upcoming release, Forged By Flame
, the first novel of the Sudarnian Chronicles from my Hansen's Way imprint at Pro Se Press
. In this case, the main villain was female; an adult flying dragon with her wingless young scattered through the area. She is trying to feed and protect them when she runs afoul of the local humans. Dragons in this story aren't totally sentient either, so I was dealing with a very large and angry predator mother whose offspring are being killed. Her motivations for attacking humans are somewhat different than ours would be because this is a territorial creature the size of a tractor trailer that can spit flames and fly over you at the same time. The crux of the story is a young man with the ability to get inside the head of such creatures attempting to control her. Trying to describe what the mind of a beast like that would be like was tough.
Makes the Elves and Dwarves look easy in comparison. Human beings are what I know best, so writing them comes easiest of all.
One stereotype you've gone out of your way to avoid in your writings is the typical “damsel in distress”. Regardless of genre, why does there seem to be a minority, for lack of a better word, of strong female leads in fiction?
Well I do have some ladies who occasionally need saving, and quite a
few fellas too, as well as children of both genders. What I avoid is making that person a main character—or at least to not have him or her remain helpless throughout the tale. While we all are frightened of something, and get ourselves into overwhelming situations, I don't think readers want to be continually reminded of how pathetic and defenseless we can be at our worst. The majority of us are not going to be thought of as heroes, but we all have our traumatic and ugly situations to deal with and many times we manage to rise to the occasion. When I write something, I try and give you at least a couple of people in the book that leave you feeling hopeful that you too will find a way to get past all the assorted daily strife that life tosses at you.
Certainly if a story called for a 'damsel in distress', I'd put one in there. I just haven't considered writing one as a lead character. I think I'd get bored with her pretty fast.
I can't speak for all fiction, but I've read my share of simpering, sniveling female victims dressed up as leads, and those stories tend to leave me cold. If a woman gets in trouble for something she screwed up and learns a painful lesson, and it's part of the plot, I don't mind that. If she's nothing but a fixture for the big, musclebound hero to rescue, that's a yawner and I'm looking for something better to read. I think I'd feel the same way about a male character who constantly needed saving by his female lead. I like to think everyone brings something to the tale when you lay out main characters.
Not exactly the same idea, but along the same lines, is
what I see being done to females in cover art. No matter if they are the screaming victim begging to be saved, the sly villainess waiting to snare Mr. Wonderful into her net of intrigue, the bodice-ripped love interest, or a rampaging heroine slicing her way through hordes of orcs, the constant state of half-undress and sometimes outright nudity is monotonous and frustrating. Yes, I know that sex sells, and that we're all supposed to be proud of our amazing bodies. I have titillating to downright erotic scenes in some of my stories where appropriate; but they're not on the cover!
Besides, none of these women look like anyone I know. They don't even appear normal! There has to be lurking out there an aggregate of timeless, ageless, human Barbie dolls with ridiculously proportioned 'perfect' bodies wearing clothing three sizes too small and often unfastened or half ripped off. I've been threatening for a few years now to create a male character fighting in some foolish getup that wouldn't last five minutes on the battlefield without chafing his tender parts raw, and then give him the cover shot with all of his enormous personal assets on display. Anybody out there in the publishing field brave enough to tackle that one?
Personally, I doubt it. Moving on. Will we be seeing Jezebel again?
Absolutely! From the get-go I knew this was a series, and when I pitched it to Ron Fortier, I told him that right off. I have the second book nearing completion as I write this, titled JEZEBEL JOHNSTON: QUEEN OF ANARCHY, and I've plans for at least 3 more after that. I will let this series take me as far as it can go.
BTW, on the subtitles, I can't take full credit for them. When I turned in the first
manuscript, it was simply titled JEZEBEL JOHNSTON. Ron, in a stroke of brilliance, suggested a subtitle that reflects the ship Jez primarily serves on in each book. So for the first book, that was Devil's Handmaid, and for the one I'm working on now, it is a French ship named Reine de L'anarchie, which (if I've done my research properly) should translate to Queen of Anarchy. Pirates tended to give their ships bold and boastful names, and ships generally are thought of as female. So it's not hard to come up with a ship name that sort of fits Jez's status at the time of the story, and still satisfy that need for an audacious title. Part of the fun of being a writer is getting to drop in little double entendres like that.
Any other "Easter Eggs" within the novel?
You'll have to read it to find out.
As usual, this has been a most enlightening chat Nancy. Thanks for stopping by.
Thanks for having me Lee, this has been a lot of fun, and I hope it gives folks a little more insight into why I write the things I do.
Nancy Hansen maintains an Amazon Author's page
, a writer's blog
, and a presence on both Facebook