linda collison's Sea of Words

charting a course from imagination to publication


Seamus BeirneSeamus Beirne and I both have ties to Barbados.  My novel Barbados Bound and Seamus’s forthcoming novel The Ice House are both partially set in historical Barbados, when British plantation owners were making fortunes from sugar cane at the expense of slaves and indentured servants.  Both novels are published by Fireship Press.  I asked Seamus to share something about how he writes:

Writing for me is a journey of discovery. Unlike many writers I do not have an outline or a plot summary before I begin. That does not mean that I don’t know where I’m going, I do, but I don’t have a GPS map of the road to my destination. For example before writing my current novel, The Ice House, I started with this premise: Michael Redferne runs afoul of the local landlord’s son. For his trouble he is kidnapped and deported as a slave to Barbados, known as the Sugar Island. There he is branded, abused and beaten, before escaping and making his way back to Ireland. That’s a skeleton and it’s a long way from a completed story.

The question now becomes, how to put meat on those bones. I can sit down with a pen and paper or at a computer and speculate outside the world of the story what direction this tale will take, but nothing of significance happens. That exercise is analogous to being asked to describe the paintings in the Louvre without having been there. So the key for me is to get into the world of the story, and since I’m the creator of that world, I need to start writing the actual story, otherwise I’m shut out. I’ve discovered I can’t sneak in by writing a summary.  Holding a pen or putting my fingers on the keyboard is like turning the key in the ignition. Nothing happens until I do that, and when I do, the energy starts to flow. Of course one of the downsides to such an approach is the danger of going down blind alleys which a writer may not discover until the end of the story. Worse still, it may stall the forward motion of the story. No, I don’t have an answer to that dilemma.  Writing sometimes is a frustrating business.

As you can deduce from all of that, such an approach does not lend itself easily to starting out with well-developed characters, where all of their foibles, weaknesses, goals, and motivations are laid out on paper beforehand. Many writers do, arriving at a core understanding of their characters, through paper interviews and descriptions to determine their personality types before getting into the world of the story. Best selling historical fiction writers Ken Follett and Ben Kane are examples of that approach. I’m not knocking that, it simply doesn’t work for me. I know little about my characters until I meet them, and I meet them within the context of the ongoing story. Then I know only what they allow me to know, like people in real life. The content of my characters is revealed to me gradually, by their actions, thoughts, and how they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.  The development process of the old Polaroid photo best captures, I believe, the progression I go through in character discovery: First there is a black slate, which morphs into grey patches, which in turn gives way to green and red swirls, until finally an image emerges in all its detail.

I didn’t know beforehand that my protagonist, Michael Redferne, would be callous and indifferent to his wife, or that landlord Robert Preston, bent on clearing his land of poor peasants, would turn out to be a man with a conscience, or that Isaac, an African slave, could rise above the indignities heaped upon him by the white power structure. All that emerges gradually as the story of The Ice House unfolds.


About Seamus Beirne:

A native of Ireland, I have lived in California for over forty years. I have an M.A. in English from CSULA and spent thirty years as an English teacher and administrator in high schools and college. My wife Ann and I have three children, all now plowing their own furrow—the gods be praised. We’re holding our breath, but none of them have moved into the spare room yet. Ann spends two days a week taking care of our grandsons, Colin and Roan. I spend seven days a week wrangling our two-year old, full of p and v, German shepherd named Lucy. Ann has gotten the better end of that deal.

In my spare time I write–two novels so far and one in the making. My second novel, The Ice House, is due to be published this year by Fireship Press. I have received the following awards: Conference Choice Award winner for adult fiction, San Diego Writers Conference, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Runner-up for adult fiction, San Francisco Writers Conference, 2010. Finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, 2011. Along with writing, I run a web-based college essay editing service

– Seamus Beirne

Author of The Ice House (forthcoming from Fireship Press)

Like Seamus Beirne’s author page on Facebook.





Meet My Main Character  is the historical novelist’s blog hop of the month.  Everybody is tagging everybody in a flurry of social networking, akin to some sort of dance.   If you’re the new kid in school,  a blog hop is the new  sock hop; a social exchange in which authors post on their own blogs the answers to a list of preset questions someone poses, then tag other writers to do the same.  The exercise is useful to the author as it helps focus aspects of one’s work-in-progress, and it serves to enhance networking among our literary coterie.  It also stirs up a little pre-release buzz for upcoming publications.

AntoineAntoine Vanner — author of the Dawlish Chronicles, a series-in-progress set in the Victorian era, often aboard steamships — tagged me first.  Antoine’s knowledge of human nature, his passion for nineteenth-century political and military history, and first-hand experience of their locales provide the background for his stories.  Antoine portrays lesser known but exciting events and exotic settings for his vibrant novels, Brittania’s Wolf, and Brittania’s Reach.  His main man Nicholas Dawlish is a complex character, heroic yet imperfect,  a man of his times.

Thank you, Antoine, for your interest in my main character.  Who is she?  Why would you be interested in what happens to her?  Here we go, let’s pop the questions…

What is the name of your character? Is she fictional or a historic person?

     Well, you see, a name is not such a simple thing.  Not for a woman, it isn’t.

     “Who needs surnames?” I said, still muddle-headed. “They’re never our own anyway.” 

     Rachel’s smile was rueful. “How true. first we’re given our father’s name, then we take our husband’s. Only our given name remains the same. But what shall I call you?


Meet Patricia:  Born Patricia Kelley, to her chagrin, the illegitimate issue of the profligate Baron Sheldon Hatterby and his Irish indentured servant.  Although daddy  sent her to England to be raised as gentleman’s daughter (albeit a natural daughter) he didn’t give her his name.  Upon his untimely death she rashly steals away aboard a ship bound for Barbados in a brash attempt to claim the Hatterby sugar plantation.  When that seems out of the question, Patricia becomes Mrs. MacPherson upon marrying the old Scot, Doctor Aeneas MacPherson, serving as ship surgeon.  At that point in her life she’ll do just about anything to survive.  After her husband dies she keeps his last name and the tools of his trade, and takes the first name of his nephew, Patrick, along with the dead man’s identity as a ship surgeon’s mate.

 Hannah Snell, Royal Marine in Captain Graham's company, Colonel Fraser's regiment.

Hannah Snell, Royal Marine in Captain Graham’s company, Colonel Fraser’s regiment.

While Patricia was born of my imagination, the cross-dressing marine pictured here in the bright red coat was quite real.  Hannah Snell was one of dozens, perhaps hundreds of women who chose to portray themselves as men and serve in the navy or the army, in former centuries.   More than just a romantic icon, the stuff of ballads and broadsheets,  many verifiable incidents of  cross-dressing sailors and soldiers have been revealed.  Military standards were different then; there were no thorough physical exams like we know today, that would reveal a recruit’s sex.  Because young boys often served on ships as servants and apprentices, young women were able to pass themselves off as teenaged boys or young men.  Many readers are surprised to learn there really were women who got away with their disguise, living and working alongside men, in some cases for years.

History conveniently forgets many, if not most women – unless they happen to be the wives, lovers or daughters of famous men.  Titles such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Mapmaker’s WifeThe Bone Setter’s DaughterThe Hangman’s Daughter make me ask why women are so often defined in relationship to men?  What about The Time Traveler’s Husband, The Mapmaker’s Ex-Husband, The Bone Setter’s Son, the Hangwoman’s Lover?  Why can’t the woman BE the time traveler, the Bone Setter, the Hangwoman?  In my series Patricia, posing as Patrick, IS the surgeon’s mate, the adventurer, the seaman.  She does not play a passive role or a supportive role. In writing the Patricia MacPherson books I’m exploring what it might have been like to have been a cross-dressing woman in the mid to late 18th century.  Why might a woman choose that path?  How could she get away with it?  What rewards would it bring?  At what cost?

The idea came to me while I was serving as a voyage crew member aboard the Bark Endeavour,  a working replica of Captain James Cook’s 18th century ship, sailing around the world, training willing sailors to sail the ship.  I served on the passage from Vancouver to Hawaii, in 1999.  Endeavour was a floating time machine and I was fortunate to spend three weeks aboard, as part of the crew.  I’ve also sailed thousands of blue water miles with my husband on a modern sloop; enough sea time to learn how to navigate, steer, and handle sails.  My twelve years experience as a nurse in acute care settings have also played a role in imagining Patricia’s life as a surgeon’s mate.  Patricia is my own daughter, in a sense, born two centuries before I was.

When and where is the story set?

Barbados Bound; Book 1 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventures begins in 1760, in Portsmouth, England, and ends in Havana in 1762, at the end of the Seven Years War.  Surgeon’s Mate, book 2 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventures, takes place during the following months.  Book 3, not yet published, takes place in 1765, during the Stamp Act.  Patricia has effectively become a Rhode Island Yankee, passing herself off as Patrick MacPherson on a colonial trading schooner, which she is part owner of.  She has an opportunity to make a great deal of profit trading illicitly with Havana, recently given back to the Spanish after the Treaty of Paris.  The risk is great but the reward, greater.

 Adobe Photoshop PDFWhat should we know about your character?

In  Barbados Bound, we meet Patricia, a young woman caught between two worlds: That of Britain, a rising world power and Colonial North America.  She’s caught between male and female roles.  She struggles with dependence and liberty. She presents herself as a man in order to earn a living, as I suspect was the reason most women in precarious positions donned breeches.  It was that or prostitution, in many cases.

While Patricia comes to enjoy the freedom of being a man in a man’s world, she is alone.  In Surgeon’s Mate; Book 2 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series she became separated from her lover, Brian Dalton, the gunner aboard HMS Richmond.  At the beginning of book 3, she has put Dalton out of her mind.  It’s been nearly two years since they parted company.

 What is the main conflict?  What messes up her life?

Patricia, an adventurer, or smuggler, if you will, must evade Customs, which is now cracking down hard on Colonial merchants carrying sugar and molasses from foreign ports.  At the beginning of book 3 Parliament has just implemented the onerous Stamp Act.  Riots in New England port towns and the beginnings of organized resistance among the people.  British warships are patrolling Colonial waters seizing merchant ships and their cargoes.  She will either make a good profit, or lose everything if caught. Another conflict involves matters of the heart when the gunner Brian Dalton, shows up again.

In Havana Patricia meets up with the French Lieutenant who captured her during the war.  He suspected she was a female then, and now, in Havana, invites her to join him in his lucrative smuggling ventures, as well as in his bed.  Also, in Havana, her services as a surgeon are needed to attend the governor’s daughter in a situation that must be kept secret.   The outcome could affect the illicit trade currently allowed to go on.

Surgeon's Mate, coverWhat is the personal goal of the character?

Patricia, as Patrick, has been made master and factor of the trading schooner Andromeda for this run from Rhode Island to the Caribbean.  If the trip is successful and she evades the Customs officials in Havana and Newport, she will make a tidy sum on her share of the profits.  Money means everything to her now; it has become her goal in life, to make enough to be comfortable.  She doesn’t dare think too far in the future, because what sort of future can a woman disguised as a man look forward to?  A deeper motif is that of finding her true self, sharing her true self with another, and finding a place for herself in the world.  A home.

 Is there a working title for this novel and can we read more about it?

At first, the working title was “Yankee Moon,” but during the rewrite, the French Lieutenant and Havana took on more importance.  I’m now calling it, “Leaving Havana.”  If anyone wants to suggest a working title, I’m open!  In any case, it will be subtitled Book 3 of the Patricia MacPherson Adventure Series.  You can read more about it here on my website, and on Patricia’s Facebook page.

When can we expect the book to be published?

I’m working on the rewrite — and hoping to see an early 2015 publication date.

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Thanks to fellow writers:

Antoine Vanner, author of the Dawlish Chronicles. Antoine was my guest blogger recently, on the thread How We Write, with his essay Getting Inside the Victorian Mind.

Debra Brown, author of For the Skylark (and creator of  Victorian characters Dante and Evangeline, lovely names both!)

Debra and I co-hosted Aloha Across the Centuries, a recent on-line writer’s retreat in virtual Hawaii

Helen Hollick, prolific author of many historical novels, including the Sea Witch series.

I had the pleasure of meeting Helen in person at the Historical Novel Society Conference 2012 in London, where we joined Margaret Muir, Rick Spilman and David Davies on a nautical historical fiction panel.

Judith Starkston,  author of Hand Of Fire, and my guest author blogging about How We Write with her essay, Character Motivation; Love-driven Rage in the Bronze Age.

Margaret Skea, award-winning author of  Turn of the Tide, whom I also met at the London HNS. Margaret will be my guest author May 5, blogging about How We Write.

All five tagged me, but Antoine asked first.    Sadly, I haven’t been able to tag anyone else.  The music has stopped and all seats are taken. The cheese stands alone!

Seymour Hamilton “How does my imagination work ?”


I start with a place.  But I can’t say “I’ll write a story set in Bermuda, or New York City or Mars.”  It’s not enough that I have been there, as in the case of the first two, and it’s not enough that I could imagine a place such as Mars.  I have to start with a place I know so well that it is far more than just a snapshot loaded onto Facebook.  I have to be able to walk around it in my mind. In such a place, I know how the wind moves the clouds, what wildflowers grow there, how the pines smell after rain, where the tidal whirlpools are and how to sail around them.

Mysteriously, words can get me there, words that can do for me what the words “Once upon a time…” did when I was much, much younger.

The Astreya Trilogy begins with the words I wrote first:

Ancient round-shouldered mountains met the sea only a little south of where winter held the ocean ice-clad the whole year long.  Along the coastline, where harbors were few and hard to find, jagged rocks combed the breakers grinding at shards of wood that might once have been ships.

Whenever I got lost and didn’t know where the story was going, I came back to those first two sentences, and read them out loud.  They are my charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas.  Through them I gain entry into Astreya’s world.

Such a place, and the right words as passport to it, take me where I can watch someone (not me) living out a story, which with luck, I can tell.  Luck, because I have to believe in what I’m writing. If I run out of luck and stop believing, it takes a hellofa long time to get back, which is why it took damn near 40 years from first sentence of The Astreya Trilogy to the final word of the third volume.

The moment I start doubting where, what and who I’m writing about, I’m lost in darkest academic doubt and denial. I can take time out to remind myself that the wooden bumper-thing built into the side of a boat just a bit above the waterline is called the rubbing strake, but if I ask myself what the hell I’m doing writing about a fellow with a funny name who’s trying to find his birthright and destiny and avoid being killed by his uncle while at the same time getting back to the girl into whose eyes he looked when they first met… well, if I doubt any of that, I’m lost.  Sometimes for years at a stretch.

You see, I’m a discovery writer. A pantser.  No plan.  I have to go where the story takes me.  If I try too hard to make things happen, I end up having to throw stuff away.  On one occasion, this amounted to more than 200 pages.  This was because what they were about didn’t happen, because they were contrived.

Don’t think that I have no idea where I’m going.  Astreya gets his father’s riddling notebook from his widowed mother in Chapter 1.  Many, many pages later, just before book three ends, the riddle is unriddled.  In between, I was wondering what it meant.  I honestly did not know. But I knew that eventually I would.

Writing is a risky business for me, the more so because for so long I spent most of my life doing the absolute opposite of writing, which is studying and teaching literature, at which I sucked, because I enjoyed reading too much to do the steadily depressing analytical two-step (with buck-and-wing footnote) which is necessary to get published in what are pompously called “learned journals.”

By contrast, writing is such fun.  When things go well, that is.  And revising is fun, too, although it’s of a different kind.

Joss Whedon, a man I greatly admire, talks about the joy of creating a world, and also of the finicky business of choosing not just the words, but what kind of words, how they sound, how they feel, how they fit.  For example, in Astreya’s world there are no meters, miles or inches.  (I had to relent and allow depth of water to be measured in fathoms, because, well, it felt right.)  Consequently, everything is measured in human terms:  a handful, an arm’s length, a stride.  Why?  Because those words belonged there.

Careful editing of words keeps me within the enchanted place where the story happens.  Because I can hear characters talking in my head, I have to find ways of getting their styles and accents onto the page.  Roaring Jack talks like a Newfoundlander in that distinctive variant of Irish which is separated from Ireland by 300 years and the Atlantic Ocean.  So Jack says things like “Oi niver, niver want to hear yer say that agin, b’y.”  Gar, the itinerant painter with an obscure past, lapses into nautical speech when things get exciting.  Astreya’s wicked uncle oscillates between sounding like a career bureaucrat with control issues and a whispering psychopath improving his advanced skills in torture.

Getting the words right and keeping them right over the course of the story makes me concentrate more than I have ever done in my life.  I lose consciousness of wherever I may be keyboarding on my dented and trusty MacBook Pro.  I disappear too, so that there is only the story unfolding onto the page, to be burnished by re-reading (mostly out loud) and tinkered with until it’s right.

When it’s all over and I hold the book in my hand, it’s something that I did, but it isn’t mine any more.  It’s a world waiting for others to enter.  My hope is that those who go there will take the time to linger and enjoy.


 Seymour Hamilton’s lyrical epic Astreya Series is published by Fireship Press, the publisher of my Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventures.  To appreciate the author’s lush language and imaginative setting,  Listen to the author read from Astreya.  

The Voyage South (book I), The Men of the Sea (book II) and The Wanderer’s Curse (book III) are available on-line and at your favorite independent bookstore (ask them to order for you.)

I would love to see this series made into a movie.


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