Tag Archives: Star-Crossed

Women on board

Transgenders serving on ships is nothing new.

I’ve long been interested in women on ships in the Age of Sail — particularly women posing as men, passing as men, doing what was considered men’s work. This interest arose when I signed aboard HM Bark Endeavour, a sailing replica of Captain James Cook’s historic ship, and lived the life of an 18th century seaman for three weeks. This life included heaving, hauling, standing watch, taking my trick at the helm, and going aloft, out on the yard arm to make and furl sail. It included stringing my hammock from the deckhead, snug alongside the other recruits, and taking my turn in the galley. (Although my husband was aboard as crew too, we never once slept together — nor did we even sleep next to each other!) What I learned was that although the work is hard and requires some training, it doesn’t require a Y chromosome.

I’m not by definition transgender. Nor is my fictional character — though in her mid-18th century world she has found it more convenient to be male than female. Actually, she’s found it expedient to be male.  The term transgender first appears in 1974, according to Miriam Webster’s online dictionary, so the concept, as such, doesn’t exist in my series. But the problems are similar: Individuals not allowed to serve in the military because of their apparent sex.

As I’m writing my way through Patricia’s story in the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventures, I’ve learned a lot about life in the 18th century from a female perspective  — a young white female of British heritage. Much depended upon parentage and social standing.  Much depended on luck. And of course much depended on their sex.

Hannah Snell, Royal Marine. Born 1723, died 1792. Buried with the old soldiers at Chelsea Hospital, which was her wish.

The Age of Sail was an Age of War. The emerging nations of Europe waged battles — entire wars — at sea. The need for sailors, marines, and craftsmen continued for several centuries, offering a few hardy and daring females an opportunity to escape social and economic confines, to find adventure – or maybe they were just looking for three meals a day and a hammock to sleep in. For a destitute young woman, life aboard a ship was safer than life on the streets.

What we know about these desperate imposters comes mostly from naval records, broadsheets, and the romanticized biographies and fictionalized memoirs written by or about these cross-dressing or transgender figures. One of the most well known and well documented 18th century female soldier/sailor was Hannah Snell who served first as a soldier in General Guise’s regiment, then as a Royal Marine in Frasier’s Regiment under the name of James Grey. She saw action and was wounded several times in India  “Here is a Woman, and an English Woman, who, notwithstanding the many Dangers and Vicissitudes she underwent for near the Space of five Years, during her Travels, was never found out to be of the feminine Gender.” — from The Female Soldier; the Life and Surprising Adventures of Hannah Snell. (Project Gutenberg) Hannah herself couldn’t write but she sold her story to a London publisher Robert Walker. After she left the service she performed military drills on stage in costume and sang military songs and The Gentleman’s Magazine reported her story for its readers’ enjoyment.  Hannah Snell’s story is unusual in that the Royal Hospital recognized her military service and granted her a pension.

Stories like Hannah Snell’s have inspired my historical novels. I’m not out to prove that cross-dressing or transgender women existed — we know they did — but to explore why they chose that path and how they might have carried it off. Although Hannah Snell’s memoir (published anonymously but likely penned by her publisher) claims finding her estranged husband was her inciting reason, I suspect that was a literary convenience for the publisher, and one the readers might readily accept. The chance of her finding her errant seaman husband was slim — but the chance of her earning a living was guaranteed. Not to mention respect, opportunity, adventure — and a pension.

There may not have been great numbers of cross-dressing women on board ships in the Age of Sail. But there were some. They existed. They carried it off. At least, for a while.
















Beyond Research: Creating Verisimilitude in Historical Fiction

Beyond Research I. _002-page-0 - CopyHere are a few of the slides from my power point outline, Beyond Research, shared at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s spring Genre Con, May 14, at Table Mountain Inn in Golden, Colorado. The keynote and morning session was given by Kristin Nelson and Angie Hodapp of Nelson Literary Agency. The afternoon was devoted to craft in genre breakout sessions.

Rebecca Bates — Mystery  Linda Collison — Historical Fiction  Nathan Lowell — SciFi/Fantasy

Bernadette Marie — Romance   Aaron Michael Ritchey — YA

The works-in-progress of the writers in my group is indicative of the wide spectrum of historical novels being written and published today. Our stories include historical mystery, historical fantasy, historical paranormal, historical adventure, literary historical, family sagas, fictional memoir, and contemporary novels with strong historical elements.  Interest in historical fiction has never been stronger.

The importance of setting is something all historical fiction has in common — and it’s generally agreed that these stories takes place before the author was born, usually set 50 years or more in the past. Setting isn’t arbitrary; a story happens in a particular place and time for a reason. Setting affects character, plot, mood, and tone.  Beyond Research D._013-page-0

But how do we go beyond gathering events, dates, and second-hand details to make our setting feel real? How can we bring first-hand authenticity to the page?

While there are effective techniques a writer can use to enhance setting, credibility can’t really be crafted. The old “write what you know best” is what leads to convincing settings.

To tap into our own individual wells of verisimilitude we discussed our personal connections to our stories.  I asked the group to consider:

What drew you to write about your particular time & place? How did you fall in love with your setting? What problems does your character face that are inherent to the setting?

What areas of expertise do you have; what skills, hobbies, and life experiences can you take back to the past with you to enrich your story and add meaningful and credible detail?

For me, it was my sailing experiences and my nursing experiences. Another woman has a biomedical background, having worked for the Federal Drug Administration. She takes her 21st century knowledge in writing about medieval herbalists and apothecaries. Several writers had a deep interest in genealogy and were writing novels based on the immigration stories of their own ancestors. These personal connections and experiences give our stories conviction and authority and direct our focus. We bring our own past and passions to the page.

Discovering your personal connection to the story and using it with authority gives your work verisimilitude.  It’s also part of your author platform. Be sure to mention it in your bio; use it to engage your readers.

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Elizabeth Felt, Linda Collison and Mr. Eaton

An interview feels a lot like looking in the mirror first thing in the morning.  Ack!  Let me brush my hair and put on some makeup!

Frankly, it’s a little daunting, especially when your interviewer is not only a published author but an English teacher as well!

The best and most memorable English teacher I ever had was Mr. Eaton, who taught senior English at Westminster High School, Westminster Maryland.  This was way back in the last century, and Mr. Eaton was old then, or so we thought.  At any rate, he is no longer with us; rest in peace, Mr. Eaton.  Or should I say, “Out, out brief candle!”  Mr. Eaton introduced thousands of teenagers to the joys of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, et al,  and he required us to memorize a number of soliloquies and sonnets.  He likewise had Great Expectations for us when it came to creative writing and compositions, as well.  I can truly say Mr. Eaton contributed to my becoming a writer. (For a biographical sketch of this influential teacher, see my classmate, fellow writer and former mayor of Westminster, Kevin Dayhoff’s blog post, Remembering Mike Eaton.)

Earlier this week I was honored to be interviewed by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt, an English instructor at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, and an author  of four books herself.   (The grades aren’t in yet, but I’m hoping for an “A”…)  Here’s the link to Elizabeth’s grade book — er — blog:

Interview with Linda Collison

Now I wonder what Mr. Eaton would have to say about that?

St. Nicholas Abbey, Barbados

The great house came into view, shabby and overgrown, yet elegant somehow.  The outmoded parapets like white waves against the red shingled roof, the azure sky.  Hounds bayed; I heard a peacock scream and felt a sweet deep hurt in my breast.  A hurt I did not want to let go of.  I fully expected to see my father come out of the house with a glass of sangaree in his hand…  (from  Barbados Bound; book one of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series)

It is on the Caribbean island of Barbados, on the very sugar plantation where she was born, that Patricia comes face to face with the ugly truth about her father.  (As a writer I have written several stories in which fathers don’t measure up.  In fact, they fail miserably.  Which is funny since my own Dad was all a father could be, and then some.)

In my mind the estate Patricia longs to inherit is St. Nicholas Abbey, a real Jacobian great house in St. Peter’s Parish.  Despite the name, St. Nicholas Abbey was never an abbey at all and had no connections with the church.   Built between 1650 and 1660 by Colonel Benjamin Berringer, St. Nicholas is the oldest house in Barbados.  For me, it was the inspiration for the birthplace of the fictional Patricia Kelley MacPherson, the illegitimate daughter of the second son of an English baron.  The house would have already been a hundred years old when Patricia was born — and if walls could talk, it already had stories to tell.

The original owner of the plantation, Colonel Berringer, was killed in a duel with his neighbor, Sir John Yeamans, who subsequently married his rival’s  widow and left Barbados for South Carolina, where he became the governor.  Now, there is another novel for you, filled with all sorts of sordid details, I’msure!  The house was named after one of Col. Berringer’s descendants, according to a local historian.  Berringer’s son left the estate to his daughter Susanna, who married a man named George Nicholas.  Apparently no one knows how the “Saint” or “Abbey” came to be attached — and I rather doubt if any of the owners were worthy of canonization.   (God forbid, it might have been called Susanna’s house!  But not much has ever been named after women, except hurricanes and a few boats, fighter planes, and cannons…)

Bob and I visited Barbados in 2002, as I was researching the novel I called Orion Rising but that would be published by Knopf as Star-Crossed in 2006.  Now out of print with Knopf, the book will soon be reborn as Barbados Bound, under the Fireship Press label.  It is in press now.

The thick stone walls provide a respite from the hot, bright Caribbean sun.  Inside, was cool, dark and sparely elegant.  What I most remember about St. Nicholas Abbey was the heavy presence of ghosts.  The ghosts of indentured servants and countless African slaves who worked and died there.  We will never know their names or their stories, but we can imagine them.  I resurrected one possible ghost; that of Patricia’s half brother Rupert Hatterby — a mulatto who was given his freedom by his white father, but little else.  Except the name Hatterby, her father’s surname, which is something Patricia always coveted but as a natural child was never given.


Barbados Bound!

I’m so happy to have the chance to revise and republish Star-Crossed as Barbados Bound; book one of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series!  Last week I received the reversion of rights from Random House, and today I emailed the revised manuscript to Fireship Press.  I’m going to include a preface, explaining the title change.  Something like this:

Barbados Bound

 Author’s preface

 Barbados Bound was first published by Alfred A. Knopf as Star-Crossed.  I wrote it as adult historical fiction, to explore what it might have been like to have been a young woman down on her luck, aboard an 18th century ship.  Not as a passenger — but as part of the crew.

My curiosity had been piqued after my husband and I spent three weeks as voyage crewmembers aboard HM Bark Endeavour, a working replica of Captain Cook’s renowned ship of exploration.   As crew, we were taught everything we needed to know about sailing the ship by our superior officers.  Our duties included standing our rotating, four-hour watches, during which we climbed aloft to make or reduce sail, kept a look-out for other vessels, and took our turns at the helm.  When not on watch we were assigned cleaning and maintenance duties, and at night strung our hammocks from the deckhead, just as British seamen did for centuries.  Although Endeavour was equipped with a few modern conveniences Cook didn’t have, she was a time machine for my imagination.   While standing watch, or at the helm, I found myself thinking that if I could perform these tasks alongside my mates (perhaps a quarter of whom were women like me) then surely there was truth to the stories about women dressing as men and working aboard ships during the age of sail.

During the three weeks I was an 18th century sailor, we sailed Endeavour across the northern Pacific Ocean, from Vancouver to Hawaii.  When I disembarked in Kona, I carried with me the seeds for a story — though there was years of research to be done while writing it.  The story I wanted to write was not about the Endeavour or Captain Cook, but it would take place on a vessel similar to the Endeavour.

Orion Rising was the working title for this story, written from the view point of a young woman who stows herself away in order to get to Barbados.  It was published as Star-Crossed by Alfred A. Knopf in 2006, and marketed as a young adult novel.  Although I didn’t write it for a teenaged market, I was honored when the New York Public Library chose it to be among the Books for the Teen Age – 2007.

Star-Crossed went out of print in 2011.   Fireship Press has republished it as adult historical fiction — the first novel in the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series.

I have taken this opportunity  to correct a few minor historical inaccuracies – and to make a few other revisions, as authors are wont to do.  I have also put back in some of the original wording that was changed for a young adult readership.  Finally, I have retitled it because I always felt the title Star-Crossed (Knopf’s choice) was more indicative of a romance novel rather than a historical adventure story.  Although the working title was Orion rising, I feel Barbados Bound better reflects the spirit of the story.

I am very grateful to Tom Grunder, the founder of Fireship Press, who wanted to publish Barbados Bound as the first book in a series about a woman who goes to sea in the age of sail, and who published Surgeon’s Mate; book two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series in 2011.  Tom didn’t live to see Barbados Bound  under the Fireship label, but I am greatly indebted to him.  I appreciate the support and editorial guidance he gave me while he was alive.