The Blow

The Blow

An excerpt from Chapter 23 of the new novel. The girls (disguised as boys) are sailing on Captain Swiftfoot Darkrunner’s frigate Velocity. Erin is known to captain and crew as Aaron Spotsworth; Sophie, as Michael Claude. The day after they’ve been promoted to midshipmen, the ship enters a terrible storm. Mr. MacLeish is the boatswain.

“Well done, Mr. McLeish,” Darkrunner told him.

“Oh, thank you, sir.”

“Is there anything you need?” Captain Darkrunner asked.

“Only a dozen more sailors, Sir,” MacLeish said. “But we’ll do with the ones we have. I don’t wish to give them airs, but they’re the best I’ve ‘ad the honor to sail with.”

“Good man, Mr. MacLeish,” said the captain. “But if you have a deck hand to spare, I think we need two more hands at the wheel. I fear Mr. Short won’t be able to hold her steady alone through his watch.”

“Aye, Sir.” Mr. MacLeish said before descending the companionway.

Erin shielded her eyes from the rain as she watched two men trim the foresail above. “It’s amazing they can hang on in this weather.”

“Sadly, not all do,” he said staring off at the ragged gray clouds advancing from the north. “A boy not much older than you was struck by a loose boom a fortnight ago and plunged to his death right where you’re standing.”

Erin quickly shifted from the spot and searched the boards for signs of blood.

“It was  appalling to see the lad splayed out like a broken doll.” The captain hesitated a moment before he was able to continue. “He was French — a prisoner shipmate of Mr. Petit’s until they joined the mutiny. Poor Petit scrubbed the deck furiously for an hour, sobbing like a child.”

Erin felt frozen where she stood.  She felt uneasy staring down, but didn’t want to look  up into the captain’s face.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Spotsworth,” the captain said swiping his hand across his eyes. “I didn’t mean to burden you with my woes.”

“Oh, no, sir,” Erin said lifting her eyes. “It’s quite alright. I know how awful it is to lose a friend.”

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The voice of Charles F. Emery

Charles Emery

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m working on a middle grade series. I’ve recently paused writing the second story to edit the first.

At a conference last fall I had the opportunity to read the first six pages of the first novel aloud to a group of twenty-five writers and the accomplished author/editor Arthur A. Levine.  In preparation I spent a day tweaking the brief introduction to the book. Arthur’s advice was to carry the voice of the narrator in that introduction throughout the novel, and I might have something worthwhile.

After the conference, I reread my manuscript and discovered serious inconsistencies in the narration. One voice was enthusiastic and immature.; another, brusque and flashy.  A third seemed unfocused. The only voice worth hearing was indeed the the plain, confident one in the introduction. Who was that? I searched my memory for the face of someone I knew who spoke like that. One wrong face after another appeared in my imagination before I recalled that of Charles Emery (pictured).

The late Mr. Emery was my high school coach and English teacher at the Fountain Valley School of Colorado.  He was an extremely reserved but approachable man in his forties. His teaching manner can best be described as deliberate. He gave good lectures supporting his positions with historical facts and passages from the text. Students could always tell when Mr. Emery was about to read. He would lean back in his chair, lower his half-moon glasses, and tip his head up slightly.   He read us Chaucer, Shakespeare and Donne in his naturally low timbre. There was a resonant, Gregorian hum to his voice that caught the ear. He spoke almost without inflection. The poignancy and emotion of the stories were carried rather in the occasional pause or drop in volume.  He read to a room filled with sixteen-year-old boys, none of whom ever spoke over him. I recall closing my own eyes or staring out through the window, not to avoid his performance, but to focus on it more intently.

Mr. Emery – Chuck, as he insisted I call him in our few correspondences years later – was a decorate war hero (UDT in WWII). He was a champion handball player and had been a scholar at Columbia University. He never spoke of any of this to us. We learned about it in murmurs from the seniors. I never saw him brag, or swagger, or speak sharply to anyone.

I’ll never have Charles Emery’s voice, but always carry it with me, perhaps feebly into my own little stories.

Here’s a bit more about Mr. Emery from the school. As you will see, I’m hardly alone in my praise of him.’38&nid=367998&ptid=39771&sdb=False&pf=pgr&mode=0&vcm=True

From the novel: Erin and Monique caulk the forecastle deck

[Note: two girls from the 21st century are under full sail on the pirate ship Velocity racing toward Sugar Bowl Island. The year is 1720.]

The hours crawled by. The work was very hard. The old rope was difficult to remove, and it was rough with crusted tar and splinters. Much of it had to be yanked out by both of the girls pulling as hard as they could together.  To add to their troubles, the sun soon beat on their backs causing them to sweat.  The girls’ knees suffered until Mr. Toofour, the black sailmaker, happened by and, without looking at the girls, dropped scraps of canvas for them to kneel on.

Perhaps the worst of it was that Mr. Rumple made it clear that, once they had received their orders and training, they were forbidden to talk. None of the crew could say anything that wasn’t necessary to their work – even then they spoke quietly in short bursts.  Erin wanted so much to talk to Monique about their plan, their progress, the dangers ahead and most especially how they felt. And unlike in Mr. Bingo’s class in Dream City, they couldn’t whisper or pass notes when they simply had to share passing thoughts.

In time though,  Erin realized the silence wasn’t silence at all. She was surrounded by sounds: The hiss of the sea against the hull. The groans of the masts and yards. The lines trembling and whipping in the wind. The whumps and flaps and snaps of the sails. And, from time to time, the calls and responses of the officers and men. That’s when she understood the ban on chatter.  The officers and men had to be heard when a ship or coast was sighted, or a man hurt or a line broke.

Working on the thirty-foot square forecastle deck, Erin and Monique were constantly shifting about to allow people to pass. The lines holding the triangular staysails in the very front of the ship had to be frequently adjusted by skilled, agile men climbing along the bowsprit like monkeys. All the while, two very young men in long but rather ragged coats stood at the most forward point of the ship sweeping their telescopes across the horizon, along the starboard quarter; the other across the larboard, as Mr. Rumple called it. The young men spoke to no one, not even each other.

[Here is a photo of caulking a replica tall ship deck.]

Caulking a tall ship deck today

The caulking material the man is laying between the boards is called oakum. It’s made from animal hair, worn rope or anything else fibrous. It was mixed with tar and driven into the gap with a blunt awl and a mallet called a beetle, a metal version of which is shown here.

Current Word Count 44,614

The Chaser and the Gig

The Chaser and the GigIn this photo are the chaser and the gig of the Lady Washington out at sea. The are NOT, as they would be to landsmen, a canon and a boat. They have different names to sailors.

Nearly everything has is different name at sea. The bathroom is the head. The floor is the deck. Walls are bulkheads. A stairway is a companionway. And people are often known by their title and their jobs rather than their names. A senior officer is addressed, Sir; a junior one, Mister. At least in the stories of 1720, the time period I’m currently writing about.

This blog entry is by way of explaining – at least to myself in this log – that there is an explanation why my story has progressed only slightly since my last entry. I have had to spend several weeks more than I already have in learning not just the parts of the ship, but the language of its inhabitants of three hundred years ago. I must say, it’s been more fun than work. Here are the books I’ve studied:

The 24-gun frigate Pandora by John McKay and Ron Coleman (2003)
The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick Obrian (1986)
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Dana  (1840)
A General History of the Pyrates by Danial Defoe (1724)
Henry IV Part I by William Shakespeare (1597)

The first two are sources for nautical terminology and war at sea. The third is about the duties of the the sailors. The fourth is about the language of the 1720’s and the lives of pirates (written by the author Robinson Crusoe).  And the last for the flamboyance and immediacy I wished to breath into some of the characters. I’ve used my Nook Tablet to search these books. And the audio of the last for flavor.

Now I will resume once again – with better footing – to assemble those words forged long ago into a story yet to come. Hopefully at a faster pace now. I’m hoping to finish the draft by the end of summer.

And by the way, unlike the heaps of useless stuff we landlubbers surround ourselves with, nearly everything is vital on a ship of war. Though small by comparison to the cannons that provided broadsides, the little chasers bolted to the stern were used at the most desperate moment when an enemy came “under the stern,” as was the term. This was the moment when the foe could, in one shot, render the boat unable to maneuver by shooting the way it’s rudder which is just to the right and beneath the chaser. Without the rudder, the enemy could simply sail back and forth pouring fire into the bow and stern with impunity.

The importance of the boat, in that case, would be elevated as it was the only means of escape save death or surrender. That’s why before the action began, the men tied the boats together in a chain and pulled them into a battle well below the level of fire.

Current Word Count 43,266

Chapter 18 – The Race for Sugar Bowl Island

Erin’s eyes sprang open from a dream of counting. All was black save a flickering slice of yellow light. She was swaying. Something thumped on the roof. Something hissed against the walls. There were bells. Her mind was still counting them from the dream. Three bells … four bells … five bells.

The truth fell on her like a stone on her chest.  It was the middle of the night. The roof was a deck. The walls were a wooden hull slicing through the Deep Blue Sea. She was swinging in a hammock.  In the belly of a pirate ship scudding toward Sugar Bowl Island. To save another pirate ship from being blown to splinters. The year was 1720.

Erin was three hundred years from home.

Current Word Count: 42, 411

From Chapter Twelve of the new novel

As the girls entered the building, Erin was struck by the enormity of the lobby and everything in it.

The room was the size of Central Train Station. Forty-feet above the floor, the ceiling was a backlit blue-glass dome supported by thick brass arches. On each of the side walls hung a huge steel clock with giant brass gears that turned at various speeds. High on the wall ahead was mounted an enormous glass map of the world with brass continents. Blue neon tubes radiated from Xdom across the amber oceans to the great ports of the world. Beneath the map, was a steel-clad reception desk.  Behind it, a line of tall, powerfully built guards paced menacingly in their black suits. Their keen eyes shifted quickly amongst the visitors milling about the room and scattered among the chairs of the waiting area.

The room gave Erin a chill, which she believed was intentional. The high ceiling and the big men would naturally make the visitors feel small. Standing between the huge clocks gave the impression that the company’s time was more important than the minutes tracked by the visitors’ little watches. And the massive world map with its glowing tendrils spreading across the vast globe made the company seem like a planetary spider.

Erin drifted toward a placard marked “History of X Energy.” Perhaps it could tell them what had happened to their beautiful city. But before she reached it, she was stopped by Monique’s exclamation.

“Oh, my Gosh, it’s THEM!”

Erin turned back toward the reception counter where the guards stared back at the girls like hawks on a wire eyeing a couple of mice.

She turned her attention to two extraordinary men moving toward Monique and Erin.

Monique was right. It was THEM.

Current Word Count: 27,077