Skip to content

Pirates are “In”

Apparently, pirates are sailing back over the pop-culture horizon this fall. Pirate Halloween costumes are very popular. Scholarly and popular books about pirates are reappearing.

So, should you whip out a book about pirates?

Today we can, if we are so inspired or really want to. Independent authors can see what is becoming popular, write something appropriate, get a cover, edit it, and launch as quickly as we want (allowing for Life Rolls.) Or we can look at pirates, mull the idea over, and try pirates in space, pirates that are not really pirates (Captain William Kidd*), bandits that raid caravans rather than pirates who sail the seas, a wronged man who becomes a pirate to get even with a corrupt government (Captain Blood by Raphael Sabatini. Read it, read it, read it), a heroic navy captain who fights pirates, a woman who discovers that her husband is accused of being a pirate when he’s really just a smuggler (see: Cornwall, history of)…

The point is, we have the flexibility to see a trend, use it, throw variations at the theme, or ignore it. Or come back after the Traditional Publishers have decided that “pirates are dead. Ninjas are going to be the Next Big Thing” and write books for the people who really like pirate novels and want more of them.

Should you?

Do you want to? If not, and you don’t think it is a topic that you could do well, then don’t. There’s no angry agent looming over you warning that if you don’t do a pirate book, you’ll never get another contract again. Or possibly worse, no editor saying, “Look, this is a pretty good historical fantasy about the dragon of Wawl Hill [Krakow, Poland], but you have to add pirates. Pirates are in.”** Or you submit a pirate novel set in 1678 and the editor announces, “This is OK, but everyone knows that pirates were champions of gay rights and homosexuality, and you have to include that in your book. See if you can work in the Stonewall Riot, that’d be good.”

By the time your pirates in Poland fantasy hits the shelves eighteen months later, pirates are on the way out, the market is saturated, and the publisher says, “Oh, you must have written a bad book because it’s not selling out. We’re cancelling your contract.”

On the other hand, if you are an indie author, and are so inclined to write pirates, you can and you can hit the market and ride the sales wave. You might find that while pirates were a good way to start, your readers are really interested in the Royal Navy, or a merchant-trader, or some other side plot and you develop that.

Or, you can write about some adults going to a pirate-themed party on Halloween at a coastal resort. The locals have a traditional pageant about a pirate attack on the town in the 1700s that also takes place. Your protagonists have a car break-down in town, and as they are sorting that out, Something Happens, and real pirates from the 1700s appear. And then it gets Interesting…

The point is, if you can spot a wave and ride it, more power to you. If you spot a wave and write a variation on the theme, and market it carefully, you can do really well. If you spot a trend, wait until it fades, then target the market of pirate-starved readers abandoned by the Traditional Publishers, whee!

But you don’t have to.

*Captain Kidd was a privateer with occasional lapses into apparent piracy, all condoned or ignored by the British Admiralty. Alas for him, the English government changed its policy and he literally did not get the memo until he captured an Indian ship run by Armenian merchants with an English captain operating under French passes and letters of protection. Kidd’s crew insisted on bringing the ship’s rich cargo to port. There Kidd discovered that he was now a pirate instead of a holder of a Letter of Marque and Reprisal. Among other problems. Oops. But we did get a great folk-song out of it, which became one of my favorite hymn tunes (“Wonderous Love.”)

**Krakow is very far inland. There were Polish pirates, during those times when Poland had a sea-coast, but pirates in Krakow would require massive handwavium and magic. NTTAWWT.

 

51 Comments
  1. Or Somali pirates working in the present?

    September 30, 2018
    • Do it as a political thriller, or go back a few decades to “disaster on a cruise ship” a la _Grey Lady Down_.

      September 30, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        Or mercenaries performing 19th century/Julius Caesar type counter piracy operations in the present. Chinese tong/triad action intrigue style stories could be ported over into stories involving Chinese mercenary companies, devolved from the PLA, fighting in the third world.

        September 30, 2018
      • Or a sex romp, “Naked Ladies Down”.

        October 1, 2018
    • Or you can do Somali pirates meet lippy robot spiders. I feel a short-story coming on. ~:D

      September 30, 2018
      • This could become extremely hilarious, not to mention politically incorrect.

        September 30, 2018
    • Nice to know I’m not the only one whose brain went thataway.

      I wonder when cowboys and Indians will come back into vogue. *mischievous grin*

      October 1, 2018
  2. For an outstanding magical realism take on Pirates, I can recommend Tim Powers’ “On Stranger Tides” (no resemblance to the most recent Pirates Of The Caribbean film, but I hope Mr. Powers got a lot of money for letting them use the title).

    Pirates, Voodoo Loa, the Fountain of Youth, Blackbeard, zombies, puppeteers, this book has it all.

    September 30, 2018
    • Luke #

      It was supposed to more closely follow his book. But Hollywood. (Shrug)
      The important thing is that it was produced under an option of his work, and that he got paid. (Assuming his agent successfully navigated the shoals of Hollywood accounting.)

      It’s fun to charter an accountant
      And sail the wide accountan-sea!
      To find, explore, the funds offshore
      And skirt the shoals of bankruptcy…

      September 30, 2018
      • Well, the thing was… unofficially, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie ripped off large amounts of On Stranger Tides and its world. (I suspect that the writers just thought Powers was using Authentic Pirate Folklore, or didn’t remember they were stealing from Powers.)

        Mr. Powers kindly did not sue or threaten them, but it was widely noticed and written about. So Disney (or the directors as fans of Powers, whichever story you believe) decided to compensate Powers by optioning his book and titling a movie accordingly.

        Apparently Robin McKinley received some sort of similar “please don’t sue us” goodies for the bits of Beauty and the Beast that Disney “borrowed.” Don’t know if the makers of Kimba the White Lion ever got compensated.

        When Disney got big, it got very careless about this stuff. It must give their legal clearance lawyers gray hairs.

        October 1, 2018
        • Oh, and if Disney ever gives you compensation for stealing your stuff, you have to pretend you believe them about how they didn’t steal your stuff, and that the money was totally for some other thing.

          OTOH, money and free Internet advertising.

          OTOH, Robin McKinley had to write another Beauty and the Beast book, just to prove that one could tell the story totally differently from her first book. And uninformed people still think that her first Beauty book is a ripoff of the Disney movie.

          October 1, 2018
          • Mary #

            There are people on the Internet who will refuse to believe that LOTR is not a rip-off of some fantasy work even after you point out that by the time that work was written, Tolkien was DEAD.

            October 2, 2018
  3. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    The pirates of Krakow using airships! 😈

    September 30, 2018
    • I’d read that…

      September 30, 2018
    • snelson134 #

      September 30, 2018
  4. Isn’t there a book about space pirates floating around somewhere in the rifts?

    September 30, 2018
    • Also since this post begins with pirate costumes, how about a story about pirates and beauty queens? Lots of great costuming possibilities there…

      September 30, 2018
      • Ppppbbbbtttt!

        And don’t forget Dave Freer’s Mankind Witch, starring one of the infamous Barbary Pirates. Don’t worry about the series, it’s a good stand alone.

        September 30, 2018
        • Would someone please put up a link to In the Rift by Pam Uphoff which is about space pirates and beauty queens and is a great book?!?!

          September 30, 2018
          • Not for anyone looking for jolly old pirates!

            September 30, 2018
            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

              Why do I get the idea that your pirates are from the same “school” as David Weber’s and Chris Nuttall’s pirates? 😈

              September 30, 2018
              • School of realism?

                October 1, 2018
                • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

                  Yep. 😀

                  October 1, 2018
  5. Draven #

    SPACE PIRATES! And you can have the main character have a tall furry friend that only talks in growls.

    No?

    Pirates… in space… stealing water being transported between planets as ice?

    September 30, 2018
    • That was the stupidest fun movie ever.

      September 30, 2018
      • There’s a South Korean movie about illegal ice trading. (Historical movie. No, really.) It’s on Amazon Prime. Haven’t watched it yet.

        October 1, 2018
  6. Well, you could have pirates in Krakow without magic. They’re just pursuing somebody up the Vistula River for some reason or other. Probably vengeance, but there might be amber.

    September 30, 2018
  7. “Pirates are IN.” — BigName Publisher, 2018

    “Seriously??” — Jack Sparrow, 2003

    September 30, 2018
  8. Actually…. “Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio first learned of Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides during the back-to-back production of Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End, and considered it a good starting point for a new film in the series.” — Wikipedia.

    September 30, 2018
    • Oh, yes, they bought the rights to the novel, but there isn’t any of the novel in the film.

      September 30, 2018
      • Luke #

        I recall when they made Steakley’s Vampire$ into a movie.
        They kept two short scenes and one name.

        September 30, 2018
      • snelson134 #

        Yeah, that’s been the pattern for 30 years at least. “Starship Troopers” ring a bell?

        September 30, 2018
        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

          Perhaps, but the movie makers didn’t go “out of their way” to mock the original book.

          September 30, 2018
        • “Starship Troopers” ring a bell?

          No, It doesn’t. There has never been a stupid awful movie by the name of “Starship Troopers” and I will fight to the bitter end to maintain that delusion.

          September 30, 2018
          • Randy Wilde #

            That movie is something of a guilty pleasure for me, if I’m in the mood for a (literal) bug hunt.

            But I refer to it with the more accurate title of “Doogie Howser, S.S.”.

            October 1, 2018
  9. Kord #

    The old post rpg Twiight 2000 had a module called Pirates on the Vistula. Nothing is impossible. Riverine warfare can be very messy and might be easier for an author who is not good at all those sailing ship terms.

    “But you are the admiral,” the princess said. “You must know a lot about ships.”

    “Only what I read in books,” I replied with a smile. “The ships are mine, and I give general directions but Captain Beardsley handles the practical matters. He is the best sailor between Sunwreck and Port Piecemeal, so the other captains follow his lead. I get to look natty in my naval regalia, but as soon as we raise anchor I’m just a piece of valuable cargo.”

    September 30, 2018
    • Luke #

      Where’s that quote from?
      It sounds like a book worth reading.

      September 30, 2018
      • Kord #

        Thanks!
        I just wrote it as an example on-water writing without being a naval or nautical expert. I am not a native english speaker and adding navalese and nautical accents on top of plain old kings tongue is quite beyond my ability.

        September 30, 2018
  10. There may be some possibilities in the story of Grace O’Malley:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_O'Malley

    learned of her from a reference in this song by Tom Russell:

    September 30, 2018
  11. As another variation, which even gets you political correctness points. It’s Horatio Hornblower, but he is an officer in the Spanish Navy and spends his time doing unpleasant things to the Royal English Navy.

    September 30, 2018
  12. Terry Sanders #

    “But we did get a great folk-song out of it, which became one of my favorite hymn tunes (“Wonderous Love.”)”

    And “Sam Hall”?

    September 30, 2018
    • Sometimes “Sam Hall,” yes. Apparently there are other tunes used in some pockets of the US and in England.

      September 30, 2018
  13. Not all pirates have to be ocean-going. We used to have river pirates in America along the Mississippi, the Hole-in-Rock gang (read Paul Wellman’s nonfiction book SPAWN OF EVIL for more, amazing book!) and in Pennsylvania back in the late 18th-early 19th centuries there was a canal pirate gang called the Schuykill Rangers. They went so far as to try and sack local towns, ending with them and their buddies in an ‘army’ several hundred strong fighting it out with state militia and a local levy. It must have been like something out of the Middle Ages or a Mad Max movie.

    September 30, 2018
    • The Schuylkill Rangers are news to me. Interesting.

      September 30, 2018
      • Very little seems to have ever been written about them. I know of them mostly through local to PA books on folklore. But there do seem to be a /very/ few articles about them online.

        October 1, 2018
    • IIRC, Bujold referenced the Hole in the Rock in her Sharing Knife books.

      October 1, 2018
      • Thanks for letting me know, I’ll have to look for those books.

        October 2, 2018
  14. Mary #

    Editors on trends — when I was submitting Mermaids’ Song, I got told that pirates were really overdone.

    It takes place in a port. There was a bit character that the main character thought of as a pirate, as he might have a smuggler or an inn-keeper. In one scene. No piracy or threat of piracy. . . .

    September 30, 2018
  15. Hunting Guy #

    If you’re going to write about pirates, let me suggest The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates by Peter Leeson.

    Lots of good information and a good general read.

    Forward …..

    Pack your cutlass and blunderbuss–it’s time to go a-pirating! The Invisible Hook takes readers inside the wily world of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century pirates. With swashbuckling irreverence and devilish wit, Peter Leeson uncovers the hidden economics behind pirates’ notorious, entertaining, and sometimes downright shocking behavior. Why did pirates fly flags of Skull & Bones? Why did they create a “pirate code”? Were pirates really ferocious madmen? And what made them so successful? The Invisible Hook uses economics to examine these and other infamous aspects of piracy. Leeson argues that the pirate customs we know and love resulted from pirates responding rationally to prevailing economic conditions in the pursuit of profits.

    The Invisible Hook looks at legendary pirate captains like Blackbeard, Black Bart Roberts, and Calico Jack Rackam, and shows how pirates’ search for plunder led them to pioneer remarkable and forward-thinking practices. Pirates understood the advantages of constitutional democracy–a model they adopted more than fifty years before the United States did so. Pirates also initiated an early system of workers’ compensation, regulated drinking and smoking, and in some cases practiced racial tolerance and equality. Leeson contends that pirates exemplified the virtues of vice–their self-seeking interests generated socially desirable effects and their greedy criminality secured social order. Pirates proved that anarchy could be organized.

    Revealing the democratic and economic forces propelling history’s most colorful criminals, The Invisible Hook establishes pirates’ trailblazing relevance to the contemporary world…..

    September 30, 2018
    • Organized crime is usually pretty organized.

      October 1, 2018
  16. Yuuichi Sasamoto had the right idea: Miniskirt Space Pirates. Setting aside the whole “high school girl inherits Letter of Marque” thing, it’s pretty crunchy SF. I got in over my head trying to read it in Japanese, because I was expecting an anime-style light novel, and got pummeled by orbital mechanics and technical jargon (which tended to string together multiple kanji I’d never seen before…). Apparently he drew quite a bit from the non-fiction space books he’d written.

    The anime adaptation is quite good, by the way, even if it did end up with the goofy US title “Bodacious Space Pirates”. It’s on Crunchyroll.

    -j

    October 1, 2018

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: