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.



      1. 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.

  1. 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.

    1. 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…

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

      1. 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.

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

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


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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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

        2. “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.

          1. 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.”.

  5. 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.”

      1. 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.

  6. 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.

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

    And “Sam Hall”?

  8. 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.

      1. 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.

  9. 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. . . .

  10. 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…..

  11. 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.


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