Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Guest Today and Tomorrow: Favorite Author Marsha Canham on Writing the Swashbuckler Romance!

First, I would like to thank Regan for inviting me to be a guest on her blog. I’ve noticed she’s also writing a sea-faring adventure, so it’s right up my sea-lane, so to speak.

My love of high seas adventures started way back, in the days of black and white TV when my dad and I would sit in front of the 15 inch “huge” screen and watch movies like Captain Blood and The Seahawks. I had an enormous crush on Errol Flynn that lasted well into my 20’s, 30’s, 40’s… and even now, I see a picture of him and I feel a little blip in my chest. The movies were, compared to movies made today, camp and cheesy. Captain Blood vs Master and Commander, well. ‘Nuff said. But there is still magic there. The pirates still cause a stir, the adventure still grabs hold of my imagination, and I’m compelled to watch reruns every time I see it on the TV guide despite the bazillions of times I’ve watched it.

When I started writing, I wanted to capture some of that excitement. I wanted my hero to grip the reader’s imagination and take her on an adventure, not just into romance, but to give her a glimpse of what it might be like to sail on board a galleon, to feel the deck boards shiver through a broadside, to smell the smoke and feel the heat of battle coursing through her veins. My first published book was CHINA ROSE and the closest I came to the sea was having the hero, Justin, be a sea captain coming home to stir up some trouble. I wrote a couple of scenes on board his ship but they were relegated to the cabin until the very last page where they were going to sail off into the sunset.

But my feet were wet and I thought to myself: okay, you can do it. Something readers may not know about me is that I get violently seasick if I paddle around on a floaty in the pool for too long, so my actual experiences on board “boats” was limited and unpleasant. When I decided to tackle a three-masted tall ship, there was a certain amount of trepidation, and I knew I had to start with the basics, learning everything I could about ships, their design, the terms, the equipment, weapons, sails. It was a bit daunting, to say the least.

Normally I take a year to write a book, and for something as involved as learning how a ship works from the keel up, it consumes at least half of that time. Sea battles? Hello? I staggered home from the library with stacks of dry, instructional manuals and accounts of naval battles. I cut out little ships and moved them around on paper to plot out the battles I was writing and edited them a dozen times until I thought I could “see” them playing out like a movie. I roped a neighbor into reading them until she became seasick from all my rewrites and edits, but in the end I had something I thought was exciting, romantic, adventurous, and reasonably accurate.

The feet were wet…it was time to wade in up to the knees.

I was reading a magazine one day and wondering what to write next. That’s usually my thought process and my answer for the “where do you get your ideas,” the question most authors are asked at least a hundred times during a conference. Normally you don’t “get” ideas. They just sort of reach out and bonk you on the head or grab you by the ears and say: you can do this! So there I was reading some article in a magazine and the phrase “…the wind and the sea…” leaped out at me. Leaped! I mean I literally sat there and stared at those words, seeing an entire adventure play out in my head. Within a day I was at my desk staring at my little cut out boats and sliding them around again.

But I needed a different “hook”. I had read a few pirate romances after BOUND BY THE HEART came out. Any author worth paper and pen wants to know her competition. Some were good, some were ...not so good, but most had the recurring theme (and I was guilty of it myself in BBTH) of having the rescued/captured damsel in distress, and the big bad sea captain who either (ugh) forced her into submission or came out with the totally dorky declaration: I will win her with my charm. Yes, there were dashing, deadly, dangerous sea villains who declared that whilst standing over a feisty, bodice-ripped heroine with flashing green eyes and fiery red hair who fought him like a scratching cat.

Realistically, pirates just saw what they wanted and took it.

My greatest pleasure in being presented with the opportunity to revise and edit my backlist before reissuing them again as eBooks, has been the ability to write out the rape scene from BOUND BY THE HEART. I didn’t like it at the time, but it was the flavor of the day. It was realistic for any sea captain to rape and pillage, but it just didn’t suit Morgan Wade and, in my eyes anyway, never let him live up to the hero image completely.

Back to THE WIND AND SEA. I needed something to make it different, to make it stand out, to make it realistic without crossing that line into bodice-ripping territory (which was still alive and thriving at the time). So I took away the bodice. I put my heroine, Courtney, in a shirt and breeches, put a pistol and sword in her hands and made her part of the pirate crew. I gave her a good, strong match in the hero, Adrian Ballantine, but I also gave her the upper hand in more than a few scenes. I threw in sea battles…glorious wonderful sea battles that I lived out in my mind reel by reel. I pictured Errol Flynn looking over my shoulder and nodding, grinning, flashing that sexy smile of his. I even tossed in a little homage to Mr. Flynn when I had Adrian catch Courtney around the waist and swing her across from the deck of one ship to the other on a line of rigging.

The book was long…is long…and my editor at the time nearly swallowed her pencil.

She said I had to cut it. I said show me where. She couldn’t.

She said unfeminine heroines wouldn’t play well on cover art, that in fact they had never done a cover of a romance with the girl in pants with raggedy short hair. I thought the artwork on the print copy was absolutely gorgeous and spot-on.

She warned me that the role-reversal, the intensity of the action scenes, the violence might not be well received. It gave me great pleasure each time she called and told me the awards it won. Affaire de Coeur awarded it the Silver Pen. It won the award for the bestselling romance in Canada that year. And Romantic Times created a new category because it didn’t fit into any others. Best Swashbuckler of the Year.

After THE WIND AND THE SEA, where I threw in everything I knew about ships and the sea and sea battles… I wasn’t sure I could think of anything else to write on the water. I wandered off to Medieval England for a while, then to the Scottish Highlands. Then one lovely evening I was walking along the beach and looked out at the full moon reflecting off the water and I just stood there, staring…ACROSS THE MOONLIT SEA.

Doomed, I was. And from that fateful stroll came the Pirate Wolf trilogy. I was thrilled to find my love of writing swashbuckling sea adventures had not waned one little drop. So it was no wonder, after an eight year hiatus, that I returned to the sea with THE FOLLOWING SEA for my first venture back into a career that has taken me to Medieval England to explore my love of Robin Hood, to Regency England to play with highwaymen and spies, to the American West, to Scotland to stand on the battlefield at Culloden and hear the wail of the pipes, feel the driving sleet on my face. All in my mind, of course. And as long as the reels keep playing the scenes out in my mind, my fingers will keep dancing across the keys.

After all, Jonas Dante still needs to have a good woman tame his wild hide.

So I’m curious what readers feel about swashbucklers, about action and adventure in their romances. I was told by some 20-something editor back when I had finished THE IRON ROSE and handed in a proposal for Gabriel Dante’s story, that pirate books were no longer popular. That readers didn’t want stories that they had to think about (which was one of my favorite comments *snort*), that they just wanted simple romances with not too much detail, preferably set in Regency England, and oh yes, throw in a vampire or a paranormal element somewhere. I heard all of that and I knew the writing was on the wall, not on my desk, thus the hiatus.

When the self-publishing wave blasted more than a few of the staid old publishing traditions out of the water last year, a lot of us dinosaurs who had been told the same thing lifted our heads and took a second look around. Really? We could write what we wanted to write? A novel idea: letting the author decide what to write and how to write it...don’t you think?

Gabriel Dante agrees. His story would only have been told in my head otherwise. (Smile)


  1. Thanks, Marsha, for being my guest. I'm excited to bring your story to my "readers." I loved your books when I read them in paperback and now I'm reading them again as eBooks and love them. So, is the next book Jonas Dante's story? I so there you know...

  2. For those of you posting comments, please know that Marsha is having difficulty today for some unknown reason posting to my blog. So, here's her reply to my last:

    "Regan, the wheels are turning. I've made him out to be a lot like his grandfather, Jonas Spence, big and gruff and bear-like, so the problem is coming up with a wench who can match his temperament and wit, who can stand up against him, who can steal his heart. A petite, delicate French noblewoman perhaps?"

  3. Hi Marsha. Bev waving from London, Ontario. Reading your post makes me want to pull out my seafaring romance and finish it.

  4. Bev... You should do it. We need more good pirates out there. Lol

  5. Fabulous blog, Marsha. Congratulations on the readers' response to THE FOLLOWING SEA.

    1. Thank you Virginia, from one Dino to another LOL

  6. Marsha- loved the detail about the story thoughts. I love and have read (at least 10X each) every one of your books (ok- Have only read Gabriel's story once last week when it first because available- but have opened up the Pirate Wolf trilogy from the start -yet again- to wander off in a fantasy world.) As a busy airline executive, currently unencumbered by a spouse or boyfriend, I find the worlds your books take me to just as exciting and full of learning opportunities as my world travels. Please keep up the GREAT work-- and yes, pirates will ALWAYS be fashionable!!!

  7. Karen, thank you so much. I'm glad you enjoy the mini worlds inside my imagination...I have a lot of fun creating and exploring them myself ( smiling)

  8. I enjoyed reading your post so much, Marsha. I am a great admirer of your books & it was fun to read about the process behind your first swashbucklers! Congratulations on THE FOLLOWING SEA!

    1. Thank you Cynthia! I really do appreciate all the support I have received from other authors for my "comeback".

      Marsha Canham

  9. Marsha,
    Thank you for your entertaining voyage through producing your first tall ship adventure. So many of your experiences ring true with me. I guess that's why I love your stories so much.

    As a writer, I'm so intimidated with historicals, but when I read how much effort and care you take with each of your swashbucklers, I thought I might just force my jitters back and dive in myself, as Regan, my critique partner has encouraged me to do quite a few times.

    Thanks for sharing with us so openly, Marsha.

    Susan Burns

  10. Susan...research is only scary when you think about it. When you're actually doing it, the things you find can be quite QUITE fascinating. I was researching the various legends surrounding Robin Hood when I came across a teeny wee one paragraph mention of the Lost Princess of Brittany. That gave me the plot thread for all three of my medieval books to link them together.

    Marsha Canham, who has to post as anonymous as well in order for it to go through. LOL

  11. Marsha,
    Just a note of thanks for being a guest on my blog. I hope some new readers and some old friends found your insights fascinating...I did. You have much to teach us new authors and so much to give to us readers.

  12. I only discovered Marsha's books last year and am so grateful she's brought them back to "print". I couldn't put down Bound by the Heart! It's hard to beat a great pirate!