Takaom Universe

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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Dreaded Pirate Roberts

The novel Princess Bride by William Goldman features a secret pirate franchise called the Dread Pirate Roberts. Goldman based the Dread Pirate Roberts on the greatest European pirate captain of the 18th Century, Bartholomew Roberts of Wales.

Accounts vary on exactly when John Roberts went to sea, probably between the ages of 10 to 13.  He spent most of his life as a sailor, serving in the Royal Navy and merchant vessels, the last being a junior officer aboard the slave ship Princess of London.

After being captured by pirates, he was coerced into joining their crew when they realized that he was a skilled navigator. The captain, Howell Davis,  who was also Welsh, undoubtedly wanted someone he could trust who spoke his own language.   It's thought that after joining the pirates Roberts changed his name  to Bartholomew Roberts as a "nom de guerre."

Six weeks later, the Portugese killed  Davis. The crew elected Roberts as replacement. Roberts is supposed to have said that now that he had muddied his hands by becoming a pirate, it would be better to be a commander of pirates than a common man.

Roberts proved to be one of the most feared pirates of the era.  In a reign of sea terror lasting some two and a half years from 1719 to 1722, Roberts is believed to have captured 472 ships.  He was so able an opponent that ship's captains  surrendered immediately upon seeing his flags rather that fight.

Just months before his 40th birthday, he was reportedly killed off the coast of Africa in a battle with the HMS Swallow.under then Captain Chaloner Ogle. So feared was Roberts, that his defeat earned Ogle his spurs as a knight and put him on the fast track to becoming an admiral.  Historians have marked Robert's death as the high water mark of the "Golden Age of Piracy."

Tall and dark, Roberts certainly served darkness, but defied the caricature of a blood-crazed lunatic.  He preferred to be humane to his captives and sometimes gave them presents, not out of innate kindness, but because it served his purposes.  A strict disciplinarian, he forbade women and boys on ship, preferred tea over hard liquor, did not smoke, and encouraged his men to abstain from alcohol and tobacco.  Roberts also possessed both organizational ability and coolness under fire that earned him the respect of his enemies.

Roberts also had a great love for classical music and employed musicians to play aboard his ship whenever the crew wished, save for Sunday when he gave the musicians the day off.

He welcomed all nationalities into his crews except the Irish, who he simply could not trust.  This aversion to the Irish was so well known that captured sailors would fake an Irish brogue in order to avoid being pressed into service aboard his vessels.

He was known to be a flashy dresser and dressed up not down for battle. On his last battle, he wore his trademark crimson clothes with  a hat and red feather. Around his neck hung a gold chain and crucifix  taken from a Portuguese treasure ship and intended for the King of Portugal. During the battle with the Swallow, his men said he was  fatally wounded in the neck. He then told his men to throw him overboard rather than be captured.  They supposedly weighted his body in chain, wrapped it in a sail then tossed overboard.  The body was never recovered.

Above all, Roberts was a purposeful, talented, and  rational leader who chose to serve evil, accepting the short life of a pirate because it offered him food and comfort over the grinding misery of a sailor's life. In that I find him understandable and at the same time unquestionably evil because he knowingly stepped over the line and accepted the consequences.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pirates as "the enemy of all mankind"

In Black Flag, Black Ship, I wanted my heroes to face world class-antagonists. I didn't want to use garden variety puddle pirates, thank you.  I really wanted them to be truly awful and very lethal  folk.

While reading Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of Pyrates, from Their first Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence, to the present Time, I came across an abstract of English anti-piracy law. In it pirates were declared the enemy of all mankind, hostis humani generis for those with a legal turn of mind. Sound like anyone you've heard of before?

"You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies".

John 8:44

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
1 Peter 5:8

The scourge of piracy with its demonic influence has plagued civilization for thousands of years.  Rome after its wars with Carthage rose to become  the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean Sea and piracy was held at bay.

Julius Caesar as a young boy was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom. When told they were ransoming him for 20 talents of silver, Julius was highly insulted and told them he was worth 50 talents of silver. Throughout his captivity young Julius told his captors that he intended to come back and crucify the lot of them. After his family paid the 50 talents, he did return with his own fleet and so he did execute them in that  particularly gruesome Roman manner.

 But when Rome fell, piracy returned.  Throughout world history and in every part of the world, whenever civilization's grip weakened, piracy manifested itself.

In the year 1700, pirates were active throughout the world, plaguing every people group. Various forms of insurance were formed in response to that very real threat of loss by pirates. The Dutch and the English were among the first Europeans to insure cargoes and vessels against loss.

Like sharks following schools of tuna, pirates learned to pick critical choke points where long distance European traders had to pass.  Pirates of this time were especially active in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean,  off the coasts of North America and West Africa, and in the Indian Ocean.

At this time, European navies were fairly small  with a limited patrol range. Standing armies and navies were not the norm.  To augment their smaller forces, countries would lease privately-owned vessels for a short time and staff with their own sailors, or preferably give the the owners the opportunity to crew their own vessels and attack enemy shipping under a legal contract called a letter of marque.

This warrant allowed  private citizens to cross their borders and attack those parties specified in the letter of marque.  It was not uncommon for enterprising privateers to get letters of marque from several countries. Those who engaged in this form of warfare were called privateers because they operated a private warship on behalf of a a contracting country. Privateers brought captured ships and cargo back to a friendly port where prize courts assessed the value of the booty and awarded to the privateers a portion of the assessed value as prize money .

Occasionally, when pickings were particularly slim, privateers would go rouge and become pirates, as the English accused pirate-hunter Captain Kidd of doing. This usually happened during peacetime, when navies returned to their regular size and privateers and former navy sailors had to find new ways to support themselves.

During these periods, sailors would sign on for the duration of a pirate voyage and then move on to the next opportunity. Pirate crews came from many countries and it was not uncommon to have a crew with no common language. The picture that emerges is not that of a disorganized group of ruffians, but that of highly-skilled, sea-going mercenaries who knew their jobs so well they could work alongside those who didn't speak their own language.

With the danger inherent in piracy, pirates simply were in it for short-term gain without any real thought for the future. Sailors and pirates alike often blew their wages in spectacular ways while in port and had to return to the sea to stay alive.  As such, pirates only flourished when naval power diminished and governments tolerated their existence.

But what if a particular group of pirates had a long term goal and the means to achieve that aim?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Does God defend His people?

Now it came about when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand, and Joshua went to him and said to him, "Are you for us or for our adversaries?" He said, “No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, “What has my lord to say to his servant?” 

Joshua 5:13-14

Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see." And the LORD opened the servant's eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

2 Kings 6:17

As I began to plot Black Flag, Black Ship, it became very apparent that contemplating God's sovereignty got my creative juices flowing. Far from being a dispassionate Creator who stepped back from His masterpiece the universe after He created it, I think that scripture and history show that  God is completely, actively, and passionately involved in the lives of his children.

As one who has witnessed horrible death and senseless personal tragedies, it would be easy for me to fall into the trap of asking, "If the LORD is so loving, then why did He let this happen?"  I had to learn not to ask God, "Are you for me or against me?"  Instead I learned to ask in the midst of my crisis as Joshua did, "What has my lord to say to his servant?"

Yet I have seen the sovereign hand of God, in moments of great beauty acting on behalf of friends, my family, those in my prayers, and entire nations. I have witnessed the angelic opposing the demonic, miraculous healings, and what charismatics call "signs and wonders."

One thing I have learned is that the world is not a safe place and it's very, very wise to stick close to God, no matter the outcome.  In the midst of our own personal battles, it's often very easy to forget that the LORD God of armies does have a battle plan that will not fail. As it says in Proverbs 21:30, "There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD."

In this story I ask the question, what would it look like if God did go to war on behalf of His people?  Could a helpless band of unfortunates in the middle of nowhere, who call out to God for help, defeat a numerically superior and highly-motivated enemy?  The answer: you betcha!

For scriptural confirmation, the Bible is full of examples of God's active warfare on behalf of those whom He loves in both the Old and New Testament. The stories of the Exodus and miraculous acts of  Gideon, Sampson, and prophets like Elijah and Elisha are found in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Gospels, the book of Acts, and very fact that God send Jesus to earth to destroy the works of the enemy and welcome undeserving humanity into His family through the atoning act of Jesus should turn hand-wringing, helpless Christians into confident, boisterous "let me at 'em" participants in advancing the Kingdom of God.

For a recent historical example of the LORD God of armies, I can point to the TV series Against All Odds:  In Search of a Miracle that shows time and time again the sovereign and active hand of God in some very incredible war stories from the Middle East. I think I've seen the complete series at least three times. The personal testimonies and re-enactments still make my hair stand on end.

The book, Table in the Presence by LT. Carey Cash, is a must read for any veteran or family member of a veteran.  Cash's own personal testimony on how he became a US Navy Chaplain is incredible in itself, much less what happened to the marines he served. He is a firm believer that angels were actively engaged in the fight alongside 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

So, satisfied that I could defend the premise of my story, I began writing  Black Flag, Black Ship.

Friday, February 19, 2010

When the backstory became the story

When I first realized that I wanted to write fiction again,  I decided to draw upon my family's Tidewater Virginia heritage.  There were a number of tantalizing clues to my Hunt ancestors I had uncovered during a fit of genealogical sleuthing to find long-lost (presumably because they wanted to stay lost) ancestors. I quickly realized that I had to invent a good deal of information about my characters because there just wasn't enough historical fodder in the family's archives.

I initially intended to write stories based on the tumultuous times as the end of Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th Century.  The more I plunged into plotting the story, the more entranced I became with the backstory.

British film director and CalArts professor Alexander Mackendrick defined the backstory as "events previous to the start of the plot which are essential to an appreciation of present circumstances and understanding of character behaviour."

It must be a common thing for authors to start with one objective and end up with a vastly different outcome. J.R.R. Tolkien as a linguistics master invented the languages Quenya and Sindarin and then dreamed up hero stories to be told in these the languages.  He called these stories his legendarium. Out of this work, for which many of you are very grateful, came notably The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

Since I don't know much about the Hunt family history, I decided to chuck the family history and invent things mostly from scratch. Along the way I considered two families that had a single divinely-ordained mission lasting for over 200 years to equip and train a single person seen only in a recurring generational dream. I felt after prayer that this was a direction that the LORD wanted me to go.

I toyed with the idea of writing a story arc lasting almost 300 years, from 1650 to 1942, encompassing stories from both families.  Then I decided to have the Hunts as the eventual American cousins of the British Cooper family.

While I do not have a legendarium, I do have a rich love for history and legend from which to draw, as well as nudges/bops on the head  from the Holy Spirit. It has made for an exciting mix.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Aha! moments and the Holy Spirit

According to WebMD, Aha moments, those sudden insights that leave you thunderstruck and wondering why you didn't think of them earlier, are marked by sudden intense electrical activity in the brain known as the right temporal lobe. Researchers of Aha moments even suggest that closing one's eyes helps offload sensory processing and may help Aha moments to manifest.  However, that is dangerous territory for me as that might well stimulate the portion of the brain associated with sleeping.

Scientists aren't really sure yet exactly what causes the high-frequency burst of brain waves just before the the Aha moment manifests, but I wouldn't discount the Holy Spirit.  As cockeyed as that may sound at first, may I point out that the brain is a neural wonderland with amazing proofs of intelligent design? For instance, the frontal lobes also exhibit a marked decrease of activity during "praying in tongues," leading to what speakers report as a sense of well-being and spiritual refreshment.

Now since talking about glossolalia in some quarters is akin to turning loose a mouse in a ladies prayer meeting, I need to state I am not than trying stir up religious controversy. I merely want to point to these two phenomena as examples that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

As writers, especially Christian writers, we do want to remain open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit whether that be through periods of speaking in tongues, through quiet reflection on a favorite Bible verse, or simply dwelling upon the love of God. 

I do believe I have experienced moments of heavenly inspiration and I frequently credit the Holy Spirit in helping me do even mundane things, like show me where the car keys went.  Likewise, I credit the Holy Spirit for those moments when writing when the story takes a sudden turn in to a rich, undiscovered territory.  Those Aha moments should be as satisfying to us as they are humbling, because they say to us that the LORD has taken interest in our writing and wants to steer our work in a direction that will further His Kingdom.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The power of speculative fiction

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth--
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Song of Songs 1:2

Tomorrow being Valentine's Day, I am posting a day early so I can give my bride my undivided attention. Thinking about Valentine's Day brings the Song of Solomon to mind.

The leader of the International House of Prayer, Mike Bickle, became a reluctant teacher of the Song of Songs.  Bickle, author of  Passion for Jesus, often tells how God led him to begin teaching what he initially felt was a feminine book. The son of a prize fighter and every bit a man's man,  he felt ill at ease in teaching about the Church's affection as the Bride of Christ for her groom, Jesus.Yet God soon changed his mind.

I found the concept a little daunting myself.  I could only conceive of such a kiss from an intellectual aspect. It was something that as a heterosexual man I instinctively rebelled against.

A few years ago while doing some late night grocery shopping, I came across a display of the just published book, Glorious Appearing by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.  I thought it a little odd for the books to be sitting in a grocery store.

As I looked at the books, I felt an urge to pick one up and leaf through it.  My eyes fell on a passage where Jesus simultaneously gave each believer his infinite, undivided attention in a private conversation. It was a staggering moment to be able to visualize what I intellectually knew that he loves us each individually with a holy passion and all at the same time can give each Christian his infinite, undivided attention.

I put the book down and finished my shopping, thinking all the while about what I had just read.  I took my groceries to my car and sat in the car, chilled by the winter night.  I hesitated to turn on the ignition.

I thought again of that divine meeting told in the book and I wondered, "Would Jesus see me out of the crowd of millions of believers?  Would he know me?  Would he approve of me?"

I looked back over my years as a Christian and felt so ashamed. I had accomplished so little and failed so often.

Then a wave of pure love swept over me. It was Jesus.  It was as if the LORD said,  "Yes, I see you.  I know you and I love you with a pure and undying love."

I sat in the dark weeping, not from shame, but out of a heartfelt gratitude that my Savior knew me in all my imperfection and still loved me.

I had been kissed by the kisses of his mouth.

Had it not been for the faithfulness of LeHaye and Jenkins, I might never have experienced it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

“It All Began with a Picture”

In his essay, “It All Began with a Picture,” C. S. Lewis tells about the image of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy woodland that came to him as a teenager. Dogged by the image, he finally decided at the age of 40 to write a story inspired by that image.  And so, from that image we now have the wonderful Christian speculative fiction, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I do believe that God plants in us signposts that point the way to our destiny and express in some way who we are in Him. Perhaps they are not as dramatic as Lewis' faun, they but are subtle urgings to move us forward and discover that we really aren't who we have been told by myopic self-interested humans, but beings more magnificent, imaginative, and marvelous, intended to be the family of the eternal God.

For me, my signposts are those notebooks, now lost, with their drawings of those wonderful submersibles and underwater battles that I began to draw in 1963 in my elementary school in rural North Carolina. I was so single-minded about drawing them that I wrote the US Navy, begging for information and bless their hearts, they sent a number of pamphlets about research submersibles.  Greg, one of my high school buddies who later became a commercial diver, watched me draw during math class when Mr. Brown wasn't looking and dubbed me  "Commander," perhaps because he could see me piloting a submarine someday.

So behind my writing desk over my right shoulder is a poster entitled, Submarines and U-Boats, depicting many of the early submarines that I drew and researched.  Missing are the submarines designed by Simon Lake, but that is the subject for another blog post.  It still excites me to see these marvelous machines, and it also reminds me of the visionaries who built them, plowing through scorn and opposition to open the way to the world beneath the sea.

Perhaps like these submariners, we who now write Christian speculative fiction can open up new worlds, new visions of God and the great love He has for us, so great that he sent His Son  to plow through mankind's scorn and hell's opposition to become the Way to an eternal adventure in Him.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yonder is the sea

Yonder is the sea, great and wide, 
Wherein are things creeping innumerable, 
Both small and great beasts.
 Psalm 104:25

I come from a family with nautical ties in Tidewater Virginia.  If family stories are to be believed, not only did three generations labor at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia, but the family also had at least one tugboat captain and a boat builder. Although our family records are pretty spotty, it's a pretty safe bet that one part of the family, the Hunts, watched the battle of the ironclads at Hampton Roads, and they were not rooting for Ericsson's cheesebox on a raft to win.

I unknowingly followed our family's nautical bent when I attended a coastal technical school with a maritime training program where I learned to chip paint, grind rust off deck plates, and paint the diesel-fouled shaft alleys of the school's oceanographic research vessels. These tasks are not very glamorous but they are a necessary part of maintaining ships.

Finally running out of money for school, I stepped off the school's research vessel the Advance II for the last time in December 1972 and joined the military to eventually pay for college. My career ambitions changed and I never finished my goal of gaining a doctorate in physical oceanography.

I left school with an appreciation for the Cummins and Detriot Diesel  marine power plants, Bowditch, Mixter, and Chapman. I knew enough marlinespike seamanship to splice and frap after a fashion. I knew port (larboard) from starboard, the rules of the road, how to plot a course, how to crew a whaleboat, and how to mend fishing nets. I turned my back on a good many things, but kept a deep, abiding love for the sea, particularly things under the sea.

As a kid, I loved Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt and the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea with Richard Basehart and David Hedison. I briefly met Hedison in a bookstore where I worked in the 1980s and my throat was so dry I couldn't utter a word.

Throughout my childhood I read Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea in various editions, skipping over the big words and devouring everything about the amazing underwater craft. My school notebooks were covered in designs for submersibles and underwater battles.

When Jacques-Yves Cousteau hit television, I believed it was a sign from God that I should go under the sea.  I don't know how much the LORD was in my passion, but I don't regret for a minute the time I spent at that school.

So it should  come as no surprise that now almost 38 years later, I write Christian speculative stories with a nautical setting.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Finding your voice

        “My beloved responded and said to me,
‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one,
And come along.
       ‘For behold, the winter is past,
The rain is over
and gone.
      ‘The flowers have
already appeared in the land;
The time has arrived for pruning
the vines,
And the voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land. 

Song of Solomon: 2:10-12 

My struggle to articulate the deep love for Jesus in my writing stemmed from a number of personal difficulties. I could easily write from passion, but I could not advance to the next level because I could not frame my feelings in ways that the market could understand.  I could easily write from the pain that I felt in my daily life, so my work had an air of confusion and anguish. I could easily empathize with tortured characters, but I could not help them find their way out of their painful circumstances.  I found plotting to beyond the short story to be very difficult, ultimately because I could not find my way in my own life.

In the 1990s I pitched an alternate worlds comic book to several independent publishers.  I got nibbles from two of the three publishers and felt that I was at the edge of great beginnings as a successful fiction writer.  One editor wrote me a wonderful letter of encouragement, taking the time to explain why they were not interested. In his letter told me that although the concept was great, he couldn't see where I was going with the story.  With a start, I realized that neither did I.

There have been a number of wonderful creative works born out of personal difficulty. Four come immediately to mind:  George Frederic Handel with his magnificent Messiah, St. John of the Cross and his wonderful Dark Night of the Soul, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and powerful The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha, John Bunyan with his masterful The Pilgrim's Progress and his insightful work on prayer, Praying with the Spirit and with Understanding too.

These men had one thing that I lacked -- a clear sense of identity.  Looking back, I see that although I had the technical skills to be a fiction writer, spiritually I simply did not know who I was.  So, ten years ago, during a time of deep personal stress, I called to the LORD and he began to show me His identity as the Lover of my soul. Since returning to fiction writing this past year, I have experienced a greater freedom in my work now that my identity has been firmly established in Him.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Diving deep

There is a marvelous story about a lecture offered by Catalan surrealist painter and accused shameless self-promoter  Salvador Dali. The guests gathered in a hot loft to hear Dali expound on the surrealist movement. The guests waited long past the appointed time, growing more irritable and sweaty.  Finally they could hear the clump of heavy boots. To their amazement they saw two men leading a man  in an old-fashioned diving suit, complete with diving helmet. He entered the room carrying a billiard cue and leading a pair of Russian wolfhounds. If stories are correct, the heavy helmet was topped off with a radiator cap.

Though they could not see his bright animated eyes and his outrageous mustache, the audience knew this had to be Dali.  The host confirmed their assumption by making the introductions. Dali sat at microphone on the stage and he discovered his words could not be heard through the helmet.  His words ricocheted inside his helmet and were only perceived by his audience as incomprehensible sounds.  Finally, he motioned for help and his assistants unscrewed the helmet to give the gasping artist much needed air.

By way of explanation for appearing in a diving suit he claimed, "I just wanted to show that I was 'plunging deeply' into the human mind."

During my years of  intermittently writing Christian speculative fiction, which I style as a blend of fantasy and science fiction with a Christian worldview, I've often wondered if like Dali, I was somehow trapped in an artistic diving suit in which I plunged deeply into the Spirit of God. Try as I might to explain these experiences in  my fictional work, it was not received by secular publishers. Like Dali's external audience, they had no way of understanding what I was trying to communicate from within my experiences.  I wrote out of heavy-handed passion and not to the market, which is no way to sell a manuscript.

I knew that what I wrote moved me at times to tears from a deeply-felt love for Jesus, but it simply was incomprehensible to anyone who had not experienced that love.  And so, I came to realize that ultimately I was writing for an audience of One, who understood my heart stirrings and loved me unconditionally, not because of the excellence of my craft, but because I had loved and surrendered my entire being to His son Jesus.