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Travels with my Books #2: From the Caribbean to Exmoor with Helen Hollick

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As a longstanding fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland, which I first visited in the original theme park in California at the age of eight, I was delighted to discover when I first met Helen Hollick that one of the series of historical novels she writes has as its hero a charming pirate Captain Jesemiah Acorne whose adventures often take him to the Caribbean.

The smash-hit Jack Sparrow films came much later than the theme-park ride,  and I believe it’s the only case of the ride inspiring the film rather than the other way around.

Just like the ride and the films, Helen’s pirate novels plunge you into the Caribbean, amongst other places, including, closer to her home and mine, the rolling hills of Exmoor in Devon. I’m delighted to welcome Helen to my blog today to tell us all about her travels with her books!


headshot of Helen Hollick
Helen Hollick, author of historical, fantasy and contemporary fiction

Hello, Helen, and welcome! To set the scene, could you please your books’ setting on the globe

Now, this is going to be one of those ‘which one shall I use?’ moments. You see, my Sea Witch Voyages are set in various locations because they are, well, voyages aboard a ship – the Sea Witch – with a pirate and his crew. Captain Jesamiah Acorne finds himself getting into trouble from Jamaica to Devon, from Virginia to the Bahamas via Cape Town, South Africa! However, as it is rather cold here in the UK at the moment, let’s head for somewhere warm …Port Royal, Jamaica!

Please briefly describe the books you have set in the Caribbean.

When The Mermaid Sings is a prequel novella to my Sea Witch Voyages series telling the story of how Jesamiah fled his home in Virginia because of his bullying elder half-brother. He is seeking a sailor friend of his father – but ends up finding more than he bargained for: the ghost of his father, Captain Morgan, a mermaid – and the start of a life of piracy!

What makes Port Royal, Jamaica, such a great setting for fiction?

Back in the late 1600s Port Royal was known as ‘The Wickedest Town In The World’ because of all the pirates and privateers who dropped anchor in the harbour. So much looted Spanish treasure was taken there, even servants were well off financially.

Unfortunately, in 1692 a massive earthquake destroyed most of the town and killed thousands of people.

The harbour remained, but the town was never rebuilt – Kingston was established on the other side of the bay instead. I wanted to make When The Mermaid Sings a partial ghost story, so Port Royal was an ideal location for Jesamiah to go to.

What is your relationship with Jamaica and how much of your life have you spent there?

None at all! I’ve never been to the Caribbean – however, later in the series (Ripples In The Sand, Voyage Four and On The Account, Voyage Five,) I bring Jesamiah and his wife (he’s grown up since When The Mermaid Sings) to Devon, England, so I have many scenes set in and around Barnstaple on the North Devon coast, and on Exmoor, both of which I know very well as I live nearby!

What is special about the people native to Devon?

May I mention one real person in particular? My previous editor, Jo Field, now retired, used to live at Instow not far from Barnstaple. I used to live in East London, so visited her twice a year for a writer’s chinwag and a holiday. It was because of where she lived that I decided to bring Jesamiah (and his ship, Sea Witch) to Devon, and consequently I also fell in love with the place. In 2012 we won the lottery (on the opening night of the London Olympics) and decided to move to Devon.

I hadn’t realised, all those times that I came on the train to visit Jo, travelling from Exeter to Barnstaple, that I would be passing right by the house I now live in!

I can see a section of the Tarka Line railway as it winds through the Taw Valley from my bedroom window – it’s like looking down on my very own real model railway!

If your protagonist or other characters come from elsewhere, what challenges do they face dealing with the local people?

Jesamiah was born in Virginia, the son of an English privateer and a Spanish mother. I rather assume he would have a typical Colonial Virginian accent – which is quite far removed from the Devon dialect. When he first sets foot ashore at Appledore he has a bit of a job understanding some of the Devonshire words, as the following excerpt from Ripples In The Sand shows:

 

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The rain had started to lash down as Jesamiah kicked open the door to the Full Moon and negotiated his way through, taking care not to scrape or bump Tiola enfolded in his arms and wrapped in a swathe of blankets.

    The landlady, a homely woman in her early thirties, bustled from behind the counter concern bubbling from her as energetically as the wisps of hair escaping beneath her lace cap. “Oh my, the poor maid looks nigh on exhausted.” She shooed away an elderly man sitting before the fire, ushering him to another seat. “Set ‘er down ‘ere Cap’n. The girl’s lighted the vire upstairs an’ put a pan in t’warm the sheets. It be a nice corner room overlookin’ the harbour, it’ll do you cheerily.” She pursed her lips and tutted. “I suggest you keep them shutters closed ‘cross the smaller side winder though, sir. The view o’ the drang oft’n be not respec’able.”

     Grumbling beneath his breath the old man, as bald as a coot but with a great bush of a white beard, took his half empty tankard of cider along with his pipe and baccy pouch, and shambled to a settle near the window. He sat, sniffed disdainfully and wiped his nose on the cuff of his coat, which he ostentatiously drew closer around his chest, then turned the collar up against the draught. “It be goin’ t’snow on them moors,” he predicted. “Prob’ly ‘ere an’ all. Vruzzen in us’ll be.”

     “Drang?” Jesamiah queried, not recognising the word and struggling to understand the conversation. Tiola had a slight Cornish burr, but his ear was not attuned to this unfamiliar Devon dialect. He shrugged, guessed he would pick it up soon enough.

     The old man chuckled. “Nowt wrong with Cock Lane tha’ an ‘ealthy man can’t be makin’ good use ov.”

     Getting the gist of the statement Jesamiah raised an eyebrow, was about to repeat his ‘drang’ question, but let it pass.

The typical ‘pirate speak’ that we think of (‘arr’ and such) actually originates from Robert Newton who played Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He was a Cornishman so improvised his West Country accent. Many sailors – and pirates – came from Cornwall, Devon and Bristol, so all had a similar accent, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

What are the distinguishing features of one of the destinations you write about in terms of geography, geology, flora, fauna or any other detail you care to mention?

I will take us to Exmoor, as I know it better than Jamaica. (Although as I write this, in mid-January, I believe it is snowing up on the moors, so Jamaica would be warmer!)

Wild Exmoor ponies

Exmoor is a wild place – it is even home to the wild Exmoor ponies (we have three moorland bred ponies of our own on our farm). The moor was made famous by RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, and indeed I have borrowed the Doones and used their fictional descendants in Ripples and Account.

Valley of the Rocks, Exmoor (photo copyright Cathy Helms)

The north coast of Exmoor rises steeply from the sea, giving glorious views, although usually also windswept ones. There is a particular geological features of rocky outcrop that looks a little like the ruins of a castle. Many Victorian poets visited this incredible geological feature, Robert Southey in August 1799, was impressed, describing it as ‘… the very bones and skeletons of the earth’.

In On The Account, Jesamiah’s wife, Tiola Oldstagh (who is actually a white witch) spends the night on Exmoor, described in the following extract:

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An hour after dusk had settled into the star-frosted night, Tiola fed another stick into her meagre fire. The wood was damp and it gave off more smoke than heat, but it was better than nothing up here on the windswept openness of Exmoor’s exposed coast. She was sheltered in the hollow behind the magnificent tor of rocks that separated the valley from the sea, three hundred feet below. A place steeped in myth, legend and mystery. It was said that the Devil had resided in a castle of rock with his many wives, but angered at their infidelity he had blasted the eyrie to pieces. All that remained were the bare, jagged bones; the skeleton rocks piled stone upon stone. Nothing but a story, an old tale to explain the strangeness of a natural glacial formation – the Devil did not exist, but Tiola was aware that something was lurking out there in the darkness, watching her.

     The stick flared into flame and the light caught the glint of an eye a few yards off. Tucking a loose strand of her black hair behind her ear, Tiola calmly added more wood to the fire and smiled to herself. This was the Valley of the Rocks, known also for the herds of feral goats that thrived on the coarse sea-salt grass. A huffed snort and a stream of misted breath evaporated into the cold air. A wild pony then, not a goat; one of the distinctive two-thousand-year-old Exmoor breed with their thick, weather-resistant, shaggy coats and light-coloured muzzles. Had she borrowed such a pony from the stables at Tawford Barton she would be at her destination by now, but her mission was secret and she wanted to know who had been watching her these past seven days, and had followed her, this night, up on to the moor.

What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to the setting of your book?

To Jamaica – watch out for pirates, and parrots who have learnt to sample the beer from kegs in the taverns … of course, that only applies if you can also time travel back to the 1690s!

To Exmoor – take stout walking boots and something warm and dry to wear. Even on sunny days it is windy up there… but breathtakingly beautiful.

Helen Hollick hangs on to her hat on Exmoor!

‘Only in Port Royal…’ name three things that could only happen there!

  1. In November 1720 you would have seen the trial of Anne Bonney and Mary Reed, the female pirates who sailed with Calico Jack Rackham. Mary died in gaol, Rackham was hanged, but no one knows what happened to Anne.
  2. Time travel back a little further, and you could meet Captain Morgan, who was a privateer against the Spanish, but then became Governor of Jamaica … and yes, he is the Captain Morgan who gave his name to the rum!
  3. ‘Jamaica Gold’ – pineapples – used to be  highly valuable because Jamaica was one of the few places where they grew, were easy to harvest and transport back to the Colonies – and even England.
stone pineapple on a building
Spot the pineapple!

Because of its rarity, and the difficulty in keeping it fresh during a long sea voyage, the pineapple was regarded as the food of the wealthy. For the well-to-do, ‘visiting’ either for afternoon tea, or to dine, was one of the prime sources of entertainment. Social intercourse was a way to show off what you had, and an essential way to keep up with the local gossip and news. Status, and the ability to show it, was an essential element. Keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new!

The Colonial hostess would seek subtle ways to brag about what she had, and would take great pains to outdo her neighbours. Elegant furniture, sumptuous and elaborate gowns, exquisite china and silver tableware, fine linens, expensive tea… Food was displayed on platters and arranged in elaborate pyramid styles, often dripping with sugar. Dinner was a culinary delight and always extravagant.

The laid table would be kept as a surprise, behind closed doors until the moment to reveal all came. Fresh fruit was a grand thing to be displayed, but topping it all would be the pineapple. It was rare, expensive, and wonderful to look at, touch – and eat. It was the crowning celebrity-status glory of the feast.

Have you ever noticed stone pineapples outside houses? To have one on display at a dinner party meant you’d made it to the top of the tree – but fruit doesn’t stay fresh for long, so it soon became popular to place stone ones on gateposts and such to indicate a wealthy household, and also as a sign of welcome. So keep an eye out for the not-so-humble pineapple!

Are there any other authors’ books with the same setting that you’d like to recommend?

Dozens, but I am going to cheat and select Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier.  It was – still  is – a real pub, on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, named by the Trelawney family who founded it in 1750, from the money they made in Jamaica – and for the smuggled rum which passed through on its way from Cornwall to London. Du Maurier wrote her story after being stranded there in thick fog one night.

Where is your latest book set?

Helen’s latest novel takes us to Chingfod, Essex

Somewhere completely different! A north-east London suburb, Chingford, where I was born in 1953, brought up and worked until the early 1980s. A Mirror Murder is a cosy mystery set in 1971 with the lead character, Jan Christopher, working (as I did!) as a library assistant.

I decided to give writing a murder mystery a go after being inspired by Debbie’s wonderful Sophie Sayers Series! (I confess, I am a little in love with Hector – although this might be because he owns a bookshop!)

Here’s an introduction to A Mirror Mystery:

Eighteen-year-old library assistant Jan Christopher’s life is to change on a rainy Friday evening in July 1971, when her legal guardian and uncle, DCI Toby Christopher, gives her a lift home after work. Driving the car, is her uncle’s new Detective Constable, Laurie Walker – and it is love at first sight for the young couple.

But romance is soon to take a back seat when a baby boy is taken from his pram,  a naked man is scaring young ladies in nearby Epping Forest, and an elderly lady is found, brutally murdered…

Are the events related? How will they affect the staff and public of the local library where Jan works – and will a blossoming romance survive a police investigation into  murder?

Where will your next book be set?

Which one? *laughs* I really must write the sixth Sea Witch Voyage – which starts in Gibraltar, and will feature Exmoor and Devon again – but also Spain, possibly Portugal and France as well, I’m not sure because I’m never quite certain where trouble will lead my Jesamiah…

I am also writing the second in my planned Jan Christopher Mystery series: this one will be set in Devon at Christmas. Great fun with lots of snow and murdered victims.

I’ll look forward to reading them all, Helen! Thank you so much for taking us on this virtual journey around your books today. 

(All images in this post are the copyright of Helen Hollick unless otherwise stated)


ALL ABOUT HELEN HOLLICK

Helen Hollick taking inspiration from atmosphere at Instow, Devon

Helen Hollick and her family moved from London in January 2013 after finding an eighteenth-century North Devon farm house through being a ‘victim’ on BBC TV’s popular Escape To The Country show. The thirteen-acre property was the first one she was shown. She loves her new rural life, and has a variety of animals on the farm, including hens, ducks, geese, dogs, cats, Exmoor ponies and her daughter’s string of show jumpers.

First accepted for publication by William Heinemann in 1993 – a week after her fortieth birthday – Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she also writes a pirate-based nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages.

Despite being impaired by the visual disorder of glaucoma, Helen is now branching out into the cosy mystery genre with a new series of quick-read novellas. The first in her Jan Christopher Mysteries series, set in the 1970s, is out now. A Mirror Murder  incorporates often hilarious memories of working for over a decade as a library assistant.

Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She occasionally gets time to write…

Click the link to order A Mirror Murder in ebook or print: getbook.at/MirrorMurder 

Visit her website: https://helenhollick.net/

Like her Amazon Author Page: http://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick

Subscribe to her newsletter: http://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick

Follow her on Twitter: @HelenHollick


Next month: join Alison Morton for a trip to the fictitious land of Roma Nova, evolved from the ancient Roman empire in her series of alternative history novels – and for a trip to France in her new contemporary thriller, Double Identity

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Author:

English author of warm, witty novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Staffroom at St Bride's School series, both set in the Cotswolds. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors and for the children's reading charity, Read for Good. Public speaker for the Type 1 Diabetes charity JDRF.

7 thoughts on “Travels with my Books #2: From the Caribbean to Exmoor with Helen Hollick

    1. I loved it too. I even take Helen’s books with me when visiting the Bahamas trying to find Cap’n Acorne. Brings the books to life, not that they need it. One can almost smell, hear and fear the oceans. Totally visualise everything including her incredible take on costume, emotions and plots. There is so much information on pirate ships that I feel I could sail one myself!

      1. Thank you Heather – aw, you’ve made me blush! (I’m trying to find that rascal, Acorne, as well – he seems to have gone missing. I expect he’s asleep somewhere in the sun – he’ll appear again when I get on with writing his next adventure!)

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