Author/editor Cindy Vallar stopped by for a talk with Krogfiction.  Her story in A Tall Ship is titled "Rumble the Dragon."

A retired librarian, Cindy Vallar is the Editor of Pirates and Privateers, an online publication about the history of maritime piracy. She’s also a historical novelist, a reviewer, and a freelance editor. Her editing column “The Red Pencil” appears biannually in the Historical Novel Society’s Historical Novels Review. She conducts workshops and presentations on maritime piracy and the Age of Sail, as well as writing historical fiction, editing, dragons, and the Scottish Highlands.

Why did you decide to write about pirates?

While working on my first historical novel, The Scottish Thistle, I needed to establish my credentials as an author. An online database advertised for writers who were passionate enough to write about topics for an extended period of time. I had spent ten years learning about Scottish history and culture, but the database already had two people writing on those subjects. So what could I write about?

Before I penned The Scottish Thistle, I actually began writing a novel built around Jean Laffite, the pirate who helped General Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans. Since I had researched maritime piracy for story background, I wrote a proposal to write articles on the history of maritime piracy and privateering. The proposal was accepted and my first article, “Jean Laffite, Enigma and Legend,” was published in February 2000. I’ve been writing about pirates ever since.

Why do you write at all?  What made want to spend your life on work to which a smaller and smaller percentage of Western culture is receptive every year and for which most folks doing it receive very little monetary remuneration?

I first began writing while in school, mostly because I was bored and tended to write rather than doodle. Back then I dabbled in poetry, but about the time I graduated from high school, I watched an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney in which Frank Langella played Jean Laffite. While I enjoyed watching the show, Walt Disney’s introduction snagged my interest. He described Laffite as a gentleman pirate, who provided ammunition and men to Jackson when he needed it most. Disney’s explanation of how mysterious the real Laffite was gave me the idea to pen a novel.

All though college I worked on that story. Even took over the family’s dining room table during vacations. Then I married and focused on my career, so the novel got put on a closet shelf. I didn’t think about writing again until after I began working at a school for seriously emotionally challenged teenagers. Working in such an environment is inherently stressful, and I eventually needed a way to alleviate my stress. I decided to write historical fiction and took a couple courses in creative writing. One exercise spurred an idea for a story set in Scotland, so I wrote The Scottish Thistle, which was published by Amber Quill Press.

I never expressly set out to publish my writing, but when my husband was transferred from Maryland to Kansas, I retired from being a librarian and pursued my writing career fulltime. I’ve been writing ever since and am working on revisions to that novel about Jean Laffite so I can submit it for publication.

Do you have a favorite historical pirate, if so, who is it and why?

Initially my favorite historical pirate was Laffite, but the more I learned about pirates, I found two pirates that intrigue me even more. I’m not sure I’d call either of them “favorite,” though. The first pirate is Cheng I Sao, a prostitute who married a pirate named Cheng. After his death, she rose to command a federation of Chinese pirates and, at the height of her power, she commanded a pirate fleet that surpassed the navies of many countries. In addition to more than 200 oceangoing junks armed with twenty to thirty cannon and manned by up to 400 pirates each, she controlled 600 to 800 coastal vessels and dozens of river junks. She set up a network of spies who watched the harbors and reported potential targets, and she nearly decimated the Chinese imperial navy. In 1810, knowing it was time to quit, she negotiated with Chinese authorities and secured amnesty for herself and most of the men and women who followed her. She lived until the age of 69, a remarkable feat since most pirates died young; she amassed a fortune during her lifetime. Pretty remarkable for a woman who began life as a prostitute.

(Those with a weak stomach might want to skip this next pirate.)

The other pirate was a buccaneer named Jean David Nau, better known as l’Olonnais. He came to the Caribbean as an indentured servant, but eventually became a successful pirate, albeit one with a definite sadistic bent, especially toward Spaniards. In 1667 he and his crew, which numbered at least 600 men, captured a ship laden with 40,000 pieces of eight, jewels, and a rich cargo of cacao. They also captured the Spanish towns of Maracaibo and Gibraltar, then returned to Maracaibo and secured even more ransom. When he sought information from victims who weren’t forthcoming, he tortured them. A contemporary of his once wrote, “He drew his cutlass, and with it cut open the breast of one of those poor Spaniards, and pulling out his heart with his sacrilegious hands, began to bite and gnaw it with his teeth, like a ravenous wolf, saying to the rest: I will serve you all alike, if you show me not another way.” His career as a pirate only lasted seven years, and his demise was a fitting one. After landing on the shore of Cartagena, the Indians of Darien captured him and his men. “[They] tore him in pieces alive, throwing his body limb by limb into the fire and his ashes into the air.” A fitting end for the cruelest of the buccaneers.

Do you have a favorite literary pirate, if so, who is it and why? Do you have a favorite movie pirate, if so, who is it and why?

My favorite literary pirate and movie pirate is the same – Captain Peter Blood, a surgeon unjustly sentenced to slavery on a plantation after aiding a rebel. Even though my parents gave me Treasure Island for Christmas one year, I was never able to get into that story. Dashing Errol Flynn in his role as Peter Blood captured my attention instead. Not only is there a romantic element to the story, the injustice he endures and rises above is also stirring, and when the enemy attacks the island where he was a slave, he heroically leads his men to thwart the invasion. I became an instant fan of Errol Flynn and have lost track of how many times I’ve watched Captain Blood.

In college I discovered the movie was actually based on Rafael Sabatini’s novel. About this time the novelist’s books were being republished, so I purchased a copy of Captain Blood. (I enjoyed it so much, I went back and purchased his other stories, including the sequels to Captain Blood.) Five years ago, I reread the novel in preparation for writing an article for my website about the history behind the book. Knowing far more about pirates now than then, I was astonished at how much pirate history Sabatini wove into Peter Blood’s story. My respect for his ability to craft historical novels grew and while I’ve read volumes of other pirate novels over the years, his pirate remains my favorite.

Without spoiling the plot, what inspired you to write your story for A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder?

Last spring, one of my readers told me about an open submission call for the anthology. Since I’m a historical novelist who has written non-fiction articles about maritime piracy for more than a decade, this story call sounded perfect. Before I decided to submit a story, I did what most authors do – I learned more about Dark Oak Press and discovered they publish fantasy, dark fantasy, and steam punk. Not exactly the same as the straight historical fiction or historical romance I write. During my daily walks through the neighborhood, I struggled with how to step outside my comfort zone to write historical fantasy. It’s not that I don’t read fantasy; I do on occasion, but my preferences rarely follow elves and fairies. So what fantastical creatures do I like? Dragons!

But what did I know about dragons? Not enough to fill a thimble. I started compiling research on dragons. That proved tougher than expected, but not impossible. The first book I ordered proved a truly piratical treasure chest. Ciruelo’s The Book of the Dragon provided all sorts of inspirational gems for an author in search of ideas. One of my favorite jigsaw puzzles, “Confabulation of Dragons” by Scott Gustafson, offered another. In this picture three young women visit a host of dragons. One lady carries a crosier with a dragon head carved on it; she served as a model for the Welsh dragon keeper in my story.

Several more walks through the neighborhood provided me with a coming-of-age dragon named Rumble. Born of an earth dragon and a water dragon, Rumble is a misfit who only wants to belong. Now that I had my main character, I needed a time period when dragons and pirates might co-exist. Having just finished reading James L. Nelson’s Fin Gall, a novel set in Viking Ireland, I thought of the drakkar, the dragon warships of the Norsemen who plundered their way through the British Isles and many other regions of Europe. Voilà! “Rumble the Dragon” was born.

Who is your favorite author?  Why?

My favorite author is Leon Uris. In high school, my social studies teacher required that we read a novel set in the place we were studying each quarter. When we got to the Middle East, I scoured the library shelves looking for a title that interested me. I found Exodus, and while I read it, I didn’t read it fast enough and ended up writing my book review based on the first part of the novel and the film that starred Paul Newman, which I watched one weekend. Even though the assignment was over, I eventually finished the novel and really enjoyed it. Uris had the knack for creating memorable characters who stuck with you long after the story ends. He also wrote about the Holocaust long before it became “fashionable” to study, and I read every book he wrote. My favorite was Mila 18 about the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Uris’ stories spurred me to eventually study the Holocaust, which my history classes had only touched upon, and to become a charter member of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C.

What is your favorite book?  Why?

I have quite a few keepers on my bookshelves, so this was a challenge to pick just one. Susan Wilson’s Beauty is probably my favorite. This modern-day retelling of Beauty and the Beast is poignant and inspiring. I cried at the end and the story haunted me for a long time after I placed it back on the shelf. Although I read it nearly two decades ago, I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Mrs. Vallar, thank you for stopping by.  

For more about Cindy Vallar, go to Thistles & Pirates