Justin Somper’s swaggering fantasy adventure series has been reissued with striking new covers and bonus additional content including ‘origins stories’ for its lead characters, interviews, and reading group notes. Today I’m sharing the first of those with you, plus an exclusive piece by Justin about how he researched his characters.
‘The year is 2512. The oceans have risen. A new dawn of piracy has begun.’
Conor and Grace are twins, recently orphaned after their widowed father’s death. Rather than being adopted by the town’s busy-bodies, they decide to set sail in their father’s last possession, his sailing boat. But a vicious storm sees their boat capsize and the twins are separated. Two mysterious ships sail to their rescue – each picking up one twin before disappearing into the mist. Conor wakes to find himself on a pirate ship and is soon being trained up with a cutlass. Meanwhile Grace finds herself locked in a darkened room, as the vampirates wait for night to fall and their feasting to begin… Determined to find each other, yet intrigued by their new shipmates, the twins are about to embark on the biggest adventure of their lives…
VAMPIRATES BLOG TOUR: RESEARCHING THE CHARACTERS by Justin Somper.
People are often surprised by the amount of research I do – given that my default genre seems to be fantasy adventure. There’s often an assumption that because the world my stories are located in is “totally made up” that you can just “wing it”as you go along. In my experience, this is far from the truth. In writing adventure stories with a strong twist of fantasy, I’m always trying to make the world feel just as concrete to my readers as if I was writing something set in a realistic, familiar, contemporary setting. In fact, speaking personally, I feel more of a pressure to do this so I can be confident I’m taking the readers with me on the voyage.
When the idea for VAMPIRATES first came to me, it was a full-on “lightbulb moment”. The word just arrived in my head as if it had fallen out of the sky, looking for a willing recipient amongst the writers of Crouch End. I was supremely grateful the idea chose me (see Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC for more in this vein), incredibly excited and quite a bit nervous. The responsibility of being the one to merge the two genres and story worlds felt big – exacerbated by the fact I hadn’t written anything so ambitious previously PLUS I knew next to nothing about vampires and, frankly, less about pirates. And so, I turned to research.
The first phase of work on VAMPIRATES was a deep dive into pirate history and vampire myth (but not fiction), looking for ideas for individual characters and story arcs, but also in a macro way of how to connect up the two. The first big win here was discovering that there have been pirates scattered throughout the world and through many periods of history. Similarly the vampire myth seems to extend to just about every culture and era. At this point, I hadn’t locked down whether the story would be set in the past, present or future. Knowing that I could potentially make any of those settings work was an early morale boost.
Discovering that pirates were highly active during Roman times and that a band from Cilicia kidnapped a young Julius Caesar was like striking gold. I wove this into the “origin story” for my uber-villain Sidorio, who takes great pride in having tangled with Caesar himself. (Returning to the characters for the bonus “Crossing Stories” which appear in each of the new editions, I had even more fun adding a fresh twist to the Caesar/Sidorio dynamic.)
Initially my research into female pirates proved elusive and limited. It kept returning me to Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and I was frustrated that they both had to disguise themselves as men to live and work on pirate ships. There was undeniable story potential in this but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted strong female protagonists on both sides of my story, standing shoulder to shoulder – actually, preferably, ahead – of their male counterparts. This was a key reason why I ultimately plumped for setting the books in the future though, inevitably, inspiration then arrived from the past. I discovered Cheng I Sao, a highly successful, hugely violent pirate active on the South China Sea in the early 19th century. Her husband was a master pirate with a fleet of followers. When he died, his captains voted Cheng I Sao as his successor. She took the family business to new heights. Although I left the specifics of her story untouched, the scope of her success, ambition and brutality was a key inspiration for me in developing my character, Wu Cheng Li. (There’s a little homage to this relationship when Cheng Li and Connor visit Nobegane Island on a mission to buy fresh swords.)
Research was often my go-to when developing new characters as the series evolved. Having successfully combined vampires and pirates in the first book, I got it into my head that I’d like to work another archetype of my own childhood into there – a cowboy. But, going back to my commitment to making things concrete, how was I going to achieve a cowboy-vampire-pirate without any sense of jumping the shark?
It took a while and although the name Johnny Desperado landed in my head with the same pleasing randomness that the word “Vampirates” had, it took me until Book 3 to work out who he was. The cowboy I originally had in mind was Robert Redford’s iconic Sundance Kid – blue eyes, blonde hair, all-American. But, as I delved into the history of real-life cowboys, I completely reimagined Johnny. I have a default leaning towards outsiders and I’d always envisaged my Vampirates as “the outsiders amongst the outsiders”. When I started reading about the vaqueros of Mexico, I knew I’d finally found him. When Grace meets Johnny at Sanctuary, she is able to channel his life history, and death, through her nascent powers. The story she channels is a tragic one of poverty, harsh weather, dying cattle, family loss and “the Great Die-up” that led to the end of a way of life for many vaqueros. Like Sidorio’s origin story, much of Johnny’s is rooted in truth. And, again, I’ve had the pleasure of returning to it with a new “Crossing Story” interview with Grace.
Not all of my research has been book or web based. As a writer, there are so many other fun ways to elicit information and derive inspiration. When I was working out the swordplay for the first book, I had a stage combat expert give me a lesson, which I then transformed into Connor’s first practice in the book. When I was thinking further about Darcy Flotsam, Vampirate figurehead of The Nocturne, I naturally visited the figureheads at the Cutty Sark. The idea for the “Blood Captain” totem came from a chance find in a case of sinister artefacts at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. And not all the characters sprung from the same kind of well. Lady Lola Lockwood, for instance – who arrives in the saga in Book 4, Black Heart – is kind of a mash-up of the lead protagonist from Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ and Margaret Lockwood’s character in ‘The Wicked Lady,’ with a touch of Angelina Jolie for good measure.
Sometimes you need a load of research and detail to get you started. Sometimes the smallest seed is sufficient. One of the characters I researched least – but whom readers love most – is Lorcan Furey. His name pays homage to the character Michael Furey in my favourite short story, James Joyce’s “The Dead”. For me, it imbues him with a thread of tragic romance. And that was all I needed for him to set sail.
Thank you, Justin, for sharing those insights into how extensively you researched you characters. It was fascinating to see how they had their roots not only in history, but also in some of your favourite books.
If you like the sound of this series then you’re in luck – there are six epic titles for tween readers to enjoy!