I began the last story about a story by telling how Book A (Something Upstairs) led to Book B (The Man who was Poe). Here is the story how the Poe book led to Book C, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.
Poe is generally credited with having invented the detective tale with his short story, Murders on the Rue Morgue. (1841) That story, profoundly influential, also came to be known as a “Locked Room Mystery.” Which is to say something happens in a room that is presumably inaccessible.
Well, I thought, living as I was on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, what could be more of a “locked room” than a sailing ship at sea?
If you turn to page 129 of The Man Who Was Poe, you will find these words by a character named Captain Elias:
“Now, Master Edmund, if you’ve time to hear a good yarn, I’ve one for you. You see, The Lady Liberty, had a sister ship. Seahawk, her name was—”
When I wrote those words, it was the beginning of my thinking of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle: I would write a mystery set on a 19th Century sailing ship. I even signed the contract to write a book which, for the moment, was called The Seahawk.
But I didn’t begin the book. The first problem was that for about eight months, I moved to Venice, Italy. My wife had a sabbatical and a former editor of mine offered a Venetian apartment. I could not resist.
Indeed, Venice was a fabulous experience.
However, I had not reckoned on two things. Being surrounded by the Italian language (or the Venetian version of it) meant that I was, to my great surprise, radically hampered in my writing. It crimped my rhythms, made my English excessively formal and ornate, and stunted my vocabulary. Also, this being in the early days of portable computers, I had no access to a printer. A key part of my writing process was missing.
I stopped writing the book. All I could do was think about it.
Only when I returned to Providence did I resume writing, and by then the book had become The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. It also began as a mystery, and while it has elements of that, it floated on to become something rather different.
The book was done (I thought) when editor Richard Jackson called. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “We missed something. When Charlotte leaves the boat after the voyage, she doesn’t say goodbye to the crew. That’s out of character.”
Which is to say, since I had written the ending, I knew she would return to the ship. But at the narrative moment, she did not. So I wrote that farewell scene on page 199. When the character Ewing says, “You’re my mermaid now,” I had tears in my eyes because like so many readers, I too had fallen in love with Charlotte but it was time for me to say “Bon voyage.”
But wait! That was not the end of The Seahawk. She reappears in another book! I’ll tell you all about it in proper sequence.