Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Back to Backstory: Guest post by Lisa Jensen, author of The Witch from the Sea

What can authors do with plot snippets they can't use in their novels?  Today historical novelist Lisa Jensen is stopping by to speak about how the web gave her a place to showcase her heroine's backstory, which had been trimmed from the US edition of her first novelThe Witch from the Sea tells a nautical adventure story from the viewpoint of a young woman who casts off the restrictions of early 19th-century Boston by disguising herself as a boy and running away to sea.  Welcome, Lisa!


Most authors will tell you that editing one's own manuscript can be like amputating a limb. It's especially painful after the book is in print, if readers start asking questions about the material you've left on the cutting-room floor.

It's not that the procedure isn't necessary, especially if the offending appendage has lost its usefulness. Which is how I came to think of the first 50 pages or so of my first novel, a 19th-century swashbuckler then called Blesséd Providence, as my agent repeatedly tried and failed to sell it to a US publisher.

Pirate stories have always been my favorite guilty pleasure. But I could never see myself as the typical, disapproving heroine of the genre, flouncing around in her petticoats while the guys go off and have all the fun. I thought it would be more interesting to imagine a woman as a working member of the crew, who joins up for the same reasons as a man—for the freedom and independence she can't find ashore.

My heroine, Victoria MacKenzie, grows up on a remote Massachusetts farm in the early 1800s with her white father and Mohawk Indian mother. But young Tory loses her family, and a distant aunt abandons her to an oppressive Female Academy in Boston, where she realizes what an outsider she is. In desperation, she runs away to sea.

Foreign rights were snapped up by a German-language publisher who brought out the first edition in hardcover with a beautiful original painting on the jacket. (The German title, Die Heimliche Piratin, translates more or less as The Secret Female Pirate.) Two years later, when the equally gorgeous German trade paperback edition came out—but  still, unfortunately, in a language neither I nor my potential readers could read—I decided to do something drastic.

Namely, I got a grip and deleted some 50 manuscript pages of backstory that I perceived as cluttering up my first few chapters. These were solid, character-building scenes, but were they essential to the plot? On second thought, I decided they were slowing down the action in that crucial opening story arc. So—carefully, with the proverbial scalpel, not a meat axe—I cut them out.

It must have been the right thing to do. The first U.S. publisher I sent it to, small independent Beagle Bay Books, bought it immediately, and published it under my new title, The Witch From the Sea. The story got up and running so much faster this way, but I still had to mask an interior twinge once or twice when an interviewer or book critic mused that they wished there'd been more material about Tory's backstory. D'oh!

Recently, I noticed on Goodreads that new readers continue to discover my book for the first time, I started to envision a dedicated site for The Witch beyond the single page on my publisher's website, a place to delve more deeply into the life and culture of the era that so obsesses me.

The 1820s were a fascinating period in the West Indies. The War of 1812 was over and the fledgling US Navy was looking for something to do. The Spanish-speaking islands were in revolt against colonial Spain, and the waters were full of ships and sailors trying to make their fortunes—transporting sugar, or slaves, or privateering against Spain. The sea lanes were thronging with dreamers, gold diggers, revolutionaries, con-artists, and, yes, pirates of all races and nations looking to make their fortune in the Indies; in particular, there was a great upsurge in piracy in the shipping lanes around Cuba.

There is also plenty of historical evidence on women in the 18th and 19th centuries who dressed as men and became soldiers or went to sea, to join a husband or lover who was going to war, or simply to escape their own constricted female lives. I thought this was the perfect setting for a coming-of-age story about a young woman trying to free herself from the conventional "rules" of gender, race and class.

Of course, I'm not exactly Steve Jobs when it comes to tech-savviness. ("Luddite" is the polite term to describe my skills set at the computer.) But I do know that the only kind of site so idiot-proof even I can build it is a blog. So I set one up that includes images, historical background, reviews,  samples, and links of interest. But there was still that gaping black hole in the middle of the home page waiting for blog entries.

Gee, how could I possibly fill it?

That's when I remembered my 50 pages of backstory. The book is written in Tory's voice, writing down her adventures in a purloined ship's logbook while at sea, and I realized the blogspace was the perfect opportunity to leak in entries about her life before the action in the novel begins. These new bits, "From Tory's Log," serve as a sort of patchwork prequel to events in the book.

Let's be honest; not all of what I cut out  the first time deserves to be resurrected. And what snippets are worth reviving can always stand a little tweaking. But  I'm more than thrilled to have this chance to answer readers' questions about Tory's past life at long last.


Lisa Jensen might have been a pirate in a previous life; either that or she watched too many old Errol Flynn movies on TV in her formative years. Lisa is a veteran film critic, book critic, and newspaper columnist from Santa Cruz, CA. Her swashbuckling historical novel, The Witch From The Sea, was published in 2001.The story Proserpina's Curse, an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, Alias Hook, was published in the Summer, 2006, issue of Paradox Magazine. Sample her arts and entertainment blog at, or visit the Witch website at


  1. I love this idea. I started a while back putting up historical background to my novel on my website--set at Troy, so lots there to mine. And I've watched huge swathes of novel hit the floor just as you did. I can see pieces coming back to life on the web. Now if I could only get the novel into print! The big project... Thanks for a fun post. I'm going to have to add your books to my TBR.

    1. Best of luck with finding a publisher! It's great you're thinking ahead about creating a website to support your novel.

  2. This is a wonderful way to indulge readers' cravings for more information. I always appreciate the historical notes authors include in their books and on their websites. It enriches the story and the characters.

    1. I love author's notes and completely agree!

  3. Thanks, Judith and Char!

    Yes, it's great to think that favorite characters and scenes can still have an afterlife in the blogosphere. And as a reader, when I finish a book I love, I'm desperate for anything I can find on the place or the period to expand on the experience. So it seems like a win-win situation for all!

    PS: Thanks again, Sarah, for hosting me.