Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Lost Colony Series: How much of it is true? A guest post by Jo Grafford

Today Jo Grafford, author of the romantic historical adventure novels Breaking Ties and Trail of Crosses (Astraea Press), details her in-depth research into the fate of the lost colonists of Roanoke – and explains how modern technology has been providing insight into one of America's greatest unsolved mysteries.  And she provides an abundance of links for readers to explore further.


The Lost Colony Series: How Much of It Is True?
Jo Grafford

Before I became an author, I imagined writing fiction would be easy. I mean, you get to make everything up, right? Wrong! It took more than five years of research to write my debut historical, Breaking Ties, first book in the Lost Colony Series. Let me take you behind the scenes for a few minutes.

For 426 years, historians have debated the fate of the Lost Colonists. One of my all-time favorite books on the topic is Lee Miller’s Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. She builds a compelling case for internal sabotage of the City of Raleigh’s risky investment venture, which completely appealed to my background in banking and investing. Her claim started me on the path of asking, “What if?”

What if these brave men and women were not simply slaughtered en masse as so many historians have suggested? What if the truth was much less tidy, far more complex, and completely mind-boggling like reality so often is?

In my quest for answers, I browsed original ship manifests and supply lists, read various period sailing journals, delved into church registries and library archives, and even took a road trip to visit Roanoke Island. I stood on the same patch of land the first English settlers assembled and imagined the craggy, overgrown terrain barren of its current beach homes and boat docks as their only welcome.

Then I started writing Breaking Ties nearly six years ago to try and piece together the “rest of the story” of these Lost Colonists – the never-been-told parts that occurred after all the official recordings of their journey stopped. This project was made easier when a news broke in October 2012 about a new clue concerning their fate.

In a nutshell, experts used laser technology to raise a patch on an original Lost Colony map, held for centuries at the British Museum. They uncovered the sketch of a fort located 50 miles inland where the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers converge. This location is an perfect match to one of the Lost Colonists' final statements to Governor John White (the last Englishman to see them alive) of their intent “to move 50 miles into the main[land].” This is the first clue produced that seems to offers conclusive evidence of survivors.

Fast-forward the clock to this past December. The First Colony Foundation employed radar and sonar technology to explore what lies beneath this patch. Their work is far from complete, but guess what? Already, they’ve discovered more exciting evidence that continues to support the underlying premise of my Lost Colony Series – that there were survivors!

author Jo Grafford
The Lost Colony Series is based on real people and real events. I even use the real names taken from the ship manifest. The novel also follows an accurate historical timeline. So where did I find the details to fill in all the missing pieces? It was a real treasure hunt, I assure you. John White’s journals and other writings only give us a shadowy glimpse of a day in the life of his shipmates aboard their fleet of three ships. I rounded out the depth of the characters, their background, and conversations in Breaking Ties with an enormous amount of digging through period books, paintings, sketches, and websites.

Since the Lyon the largest of the three ships in my novel – was truly piloted by an ex-pirate, Simon Fernandez, I spent many hours researching famous pirates and pirate ships, pirate talk, and pirate weapons. Not only is it relevant to my story, it’s a darn lot of fun saying “Argh,” “Ahoy there, mate,” and “Shiver me timbers!”

Alas, the famous “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest...Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum,” is an excerpt from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, published in the 1800s. Since Breaking Ties is set in 1587, I had to dig further back in history for the seaman shanties I ended up using. I discovered the “gallowsbirds all, gallowsbirds all” shanty in a book titled The Mayflower by Kate Caffrey and Googled my way to the complete text online. This was chanted by the sailors like a mournful dirge to mask the cries of a certain young lad in Breaking Ties during his well-deserved but completely heart-wrenching flogging after a few of my colonists were pressed into sailing duty. To listen to some classic sea shanties online, see the Brethren of the Coast website.

To immerse myself fully in the rich flavor of 16th-century maritime life, I browsed the free text of The Elizabethan Sea Dogs by William Wood. I also found Dr. Ian Friel’s lecture about Elizabethan Merchant Ships and Shipbuilding to be helpful. The full webinar is posted on the Gresham College website.

A big shout out to Rob Ossian’s Pirate Cove at for the tremendous amount of research he shares so freely. I started by reading his “Quick and Dirty Seafaring Primer” and worked my way through his descriptions on navigation and weaponry. I even took a turn at his Ships & Boats Sailing Simulator.

Rob also responds to emails and provided answers to a few questions such as, “How many sailors would it take to tug down one of those water logged canvas sails during a rainstorm?” Because, of course, I did not wish to deprive my readers of a trans-Atlantic storm! They get to ride the dark black swells of water along with my gutsy protagonist Rose Payne and slide across the glassy decks of the Lyon drenched in sheeting rain.

I’ll close with a tiny synopsis of books one and two of the Lost Colony Series:

Breaking Ties unravels an ancient conspiracy over the murky course of a trans-Atlantic voyage plagued with trouble from day one. Rose Payne, the ship's clerk, is simply trying to outrun a broken heart and build a new life for herself in the New World. Instead, she runs straight into the arms of danger – pirates, plundering, and unexpected love.

Trail of Crosses quickly picks up where book one leaves off. Narrated by one of Rose’s best friends, Jane Mannering the huntress, we plunge into a story of teeth-gritting survival in the New World where cruelty and deception is the name of the game between tribes, that is, if you want them to keep a respectful distance. Alas, there is one legendary warrior Jane is not so sure she wants to remain at arm’s length. Read an excerpt from Trail of Crosses, coming soon from Astraea Press.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think about the amazing recent discoveries concerning the fate of the Lost Colonists. Also, please take a moment to enter my Rafflecopter drawing for a chance to win a $10.00 Amazon or Barnes and Noble gift card (winner’s choice). Best wishes for winning!


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Jo is a mega reader of all genres and loves to indulge in marathon showings of Big Bang Theory, CSI, NCIS, and Castle. Her favorite books are full of rich history, Native Americans, and creatures from the otherworld – an occasional dragon, vampire, or time traveler. From St. Louis, Missouri, Jo moves a lot with her soldier husband. She has lived in the Midwest, the deep South, and now resides in Bavaria. Jo holds an M.B.A. and has served as a banker, college finance instructor, and high school business teacher. She is a PRO member of Romance Writers of America and From the Heart Romance Writers RWA Chapter.

Jo writes historical and paranormal romance. She is currently writing a series published by Astraea Press, which is based on the Lost Colonists of Roanoke Island – one of the world’s most intriguing unsolved mysteries.

Twitter: @jografford
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Available at Amazon; Barnes and Noble; Smashwords; iBooks, and Astraea Press.


Portsmouth, England - April 26, 1587. 
One hundred and fifteen colonists embark on a trans-Atlantic journey to build the glorious City of Raleigh. Unaware of the troubles already brewing, a young woman flies up the gangway at the last possible minute to join their ranks.

Was it fate?

Intelligent and well ahead of her times, Rose Payne's world is shattered after a secret betrothal to the duke’s son costs her job as a clerk in his father's household. Without a letter of recommendation, she becomes an easy target for recruiters to the Colonies. Desperate for work, she signs up for a risky overseas venture and sails for the New World, vowing never again fall for a wealthy gentleman.

Returning from a diplomatic tour in London, Chief Manteo is bewitched by the elusive, fiery-haired ship's clerk and determined to overcome her distrust. He contrives a daring plan to win her heart – a plan he prays will protect her from a chilling conspiracy involving murder, blood money, and a betrayal of their fledgling colony so terrifying it can only be revealed in Breaking Ties. Breaking Ties is the never-before-told rest of the story of the Lost Colony. It's a story of hope and sacrifice, love and betrayal, despair and tremendous courage of a group of pioneers who refused to quit when their lofty plans began to unravel...on day one.


  1. Lovely post with Jo. I find the Lost Colony fascinating and always believed they survived.

  2. Anonymous7:33 AM

    Wonderful reading about all the research you put into your novels, Jo. Your prologue sample reads beautifully.

  3. Thank you for stopping by Reading the Past, Amy. I am very excited about the latest archeological findings of the First Colony Foundation - especially their sonar pictures of buried buildings. **Fingers crossed** that they will find indisputable proof of survivors soon!

  4. Welcome, Cynthia, and thank you for reading my Lost Colony feature. Glad you enjoyed the prologue for TRAIL OF CROSSES! This is truly a sneak peak, because I am finishing up edits tonight and will submit it to my publisher tomorrow.

  5. Jo, as a writer of historical fiction and a resident of Edenton, North Carolina (not too far from the action of your novel,) I very much appreciate and relate to your interest in this true American mystery. Your research sounds extensive and intriguing and, as you would agree I'm sure, it's one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing fiction in this genre! My own WIP involves an Edenton teenager who time travels back to the days of Blackbeard and becomes involved with some pirate adventures of her own. Best wishes for your literary success!

  6. Time travel, Blackbeard, and pirate adventures - your book sounds fascinating, Kathryn. Yes, the research aspect of writing historical fiction is a whole lot of fun and can become quite addictive. I spent over five years researching Breaking Ties, and archeologists keep coming up with new pieces to add to the puzzle. Love it!

    Wishing you much success in your writing journey as well. --Jo

  7. Well, as I've told you before, Jo, I was fascinated by this mystery since I first studied it in ? 5th ? grade. And I had also seen articles about the discovery of that map's patched portion. I've also seen a documentary somewhere about someone whose research trail resembled yours (but he had a camera crew).
    I love reading a blend of fact and fiction and have written a few books with those elements. And, as you state, it is VERY difficult to write --- much harder than simple free-flowing fiction. The reward will be the readers' ... because they will soak up the real life atmosphere you've provided and totally enjoy your creative incorporations.

  8. Hey Jeff! Always great to hear from you, my friend. Thanks for stopping by and best wishes on your current writing escapades on set in the fantastical world of Magnolia, AL. :-) Can't wait to read it.