Today, I am thrilled to welcome author S.K. Keogh to Outtakes as she relaunches her debut novel, The Prodigal, about a young man who resorts to piracy to rescue his mother and avenge the death of his father. Here, Susan talks about where she turned for research for her excellent books.—Kim
By S.K. Keogh
When I first set out to write The Prodigal, I knew the story would require considerable research, particularly in setting. I needed to take the reader back to the 17th century, both on land and sea. The main character, Jack Mallory, needed a sailing vessel to accomplish his goal of hunting down his nemesis, a pirate by the name of James Logan, who had kidnapped Jack’s mother and murdered his father. So, discovering exactly what type of vessel Jack might sail was first and foremost on my research list.
Most pirate vessels were not large ships but instead smaller, nimbler vessels, often with a shallow draft, which came in handy when seeking refuge in inlets, etc. from naval frigates or privateers, so I knew Jack’s craft would be something with less than three masts. I came across the Niagara’s website and quickly realized a brig would be the perfect vessel to star in my story.
I was thrilled to find that the Niagara allowed passengers on day sails, so in no time I had myself booked aboard her and traveled from Michigan to Erie, Pennsylvania, to meet her. What followed was one of the most memorable days of my life. I was fortunate enough to sail upon her two other times as well, once as a member of the crew. My biggest thrill that day, of course, was climbing the rigging.
My experiences aboard the Niagara gave me a great feel for the Prodigal (the name of Jack’s ship). Although the Niagara is two hundred years “younger” than the Prodigal and thus has many differences, including sail plan, being aboard her still helped me understand how square-rigged vessels feel and behave. The brig’s captain at that time, Walter Rybka, connected me with Patrick Claxton, a former crewman. Pat not only shared his knowledge of sailing with me but also read The Prodigal during one of its early drafts to help ensure accuracy.
Having decided upon Jack’s vessel, I then needed a land-based setting in Colonial America, a place to which Jack and his family are sailing at the beginning of the story. I considered Virginia but decided on South Carolina (back then, North and South Carolina were one province known as Carolina), specifically Charles Town (known today as Charleston).
Leighlin Plantation only makes a brief appearance in The Prodigal but figures more prominently in the next books in the series (The Alliance and The Fortune). It wasn’t until I visited Charleston on my first research trip that I decided what Leighlin House definitively looked like, both inside and out. I visited three plantations, one being Drayton Hall, which is a National Trust Historic Site and a place I strongly recommend any traveler to Charleston to visit. After touring the house and the grounds, I knew I had found Leighlin House.
Drayton Hall is a magnificently preserved plantation house, originally built in the early 1700s, its architecture inspired by Andrea Palladio. Symmetry is in all things. One can virtually cut Drayton Hall down the center and find equal halves in each side. Each of the two floors has a central room—the Great Hall on the first level and another on the second, each with two rooms leading off each side. Every room is almost a mirror image of another. On the outside, the house seems immense, but the interior somehow provides a feeling of a much smaller house, of a certain intimacy and charm.
The grounds of Leighlin House were inspired by another Charleston-area plantation, Middleton Place Plantation. Beautiful vistas and a sprawling, intricate garden designed with the same symmetry as Drayton Hall’s house leave any visitor breathless.
While I didn’t include Middleton’s gardens for Leighlin (I incorporated a much smaller one inspired by another plantation), I knew I wanted to use many of the other features of the land, like the butterfly-shaped ponds and terraces. One of the vistas I wanted to use in my story was the view of the Ashley River from atop the bluff where the house sits.
How could this place not inspire a writer? Or any visitor, for that matter. It impressed Hollywood enough for it to be used in Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War movie, The Patriot. Who knows … maybe one day it can be used again, perhaps in a movie called The Prodigal. One can dream, huh?
All photos are by S.K. Keogh (unless otherwise notes) and used with permission.
A story of relentless pursuit, betrayal, and revenge:
As a young boy Jack Mallory knows horror and desolation when James Logan and his pirates murder his father and abduct his mother. Falsely accused of piracy himself, Jack is thrown into jail. He survives seven years in London’s notorious Newgate prison and emerges a hardened man seeking revenge.
His obsession with finding his mother’s kidnapper drives him to the West Indies where he becomes entangled with a fiery young woman named Maria Cordero. With a score of her own to settle with James Logan, she disguises her gender and blackmails Jack into taking her aboard his pirate brig, Prodigal, in his desperate search for Logan. Their tumultuous relationship simmers while Jack formulates a daring plan to rescue his mother and exact revenge upon Logan for destroying his family. But Logan has no intentions of losing what he now treasures more than life itself—Jack’s mother, Ella.