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Niamh Murphy – Why I Wrote a Female Pirate Captain

To celebrate the relaunch of my most popular novel, Escape to Pirate Island, I thought it would be a fantastic time to talk about the main character in the book and some of the inspirations behind her.

If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I’ll make sure I avoid all the major spoilers!

Escape to Pirate Island opens with the character Cat Meadows and her gang of smugglers being attacked and chased by the King’s Revenue Men, which were a kind of early Border Patrol, Vice Squad, Police Force, and HMRC all rolled into one – with muskets!

I have talked before about how many of these early smuggling scenes are inspired by books such as Jamaica Inn and Moonfleet.

If any of you have read Moonfleet you’ll know it starts in a small Cornish village, a little something like Cadogan Bay, it has a secret smuggling ring headed by the innkeeper, and it has a fantastic chase along a dangerous cliff path.

The latter half of the book, including the mutinous pirates, the hidden treasure, and the dangerous paradise of the tropical island were all elements taken from classic pirate stories such as Treasure Island. Even the cook, Bartholomew Hood, has more than a little of the Long John Silver about him.

But Cat Meadows is far from any of the characters in these stories. The closest character is Grace, daughter of the local Lord of the Manor and Justice of the Peace in Moonfleet. A Gentleman’s daughter, but schooled with the other village children. When I first read Moonfleet as a child, I remember wondering: what if Grace had been the one to accidentally stumble upon the smuggling ring and not John Trenchard? How different would the story be with a girl in the lead?

"When I first read Moonfleet as a child, I remember wondering: what if Grace had been the one to accidentally stumble upon the smuggling ring and not John Trenchard? How different would the story be with a girl in the lead?" Tweet This

I loved pirate stories. I loved the excitement and adventure. I loved any films or books with pirate themes, films like The Goonies, or older films like Mutiny on the Bounty, even daft comedies like Carry on Jack.

But it always nagged at me that the woman [and there was rarely more than one] in the film was a damsel in distress if they were there at all. More often than not they were left behind or became nothing more than a sexy lamp to be chased and thrown around.

That all changed when I watched [box office disaster] Cutthroat Island.

Geena Davis’ Morgan Adams is the central character. She fires pistols, and fights with swords, she swings on ropes, she hunts down pirate gold, and to top it all off; she is a Pirate Captain.


Carolco Pictures‎, 1995 via tvguide.com

Don’t get me wrong. This is a campy fun movie with things blowing up that have absolutely no right to blow up! (Canon balls aren’t supposed to explode on impact!)

Carolco Pictures‎, 1995 via EdsAttic.blogspot.com

But Cutthroat Island was the first time I saw an action film where a woman played a central role and she wasn’t a princess.

"But Cutthroat Island was the first time I saw an action film where a woman played a central role and she wasn't a princess." Tweet This

Captain Morgan Adams’ loose shirt, breeches, and dark curling hair that fell over her shoulders as she climbed the rigging and ordered her ship to fire the cannons was an image that stayed with me well into adulthood.

Carolco Pictures‎, 1995 via GirlsWithGuns.org

Not only did Captain Morgan Adams order around the men in the film, but it was she, not the male lead, that faced off with the ‘bad guy’ at the end. I don’t think I had ever seen that before. Even the ‘heroines’ of the Disney movies I’d avidly watched always stood back when the man arrived to save the day.

In this film, it was the woman who was covered in blood and wounds but still got up to fight, it was the woman who drove the story; her greed and obsession with her father’s gold. It was the woman with the sassy lines, and it was the woman who got the happy ending.

Carolco Pictures‎, 1995 via sixx.ch

She was still the only woman in the film. But it didn’t matter: she was the hero!

To many, it will always just be a campy movie that bombed at the box office. But in its portrayal of a female action lead in a role normally dominated by men, that film, to my eyes, was revolutionary.

In fact, it was too revolutionary for some; Micheal Douglas is said to have walked out of the film because he realised that he would be playing second fiddle to the woman.

Douglas was an a-lister leading man, so perhaps he would have walked out of any film where he wasn’t in the lead. But it is worth noting that even in 2019, 25 years after Cutthroat Island, women still only accounted for 37% of major characters in the top 100 Hollywood movies. Not a great stat.

"it is worth noting that even in 2019, 25 years after Cutthroat Island, women still only accounted for 37% of major characters in the top 100 Hollywood movies." Tweet This

I have to admit, that there is of course a second major influence on my headstrong, ambitious, madcap, smuggler, Cat Meadows. And that is Jack Sparrow.

Disney, 2003 via medium.com

I honestly don’t think it would be possible today to write anything pirate-related without having some kind of comparison to the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

And I suppose a debt must be acknowledged to the series for making pirates cool again.

I have forgotten how many films there are, I don’t know if I have seen them all and the last one I watched was surprisingly dull considering the set pieces and the kind of musical score that can’t help but get anyone on their feet and swinging from the nearest available rigging (why is there never any convenient rigging?).

If Captain Morgan Adams is responsible for Cat Meadows’ bravery and leadership, then Captain Jack Sparrow is responsible for Cat’s wild schemes and sheer, dumb luck.

Disney, 2003 via TheStoryofaHurricane.wordpress.com

It was Jack Sparrow who inspired Cat’s pseudonym, Jack Strong. It was Jack Sparrow’s antics in Port Royal that inspired Cat’s adventure in the port of St Thomas, and it was, of course, Jack and Elizabeth getting marooned on a small island in the middle of nowhere that inspired, either Cat’s greatest bit of luck or biggest misfortune, depending on how optimistic you are feeling at the time of reading.

Disney, 2003 via voyagecaraibe.com

Although it is more than two decades since the campy, over-budget, pirate romp, Cutthroat Island bombed at the box office, the female-driven action flick is still a rare and much-maligned thing.

"Although it is more than two decades since the campy, over-budget, pirate romp, Cutthroat Island bombed at the box office, the female-driven action flick is still a rare and much-maligned thing." Tweet This

You only have to glance at reactions to Rey, Captain Marvel, and the Thirteenth Doctor, amongst others, to realise that it might be a long time before there is anything close to a gender balance in adventure and/or action stories portrayed on the big screen.

I don’t have control over that. But what I have control over are my own stories.

In the character of Cat Meadows, I have written every hero I’ve ever wanted to see. She is clever, brave, foolhardy but lucky enough to make up for it, and she is taken seriously by the men around her.

But best of all, Cat Meadows is the one who gets the girl.


A MURDER. A MAP. A MUTINY.

The year is 1720 and two young women are about to find themselves in more trouble than they could ever have imagined possible...


About Niamh Murphy

Hi there! I’m Niamh Murphy and I’m a bestselling author of adventure books with lesbian main characters!

Niamh Murphy Author

I tell romantic and exciting stories of gripping adventure and epic fantasy. My favourite places to explore are historical settings, science fiction landscapes, and fantasy worlds. My stories involve exciting characters such as knights, pirates, vampires, and mermaids. But I also tell more down-to-earth stories involving teenage angst, coming out, and exploring lesbian relationships for the first time.

I most enjoy rewriting fairy tales for the modern reader or re-telling mythical stories of old with a sapphic twist. But whatever the genre I choose to write in, my stories always include romance, love, and a lesbian main character.

Find out more about me…


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