In order to write Dreamwater, the sequel to When Two Women Die, I had to follow my character, Ned Low to some very dark places. On the surface, he is the powerful, evil character we love to hate. But, Ned is more than that.
When Ned was kidnapped at the end of When Two Women Die, I knew in my heart what would happen to him. Upon researching the time period, my suspicions were confirmed. Because I thought the most obvious position he could hold was cabin boy, a lowly servant on the ship, the first thing I did was look up the definition of cabin boy. I found this sarcastic reference on urbandictionary.com: “Often buggered by the professional sailors onboard until they get shore leave.” Buggered is a slang term for sodomy, though both terms have been used to mean other forms of sexual contact, or even loose living in general. Further research reinforced what I thought would happen. But, the clincher came from the articles (ship’s rules) of pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts, which stated “No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them.”
From that rule alone I knew I was right. The fact that a rule needed to be made said very clearly that the situation was real. Ned would probably have been sexually abused. I felt, in Dreamwater, Lowther would have taken Ned for himself exclusively.
17th Century attitudes toward sex were very different than our modern ones. We think in terms of child abuse, and rightly so. As late as the 19th Century, however, child prostitution was rampant. Decent people will always find adult sex with a child to be abhorrent. Nevertheless, for many children in the 17th Century adult sex may have meant survival - a very sad kind of survival. Every day, Ned wants to “slit Lowther’s throat” but he needs him to survive.
Pirates were savages. Not followers of rules, though historians will tell you, “Oh, yes! The ship’s articles were taken very seriously.” I think historians are referring to privateers, those civilized beings that bathed, dressed in silk and played violin. A privateer was a different animal. A privateer had a license signed and sealed by royalty to commit theft and bring the spoils back to his King or Queen. If a privateer killed while committing this royal theft, the law might look the other way.
Pirates were criminals. They had no license to steal or kill. They may have had articles but, from my research, I doubt a real pirate followed stringent rules. Even now, shipboard rules are in place to keep order, as a ship cannot sail in chaos. However, pirates were wild. They were almost constantly drunk, and often fell overboard because of it and drowned. To illustrate the bedlam that was normal on a pirate ship: the articles of the real pirate Ned Low included rules about drunkenness during the taking of a vessel, as well as rules against shooting pistols below deck. Sex between men aboard ship, where quarters were cramped and privacy nil, seems to have been a matter of convenience and mutual consent; it happened regardless of rules. The rowdy celebratory sex that occurs after successfully taking a ship in Dreamwater was a well-chronicled part of pirate revelry. Pirates’ lives were based on risk and murder, thievery and instant gratuitous pleasures that were to be grasped quickly and savored lest the chance be wasted. Death was quite literally at their door.
In my research, I also learned this harsh truth: pirates loved to torture. Pirates were vicious. They celebrated their victories by playing with their victims in ways that rivaled the Inquisition. Every form of torture I mention in Dreamwater was documented and performed at one time or another by actual pirates or slave traders. For instance, as an adult, the pirate Ned Low really cut off and roasted the lips of a captain whose ship he had taken, and forced the man to eat them. Slave traders could be just as brutal as pirates, using torture to control their captives.
However, Ned Low is more than a villian. He has redeeming virtues: his strength, his vulnerability and his love for women.
In Dreamwater, Ned is taken up by the whores of Isabella as a kind of toy or mascot. Ned is also in love with Molly Treadwell. Ned Low is more sociopath than charming rogue, but his appreciation for women and especially his affection for the good and beautiful Molly Treadwell redeem him. And, yes, a part of Ned’s attraction to Molly is his desire to have power over goodness. Perhaps to defile goodness, but after doing so, he is in love. Goodness wins.
In history, the real pirate Ned Low was a romantic. In his youth, he had been something of a playful thief back in England. He tried to go straight in Boston, where he wed his true love, Eliza Marble. The real Ned Low did not become a pirate until his beloved wife died in her second childbirth. He had already lost a son. After some trouble during which Low killed a man, he turned to piracy. Low left his daughter behind, an action about which he expressed deep regret. Sometimes, when he was lucid and not drunk, he would “weep plentifully” for his lost child. Because of his own romantic experience with love, Low always asked a man if he were married before pressing him; he would only press single men on to his ship. He was known to free female prisoners.
Loving Molly might be Ned’s redeeming virtue and Molly may essentially be a good person, but her affection for the wicked Ned proves her youthful attraction to the forbidden: Molly is not completely innocent. Like a typical pre-teen, Molly is off dabbling in things she shouldn’t – magic and romance with a bad guy. I had no intention of joining Ned with Molly. She threw her scarlet ball of yarn according to the courtship game in When Two Women Die, but when Ned’s foot came down on it, and all the girls giggled, I realized Molly loved Ned. I had intended to marry her to another character. It was clearly an instance of characters taking off in their own direction away from the author’s intention. I felt something shift in Molly and I followed her lead. I always listen to my characters and consider where they want to go. I am in charge, but after all, they are the ones who love and fear and struggle.
I want to talk about age. In Dreamwater, Ned and Molly are very young. Because of their youth, I wanted to stress in 1995 how advanced young people can be; that is why I made Pete and Sarah very smart at only ten, and why the ghost hunters are fifteen years old.
In the 17th Century, there was no age of consent, as we know it, because fathers gave their consent, not girls or boys. Children were betrothed or even married at age two or three, sometimes because one parent, or both, had died. Marriage was an economic necessity of life. A partnership of survival. A classic example of early marriage is in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, when Juliet’s mother chides her for being unmarried and middle-aged at fourteen. Elizabeth Treadwell herself was married at fourteen. Molly Treadwell, at ten. Therefore, we do have a marriage consummation scene between eleven-year-old Ned, who has been tutored by the prostitutes of Isabella on Isla Hispaniola, and Molly, who is a ten-year-old virgin.
Ned is also strikingly handsome. We seem to have a deep psychological need to be attracted to our villains. Some of our most popular villains are handsome. From Robert Lovelace and Alec D’urberville to Patrick Bateman and Tom Ripley, we love to hate an appealing villain. Ned is certainly good-looking. In When Two Women Die, when we first see him, I describe him thusly: “His sharp features cut a darkly handsome profile into the bright day.” Some have called Ned a hero, because of what he accomplishes in Dreamwater, but I think we have blurred the line between hero and villain. Sometimes, in our stories, our villains become our heroes.
I want to take a minute to discuss the liberties I have taken with history. The real Ned Low, according to records, was born in London in 1690. I wanted Ned to be a character in When Two Women Die and I needed him to be at least nine years old in 1690, so I adjusted his birthplace and his age.
There were other, more inconsequential, details I altered for my own use in When Two Women Die. I changed Edward Dimond’s house to be much simpler than historians believe because I disagree with them about the house. I think it was built much earlier than the 18th Century, because Edward Dimond was in Marblehead before the 18th Century. For the sake of drama and character, I wanted Ol’ Dimond to be a loner in a very small fisherman’s shack. I also made Elizabeth’s house more humble, with a ladder instead of a staircase in order to add tension and danger to events that happened on that fateful stormy night when she and the children hid from pirates in the upstairs bedroom. I changed Roger Williams’ name to “Codger Williams” for effect. By 1690 he was already dead when I needed him to ride down the road so that Rosie could throw raspberries at him. However, the real Roger Williams really did try to force the women of Salem to wear a veil over their faces and John Cotton really spoke against him. Just at a slightly earlier time. I wanted to show how attitudes were beginning subtly to shift in Salem toward the dangerous and frightening situation of the witch trials. In When Two Women Die, Rosie goes to see Ol’ Dimond to ask his psychic advice about her pregnancy. In Dreamwater, just two years later, she will be arrested for practicing witchcraft with the old seer.
Dreamwater, like When Two Women Die, is full of magic and paranormal occurrences. Marblehead, with its simple historic homes, old winding streets and dramatic rocky shores, lends itself to mystery. Pirates are still sighted climbing over the rocks and the mysterious Englishwoman’s screams are still heard at midnight. I hid Rosie, Molly and the baby, Lena in the “Witch Cave” in Nahant, possibly a site of ancient worship, where an accused witch and her daughter actually did hide in 1692. Magic and the paranormal (more normal than we realize) were ever-present in our ancestors’ lives and are still present in our own. We’d recognize these constant, daily phenomena if we only looked with open eyes and open minds.
Of course, in Dreamwater, I have a whole set of other characters in 1995 who are also struggling to make their dreams come true: Peter Treadwell is trying to come to terms with his young wife’s sudden death, while his daughter sees and speaks to her mother’s ghost; his son Pete wants to study ghost hunting, but finds himself caught up in internet dangers; Jo Simmons just wants to enjoy her new business and her new husband, but she is being stalked; Cassandra is working very hard on understanding reality as well as she understands her psychic visions.
We’ve learned a great deal about how to live since the 17th Century, as you will see, when you read Dreamwater. Now we have someone to call when we are in trouble. But, we still struggle.
As ever, Marblehead emerges as an extraordinary place. A place of almost paranormal loveliness, a place of history, of magic, a place where people still strive, but a place where many, rich and poor, have divined how to live, how to find their dream and how to make it real.
 Edward E. Leslie, Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls, Houghton Mifflin, 1988, account of the captive, Philip Ashton of Marblehead, p. 95.
 Robert Ellis Cahill, New England’s Ancient Mysteries, Old Salt Box, 1993, p. 32.