Paperback Writer

The second ‘book’ is almost done. Clear Eyes is written as a set of three ‘books’, or parts, and the middle one has been a huge learning experience.

Through the second half of August I’ve been able to write daily, usually three to four hours in the morning. On a good day, that means over one thousand words, written, reviewed, and hopefully near-ready for printing.

What that tells me about earning a living as a writer is downright scary. For an average ninety thousand word book, or three hundred printed pages, and a five day week, a book takes four or five months to write—of course that varies—Enid Blyton wrote the 60,000 word book The River of Adventure in five days.

But for regular mortals, budgeting time for research and for recharging the mental batteries, I would say two books a year is a good rate—oh, and that’s with the internet, computers to write on, spreadsheets to work with, mapping software, and no writer’s block.

If you write two books a year and sell fifteen thousand copies of each, which is very respectable, those thirty thousand books might gross three hundred thousand dollars, less if digital.

You might expect twenty percent of that as your end, or a gross revenue of sixty thousand dollars. A putative author will sell nothing like fifteen thousand copies in one year, so a more realistic time period might be two to three years—your annual revenue is  then thirty thousand bucks or less.

Occasionally you write a flop. That brings it down. On the positive side, as you build up your bibliography, you may find your readers tapping into your earlier books.

Kindle has made it a habit of releasing the very early books by authors such as Ken Follett, and if you dig deep you find all the early stuff by James Ellroy—these are clearly the 20/80 side of the Pareto distribution, the long tail you never find in a bookshop—the net lets you dig deep.

Incidentally, a friend extended that distribution for me by explaining that twenty percent of the people you meet in life give you eighty percent of the grief—a deep truth.

Books and booksellers have taken a distinctly weird turn—many months ago I wrote about a teen mystery series called The Hardy Boys, which had been entirely ghost-written. Franklin W. Dixon, a plausibly WASP (White Ankle Socks Protestant) pseudonym, never existed.

Now the late Tom Clancy lives on, in a morbid sequence of novels that bear his name, and then small-printed at the bottom, the guy who really wrote the story. When the first guy, who was already writing jointly with Clancy (Mark Greaney), continued the Jack Ryan, Jr (why do they always use the comma?) series, I kind of understood—at least the last book written jointly had to be finished.

But now there’s a new one out, and the fine-print guy is a newbie. Obviously the Clancy name is a cash cow, nothing like branding. Still, it redefines the notion of ghost-writing—it becomes a literal concept, and maybe we should call it fan-clone fiction. I am amazed that Clancy’s family allowed his name to be used as a call sign for books he didn’t write.

So what have I learned? Well, the second book of Clear Eyes is called The Indies, and tells the story of Columbus in the New World. The bulk of the historical record comes from the diary of Las Casas, commented by Navarrete, but much has been written since about the Lucayan people, as the nations of the Caribbean Sea became increasingly aware of their tragic past.

Columbus left San Salvador, the island known to the locals as Guanahani, very shortly after making landfall. The weary and fractious crews sighted land on Thursday evening, 11th October 1492, stood to overnight, and made landfall on Friday morning.

By Monday, the Spanish had left. As the admiral moved south, he named the islands he encountered either after the Spanish royal family or after the coterie of saints that populated the Catholic mind—the Portuguese did exactly the same as they went down the African west coast.

The English and Dutch, however, being of a far more secular disposition, used names such as Rum Cay and Ragged Islands—many of these persist to this day.

The Spanish were of course in search of oro, and from the log I’m not convinced that anyone apart from Columbus thought they had reached Cipango.

As the fleet sailed south, christening Santa Maria de la Concepcion (Rum Cay), Long Island (Fernandina), and Crooked Island (Isabella), gold was rather thin on the ground—in actual fact it was thin around the necks of the Tainos, and totally inexistent in the ground.

It’s pretty obvious that the Lucayans were in a big hurry to get rid of Columbus, so the intertwined tales of the Spaniards being received as gods, and the attrition which the log reveals, are a bizarre combination. Natives aboard the Santa Maria systematically made their escape at the earliest opportunity.

The Tainos pushed Columbus south, promising lands where gold was plucked from the beach by candlelight and then hammered into bars, and spoke of a place called Cubao.

When Columbus got there, he told the crew they had finally reached Cipango. Nevertheless, he renamed the island Juana, replacing the native name of Cuba. He chose the name in honor of Prince Juan, only son of the Catholic Kings.

Depiction of a syphilitic man by Albrecht Durer. If the Spanish brought the disease back in 1493, why does the globe say 1484?

Depiction of a syphilitic man by Albrecht Durer. If the Spanish brought the disease back in 1493, why does the globe say 1484?

The renaissance equivalent of urban legends abound about the origins of Columbus. One of the more far-fetched has him as a Portuguese Jew, farmed out to the ignorant Spanish by a cunning King John of Portugal: the intent was to distract their majesties from Portugal’s India expeditions.

The ‘evidence’ is tenuous, and a couple of books make him a native of Cuba, a village in the Alentejo, and use the name as proof of the admiral’s origin. It seems shameful that those authors neglected to read the log, and investigate the primary sources that state Cuba was the Taino name, not the one given by the invaders.

If they did read the log, the matter is worse, because the claim is in direct contradiction with the account of Las Casas.

Finally, there is a body of work that suggests Martin Pinzon died of syphilis, which he contracted in the Caribbean. In Clear Eyes, I support that notion, fueled by literary license, and I make him out to be the index case.

Syphilis is a wasting disease with three distinct stages. After each, the organism seems to recover—the snake oil merchants in the wild west sold potions that promoted an apparent cure for the first two stages. By the time the third arrived the patient was doomed.

Nevertheless, the description of symptoms in French soldiers after the siege of Naples in 1495 indicates that the body became rapidly covered in sores and death occurred within a few months. In host-parasite relationships, and in disease transmission, evolution favors that the probability of spread is maximized. As a consequence, the disease vector may well have adapted over time to allow the host to live longer, and increase contagion.

But in the late XVth century the degenerative process was very rapid, and it is eminently possible that Pinzon contracted the disease in October 1492 and was dead by the end of March 1493.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.



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