James Hall on Writing Off The Chart



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The Florida Keys has a colorful history with piracy that it still honors in a variety of ways.  There’s Buccaneer Resort and Jolly Roger bar and various Rum Runner grills and you see images of pirates in all kinds of advertising and restaurant and bar promotional material.  Key West, in fact, has a long established connection with piracy.  Many early citizens regularly lured passing ships onto the reefs near Key West by moving the warning lights, and then plundered the sunken vessels.   

I started off thinking I’d use these romantic associations with piracy but once I began to research modern day pirates, I realized these guys were anything but romantic.  They are grimly brutal and armed with all kinds of high tech weapons and other tools to locate ships, track them and eventually board and plunder them.  It’s a huge and growing problem on the high seas and is little reported because it happens so far from sight and involves ships and crews that are internationally based.  But lots of money and goods are lost every year, not to mention lives. 

The other main element of Off the Chart that became quite prominent is Sugarman and his daughter’s kidnapping.  Stereotypical pirates often kidnapped damsels for one reason or another, so it seemed perfectly natural to use a modern variant of this situation.   While this kidnapping is a sub-plot, it became the most fascinating and difficult aspect of the novel to research and write.  I wanted Sugarman to locate his missing daughter by using clues she passed to him about the flora and fauna of the place where she was hidden.  Deciding what those biological clues were and how they would help Sugarman circle in closer and closer until he was able to pinpoint her location gave me one of the greatest challenges in writing this novel. 

As in many of my novels, the power of Hollywood movies to shape or distort characters’ values plays a role as does the influential impact of the past on characters’ motives.   Thorn and Sugarman approach the rescue of Sugarman’s daughter in two different ways.  Neither works by itself, so that became another theme for me in Off the Chart.  The importance of both brawn and brains in solving crises.