HOW I CAME TO WRITE THE CAPTAIN NGOLA STORIES
I was a young man when Ace Books reprinted the Conan the Barbarian books in the late 1960s and 1970s, and for a period thereafter. Ace picked up the torch after Lancer books went out of print. I still found some of those old Lancer books in the swap shops I frequented as I sought out novels in series I collected. Amazon makes such collecting so much easier these days, but I miss going out on the hunt, traipsing through old stores, shifting through tons of paperbacks to get the ones I was looking for—or new treasures I discovered, and reading through those books over a greasy cheeseburger at a hole-in-the-wall diner.
Though they probably weren’t the Good Old Days, they were good days. I miss them.
Those twelve Ace Conan books, and scattered editions published by Lancer, occupied a special space on my book shelves. I liked how they lined up, how they looked so uniform. Trade dress (the way covers in a book or series was designed) was a term I didn’t know anything about at the time.
Ace published those books in a loose chronological order, as I recall. There were only two novels among the books, one by Robert E. Howard (Hour of the Dragon was renamed Conan the Conqueror so Ace could have Conan’s name as part of the title in every book) and one by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (Conan of the Isles). The other ten books all contained poems, short stories, and novellas.
I liked being able to pick up a book and wander through more than one story about the hero, and even jump to different time periods in Conan’s life as well as different locations he lived. The stories always felt different, and the tapestry was loose enough to encompass a long, vibrant life.
Fritz Leiber’s stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were written and gathered much in the same fashion. Leiber skipped around while chronicling their tales and never did write a novel about the two heroes.
People have already, successfully, done what I hope to do with these stories.
However, there was no publisher or magazine interested in novellas like this. I wasn’t even certain there was a readership. I guess I’m still not.
But I’m prepared to find out.
After the ebook market manifested and boomed, I wanted to write about a fantasy hero whose stories could be as varied as those Conan stories before later publishers decided everything had to be novels, then even longer novels. I enjoyed being able to put myself in a chair and finish a story in a sitting.
Ngola had been rattling around in the back of my head for a few years. I’d done some research on a mystery novel based on a video game for Harlequin and decided to dig into Britain’s history for material. One of the first things I discovered during that search was the West Africa Squadron to fought the Portuguese slavers back in the day.
Before I knew it, I realized that the Singh Brotherhood that Lee Falk’s Phantom character fought against was (probably) part of the same Portuguese pirate empire the West Africa Squadron fought. The tie was just too strong for me and I couldn’t resist. I knew I would write about Ngola.
Another character in the back of my mind was African-American author Charles Saunders’s Imaro, a sword and sorcery hero. The first book of a proposed series contained six tales of Imaro that were first published in a fanzine, Dark Fantasy. That book was, unfortunately, alluded to as a “Black Tarzan” and was the subject of a lawsuit by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate. Two other volumes were later released, but the sales never provided enough impetus for Saunders to continue his books.
Captain Ngola Kilunaji came to life in Pro Se Books’ anthology, Black Pulp, under editor Tommy Hancock. I was asked to write a story for the collection and I told Tommy the story was going to be long. He green lit me and away I went.
Ngola came to life before my eyes, summoned from that dark well writers keep nebulous plots and ideas constantly churning in. I knew I wanted a Robert E. Howard flavor, a two-fisted hero with ties to history battling supernatural creatures. When Ngola came out of the sea to take Salazar’s ship, Colin Drury and Joao came with him before I knew they would be there. Not only that, I discovered Ngola was married and had a son who had been kidnapped by those very slavers he was hunting.
I’m usually better about plotting everything out. But that’s when I’m writing 90k novels. I work with a thinner outline when writing shorter fiction, and often I surprise myself with thing I know that I didn’t know when I first started writing.
There’s so much of Ngola’s story yet to be told. I know that he was taken from somewhere in Africa, ended up on a plantation in Haiti during the slave uprisings, served on a ship in Lord Admiral Nelson’s navy in the Napoleonic War, and eventually seized a ship that he now captains.
All of those stories are waiting to be told.
I also want to find out how Ngola met Colin Drury and Joao, two of the more interesting characters in his crew, how he met and fell in love with Kangela, how Drury was the one to first hold Ngola’s baby son (how did that happen? Where was Ngola? What did Drury know about childbirth?), and where Ngola learned how to use his mambele.
So many stories!
This will be the first of Ngola’s adventures, well, actually the first two, but I intend to continue writing novellas about the character and his world. Whenever I get two or three of them, enough to make putting out a book worthwhile for readers, I intend to publish new adventures.
I’m going to skip around in Ngola’s time line, mix up the stories, the locations, and the characters, so readers who insist on going from Point A to Point Z might feel a little irritated at times, but I hope not. I hope the stories will be worth your time. I’m going to try my best to deserve the time you spend with me.