Nautical Research for Seafaring Authors

Nautical Research for Seafaring Authors

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Photography by Roy Riley – HSBC Tall Ships Youth Trust voyage 2005

How often have you read a book that involves topics you’re passionate about? I am not referring to genre, but rather themes and subjects that may be involved.  You may have a particular interest in ancient history and mythology, or modern warfare, or in this case, the age of sail.

I have a penchant for wanting to be as accurate as I possibly can be, even with fantasy.  If there’s no way an author can explain how his/her world works scientifically or magically, then they may lose their clarity and integrity.  My own world typically has a 17th-18th century setting, but also merges with and links to medieval and ancient times, and so I endeavour to research words and inventions linked to those eras.  There is always wiggle room in fantasy and science fiction, but whatever you write has to make sense.

If you want to tweak any aspect of a subject for your writing, you need to know enough for those changes to function in your world/story.  In historical fiction based here on Earth, there’s no excuse for mistakes.  You really need to know your history inside out.  In fantasy and science fiction, however, an explanation is necessary.  Altering something for your own amusement isn’t the way to go unless you’re intending on writing parodies, which would also need to be made clear.  One author I’ve read the work of stated he made changes for his own personal amusement.  By all means change something for your own amusement if you’re writing solely for yourself and not for a wider audience, but avoid it in your writing unless you can explain your changes so that readers will understand.

As we get down to discussing all things nautical, do you know how long it takes to sail from the United Kingdom to the Caribbean? Let’s be pedantic and say that your vessel can only set sail if she actually has sails.  Modern cruise ships, I’m sorry to say, cannot sail because they have no sails.  So what’s the answer? Don’t know? Well, if you average at around 10 knots from the moment you depart Cardiff, you might get there in about two weeks; three weeks if you’re doing 7 knots.  That’s assuming your characters are on board a 17th century sailing ship and the wind is favourable from start to finish – which is unlikely unless or until you’re hitting prevailing winds in the right direction.

If you have an idea of how far your characters will be sailing, try using this fantastic website I came across – www.sea-distances.org.  I had a fair idea of short distances from having sailed on tall ships in real life, such as Cardiff to Southampton. Without stopping off at a port and with the wind solely in the ship’s favour, that can take about two or three days.

And what about nautical terminology and how sailors generally behaved? Bear in mind that the majority of your readers probably aren’t going to be seafarers, they probably aren’t going to understand what you’re talking about when a ship is preparing to lie-to unless you’re going to explain what that means.  The same goes for a tacking order such as, “helm’s a’lee! Ready about!” They mean nothing if you aren’t familiar with the jargon and aren’t given an explanation.  Have a look for the Haynes manual on HMS Victory by Peter Goodwin to find out about how to sail an 18th century man-o-war, the Sailor’s Word Book by W. H. Smyth, and Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton.  For information specifically about piracy, I recommend Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly, and The Sea Rover’s Practice by Benerson Little.  You’d be surprised at just how much information there is to take on board out there – pardon the pun.

Speaking of puns, and of course phrases, you might want to look up where every day idioms originated.  You’ll find a lot of them, such as: three sheets to the wind, showing one’s true colours, and no room to swing a cat, are nautical in origin.  And don’t forget the kind of language that was generally spoken by sailors back in the day, and how they sang shanties both at work and at leisure to keep up morale.  They tended to use a lot of profanity, and accents/dialects varied considering they all came from a variety of countries, regions and backgrounds.  Pirates did not typically wander around shouting “arrrrrgh!” either, though some of them, such as Edward Teach (or Thatch – better known as Blackbeard), were born in the south-west of England, meaning their accent/dialect would sound like your stereotypical pirate.

Don’t, however, be too concerned if your characters have motives or back stories that might seem a little clichéd; the last thing you want to do is change who your character is just because a handful of people might groan and roll their eyes.  You won’t be able to please everybody.  So, if you have a pirate who’s descended from nobility and has a penchant for being a ladies’ man like I do, don’t worry about it.  However, you should be aware of both truths and myths, and apply them to any one individual’s personal circumstances, and build their personalities on that basis.

Ultimately, you must write what works for you, but realism and familiarity are needed for your readers to make the right connections.  Research on any given topic is key for authors, and I hope that I’ve been able to shed some light on all things nautical, and how you might further your own research.  If you should make any changes to how something works, be prepared to explain how and why it works the way it does so your readers can understand.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore, dream, discover.”

– Mark Twain
(Possibly  misattributed.)

But that never happened in the ??? century!

But that never happened in the ??? century!

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As an avid reader of fantasy (and also as a writer), I’ve seen comments like this pop up every now and again, and they have a tendency to raise my hackles. Why is that, you might wonder?

Well, if you’re basing your fantasy fiction on factual events and inventions that have taken place on our own planet Earth,  then anyone can criticise an author for any noticeable inaccuracies. That’s all fair and square, but for the most part we’re talking about FANTASY. Whether or not the worlds we write about are feasible and probable somewhere in the universe where physics might work differently doesn’t matter; what matters is that we as authors have invented them whether they’re purely from our imaginations or possibly ancestral memory.

So here’s the crunch; we’re talking about different worlds entirely, or perhaps parallel/alternate universes. Steam engines might have been invented two hundred years before the 1800s in another universe or alternate timeline! Or, if you’ve ever watched the TV series Fringe, you’ll know about another method of transport that took off (pardon the pun)  in the alternate universe but failed in ours.

For an entirely different world based on perhaps the 12th century or even the 17th century, you’re definitely going to need to do a lot of research and keep things as much within historical context as possible (so a 12th century setting with fighter jets probably isn’t going to work), but you actually do have room to tweak a great number of things in whatever way you choose. So, if you want to have cities with perfectly clean streets, you can if you’ve got a means to describe exactly why it’s like that, because in the 12th century on Earth, most streets would be packed full of horse manure, human waste, and rats laden with disease.

However, some of these critics just don’t pick up on the “it’s set in an entirely different world and therefore doesn’t have to follow Earth’s history to the letter” fact. An author may think it’s a different world and doesn’t warrant any explanation, and they might be right to some degree, but by explaining it you’re at least covering your own backside and ignorant critics won’t have a leg to stand on.