Sunday, October 27, 2013

Historical Research -- Ships and Boats

Good Morning. Well, now that the book signing is over, I've finally gotten back to Richard's story -- The Captain's Lady. And I haven't done an Historical Research post in a long time, so I figured I was due.

 As we know, my main character, Captain Richard Gaines is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress.  He resigned his commission soon after the Battle of Trafalgar and wanders the Thames at night searching for relief from his nightmares. He's fine, more or less, during the day, but he can't sleep.

Anyway, I was having a conversation (email) with a friend of mine, a very learned friend and as I was describing Richard's story (briefly) I used the words ship and boat synonymously. My friend corrected me "You do know that ships carry boats. Boats are small vessels."

I had to grin. Yes, I do know that, but as I told him, I'm a writer and don't necessarily use the same word to describe the same thing, hence, ship/boat. I had done a boatload (excuse the pun) of research before, but leaving the book sit for so many years, once I got back into it, I realized I couldn't do what I wanted to do with the plot. (You tend to learn things when you do research and what I learned was that England and the US were going to be going to war when Richard's story was set. So I couldn't have Richard cruising the waters off North Carolina. Well, I suppose I could have but then the book would have been more historical than romantic.)

So, I started doing more research. About boats. Excuse me, about ships. Specifically, Ships of the Line. The Royal Navy had several different classes of Ships of the Line, which could carry different complements, had various guns, could perform different jobs.

A "gun" was a cannon, mounted inside the boat. (Different classes of guns -- some were bolted to the floor, others were on a "bungee" system of ropes -- and no they were not called bungees, but I can't remember what they were called. Suffice it to say, when the cannon fired, it recoiled and then bounced forward. The ropes were used to keep it from blowing out the back part of the ship.)

74 Guns were considered small ships. With 4 men to handle a gun, (more or less), powder monkeys (boys who ran down the line and gave each gun the powder for the cannon), and ball men ( on one website of nautical terms I found several euphemisms that have come down through the years about balls -- brass balls, busting balls, etc. ). So below decks during a battle, there were about 100 men slaving away trying to keep the cannons loaded and firing.

Above decks, there were sailors (men who climbed the ratlines to unfurl the sails 3 men per sail, 3 sails per mast, 3 masts per ship), midshipmen (who took care of the decks 6 per side) carpenters, sailmakers, coopers, officers, petty officers, junior officers, mates, master mates and a whole array of other men who had lesser jobs. The life was hard, disgusting, dirty, the food horrible, the pay (if you weren't an officer) negligible. Which was why impressment was so prevalent during the Napoleonic wars.

On a 74 gun, a typical complement was 220 men. (Notice the word complement has an e not an i. Two different words.) That's a lot of men on a boat. With the guns taking up most of the hold, you can just imagine what the sleeping quarters were like.

And this is just a 74 gun Ship of Line. Can you even imagine what a 90 gun was like? 350 men? I can't fathom it.

Do I really need to do all this research for a romantic novel? The true answer is yes and no. I could have just skipped to the parts I really needed. Who was whom on the vessel and what they said or did. Do I have to know the names of the parts of the ship? Do I have to know the difference between a yeoman and a first mate or a petty officer? Not really. Will it add anything to the story if I mention the binnacle was wrapped in brass? Kind of but no, not especially.

Then why do I take so much time to do all this unnecessary research? Especially as I'm not even placing Richard on a Ship of the Line. As there will only be one very small battle between a cutlass and a trabocolu. Because I need to know what I'm talking about. If I said the bosun was manning a gun, I would be oh so very wrong and someone, somewhere would call me on it. Will I actually use most of the research I've done? Probably not. However, what I do use will be accurate and that is important. To me doing all this research helps set the "tone" of the novel. If I can't get the right tone, those scenes will be worthless.

So ask me what my favorite part of the research will be?

Watching the Horatio Hornblower series with Ioan Gruffud and Master and Commander with Russell Crowe.

Swashbuckling, dashing, an oh-so-romantic Naval heroes. Now you know why I do my research.

Tell me -- Do you appreciate an author who does detailed research? Or would you rather just skip to the romantic parts?

Anne Gallagher (c) 2013


  1. Anne -- LOL over the boat/ship thing. I know the pain of trying to find a different word to use to avoid repetition, but all your synonyms are inappropriate!

    Like you, Anne, I don't use even half of the information I find out in research. And trying to jam those details in bogs down the story. But a true historical author (romantic history, historical mystery, or any other kind) has got to KNOW all that stuff in order to write that time period. Even if most of what she knows doesn't actually make much difference to the plot.

    As you said, you can't have a bosun manning a gun! :D

  2. Dianne -- I've spent the better part of this weekend emailing my very learned friend, and after more research I decided to send him all my notes and asked him to build me a ship (or rather find me the appropriate ship) and build me a complement.

    I just thought I could take creative license and use this and that, but as he said, it's not going to work the way you think it will.

    And no, I'll probably forget all this knowledge once the book is written, but the "tone" will be accurate for the readers and that's all I really wanted. Right?

  3. The author teaching the class I am taking now does all her research before writing, with the idea the writing becomes more organic. With all that knowledge in her brain, the words flow. It happens that out of personal interest, a few years ago I happened to do a lot of reading on the subject that plays into my story. Now, when I get to writing the pieces related to that topic they pour out of my brain.

    I think the research makes those "romantic" parts more believable.

  4. Liza -- Truthfully, I've done this research before. Problem is, what I thought was going to work, a friend told me it wouldn't. Yes, I could have used what I had written and just gone with it, no one would really have noticed. (well, except for the bosun manning a gun)

    But when my friend said that I had the wrong complement for the ship and he suggested this and that, I knew I had to do more.

    Now at least I know it's going to be perfectly right instead of almost right.

    As for stories pouring out of my brain, no such luck. I wrote this story 7 years ago. It should be easy enough to write. No. It's not. It's just like writing it from the beginning again.

  5. I admire your attention to detail so much. Heck, I just completely admire YOU! Sounds like it will be a great story. xoxo ~bru

  6. Bru -- Right back at ya with the admiration!


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