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Researching The Thomas Kydd Novels, by Julian Stockwin

It is vital to not stint on research: readers are very sophisticated today and the hard slog of your writing efforts can be all negated if they spot errors in your work. Even one factual mistake can spoil a reader’s enjoyment of a book and break the bond of trust between writer and reader.

I use a number of research tools for my novels. In terms of time, probably half of the year is devoted to research/planning; the other half is actual writing.

Physical Books

I treasure my reference library, which runs to many hundreds of volumes. They line all four walls of my study, and spill out into other rooms in the house. There are some books that I consult on a daily basis; others I take down from the shelves occasionally, but they are all of value to me in my writing. Of particular resonance are what few written diaries and recollections exist from the lower deck of Nelson’s time, along with actual ship’s logs.

I also have a large number of marine art books. Looking at the work of artists helps me capture the many moods of the sea and the majesty of a ship under sail.

Over time, of course, reference books do go out of print. Sources like Abe Books are great for digging these up, often at bargain prices. And, increasingly, titles such as Falconer’s “Dictionary of the Marine”, are becoming available in their entirety online free of charge: http://southseas.nla.gov.au/refs/falc/title.html.

The internet

You have to wonder how writers got on in the dark days before the internet. You can Google just about anything these days! There is a caution, however: Wikipedia is often a good starting point, but check your facts carefully. I have come across errors taken as facts on face value and then repeated in multiple sites.

Location research

Every year Kathy and I head off on location research.  I’m a “visile” –  when I write I need to be able to see things in my mind’s eye. Also, I feel that there are certain intangibles about a place – the smells, the colours, the sounds – you can only really get from actually being there.

We have travelled to Canada, the US, Africa, areas in the Mediterranean, Australia and the Channel Islands. Of course location research costs money but it’s an investment in your future. (And it’s tax deductible.)

Sea charts

The modern world of electronics is a boon for a sea writer. I now have the most up-to-date ships electronic charts system installed in my computer and can call up and plot ship journeys with the press of a key!

Experts

I have consulted numerous experts around the world in the course of my writing. These range from Karl Watson at an archaelogical dig in Barbados, who pointed me in the direction of much invaluable material about the eighteenth century Caribbean, to Jack Lynch in the States, who was of great assistance with Georgian linguistic speech patterns. I have always found these individuals to be generous in their time but do remember that they are very busy people and it is important to take some effort to set out your questions clearly and succinctly ahead of time. And it is a nice gesture to thank them in the author’s notes, and to send a copy of the book when it is published to those who have been particularly helpful.

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Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com

Julian Stockwin’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

  

United Kingdom (and beyond)

   

Australia (and beyond)

KyddArtemisSeaflowerMutiny    A Call to ArmsBattle Fleet: The Adventures of Sam WitchallWhere Lilacs Still Bloom

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this post Julian.
    Regarding the helpful experts you’ve turned to in your research: In your experience is it standard, expected, rare, or even heard-of to offer them a consultancy fee? Do some/most even put their hand out up front? Do these things change much depending on the fame or prestige of the author? If so, are they more likely to give their time free to an unknown first-timer or a big name author?

    January 10, 2013
  2. Glad you found this helpful, Greg. I’ve NEVER found a consultancy fee expected but of course if what I was asking involved significant work on the part of an expert I would find some way of thanking them at the time, perhaps a bottle of something special like a single malt. I find that their helpfulness largely depends on your professionalism and courtesy when you approach them. When I was an unpublished author it was sometimes more difficult, admittedly, but you develop a thick skin as a writer!

    January 11, 2013
  3. Georgian speech patterns…. that concerns me. As an historical novelist, are you trying to literally recreate the past, or are you revivifying some semblance of it? If getting Georgian speech patterns correct is vital to you, I have to wonder why. What percentage of readers in 2013 will appreciate that?

    January 12, 2013
  4. While I enjoy writing immensely, some aspects are harder than others. I have to admit that I found writing the dialogue in my books a real challenge! I don’t mean the nautical phrases, that’s the easy bit for a sailor. I mean that in the 18th/early19th century the educated people like Jane Austen, for example, shared a common standardised language with us today. The ordinary folk, however, spoke an almost incomprehensible “cant” that was rarely written down. When it was, in the extremely rare cases of autobiographies and so on, it’s pretty well unreadable to modern eyes. We’ve a quite different pace of life and get impatient with the leisured long‑windedness of the time, quite apart from the different problem of 18th century vocabulary. So I had to devise a method of writing dialogue that uses modern speech rhythms but 18th century word patterns. Difficult! But I’m happy how it turned out, and I have to say it’s the aspect of the books most people comment on. I was delighted when one reader likened my books to a time machine back to the Georgian Age. Obviously I cannot literally recreate the past, but I hope my books enable readers to travel there in their imagination…

    January 12, 2013
  5. Thank you for an interesting article. I agree that ensuring you have your facts straight is essential; as you point out, someone out there is bound to highlight any errors. Another issue authors must deal with, however, arises when someone who THINKS you have made an error, but is mistaken, feels constrained to bring it to light. I experienced this phenomenon with the publication of Celia Hayes’s review of my novel, THE FUHRER VIRUS (Google PODBRAM if you are interested in the details). At any rate, a gentleman wrote in saying that I had made a serious historical error. He was wrong, and I immediately wrote in to point out where he was mistaken.

    All part of the joys of the “wild west” character of the world wide web, I suppose!

    THE FUHRER VIRUS is a World War II spy/conspiracy thriller for adult readers and is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, and numerous other outlets.

    Thank you,

    Paul Schultz

    January 12, 2013
  6. James L. Riley #

    Just started to read your books I find thay take me to another world (in my mind) thank you
    James

    February 8, 2013
    • julianstockwin #

      That’s the greatest compliment that can be paid to a writer of historical fiction, James! Hope you enjoy the rest of the Kydd series. My next one, CARIBBEE, comes out in October this year.

      February 8, 2013

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  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (January 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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