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