Research For My ‘Powder Monkey’ Series, by Paul Dowswell
My first foray into historical fiction was the Powder Monkey series – a trilogy of books about Sam Witchall, a boy in Nelson’s Navy. I was inspired to write this series after seeing a brilliant painting by Denis Dighton called The Fall of Nelson.
As I peered into the carnage on the weather deck of HMS Victory I saw a young lad – about 12 by the look of him – carrying gunpowder and just that moment shot in the leg. It was disturbing to see such a young sailor among the death and destruction and it made me think it would be a good idea to write about Navy life from someone at the bottom of the ship’s hierarchy, rather than the usual stories about midshipmen and captains.
I set about trying to think myself into the era – one I was hitherto unfamiliar with – by trying to experience, as much as possible, what my characters would have done.
For the first book, Powder Monkey, I went aboard HMS Victory in Portsmouth, and HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool. Trincomalee was especially illuminating and my afternoon wandering around the last surviving floating frigate from the Napoleonic era inspired about a quarter of the book. There’s nothing quite like being there to feed your imagination, and wandering around the claustrophobic, ill-lit lower decks, which still had a pervasive stink of waterlogged wood, creosote and hemp about them, gave me a glimpse into my character Sam’s life. I also spent many days gathering material in the galleries and archive of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
For the second book, Prison Ship, I took off to Sydney, where much of the story is set. (My hero Sam gets transported for a crime he didn’t commit.) It wasn’t cheap getting from the UK to Australia, but I managed to find some very reasonably priced lodgings, via the University, and my landlady, Bobbie, was an invaluable source of information and great company. I stood on the Rocks, where Sam would have lived and tried to imagine what it was like 200 years before. I visited Taronga Zoo and wondered what you’d think of a kangaroo or a Koala if you were looking at one for the first time. I sailed down the Hawksbury River and got lost wandering around Ku-ring-Gai National Park. It was terrifying at the time but I got several chapters out of it. I also found invaluable source material in the Sydney museums and archives. The staff could not have been more helpful. I know I could have done it all from the UK but it wouldn’t have been half as interesting, and I think the book wouldn’t have been half as vivid.
My third book in the trilogy, Battle Fleet, is set in London and at Trafalgar. I’d already been to HMS Victory, so I spent several days wandering around the Georgian monuments of London. St Paul’s still looks extraordinary today, so it must have looked completely overwhelming looming above the spires and chimney pots of Georgian London.
I did all the usual stuff as well – acres of reading, watching Master and Commander (just magnificent, well done Russell Crowe and Peter Weir!), and the Jane Austen films to get a feel for the language, visiting museums to look at artefacts and costumes, and like Denis Dighton’s Fall of Nelson, I found paintings and engravings invaluable, especially when I was trying to create characters. Some faces stare out at you through the centuries, and you recognise them – that fellow in the pub, the man in the shop, one of your mates from school. It’s haunting, but it really stirs your imagination.
Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk
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Writing Historical Novels