Exploration, Fiction, French Navy, History, Napoleonic, Research, Royal Navy, Sea, South Pacific, Terra Australis, Warship, Writing
Welcome, as always.
In this post, we want to talk a little about research. We’ve already shown you bits and pieces of what the world of Terra Australis and its peoples look like to us—and we hope to you– but we want to add a bit about some of our sources.
As we’ve said in an earlier blog, the idea of setting our Doubtful Sea series mainly in the Calm Sea (Pacific in our world) and on Terra Australis (which only exists as the forbidding Antarctica for us), was just a lark, a spur of the moment thing. We had already known a little about the French admiral and Pacific explorer, de Bougainville. Most of what we knew about him, however, came from his early career as an aide de camp to the Marquis de Montcalm, the commander of French regular troops in New France during the bulk of the French and Indian War (1756-59). (He left behind journals of that time, which have been published in English as Adventure in the Wilderness, translated by Edward P. Hamilton and published by the University of Oklahoma Press.)
And we were aware of Captain Cook, who was also involved in that war and even must have sat across the St. Lawrence River from de Bougainville at the siege of Quebec, in 1759, although neither would have been aware of the other at the time.
So what then? Lots of conversation first, based upon nothing more than our imaginations. Who would our characters be? Where would our characters go? What might happen to them?
As we talked, we began to see that, now that we had a very general idea of the beginnings of a book—and, soon, a series– we needed to know more—lots more. And here was where our plan to base our new, alternative world on the actual later 18th century of the actual world quite easily supplied a great deal of useful knowledge. We embarked upon a period of research even as we began to write a draft of the first chapters.
Because we knew so little, our questions to ourselves could have seemed as endless as the Pacific to those first explorers, but we quickly found that they could easily be grouped into a small series of main categories:
- 18th-century European Pacific exploration
- the French and English navies of the time
- the history of Polynesian exploration and colonization of the Pacific
- Terra Australis/Antarctica
- languages/cultures as models for Pacific protagonists/antagonists
And this research quickly proved helpful in two directions. First, it began to answer our questions about the 5 categories. Second, the answers would inspire us, not only to ask further questions, but to further creativity.
It was important, however, to feel a certain wariness about research. One of us, some years ago, began work on a novel, called Swallows Wintering, set during the American Revolution. Chapters were written, and things seemed to be humming along, but then there was a question and everything stopped for more research. And more research. And then everything stopped for good. Insecurity triumphed, perhaps? A lack of conviction disguised as a need for further sources and greater “authenticity”? (And here we might want to consider just how much “authenticity”—maybe “accuracy to the time” would be a better way of saying this—one needs even in an historical novel. You don’t want to have an Elizabethan using safety matches, as we once read in a mystery set in the late 16th century, but, perhaps it’s possible to suggest a period without being slavish about it? This is, we think, worthy of a long essay on its own!)
With that previous experience in mind, perhaps it was just as well that we decided not to write an actual historical novel, although we can certainly see that there are lots of possibilities there (we might cite our ancestor-collaborators, Nordhoff/Hall, and their series on the Bounty mutiny and its consequences, for an example). By making this an alternative world, we could use whatever we liked from our world, but never feel quite so bound as one might in a work of historical fiction.
We are both very visual people (and, we suspect, so is our audience), so, as we wrote and assembled a little library of what appeared useful books, we really began by spending hours on Google images. We searched for everything from “Antarctica” to “Versailles”, from “catamaran” to “frigate”, from “Cape Horn” to “Captain Cook” and much more besides, gathering several hundred illustrations, a few of which have appeared in our previous blog entries. (And one of which will appear, thanks to the good folk of the National Maritime Museum in London, on the cover of Across the Doubtful Sea in just a week or two.)
As well, we extended our on-line research to include articles on Polynesian and Inuit history and languages and cultures, the religions of the Pacific, the writing system of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), along with material on real Pacific explorers like La Perouse and Wallis, and the bibliographies attached to those pieces gave us more ideas for further research. (We are aware, of course, of the danger of unsubstantiated or even wrong material on the internet, but, because we were—and are—engaged in work s of alternative- world fiction, rather than historical scholarship or even historical fiction, this was not an active concern.)
In our own reading, we very much enjoy learning about earlier authors and how they wrote their books. And so, in these posts, we want to provide you, our readers, with information which, before you read our first book, we hope will entice you to do so and, after you’ve read it, will help you to see something of how we wrote it.
We intend, after Across the Doubtful Sea appears, to include a complete bibliography—including a list of websites and their addresses we found useful or just too interesting not to read (and everyone who surfs the web knows the dangers of this)—in our blog, but, for now, here are a few books we found particularly stimulating/useful. As we said in an earlier post, we experienced some difficulty in our research, owing to the period in which we were working, the 1750s to about 1790. There was plenty of material for the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815, but much less easily available for this earlier time. Our advantage in alternative writing, however, stood us in good stead here: we didn’t feel that we had to be accurate down to the last fact, and we could use what we learned from this slightly later time to flesh out what we could discover of the earlier time. So, for example, the Osprey books on Napoleonic naval wars—books like Terry Crowdy’s French Warship Crews 1789-1805, or Gregory Fremont-Barnes’ Nelson’s Officers and Midshipmen and Nelson’s Sailors, or Chris Henry’s Napoleonic Naval Armaments 1792-1815–proved very helpful in getting a general sense of life on board the warships of that world. We would add, from a Time/Life series, Henry Gruppe’s The Frigates, as well as books like Iain Dickie et al., Fighting Techniques of Naval Warfare 1190BC to the Present, Nicholas Blake and Richard Lawrence’s The Illustrated Companion to Nelson’s Navy, and Brian Lavery’s Nelson’s Navy.
As for Pacific exploration, an easy read is Alistair MacLean’s Captain Cook (with Peter Beaglehole’s more scholarly work for those who want to learn more). For two different views of its consequences for the native cultures and peoples , we would recommend Alan Moorehead’s The Fatal Impact: The Invasion of the South Pacific 1767-1840 and Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific. For a more general view, we would add the relevant portions of Erik Newby’s The Rand McNally World Atlas of Exploration.
This has been a long entry, and we never intend to overwhelm our readers, so we’ll end here for the present, with promise of more, both on books and on websites, in our next.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
What is MyCaa said:
Wow, incredible blog format! How lengthy have you been blogging for?
you made blogging look easy. The entire glance of your site is fantastic, as neatly
as the content!