Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Challenge of Setting a Romance on a Ship

I'm taking a break from all things Scottish to share with you a post I did for USA Today which appears on their HEA blog today. Should you miss seeing it there, I thought to post it here.

I love the sea and the ships that sail upon it. I also love a good seafaring romance, too. Throw in a pirate or a privateer and I’m there. But I want it to be historically accurate. My newest novel, To Tame the Wind, is my second set (at least in part) on a schooner of the Georgian period involving a privateer hero. In doing the research for my stories, I have learned much about the challenge of setting a romance on a ship.

When I began, I had no idea where my adventure would take me.
First, I dove into pictures of ships and ship terminology of the period, pouring over my 4-inch thick Sailor’s Word Book and other resources until late at night. I studied diagrams of schooners and sail configurations until I was seeing them in my dreams. But I soon realized just having the vocabulary and the sail configurations was not enough.

I wanted to be able to describe a storm at sea as huge waves crashed onto the deck and to hear the sounds of guns blazing as they spit forth smoke lanced with crimson flames in a raging battle. I needed to hear the sails luffing, feel the wind on my face as the ship’s bow cut through the waves and experience the rolling deck. I wanted my readers to feel the deck moving beneath their figurative feet. And I wanted to get all the ship parts right while doing it.

In other words, I had to sail on an actual schooner of the period.

Which is what I did.

The schooner pictured above and to the right is the Californian, a reproduction of a topsail schooner that, fortunately for me, is berthed in San Diego where I live. (The paintings are by artist William Lowe, used here with his permission.) It’s the type of schooner Capt. Jean Nicholas Powell sails in Wind Raven, and his father, Captain Simon Powell sails in To Tame the Wind. And it is the ship I sailed on. Oh, yeah, I also got to hear its guns belching forth their shot.

In my half-day sail, I asked a hundred questions, quickly exhausting the knowledge of the docent aboard, at least as to the period in which my stories are set, the Georgian and Regency periods. However, I found a jewel in the gunner, who answered all my questions and was excited that I wanted to write a story that was historically accurate when it came to the ship. Seeing how serious I was, she offered to become my technical consultant. Of course, I accepted. In the process, we have become good friends. Wind Raven, my first seafaring romance, is dedicated to her and she is also recognized in the Acknowledgements for To Tame the Wind.
My sail on the Californian and my many conversations with my new friend thereafter taught me many things my previous research did not. Even a simple question like whether the quarterdeck should be raised does not have a simple answer.

Some schooners were flush-decked, that is everything on the main deck is on one level, so that you could walk from the bow to the stern without going up or down any ladders—this despite the fact the ship had a “quarterdeck.” On the other hand, some schooners had a raised foredeck (keeps the water off the main deck) and a raised quarterdeck that did the same thing. The "break in the deck" would be aft of the last hatchway on the main deck. 

The helm might be on the quarterdeck, or it might be in cockpit or sunken area around the helm. The Californian has a small cockpit with the helm set down to "main deck" level, behind the quarterdeck. So to get from the bow to the stern, you walk up a small ladder to get to the quarterdeck, and then you walk down a small ladder to get into the cockpit.

See what I mean?

If you compound that many times over with every issue from windows in the captain’s cabin (side windows in larger schooners could be achieved with a raised overhead), to what the captain might read (it’s in Wind Raven), or where the first mate bunks when my heroine takes over his cabin, to the size of the crew, or how a fast schooner avoids the guns of a larger brig-sloop (it’s in To Tame the Wind), you begin to get a picture of the depth of research required to “get it right.”

And just so you know, there are no floors, doors, stairs, walls or ceilings on a ship. Instead, there are decks, cabin doors, ladders, companionways, bulkheads and overheads. Strictly speaking, ships have fixed guns not cannons, the latter being made to rotate up and down. And no ships prior to the late 19th century had crow’s nests; they had “tops” (some with railings going back to antiquity). In the case of schooners, they had crosstrees. 

Though much research was required to properly tell my seafaring love stories, I think it was worth it. One reviewer made me smile when she said of Wind Raven, “it had me feeling the spray of the ocean in my face, my hair and clothing plastered to my body, the chill of my blood when you know, just know that you’re time is up and you’re done for."

Yep, that was just what I was going for.
 Buy To Tame the Wind and Wind Raven on Amazon


  1. Loved the article, Regan. I would love to sail on an honest-to-God ship! Lucky you. Historical accuracy is one of the things I admire about your writing. Thanks again for the post.

    1. If you are ever in San Diego, Janice, we will do it together! And thanks for the encouragement. I do love the research and agree it adds to make the novel's foundation in truth secure.