Some tall ship pointers for writers of pirate stories.

Ailith was home ill yesterday, and Rose was home ill today.  You can pretty much bet that whatever it was, I’ll get it tomorrow.  Which is frustrating as I now want to write, and I’m at that stage with Under the Hill where I’m well stuck in, but still have a long, long way to go before the end is in sight.  I’ve still got a way to go before the middle is in sight!  I’m loving Chris, though, which is always a bonus, and proving it by loading him down with so much angst that it’s a wonder the poor man can function at all.

I did a review for SiN yesterday of another Age of Sail book where the author had put a bed and a hearth in the captain’s cabin.  So I now feel obliged to say that standards of comfort on a 17th/18th century ship would not have been that high.  One of the greatest dangers for a wooden ship was fire – the ship was entirely timber, soaked in pitch, and – if it was a warship – carried a large stock of gunpowder.  A hearth anywhere would have been just too much of a risk.  Imagine what would happen to an open fire if the sea got choppy – live coals tumbling out all over the cabin!  A brazier of charcoal in calm cold weather might be possible, though it would still need to be treated as a severe fire risk and supervised at all times.  More normally you just wouldn’t have heating at all, except in the galley – which was specifically designed for the purpose, and only to be fired up at certain times in the day.

Also, if even Admiral Lord Nelson slept in a hanging cot, (made of a board and thin mattress stuffed in the bottom of a large, shaped, canvas hammock), I sincerely doubt if any scurvy pirate would have a double bed in his cabin.  Not to mention that you’d fall out of a bed if the sea got up, whereas a hammock or cot adjusts itself to the swing and has sides to keep you in it.

Also, on a sailing ship, the wind does not stop blowing or changing direction and speed during the night, nor do there cease to be potential reefs, other ships, squalls and storms during the night.  Nor – in the deep ocean – does the ship anchor at night.  This means that all the tasks which have to be done during the day to keep the ship on course; someone at the wheel, enough men to let out, take in and handle the sails, someone to keep a lookout and someone to oversee all of this and make decisions – all these tasks have to be done during the night as well.  That means you can’t have everyone go to bed at night.  The ship’s company will be divided into at least two, possibly three watches, so that you’ve got at least one watch on, one watch off.  Naval ships tried to have three watches because this allowed people occasionally to get 8 hours sleep.  On a two watch system you sleep 4 hours and then have 4 hours on duty, and that’s on a good day.

Also, in a battle at sea, you pound the other ship with your cannon right up until the moment you board.  But after you board you stop firing the cannon – the reason being that if you carry on firing the cannon into a ship on which your own people are fighting, you will be killing your own crew.  So please, no more scenes where the pirates have boarded their prey and are fighting while cannonballs whizz around their ears.

There are very good reasons why life on board ship is not like life ashore.  There are necessities which have to get done if the ship is not to crash, burn, blow up or sink.  If you don’t take those factors into account then your story necessarily loses atmosphere and becomes hard to believe.  If you really can’t be bothered to google the inside layout of a tall ship, and a few details about life at sea to make your pirate story more believable, is there any way I can persuade you to set the story in a house instead?  Or make it sci-fi, with a metal ship, an autopilot, central heating and an artificial gravity generator.  Then they could still go “yarrr” and board each other, but at least I wouldn’t be wondering how it was possible that they were still alive at all.

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Gerry Burnie
14 years ago

I would like to add my voice regarding the importance of careful research in wring a historical story, fictional or not. For one thing someone, somewhere out there will catch you up on the slightest detail, and the result is a loss of credibility of that story you worked so hard to produce, otherwise.

Moreover, if it says “historical” it must be credible. The rest of us who pride ourselves on reproducing an authentic representation of another time and era depend on it. For me, it’s when a popular product or procedure was manufactured, invented or developed, i.e. Levi-Strauss jeans (1850s), Trans-Atlantic cable communication (1865), or the successful appendix operation (1872). One year early on any of these in a story can all-but discredit it.

Who am I? A superannuated professor of history, of course. (smile)

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