Summoning the Maritime Muse
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One of the questions I’m often asked is where does the inspiration for my sea tales come from.
In writing the Thomas Kydd series I draw on many things – my personal experiences serving in the navy, the historical record of our rich maritime history, music, physical connections with the past and art.
I’m ‘Old Navy’ – I initially trained as a shipwright and am quite at home with tools that would be very familiar to the Georgian Navy – adze, whipsaw etc. I even slept in a hammock in my early days at sea!
In this country we’re spoiled by an unsurpassed collection of historical maritime records – as well as the material in the National Maritime Museum and others, there are fantastic digitised records now available on line. Over the years I’ve built up an extensive personal library, too, which includes actual documents from Kydd’s day.
Although I can’t write and listen to music (both demand full attention, so it’s either, never both) there are wonderful pieces about the sea that I find very inspiring to play before I begin work. One of my favourites is the Berceuse from Sibelius’ Tempest, so evocative of an 18C voyage of exploration, the ship stealing into the stillness of beautiful islands not yet discovered…
In my study, I’ve a treasured collection of genuine eighteenth-century sea artefacts – a fathom‑long piece of hawser, a sea service cutlass from 1805, a gun tackle block and some 200‑year old musket balls, identical to the one that killed Nelson.
The cutlass was the chief weapon used for boarding enemy ships and cutting out and repelling boarders. The one in my collection was issued to a man‑o’‑war in the year of Trafalgar, 1805, and was used by seamen serving in His Majesty’s Navy at that time. I know this one must once have been bright with enemy blood: little nicks on the cutting edge have been ground away – a testimony to the fact that this cutlass was certainly used in combat and returned by a victorious combatant!
My 10‑inch gun tackle block was one of those each side of a chest‑high 32‑pounder cannon, the standard big gun of a line‑of‑battle ship. Men hauled on the tackle to run out the cannon which weighed three tons and had to be run out again using this block after every broadside. These guns could send a ball as big as a man’s head through three feet of solid oak at a distance of a mile. The sheaves in the block are hewn by hand from lignum vitae, an iron‑hard Caribbean wood.
As it’s tarred, the piece of eight‑inch cable-laid rope is standing rigging, and was probably used for the fore‑shrouds. It still reeks of 200 years of tar and the sea, and is one of my favourite items.
A ship o’‑the‑line needed vast quantities of rope and cable, and stretched end to end, would extend over twenty miles!
The tankard is a faithful copy; it was made by a cooper of today but using eighteenth-century shipwreck timber to the exact specification of an ancient tankard of the times. Seamen would have drunk small beer in this, and when the beer had run out after some time at sea, a half pint of rum would be issued each day.
Another treasured item in my study is a genuine Times newspaper of Friday 8 February 1793, printed the day Tom Kydd was press‑ganged.
On many walls of our Devon home are prints of artworks by some of the great maritime artists. Fortunately my wife Kathy shares my love of sea art! There is a print of John Chancellor’s magnificent ‘Victory in Pursuit of Nelson’ hanging over the fireplace in our living room. I must admit I have to stand with legs firmly apart when I look at it, so realistic is the feeling that I’m back at sea.
It’s hard to say which of these varied sources of inspiration is more important to me but certainly the work of the great maritime artists brings a dimension of its own to the creative process when I am writing.
Several years ago I was honoured to be invited to speak at the Royal Society of Marine Artists. I chose as my topic the differences and similarities between the artist and the novelist dealing with moments in the great age of fighting sail.
Both are obviously involved in doing their best to bring the past to life but whereas the artist chooses a certain pivotal moment in time, the writer constructs a series of vignettes, linked by a story line. I might add that it’s quite humbling for a writer to look on a great canvas where everything the artist is trying to convey is recorded in one image: that costs me 100,000 words!
It takes me about six months’ writing time to complete one of my books, after I have done the research and planning. Until I became a writer I didn’t give much thought to the amount of time involved in the process of creating a painting. One artist, whose work I greatly admire, when asked what was the secret of his fine canvases, replied, ‘It’s the 850 hours they take to paint.’
I often refer to paintings to confirm some aspect or other that I’ve researched. Although I have an extensive reference library, quite often seeing for example, the set of sails on a certain tack or the characteristic curve of a full drawing sail’s shadow on another, gives me the urge to make this come alive without sounding a bit like a sailing manual.
I have a huge admiration for the giants of the past such as Charles Brooking, Peter Monamy and Dominic Serres and of course, for sheer atmosphere, Turner. They provide a contemporary window on the world of Thomas Kydd. And as I look on them I can sense some of the wonder the ordinary man of those times would feel on seeing what was then the most complicated machine on the planet.
But just as a number of the novels from the eighteenth century can seem hard going for the modern reader, I feel some of the modern interpreters of the age of sail bring a vitality and freshness to the scene that is not always found in the old masters.
The first nine covers of my Kydd series were based on specially commissioned original paintings by Geoff Hunt RSMA.
The cover of ARTEMIS, which is probably my favourite, wonderfully conjures up the drama of the Great Southern Ocean every time I look at it
Maritime art is such a rich reference source of minute detail – life aboard, rigging, sea conditions, the look of the sky. But also, with the finest exemplars of the genre, it is a stimulation of something fundamental in man’s psyche, and evokes a deep emotion for the sea that holds as true today as it did centuries ago.