QUARTERDECK: Aft through the hawse-hole
A regular feature on each of the Kydd titles – with story background, research highlights, writing challenges and more
Thank you for all your kind comments on the post about my fourth book, MUTINY.
The fifth book in the series is QUARTERDECK. Tom Kydd was promoted acting lieutenant at the bloody Battle of Camperdown in October 1797. Now, he must sit an examination to confirm his rank – or face an inglorious return before the mast.
With this book, with four other titles under my belt, did I feel the writing had become easier?
Because of the wonderful feedback I had received from readers all over the world my confidence had increased that people really did want to share my passion about the age of fighting sail. However, until a manuscript is actually accepted by your editor, there is always a certain apprehension. Have I told a good story? Will it draw people in? Has it got the right balance? The waiting time until that phone call or email comes from your editor is always a bit nail-biting…This was true for QUARTERDECK – and remains so to this day.
Was this book a watershed in the series?
Yes. Richard Gere famously overcame modern day hurdles to become an officer and a gentleman, but they were nothing compared to the almost impossible odds two hundred years ago! The Royal Navy, however, although steeped in custom and tradition, did provide a rare means for someone low born to achieve high status.
Of the six hundred thousand or so British seamen who fought in the Napoleonic wars, amazingly, 120 became officers, crossing a great social divide. Of these, perhaps twenty or so were promoted to captain of their own ship – and five made Admiral! History has left us little record of these achievers, but we do know of some who started their career this way – men such as Bligh, Cook and in the case of HMS Victory at Trafalgar both the signals officer Pascoe and Quiliam, the first lieutenant.
When I started writing the Thomas Kydd series I felt strongly that I wanted to portray life at sea at the time of Nelson starting from the viewpoint of the common sailor. I have always had the greatest admiration for what they achieved. The typical stereotype of the sailor of that time as a mere cipher couldn’t be further from the truth. In large part it was they who gave Britain conquest of all the seas. Nelson himself publicly recognised this.
Right from the start I knew my hero would eventually become an officer and in many ways QUARTERDECK posed some formidable writing challenges. I had to take Tom Kydd from the environment of the lower deck, where he was popular and, now a master’s mate, at the pinnacle of his calling, to an alien realm where the talk was of foxhunting and the Season, and where, at first, he was neither liked nor respected.
I found my own experience, having myself served both on the fo’c’sle and on the quarterdeck, invaluable. As I wrote I was able to draw on my own feelings during my time in the navy. Remembering my initial apprehensions as a new officer certainly gave me insights for QUARTERDECK.
Where was location research?
Both in the UK and overseas. We spent some time in the pretty little town of Falmouth in Cornwall. In Kydd’s day it was a favoured last provisioning stop before a long Atlantic crossing. It has a superb harbour: together with Carrick Roads, it forms the third capacious natural harbour in the world, and is the deepest in Western Europe.
It was also the home of the ships of the packet service. (The term ‘packet’ derives from the fact that state letters and dispatches were historically known as ‘the packet’.) There were several packet stations in British ports but Falmouth was the hub of the Packet Ship Service, which carried mail to all corners of the British Empire. Mail came down from London by postboy or stagecoach. It was then sealed in leather portmanteaux of varying sizes which were lead-weighted so that they could be thrown overboard at the prospect of imminent capture.
However the packet service was not always held in esteem. Ashore in Falmouth Kydd is told:
‘A nest of villains…They carry the King’s mails, but should they spy a prize, they will not scruple to attack at risk to their cargo – and worse! Even under the strictest post office contract, they weigh down their vessel with private freight to their common advantage. And should this not be enough, it is commonly known that while the post office will recompense them for a loss at sea to an enemy, profit may just as readily be won from the insurances.’
Local research done, Kathy and I then had the great pleasure and duty of visiting Canada. We found Halifax, the previous home of the North American Station, fascinating, with so much maritime history – and even stayed at the Lord Nelson hotel and dined at the Press Gang restaurant! A special delight was meeting Bob Squarebriggs and being presented with a half model of Artemis that he had made from scratch as a gift for me. I was quite taken aback at his generosity, and even more moved when I found out that Bob, as a result of an accident, could not work for any length of time on such a project before tiring.
Did the research for QUARTERDECK pose any particular challenges?
Well, there was one in particular. As a plot requirement I needed to determine which of the woods found in the area Kydd was in did not float. This was not as simple as it sounds. My ex-scientist father-in-law in Tasmania came back with mathematical formulae and details of specific gravity, and after a considerable time researching further I felt I had a fairly intimate acquaintance with every tree in America! But still I had not got the definitive answer; this was finally resolved by a very helpful member of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory.
Regarding research for the dawn of the new American Navy, I was most fortunate to make the acquaintance of Tyrone Martin, an erudite scholar and a former captain of Old Ironsides. He provided valuable insights into the US naval service and the heavy frigates. I get a special buzz introducing real-life characters into the books and it was fun writing about Kydd sailing in the new commissioned Constellation under Captain Truxtun.
Truxton image: By Bass Otis (d. 1861) (Portrait of Thomas Truxtun) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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