In the Kydd Series how do you select the settings and historical events?
This is partly a reflection of the historical record, partly where I want to take Kydd and Renzi for a particular book. You also want to have variety in a series, not have the characters just sail around the Med in each book. One thing is certain, though, the importance of location research. There are certain intangibles about a place – smells, sounds, colours – that you generally can’t get without going there. And readers have paid me the great compliment of saying that this gives an extra dimension to the books, especially if they themselves personally know the place I write about.
Do your characters ever take on a life of their own?
I am a firm believer that writing should be character-led, not plot-led. I spent a great deal of time thinking about my characters before really doing too much work on the plot, which to me is the easiest part.
Where can I find a glossary or dictionary of the nautical terms in the Kydd series?
There are a number of free online glossaries. Try first Wikipedia glossary of nautical terms As well many fine books are available:
- Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine
The British Mariner’s Vocabulary, J J Moore
The Sailor’s Word-Book, W H Smyth
How important is your reference library?
I treasure my reference library, which is the result of many years’ collecting, and now runs to many hundreds of volumes. They line all four walls of my study, and spill out into other rooms in the house. There are some books that I consult on a daily basis – wonderful works like Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine and Admiral Smyth’s The Sailor’s Word Book; others I may just take down from the shelves occasionally, but they are all of immense value to me in my writing. Of particular resonance with me are what few written diaries and recollections exist from the lower deck of Nelson’s time, and actual ship’s logs. A certain phrase, or a doodle in the margin by a bored watch-keeper, often set the creative juices flowing as I try to piece together a moment in time. But I find inspiration in many things; my collection of eighteenth century sea artifacts provide a tangible link to Kydd’s day. As I take a long sniff of a special piece of tarred hemp rope, if I half close my eyes it is not long before I am well away at sea. Looking at the work of artists, both contemporary to the Age of Sail, and modern, also helps me capture the many moods of the sea and the majesty of a ship under sail. And I delight in what the modern world of electronics can offer me as a sea writer. I now have the most up-to-date ships electronic charts system installed in my computer and can call up and plot all of Kydd’s journeys with the press of a key! The familiar paper charts that I used when I first started writing the books have been lovingly stored away.
Do you write specifically to your readers?
When I first seriously thought about trying my hand at writing Kathy gave me an excellent piece of advice: write the book you yourself want to read. I have followed this since then, but with a twist. I write the book I want to read, but I write it to Kathy. There is quite a deal of sea technical information in my books, which of course greatly appeals to the Old Salts, but I am conscious that many of my readers do not share their very detailed knowledge. Kathy has grown to share my fascination for the sea and the skills of the eighteenth century seamen, but she is by no means a sailor! Capturing and retaining her interest in my writing is my way of bringing Tom Kydd’s world to a broad readership. And it has been very gratifying to hear from readers from all walks of life – ages thirteen to eighty, and of both sexes – that they are greatly enjoying the books.
How important is historical credibility in creating engaging fiction for readers?
In my view it is absolutely crucial, and a disservice to readers not to take it very seriously. I take great pains with my research, devoting around half my working time to research, the other half to writing. Of course there are some areas where I feel a writer of historical fiction may take some liberties. In some instances, for example, I believe time may be compressed. In Kydd, Duke William takes to sea fairly quickly, rather than just swinging around her anchor. The latter, while authentic, would have made rather boring reading. If I write about something in the historical record, say the Battle of the Nile and Lord Nelson’s role, I believe it must reflect what actually happened. Many readers have paid me the great compliment of saying that they did not really understand the tactics of the Battle of the Nile until they read TENACIOUS. I also strongly feel that gratuitous sex and violence does a disservice to the common seamen, who have often been wrongly portrayed in fiction as mere cannon fodder, the dregs of the earth. The Royal Navy could not have maintained dominance over the world’s oceans for so long had this really been so. Modern scholarship is showing that in many ways Jack Tar was the real hero of the Georgian age, and I hope my books reflect this.
How do you deal with writing about well-known characters from history, such as Nelson?
No sea writer dealing with the period of the French wars could ignore Nelson. He had such a huge impact at all levels, in life and in death. I personally believe he was Britain’s greatest hero. When I was researching the Battle of the Nile for TENACIOUS, my admiration for the man increased even more.
Nelson came across the French at anchor in Aboukir Bay off the coast of Egypt at sunset. They were facing outwards on what was essentially a lee shore. He then had to make up his mind in just a few minutes about what his intentions were to be. Then the wind backed just a few points, and he saw his chance! Abandoning entirely his plan of attacking by divisions he more or less threw his whole fleet in a single column at the head of the enemy line, knowing that the northwesterly was going to allow them to pass down the length of line, smashing in broadsides as they went. But he had the foresight beforehand to order that an anchor cable be passed back along the decks right down through the whole ship and out the wardroom stern windows, and only then to bend on an anchor instead of the usual arrangement at the bows. What this did was allow ships, at the time of their choosing, to drop the hook to place them slap alongside their chosen target. If you think about it you can see that driving downwind, if the forward anchor was let go, the ship would first have to rotate to windward.
Nelson’s way was fast and sure. Some might say that the idea of passing inside the line, that is on the land side and therefore taking the enemy from both sides, was not his idea. True, it was Captain Thomas Foley of Goliath who had the idea, but this only goes to show the initiative and daring that Nelson had managed to instill in his captains.
To me, the most amazing part is that the whole thing – abandoning the previous plan, the evolution with the anchor cable, and the insight to demolish the whole enemy line starting from one end – was achieved with just four signal hoists. And, at this time Nelson was a junior rear admiral with his very first command.
Nelson inspired such devotion that grown men sobbed hopelessly at his death. At his funeral service at St Pauls the 48 seamen from Victory were to fold the battle ensign and lay it upon the coffin, but in front of everybody they turned on the flag and tore it to pieces, one for each man. An impulsive, emotional initiative worthy of Nelson himself. Writing about a figure so famous and so iconic obviously poses problems. You can’t afford to get anything wrong, so your research has to be impeccable. And I have to bear in mind that my books are primarily about Thomas Kydd, it would be all too easy to let a figure such as Nelson assume centre stage.
Who is Renzi modelled on?
In Georgian times, while not common, there were people of high status who did go to sea as ordinary seamen. This was for any number of reasons, including escaping debtor’s prison, or running away from an amorous entanglement that had gone wrong. Renzi chose to go to sea in expiation of what he saw as a family sin, a fairly highminded reason, but one which does accord with the times. He is not modelled on any one high-born fugitive, but he had led the typical life of his class, did the Grand Tour, etc. For reasons that are divulged as the series goes on, I could not give away much of his background too early. And I promise there are still many surprises about Renzi in store for the reader.
When you are working on a novel, do you find yourself falling into the past? Oh, yes! I am a “visile”, and I have to see, in my mind’s eye, what I am writing about before I can put the words down. This means I have to mentally go back to the eighteenth century and really feel part of Kydd’s world. I have a huge interest in the period and find that now I can travel there quite easily.
What a writer must not do is to look at another world through contemporary eyes.
The eighteenth century was in many ways hard and brutal, both ashore and at sea. But it was also a time when man, with just his wits and courage undertook great adventures. Even when I am not specifically writing, I often daydream about the eighteenth century. Kathy knows the look well by now, especially when I’m pushing the trolley behind her doing the supermarket shopping!
How did your writing career start?
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was a software designer. I’d just signed off on my biggest and most fraught project. As I sank into an armchair, my wife thrust a large tumbler of whisky into my hand and looked me straight in the eyes. “Sweetheart,” she said, “get a life!” Her suggestion: that I write. And about the sea…
Once I’d overcome the initial shock and decided to give it a go, I realised there was a lot of sense in what she said. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been bewitched by the sea. Going to a decent grammar school was wasted on me; on the school bus I’d gaze out across the Channel at the low, grey shapes slipping away over the horizon on voyages to who knows where, taking my imagination with them. In the late 1950s, the sea seemed to be much more a part of our shared consciousness. As a young boy I remember the thrilling drama of the Flying Enterprise, when Captain Kurt Carlsen refused to leave his sinking ship and, with First Mate Dancy of the ocean salvage tug Turmoil, heroically fought to bring her within sight of port before she tragically sank. Then, too, London Pool was packed with ships flying the red ensign, and it was also the time of the very last of the square riggers. Theoretically, you could still sign up outward-bound on a commercial voyage.
The only member of my family to have any connection with the sea was a distant relative we called Uncle Tom.
A gentle, quietly spoken old man, he’d been around the Horn in square sail, and whenever I could I would sit spellbound and listen to him talk about life before the mast on the seven seas.
My father thought he’d knock all this nonsense out of me, and sent me to a tough sea-training school at the tender age of 14. It didn’t work; there was no contest – Latin and algebra – or splicing and boat-handling! So at age 15, I joined the Royal Navy. And 40 years later, I sat down to write about the sea.
I’m “Old Navy” with a deep respect and admiration for the service, so it had to be the Navy I’d write about. I chose Nelson’s time, the great climax of the age of sail and a magnificent canvas for sea tales. This was an era when the sea was respected and wooed by men who didn’t have steam engines and brute force to meet the waves. I also wanted to bring the sea itself into a more prominent role, but was as yet unsure how to achieve this.
I soon realised that there were things from my time in the Navy that I wanted to bring to my writing; small things, but evocative even to this day – a shimmering moonpath glittering on the water, the sound of voices from invisible night watchkeepers, the startling rich stink of the land after months at sea, the comfort of a still hammock when the ship rolls about it, the unreal beauty of an uninhabited tropical island in the South Seas.
There were the darker memories, too. Savage storms at sea when you feel the presence of nature like a wild beast out of a cage; close inshore in a gale when you wonder if a mistake at the helm will end with those black rocks suddenly bursting in. I was duty watch in the carrier Melbourne that night when we collided with and sank the Voyager – there from the seaboat I saw first hand men’s courage at work while 80 sailors drowned.
But to achieve that more prominent role for the sea, it seemed logical to take the perspective of the men who actually did the job out there on the yardarm, serving the great cannon or crowding aboard an enemy deck, rather than of those shouting orders from behind. So the lower deck it was – and then I came across some surprising statistics. Unlike the army, where commissions were bought, all naval officers had to qualify professionally, and scattered among these were no more than a couple of hundred common seamen who made the awesome journey from the fo’c’sle to the quarterdeck, thereby turning themselves into gentlemen. Some became captains of their own ships; remarkably, some victims of the press-gang even became admirals. How could it be so? Just what kind of men were they?
I began to write my story…
Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
As a writer I find inspiration from many things. There’s my collection of eighteenth-century sea artefacts, which provide a tangible link to those days, music of the time, what few written diaries and recollections exist from the lower deck of Nelson’s time, actual ships’ logs, marine art. It’s hard to say what is most important, but certainly the work of the great artists in capturing the many moods of the sea, and the majesty of a ship under sail is inspiring to me.
I have a huge admiration for the giants of the past – Charles Brooking, Peter Monamy, Dominic Serres, Thomas Whitcombe, Samuel Scott, John Cleverley and Nicholas Pocock – and of course, Turner. They provide a contemporary window on the world of Thomas Kydd. Then there are the modern artists like Geoff Hunt, John Chancellor and Derek Gardner ( I have framed prints of all their work in my home).
What has it been like to have been published?
Probably the happiest day of my life was April 3rd, 2001. That was when I stood before over 100 guests at the launch party for Kydd. It was held in the historic Admiralty House in London, which had been the official residence of the First Lord of the Admiralty from 1788 to 1964 – there certainly could be no more splendid venue to honour a novel set in the Great Age of Sail! As I stuttered my speech of thanks, around me I could feel the ghosts of all the great sea heroes of the past that noble building had seen.
Naively, as I walked out in a daze into the night, I thought I would now just return to my writing. But then it all started – interviews on radio, television and with print media journalists. Literary festivals. Book signings. My feet hardly touched the ground for the six weeks after the launch. By nature I am somewhat reticent, especially when answering questions about myself, but a strange thing happened – I found that when I started talking about the world of Thomas Kydd my inhibitions disappeared. I have a huge respect for the eighteenth century seamen – and I take particular pleasure when people can share with me the challenges and fascination of their hard world.
The events to which I have been invited have taken me all over the world, from press lunches in Manhattan to English venues ranging from a 900-year-old Minster in Nottinghamshire to the seaside resort of Southwold, and on to Hay-on-Wye, the tiny market town in the Welsh Marches that hosts probably the world’s most prestigious literary festival.
Who is it easier to write about – Kydd or Renzi?
I do enjoy writing about Renzi. He is so logical and with my background in computers I guess I am, too. However, Kydd is my central character, and I know him pretty well by now. One of the exercises I set myself is to sometimes put Kydd in a modern day setting and see how he would react. This is a good test of how well I know his character and on occasion usefully passes the time while I am carrying the shopping basket for Kathy in the supermarket!
How valuable was your time in the navy when you came to write the series?
Having served before the mast was invaluable to me in being able to “get under the skin” of my characters. There is a real comradeship, loyalty and strength of character at sea in the fo’c’sle, which I believe has changed little to this day. Then, later, I was privileged to serve as an officer and I draw on these experience when Kydd himself becomes an officer. I do not feel it is essential for someone to have actually been to sea to write about the sea, but for me, it is important that I have personally experienced the sea in all her moods.
Is it difficult for you as a writer to step back in time to the eighteenth century?
Yes and no! I have a huge interest in that period and find that I can by now go back in my imagination to that world quite readily. What a writer must not do is to look at another world through contemporary eyes. The eighteenth-century was in many ways hard and brutal, both ashore and at sea. But it was also a time when man, with just his wits and courage, undertook great ventures. I particularly admire the eighteenth-century seamen.
Which writers do you admire?
I grew up enthralled with C S Forester, the only writer in the genre at that time, but was also captivated by the atmosphere in R M Ballantyne (“Coral Island”) and found Marryat hard going for a small boy, but rewarding. The most evocative sea books to me were Conrad, which I now realise were written by someone who was a professional seaman who deeply related to the sea’s mystery. At sea I read all I could lay hands on that could amplify my experience. And while I was at sea C S Forester died, and I recall the deep sense of finality that I felt that there would be no more great sea stories of the kind he pioneered so masterfully. I have a deep admiration for Patrick O’Brian, and thoroughly enjoy his work, but of course we necessarily write from different perspectives.
How valuable was your time in the navy when you came to write the series?
Having served ‘before the mast’ was invaluable to me in being able to “get under the skin” of my characters. There is a real comradeship, loyalty and strength of character at sea in the fo’c’sle, which I believe has changed little to this day. Then, later, I was privileged to serve as an officer and I draw on these experience when Kydd himself becomes an officer. I do not feel it is essential for someone to have actually been to sea to write about the sea, but for me, it’s important that I have personally experienced the sea in all her moods.
Do you sail yourself?
I wish! There seems to be so little spare time for hobbies and recreation at the moment. However, as a young lad in the Navy I won my colours sailing and always seemed to end up representing the ship at regattas around the world. But that was in a wonderful old navy whaler, a two-masted craft equipped with brass fittings, real rope and canvas – a first class sea-boat and something Captain Bligh would easily recognise. For me, today’s yachts seem all plastic and stainless steel – and lack soul. I do take enormous pleasure in going to sea in the tall ships that are still afloat. I rode out a Force six blow in the Irish Sea in the full-rigged barque Earl of Pembroke, a square rigger that Kydd himself would be familiar with, and is therefore in demand to be a film star herself (‘Longitude’, ‘Treasure Island’, ‘A Respectable Trade’, etc.)
What is your daily routine?
Kathy and I work together, only yards away; she is just around the corner, and our systems are networked which is very helpful. She was a professional editor so I have my own live-in blue pencil! This is her main task, followed by research and operations in general, releasing me for pure writing – a priceless asset. We both aim to be at our desks at 8:30 am. Around 11:00 we usually take a short break and then resume work until lunch at 1:00 pm. Following my practice in the Navy I often take a forty minute nap after lunch, and then we may take a stroll into Ivybridge. (We live just a couple of minutes’ walk from the centre of the village). I find I am at my most creative in terms of writing in the morning so afternoons are mostly reserved for research. Reading my growing library of resource material is a necessary but most enjoyable part of the job!
Do you re-write or edit as you go along?
I’m a bleeder, not a gusher as they say in the profession, fairly consistently writing one thousand words a day of pretty useable text, but because I work in such an intimate way with Kathy, there are no surprises, and now it is very unusual to have to perform a rewrite. It is my pleasure to pace slowly along the River Erme with her, walking and talking plots and characters. I never edit my own work; I realise now that this is a professional skill requiring a view from on high, and a good editor is in my opinion certainly as important as the writer.
How many books do you hope to write in the Kydd series?
At least 21. My next book is The Baltic Prize out in November.
Tell me about your other books
I’ve also written Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany, a little non-fiction homage to the Golden Age of Sail. As well as the Kydd Series I’m writing the GameChangers Series, standalone novels based on pivotal points in history. The Silk Tree is the first of these, followed by The Powder of Death.
Portsmouth Point: “Portsmouth Point” by Thomas Rowlandson, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; Nelson: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
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