Friday, January 17, 2014

“The best historical novels ever written” (Richard Snow) – a hard act to follow!

Apart from being a narrow genre with a limited readership, writing nautical fiction, set in the age-of-sail, is far from plain sailing for an aspiring author.

Portsmouth Harbour 1770
While all forms of historical fiction demand high standards of prose, readers of this sub-genre, particularly those weaned on the stories created by Patrick O’Brian (POB) and CS Forester, are a very discerning group. It is not unusual for the aficionados to revisit all 21 volumes of the Aubriad in a never ending literary continuum. From a writer’s standpoint, the challenge of presenting one’s work to such a knowledgeable and demanding crew can be daunting.

Without statistical evidence, I would assess that the demographics of classic age-of-sail (particularly POB) readers fall predominantly into the category of middle-class, English-speaking, Caucasian males with a reasonably high level of education. These readers know exactly what they want and they are quick to express their disappointment if a work of fiction fails to fall within the parameters of their expectations.

So what are the literary prerequisites needed to satisfy such astute readers?

Firstly, the story must be strong and engaging with liberal servings of conflict and tension that increase as the story rises to its final denouement. Both POB and CS Forester were inveterate storytellers whose faultless prose will continue to be enjoyed by future generations of readers.

In addition, the protagonists must be credible and their behaviour patterns dependable. Dialogue should be appropriate to each man’s background and his station in life. Descriptive passages, necessary to convey scene and atmosphere, have their place but must not be excessive. Action, either on the guns or as hand-to-hand combat should be exciting and should draw the reader into the heat of the battle. Where the story is enmeshed in a famous naval encounter, the facts should be recounted faithfully. Anachronisms are not readily forgiven.

But, unfortunately for the writer, not all armchair critics agree on the balance of the above parameters. There are those who desire sea battles to be the greater part of any nautical adventure. For them, time on land is regarded as an interruption to the progress of the story. Yet it can be argued that the age of fighting sail was halted at various times by periods of peace and at times captains found themselves languishing on the beach awaiting their next commission. Furthermore, most captains were married men who had homes, wives and sweethearts who they spent small amounts of time with.

The question of romantic interludes in nautical fiction is also argued for-and-against. Illicit affairs of the heart are accepted by some readers as roguish behaviour that adds spice to the story. Others condemn such actions as scandalous, signalling a flaw in the character’s nature.

The aim of the nautical fiction writer is to immerse their readers in a world of fighting ships, of unforgettable sea battles and voyages to exotic locations. As with any historical novel, it must be both engaging and credible allowing the reader to slide effortlessly into the era. To achieve this, extensive research is necessary.
Battle of Santa Maria

This raises the question: how much historical fact should be included in the story? Descriptions of ports, harbours, seascapes are introduced to create atmosphere. They provide a backcloth albeit in the vibrant colours of an exotic location, or the drab stinking cobbles of an English fish market running with brine and bleeding fish-guts. Some readers enjoy such passages, others comment that excessive description slows the story. So just how much is enough?

Despite the readers’ expectations, authors are basically storytellers who cannot be experts in every field. Therefore to pen a manuscript to the satisfaction of every reader is not an easy task. However, feedback from readers, in the form of on-line reviews, is a useful tool that is both welcome and helpful. Honest critiques allow the author to recognize the demands placed on them and, when writing a series, constructive criticism allows them to bend to the readers’ demands in a subsequent title – if appropriate.

But the primary requirement of a novel in any genre is undoubtedly solid characterization. Whether the protagonists are of aristocratic birth or pressed men taken from the streets, they must present as strong, well-rounded characters who will continue to grow throughout the book or series. But aside from displaying ambition, courage and leadership qualities, they should also exhibit some human failings.

Richard Snow (New York Times Book Review -1991) regards the works of POB as, “The best historical novels ever written”, but comments: “In the end it is the serious exploration of human character that gives the books their greatest power.”

For today’s author, the challenge to create characters as lasting as Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin or CS Forester's Horatio Hornblower is a formidable and seemingly impossible task. And with informed reviewers drawing comparisons with the great Bards, perhaps this is one reason few authors take up the pen to compete in this arena.

This article by M.C. Muir was first published in QUARTERDECK - Winter 2014 (Jan)

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