Friday, January 17, 2014

The challenges confronting writers of age-of-sail fiction

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 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 mob 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 passage, 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 be it 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 recognise 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 characterisation. 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.

M. C. Muir (author of the Under Admiralty Orders – the Oliver Quintrell Series)

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

Yorkshire Grit

Three gritty stories, set in the north of England, from the pen of author, Margaret Muir.
Though the author now lives in Tasmania (Australia), her roots were firmly set in Yorkshire soil.
Her historical novels, set in the difficult days of the late 1800s, reveal the darker side of family life and the struggles that confronted young women at the time.

Book 1 – SEA DUST – Tells of Emma’s torrid life in Whitby with a cruel husband. The escape she plans for herself and her young son and an eventful voyage to the far side of the world.
Book 2 – THROUGH GLASS EYES – A family saga, much of the intrigue revolves around the theft of an expensive doll.
Book 3 – THE BLACK THREAD – Set on the Leeds Liverpool canal – a story of treachery, deception and murder.

The three e-book set is available at a greatly discounted price on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

Oliver Quintrell Trilogy – Box set of e-books

With the continuing success of the Oliver Quintrell nautical fictions series, the author has released a Box-set which combines the first three e-books three books in the series.

Book 1 - FLOATING GOLD - a voyage to the frozen wastes of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Book 2 - THE TAINTED PRIZE - a mission to locate a missing Royal Navy frigate takes Quintrell through the Magellan Strait to the coast of Chile and Peru. Apart from several encounters with the enemy, unexpected and disturbing occurrences make this an unforgettable story.
Book 3 - ADMIRALTY ORDERS - Captain Quintrell is ordered to Gibraltar to give assistance to the garrison and colony. Hemmed in by strict quarantine regulations, the dangers which unfold are more insidious than either the French or Spanish fleets.
Pic: Jebel Musa - the southern Pillar of Hercules on the Strait of Gibraltar.

During 2014, the author is planning Book 4 in the series. In the forthcoming adventure, Captain Quintrell, aboard Perpetual, heads from Gibraltar across the Atlantic. But with ‘detained’ Spanish treasure aboard his frigate, and with Spain now aligning its forces with France, the enemy he faces is a formidable force. Can he escape their clutches and fulfil his orders?

The OLIVER QUINTRELL TRILOGY Box-set is now available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

Sailing full and by - an author's voyage into the world of nautical fiction


Surprisingly, neither the young Richard Patrick Russ nor Cecil Louis Troughton Smith served aboard naval vessels, yet they became the most prolific and well-respected exponents of nautical fiction of all times. Writing under the pen-names, O’Brian and Forester, they shared a seemingly intimate relationship with the sea that flowed freely across the pages of their classic adventures. It is, therefore, hard to imagine where the salt in their veins stemmed from.
Today, several latter-day authors have a distinct advantage in that they can proudly boast a career in the modern navy seeing active service. Other writers, having grown up living by the sea, have salt in their veins.


But today, the opportunity to step aboard a fighting ship from the age-of sail is no easy task. HMS Victory, the oldest fighting ship still in commission, is in permanent dry-dock. Nevertheless, to walk the decks is enough to inspire the imagination of anyone who visits Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned ship still afloat and very occasionally her canvas is loosed and she sails out from her berth in Boston harbour. But very few people have the opportunity of sailing aboard her.
So, without the advantage of a seafaring background to call on, what does the aspiring lubberly writer do to become acquainted with the changing moods of the sea?

For author, M.C. Muir, the answer is to sail aboard a tall ship.
“To cross the ocean beneath a press of square sails, to stand on a heeling deck in the beating rain as the sea rushes in through the scuppers; to take the helm in the blackness of night wishing and waiting for the moon to rise; to watch the masts drawing infinite circles on the star-studied heavens; to listening intently for the luff of the t’gallant when the ship heads too close to the wind; to marvel at the endless array of sunsets; to sway to the rhythm as the deck pitches and rolls, is an unforgettable experience.”

Over the last eight years, M.C. Muir, has sailed on numerous short voyages on sail training ships and replica vessels. In August 2013, this relatively new nautical fiction author embarked on a 23-day voyage of 2500 miles along Australian Bight aboard the 100-year old Dutch ship, Bark Europa.

Sailing close hauled under a press of canvas, in a latitude just one degree north of the band of the Roaring Forties, the bow of the 3-masted Bark sliced through the waves making a very commendable nine-and-a-half knots. Apart from the chill factor, the winter cold fronts were not unkind and the voyage was uneventful. Only two weeks later, however, as Europa headed north towards Sydney, the 303 ton ship was hit by a sudden 55-knot squall (reported as Force 10) and lost its mizzen topmast.
Muir was not on board to witness this, but remembers an Atlantic crossing a few years earlier aboard the 2,200-ton modern passenger barquentine, Star Clipper.

“It was the tail-end of the hurricane season and we were nearing the islands of the Caribbean when Star Clipper was hit by an unexpected tropical squall. As most of her sails were still flying when the Force 9 hit, suddenly everything went over. Crockery and glasses crashed to the floor and passengers were thrown from their beds. The screech of the wind and the noise of the rain dancing on the sea were horrendous, obliterating any chance of conversation.” Such an experience left the writer with an indelible memory.

The endless ocean, in all its guises, is a formidable element of nature and is regarded by some authors as the primary player within a work of nautical fiction. And it was their stories set against the ever-changing backdrop of sea that made the novels of Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester so evocative and appealing, and carried their readers on the crest of each new adventure to the far side of the world.

M.C. Muir is author of the Oliver Quintrell series of nautical fiction adventures set in the age-of-sail.
This article appeared in Nov/Dec issue of ‘Quarterdeck’, 2013.