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  1. Ice
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    Ice Member

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    Importance of detail in historical fiction

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Ice, Oct 27, 2008.

    My long-time ambition as a writer has been to write a pirate novel. I can devise just about everything the genre (actually, there really aren't a lot of non-romance pirate novels out there) is known for -- dastardly characters, swashbuckling battles, exotic locales, harrowing escapes, etc. -- and a strong plot to boot. But I've found that it's incredibly hard to pin down the details of operating an eighteenth-century pirate vessel, despite owning a dozen books on the subject. When I try to read Patrick O'Brien's well-researched novels about a similar naval setting, I can't muscle through his "authentic" prose, and can't keep up with all of his sailing terminology.

    Now, considering my problems, is writing a full-length novel about pirates unrealistic? Should I throw in the towel and move on to a different project (another of my favorite settings, the Roman Empire, gives me no trouble when I write about it)?

    The political scene of 1660-1730 is easy to get down, and I know certain details like naval ranks, pirate democracy, clothing, and types of vessels, but what I'm really missing are the precise details of daily life, which don't show up in any book I've ever come across. Will the average reader be annoyed if my description of daily life on a pirate vessel is sparse, and instead I focus on characterization, dialogue, and action? Or should I not bother with historical fiction if I can't continually crank out descriptions of anything more detailed than weighing anchor or heaving the capstan?

    Any help is appreciated :)


    FYI: Nonfiction books I own, off the top of my head, are

    Under the Black Flag
    The Sea Rover's Practice
    Empire of Blue Water
    The Republic of Pirates
    The History of Pirates
    The Pirate Primer
    A General History of Pirates
    Blackbeard
    Scourge of the Seas
    Pirates (Collins GEM)
     
  2. Scarecrow28
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    Scarecrow28 Contributing Member

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    I don't think most readers are going to be scouraging the pages in search of every single detail relating to the daily lives of pirates. I would inject small tidbits of information to provide the reader with a good idea of what daily life was like and so they have a better grasp of the setting, but not too much. In my opinion, I'd prefer to have more action, dialogue, and characterization in opposition to a highly-detailed potrait of a pirates life. Basically, I'd do enough to convey the setting, provide the reader with SOME information, and let the reader know you know what your talking about, but not too much and focus more on the actual story. Hope this helps!
     
  3. Iris Reola
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    Iris Reola Member

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    While detail can be lovely, it can also be excessive. This proves to be true, in your situation, when you begin to add a lot of naval jargon into the book. Keep the jargon light.

    Endurance by Alfred Lansing was a summer read for my Pre-AP English I class a few years back. It was very difficult to read because there were so many nautical terms. The story was interesting, but the style and language use made it a boring read.
     
  4. Ice
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    Ice Member

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    Ah, thank you so much, this is exactly what I was hoping for!

    Setting isn't so difficult; I'm used to conveying towns, landscapes, even the sea to an extent ... although the description ceiling for the sea is low on a windless day.
     
  5. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Learn as much as you can. If you can't learn everything, relax. If you want to write it, write it. As long as you know enough to write confidently, keep learning more as you write, and you can fill in the corrections later.
     
  6. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    Another thing to keep in mind is that if your story doesn't FOCUS on the details of everyday life, then readers won't necessarily notice such things missing. If you're unsure about a subject that really doesn't show up in your plot that much, then don't worry. Say you're writing a story set in ancient Rome like you suggest and you don't know, for example, how the priests in a certain temple or whatever might go about their rituals. Well, what if that temple doesn't show up in your story anywhere? No need to worry about being ignorant then. Just focus on what your story really needs.

    If, however, you do spend a lot of time focusing on the characters' daily lives, you might need to try to find more resources. Sometimes information isn't available, so you might also need to wing it.

    When in doubt you can always use a disclaimer. That's what I do (I write fantasy, but with lots of historical elements).
     
  7. Only Sissies Write
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    I'd say to use what you know to your advantage. Don't confuse the reader with a lot of technical naval terms, although I would use some. Maybe explain to the reader some of the lesser known terms, perhaps through context clues or the narration. As for a pirate's daily life, it'd be a good mood-setter to have a few scenes of normal life on a ship, especially at the beginning, but what you don't know you could always make up. As long as it's nothing outrageous, and as long as pirating experts aren't breathing down your neck, it'll be fine.

    I've never read a pirate book. I should, though. They sound cool.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A certain amount of detail, particularly of the mundane parts of day toi day life in that time, can help the reader feel the presence of the setting. I wouldn't overdo it, but little things like stepping around a mound of horse dung in the street, or passing a bath house with a placard announcing a nickel a bath, can help the reader get into the differences between then and now.

    In a pirate novel, it may be more a matter of water sloshing on the floor in the lower decks and having to man the bilge pumps when it gets too bad; or eating dried salted meat and hardtack and collecting rainwater to augment the supply for cooking and drinking. These are the little things to hint at the hard life of hunted men on the high seas.

    Be careful to stay in character, though, with your POV narration. Tight quarters and poor hygiene will mean plenty of body odor, but a character of that time would not particularly notice it unless it got worse than what he was used to - the young son of an aristocrat who finds himself sailing under the black flag might notice it at first, but not the desperate common thief who signs on to avoid the enemies he has accumulated in the port town.
     
  9. Ice
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    @Cogito & Only Sissies Write: So giving a more general period feel -- hygiene, food, etc. -- can be used to veil some gaps in knowledge on specific sailing operations (e.g. heaving to)? I never thought of it like that!

    Only Sissies Write -- Good luck; outside Robert Louis Stevenson and Rafael Sabatini you aren't going to find many non-romance pirate novels. (Historical romance is really starting to tick me off. Hell, if you aren't going to actually have culture affect the love story, just use a modern setting. Setting your story in the Middle Ages doesn't automatically make it exotic.) It's surprising how few of them there are. It seems that nine out of ten naval novels are set in the Napoleonic Era :(

    @tehuti88: Interesting. I'm not sure how I'd deal with those specific subjects, seeing as if a lot of the story takes place on a ship, you can't get around those sorts of descriptions nonstop. I know what you mean, though. I write fantasy a lot and whenever I pick it up after writing something historical I enter a state of ecstasy because of the freedom of it, regardless of whether I'm writing something down-to-earth or fantastic.
     

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