Saturday, May 16, 2009

Blasts from the Past: A Glimpse of Sea Battle

"A galleon," growled Smithy between outbursts. The sound of cannons seemed to ricochet from the stars."
--The Privateer

A deep explosion echoes across the surface of the water. You feel the vibration rattle your vitals from the inside out. Cannon fire at sea was the sound of the Age of Sail. It was feared by some and adored by others. Of all the topics I enjoyed researching for my historical adventure, The Privateer, those blistering cannons echoing over the horizon are among my favorite.

Thank you for having me here at Prairie Chicks, today. I’m really enjoying sharing news about The Privateer and some of the research that went into it.

Studying pirates sounds like fun and it is, but throw in the British Navy and all those heavily rated men-of-war and it is time to get down to serious business. Long guns, carronades, rockets, and even bombs, sailors at sea had one primary weapon for attack and defense and that was gun powder.

Under the supervision of the Powder Room, little powder monkeys (usually small boys who could dodge the melee of a gun deck), ran the supplies back and forth from storage to gun crews. Gunpowder at that time was a mixture of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal. The powder was kept in flannel bags and it HAD to stay dry.

Gun crews worked the cannons in and out. These unbelievably heavy guns got very hot; men not only had to worry about being crushed by the ricochet of the cannon as it bounced back after firing, they had to worry about burns and explosions, too. A talented and experienced officer was necessary to coordinate the activities of the gun crews with the captain’s orders--a true ballet of destruction.

Besides cannons shooting from side to side (broad-sides), some ships also had chasers, smaller artillery at either the bow or stern, or both. After these avenues were exhausted, it was down to muskets and small arms. Can you imagine it? Two ships brushing up against one another in jerky thrusts as the sea heaves them up and down on her swells. The air is thick with acrid smoke and the screams of men.

Not a pretty picture, warfare, even in the age of gentleman officers and the occasional gentleman pirate. I am now fascinated by the heroine’s experience in novels of sea adventure. Must they always cow below deck? Sure it would have been frightening to hear the tumultuous noises, but I don’t believe the world shaking violently around you as you stood several inches in rising salt water would have been comforting. I’m sure I would have run screaming topside for the commander and thrown my arms around his boots. Or maybe not, because then there’s those sharpshooters in the caps (up in the enemy’s rigging) hoping to put a ball through an officer’s brains. Men.

Studying ships and Age of Sail warfare can add a lot of color to historical prose. This was no dull task for me, as I adore great classic sea fiction. To learn more about the Age of Sail and battle, I highly recommend the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian. May I suggest you begin with the second volume, Post Captain? And don’t forget the superb lexicon for Age of Sail vocabulary, A Sea of Words. You might also check out the Thomas Kydd series and the classic, Horatio Hornblower. Reading and enjoying Age of Sail fiction can not only be a satisfying and exciting way to learn about battle at sea--it may just blow your mind!

~Danielle Thorne
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The Privateer:


Jana Richards said...

Hi Danielle,
Great to have you here with us today. Congratulations on your new book.

I've visited the Caribbean as well, namely the Dominican Republic. The island of Hispanola was, I believe, where Columbus first landed and was a stronghold of the Spanish for many years. When we toured an Spanish Fort overlooking the Caribbean, I wondered about the people who first set foot on the island. Were they adventurers or just poor sailors? Their footsteps still echo in that place.

Will you write another book set in that era on the high seas or is there another time period you're interested in?

Unfortunately, I have to be away for the rest of the day, but the other Prairie Chicks will be around to say hi.


DanielleThorne said...

Hi Jana,
Thanks for the welcome. Isn't the Caribbean a wonderful place? It has so much riveting history--some very exotic, some very terrible! I totally agree--the echoes of those who lived there before can be very haunting.

Have a great day off and thanks for having me here with the Chicks.

Karyn Good said...

Hi Danielle. Welcome and congrats on your new book. So exciting!

Ah, Tortuga, Port Royal, buccaneers, pirates, sea battles, treasure, the English, the Spanish. It would indeed be fascinating research! Since deep water is not my favorite thing, I think if would be terrifying to be stuck in the bowels of a ship during a sea battle.

How do you go about organizing your research?

Helena said...

Welcome to Prairie Chicks, Danielle! Just reading about your research sends chills up the spine, so your book must be a thrilling read.

When I was younger, I read a lot of historical fiction/adventure, tho not many in the seafaring category. The Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy comes to mind (no pirates, if I'm not mistaken?). I have had the Master and Commander series recommended to me before. I believe I could be easily hooked into reading in the genre.

How extensively do you travel in the regions where you set your stories? What originally inspired you to write your book?

Thanks for visiting us today.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Good morning, Danielle. I love a good swashbuckler - both the man and the story, heh.

Reading your post reminded me of my surprise when I learned smokeless gunpowder was discovered by a farmer just a couple hours away from where I live. I'd never thought about it until I saw the sign and read how he discovered it.

I also write historicals, but the Old West has always made my eyes shine. :)

Thank you for taking the time to join us today.

Janet said...

Danielle - welcome to the Prairies! It's great to have you here and great to read about your research. I'm a historical junkie (a minor in the discipline at university). Right now, I'm all about medieval, but I was drawn into the Age of Sail when Master and Commander was released at the box office (Russel Crowe - need I say more?).

My husband and I promptly went out and found Patrick O'Brian's series and devoured it. I've toyed with writing a book on Privateering, but, as I said, I'm into medieval right now.

I see you've written in a variety of genre - short story, historical, contemporary - what's your view on Branding?

DanielleThorne said...

Karen~I research by reference book, buy books, visit websites online, and read like crazy. I actually keep files on each topic in manilla folders the old fashioned way.

I don't do a lot of traveling to the Caribbean but have done some. We have another trip planned next spring. My latest WIP that is being considered with a publisher is set in Regency England. I have a 3 year goal to make it there. Hope I do. Writing a Regency was very hard--there's just so much information to know, and everyone's an expert! I'm cutting my teeth, I figure.

Janet~I am a devoted Patrick O'Brian fan. Oh gosh I could reread them over and over. I learned so much and have deep respect for O'Brian's voice.

Thanks for the comments everyone. I'm glad we still have lots of historical readers who love the Age of Sail.

DanielleThorne said...


I've been waiting for someone to scold me for dabbling in so many different genres. I've written my whole life in every way one could imagine but I didn't start writing novels until 3 years ago. This is a new frontier for me and I am still learning. The vampire trend has piqued my interest but I realize I would not stay in that area so I have told myself to let go and stop trying to wear so many hats (or is it bandwagon jumping?). I have now a historical, Regency, and a contemporary. The contemporary was the easiest to write for me--but I think the future is going to see more Regency intertwined with Caribbean influence. I feel more alive when I write history. And I just can't let go of those blue-green waters and Naval Officers!

Molli said...

Hello Danielle, and again, thanks for joining us today. I enjoyed reading your description and realizing that you understand that the reality of warfare, by sea or any other method, is anything but pretty.

My husband has read both fact and fiction on all things relating to the sea, including the Master and Commander and Horatio Hornblower series, which he enjoyed greatly. Thus, although I haven't followed his lead in that so far, when we were in Boston a few years ago we took the opportunity to tour the USS Constitution. It was marvelous to learn that (if my memory serves correctly) she's 200+ years old, has been refitted almost from top to bottom in various stages over the years, and still sails out (well, I think she's towed for most of the journey, but even so....) once a year so that she can maintain her status as a commissioned ship. The tour gave me a greater appreciation for the conditions those men and boys suffered, and frankly I don't know what I'd do if I was caught up in the middle of the battle chaos she was designed for.

One question I have is where, or if, you researched the naval vocabulary of the time? Did that play a part in the development of your story?

DanielleThorne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DanielleThorne said...

Oops! Let me try that again:

Hi! My naval "vocabulary" came from actually reading the entire Master and Commander series as I mentioned. For voice, I read the book, BEFORE THE MAST, which is written in the 1700's, my era. I didn't want a cliche story filled with "ye" and "quite"--I tried to read literature published close to that time period. As far as actual vocabulary TERMS...I used the awesome book A SEA OF WORDS that is a companion to the Master and Commander series. I still carry it around--it's priceless.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Danielle, I've always been drawn to sea and thought of writing something in that sort of setting at some point, but shrank from all the prospective research needed to get the vocabulary right. It's very encouraging to hear how helpful fiction has been for you, as I find that a much more pleasant way to immerse myself large-scale in learning about a new period.

How did you fare for finding information on the heroine at sea, as you allude to in your post? Did fiction offer the best insights into handling women at sea, or did you find much information in first-hand accounts of historical research?

DanielleThorne said...

I didn't really go after the heroine at sea/battle angle--but if I wanted to go into that experience I would look at the female pirates Bonney and Reed plus there are a couple non-fiction books on early women world travelers (especially around the Victorian era I believe) and their diaries. I'm sorry I can't recall who I'm thinking of off the top of my head. Women traveled at sea alot more than one realizes--I know the research is there, you would have to dig deep. I just can't imagine living with hundreds of smelly, exhausted, hungry, woman-wanting men, and having to deal with going to the bathroom, cramps, etc. I guess that's what romantic fiction is for--to romanticize it--but let's face it, that aspect would have sucked!

Janet said...

I'm glad you mentioned Bonney and Reed, Danielle. I remember reading about them and thought what fascinating women they would have been. I'm with you on the unpleasant aspect of living aboard a privateer's ship with smelly men. *shudder* Nothing romantic about that!

On behalf of Jana and The Chicks, thank you for joining us today. I've already fished out my O'Brian books and am ready to set sail. It's supposed to rain tomorrow and I'm thinking an afternoon with Russel Crowe on the high seas might be just the thing.

I hope you enjoyed your landlocked visit to The Prairies :)

DanielleThorne said...

Thanks, girls!

connie said...

Hello Danielle,
This is a great blog. Thank you.
I love the sea, but only when I am land lubbing.
Sea faring in centuries past is something I enjoy learning about.
Two definitely non-Caribbean, sea stories amazed me. A famous castle in Scotland, Eilan Donan (sp) is on a sea loch in the highlands. At one time or another, it was attacked - cannon and all - by both the British and Spanish war ships.
The other concerns a ship in Sydney, Nova Scotia. We boarded a small sailing ship, the deck was maybe 40 feet long, yet it brought more than 200 highlanders displaced by the Clearances in the 1800s. There was not room on deck or below deck for those people to do anything but stand on deck or lie down on tiered bunkbeds holding ten people each with head clearance of 18 inches between bunks. What a way to travel by sea for five or six weeks!
Have you read the sad story of Mrs. Hamilton, Lord Nelson's great love, after he was killed?
There is a post in the Thames River where pirates were executed. They were tied to the post at low tide to contemplate their choice of profession until the tide rose and drowned them. Not a lovely period of history onboard or otherwise.
Looking forward to reading your book. connie