Writing History

Angus Phillips on Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

Not that it’s a quick or easy read. Dana, son of a poet, made the choice that all who write about the seagoing life must make—whether to do so in the rich, exotic language of the ship and risk losing landlubbers along the way, or to dumb it down so everyone could breeze through. He took the hard way, keeping it real, as we say today.

The challenge of writing Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer was weaving a narrative that was equal parts local history, American Revolution history, and maritime history, bound by a tight 30,000-word limit. And, early on, I had to confront the same issue Phillips raises: whether to spend valuable verbiage explaining nautical jargon to readers or to proceed regardless and hope they speak salt as a second language.

I adopted what I call a History 201 approach, specifying recurrent themes or details but assuming readers knew the general course of events or customs (or at least could look them up). I rarely defined the differences between types of vessels, for example. If the reader really burns to know what a schooner or snow is, there are better explanations available elsewhere than I had space to give. In contrast I defined brigs and ships because Smedley’s Defence was both.

Another decision: I jettisoned the traditional measure of a ship’s size by tonnage, which involves a complicated formula interesting only to Age-of-Sail historians and model-ship builders, for a comparative yardstick by number of cannons. Saying a ship was 200 tons means nothing to a reader, but he will understand that a 16-gun brig was more powerful than an 8-gun schooner and dwarfed by a 64-gun frigate.

Otherwise, the West Country accent isn’t too thick. Any reader who knows her bow from her stern should enjoy it.

I delivered the manuscript April 1 and the copyeditrix and I are doing polishes now. Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer goes to press in early May and should be available by late June.