We have all heard that phrase before. Even those of you who aren’t writers have heard it repeated in films, articles, and English classes.
But we all know that there are stories of magic, dinosaurs, space-battles, pirates, and schoolboy wizards that can’t possibly have been drawn from the writer’s own life (no matter how much we hope that J. K. Rowling is telling the truth about Hogwarts).
So how do we cross the great divide of the fantastic whilst maintaining that fundamental authors’ tenet?
Research it until you know it. Then write it!
I have a background in archaeology and history, and I’ve spent many hours pouring over dusty tomes filed away in back-rooms of regional libraries, or patiently measuring the materials used in ancient artefacts that have been hidden away in cellars. Much of the research that goes into piecing together the lives of our ancestors is detailed and time-consuming. Yet the results are always open to interpretation.
When I started writing my historical adventure novel, Escape to Pirate Island, I followed the path of the research. I wanted to tell an accurate historical account. There are numerous sources available to draw from. I studied language from court transcripts, costume from museums and archives, attitudes and experiences from biographies of pirates and even women who disguised themselves as men to serve aboard ships.
The wealth of information available is overwhelming. And at this point in the process, I wasn’t certain what I would need and what I could overlook. So I decided to turn my approach upside down.
I decided to write the story and then complete the research.
I started this new stage of writing by looking to my favourite pirate stories, all of them were fantastical tales of daring and adventure! I drew inspiration from Treasure Island, Moonfleet, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even the awkward Geena Davis Movie, Cutthroat Island (a secret favourite).
These stories reminded me of some of the things a true pirate story needs: a treasure map, a remote island, a voyage at sea, a sea battle, a mutiny, even a character in disguise!
It was only once I knew the story I wanted to tell that I allowed myself to go back and delve into those sources because this time around I knew exactly what I was looking for. I could pluck out the relevant information without getting distracted: details of punishments, an account of a pirate sent to the noose, descriptions of ships and harbours… every chapter had something I needed to look up.
For example, (Spoiler Alert!) there is a scene in which one of the characters is sentenced to hanging; the scene unfolds in almost exactly the same way that the hanging of an 18th century Pirate took place with little details I had discovered along the way, such as a Yellow flag signifying execution, being used for drama and atmosphere.
The internet is, of course, a goldmine of information and Wikipedia especially is a great place to track down sources and resources. However, my biggest secret weapon is history books for children. Meticulously researched, children’s books often supply an overview of what life was like at a particular point in time, in this case during the Golden Age of Pirates. They provide gruesome details, such as the most rats killed on one journey (4,000) that can really help an author build the world for a reader and create more authentic scenes.
However, whenever someone writes historical fiction there will always be compromises. Some of these compromises are there through necessity, if I were to make use of authentic language and vocabulary, the book would be almost impossible to read. Other compromises were made out of choice. For example, (Spoiler Alert!) the Island on which the main characters are marooned is based on an Island off the coast of Madagascar rather than any Caribbean Island because it was a reference to a wonderful documentary, Girl Friday with Joanna Lumley.
Another compromise was that one of the characters uses a ‘sextant’, which is a navigational instrument that wasn’t widely available until ten years after the book is set. However the instrument is so synonymous with the golden age of Pirates that I couldn’t bring myself to leave it out of the book and I felt that for the sake of ten years, very few people would notice (I apologise to all those sextant enthusiasts who are livid at this anachronism).
Even after I referred to history books, court transcripts, and contemporary paintings to inform the details and the scenes, I still ran the story through beta readers interested in history and sailing, in order to spot errors. Despite all my research, I knew there were still gaps and it was only in these late stages that I discovered that the word ‘rope’ is never used on board ship, instead ‘line’ must be used. A rookie sailing mistake!
So, I would say to anyone who is put off by the phrase ‘write what you know’ to just get on with writing what you don’t know. Let the story lead and then check the details later.
Because, ultimately, when you think of the books you love and that meant something to you, do you remember them because of the swathes of detailed research?
Or, because they were great stories?
About the Author:
Niamh Murphy is a historian and novelist specialising in romantic lesbian fiction. She is passionate about experimenting with different genres and has a fondness for romantic action and adventure. She has written stories with vampires, werewolves, elves, magic, knights, sorceresses, and witches as well as contemporary and humorous stories, but always with a lesbian protagonist and a romantic element to the tale.