A Brief Guide to Nautical Writing by Melissa A. Joy


If you’re writing historical fiction, the last thing you want to end up doing is making a fool of yourself by being inaccurate about anything; but authors of any genre need to do their fair share of research, even fantasy authors like myself.  I developed quite an interest in tall sailing ships when I was looking to design a ship of HMS Victory’s size with faster manoeuvring capabilities for my fantasy setting, and therefore found myself trying to find out as much as possible about how ships of the 16th-18th centuries functioned, be it manoeuvrability, firepower, watch-keeping, sail-setting, the lot. 

Trying to find exact details can be extremely time-consuming, even when searching online, so there will be times when you’ll have to make logical guesses, but the more you learn and know about a subject the more clarity your writing will have.  If, like me, you write or wish to write about tall ships, there are a few ways you can do your research: the internet (though it may sometimes take a good while to find a good, strong tidbit of the information you’re looking for), books, seafarers, and hands on experience.  How does one get hands on experience? There are actually a fair number of sailing organisations (some of them charities) that offer the experience of sailing a tall ship; a kind of working holiday.  Writing aside it’s one of the most empowering activities I have ever taken part in.  You don’t need previous experience in order to do it, though depending on your income you may be able to get a bursary if you’re 25 or under, or fundraise (or save up) if you’re over 25.  Most organisations, including the Tall Ships Youth Trust – who I have sailed with the most – provide voyages for adults as well as young people. 

This is a fantastic way of getting to know the parts and functions of a tall ship and its daily routines.  Don’t be put off by the fear of seasickness though; it’s very often psychological in that if you fear you’ll succumb to it you probably will, but there are tablets you can take in advance and for the duration if it worries you too much.

You could always ask a seafarer if you happen to know someone who lives and works on or beside the sea, but first-hand experience is invaluable.

The other method (and most recommended alongside the hands on experience if you’re able to participate) is to use books.  There are a variety of books I’ve accumulated over the years that contribute to the wealth of knowledge that the nautical world has to offer.  Not only are there books about piracy and naval history, there are also nautical dictionaries and encyclopaedias as well as books about specific ships or types of ship.  I’ve provided a list of recommended reading at the end of this article which provides more information on historical facts and details that the first-hand experience cannot provide you with.  Actually sailing on board a ship today gives you a great insight into what it was like way back when, but today tall ships have engines for times when sailing isn’t possible; they may have watertight doors to prevent or delay a vessel from sinking should there be a breach of the hull; they have radar, foghorns and radio; and they have fresh drinking water and showers.  When the ship is under sail and the engines are turned off, however, there’s just nothing quite like it.  

Do the research; learn about it, and then write about it.  I’ve read the books of several authors who clearly haven’t taken the time to arm themselves with the information they need.  It doesn’t matter if you have only one or two scenes involving ships in your stories or even your poetry; if you don’t have a clue, it will show.  We can’t all know a great amount about every subject we write about, but at least we can do as much as we can.  The effort you put in will speak for itself in your writing. 

Did you know many of the phrases we use today are of nautical origin? Showing your true colours, three sheets to the wind, son of a gun, freezing the balls off a brass monkey, cut of your jib and taken aback are all examples of idioms taken from the maritime world.  Below I have listed some of the books I have found useful along with their ISBN numbers.  Don’t forget to include some research on shanties as well.


Recommended Reading:

The Sailor’s Word Book – 9780851779720

HMS Victory (Hayne’s Manual) – 9780857330857

The Sea Rover’s Practice – 9781574889116

Under the Black Flag – 9780156005494



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