To glossary or not to glossary?

One of the potential difficulties with writing sea fiction of any kind is how much to explain the technical business of working and fighting a ship to an audience who might not have a great deal of existing knowledge to help them through. This is also true of historical fiction, where an audience might not be familiar with practices or discourses.

The writer of sea fiction has a difficult course to steer, between the Scylla of leaden prose and the Charybdis of incomprehensibility. Many of his or her readers may be just as well versed in the historical and technical details as they are. Lengthy explanations may be tiresome. And while some newer readers of the genre may enjoy learning about naval life and practices through the pages of a novel, others might just be looking for a good yarn full of the romance of the age of sail.

There is an inevitable balance to be struck between preserving the flow of the prose and action, giving your readers half a chance at following what’s going on, and pleasing as many of them as possible. You could, of course, include a glossary, but in an ideal world would readers be happy to interrupt the flow whole they looked up some term or other?

In writing Daedalus and the Deep, I was keen to make the novel readable and enjoyable for fans of historic naval fiction. The members of David Hayes’ Historic Naval Fiction forum (www.historicnavalfiction.net) were extremely kind and generous with their time in helping me get the book right for this audience. However, I didn’t want to limit its appeal to one group of readers, however loyal and encouraging. I was hopeful that the real story of HMS Daedalus and the sea serpent would intrigue and excite many readers of historical fiction, fantasy and adventure literature. I wanted to give them a shot too.

For this reason, I tried very hard to instil all the seagoing and combat sequences with a strong sense of the context. I reasoned that if people could follow what was going on through the action, it wouldn’t necessarily matter if they didn’t know exactly what the jeer tackle or cross trees were. At one point I was told a particular piece of action couldn’t have happened as I had presented it, forcing me scurrying back to the drawing board – somewhat chastened, as I had been rather pleased with that sequence. It took a bit of time and effort to get to a level I was happy with.

In literature, as in life, it’s impossible to succeed 100%. A number of died-in-the-wool fans of historic naval fiction have told me how much they enjoyed the book, as have people who have never read any sea stories in their lives. However, some people have been a bit confounded by some of the technical language, and for that reason I wish I had put a glossary in for their sake. I’ve included one for Part 1 of the novel on this blog, and Parts 2 and 3 will follow. I would also be happy to invite readers to contact me with anything they might like me to explain.

I also intend to try something slightly different, by producing a sort of pictorial glossary. There are some wonderful preserved warships from the age of sail around, but not everyone can visit these on a whim just to see what an author is talking about! For that reason, I’ll be posting a series of images with captions relating to parts of the ship, weaponry and so on, as they appear in Daedalus and the Deep.

I’d be very keen to hear what people think of the idea – that guide should be available in the next day or two.

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