It goes without saying that long-service leave is a fabulous blessing for a writer. I keep reminding myself how lucky I am! Having leave for the past ten weeks means my Work-in-Progress, a 59,000-word children’s novel, is right on schedule.
On the last day of March, twelve weeks after I started, I finished the first draft of Toby Fitzroy & The… (full title to be revealed in May/June)! To achieve my goal I had to neglect my blogs a bit, but it paid off. I spent the past six days spotting and patching plotholes and spit-shining my prose before sending the MS out to my faithful Beta Readers.
For the first time in three months I didn’t spend the day on the high seas with Toby and his crew. I felt kind of lonely and thumb-twiddled the morning away–until I remembered I have two rather neglected blogs to catch up on!
Introducing Toby Fitz
The story is a slightly steampunk / fantasy / high-sea adventure for middle-grade readers (age 9-13). Similar in flavour to the Percy Jackson series, it’s about a boy who’s trying to find someone, but Toby lives in 1853 in an alternative nineteenth century England, and he’s stuck on an expedition ship full of crusty sailors and a snooty leader. Toby finds friends in strange places, as the picture above suggests…
Readers who long for nail-biting encounters with creepy sea monsters, daredevil exploits, and some twisty twists with lashings of brass and steam will love the misadventures of this orphaned, way-out-of-his-comfort-zone kid.
I’ve had a ball writing this book, but it has stretched me in unexpected ways. I’ve had to learn about all kinds of things–things you’d expect, like mid-nineteenth century fashion, transportation, and firearms; nautical elements such as naval officers, types of sea-going vessels, and navigational equipment. But there were also weird and wonderful things like royal academic societies, Barbary apes, underwater geysers, and marine weather events. Writing Toby Fitz has been quite a mind-stretching adventure!
Here’s an example of one of the questions I had: Halfway through the book, there’s a fun scene that involves a pistol. It occurred to me that I’d better verify the firearms technology of the mid-1800s. Did they use musket balls or bullets in 1853? This question is not as straightforward as it sounds–especially when you have no experience with or interest in guns. To complicate matters, the nineteenth century was a time when tremendous advances were made in firearms.
There’s plenty of information out there; the difficulty lies in forming the right question. If your question is too vague, you find yourself plodding through a quagmire of unnecessary details. It’s tricky coming up with the right question when you don’t know the names of things. (I had the same problem with ships, but a visit to the Maritime Museum helped sort out that conundrum.)
So were musket balls or bullets used? Well, I found out that the term “bullet” has been around for a long time. I started (as I often do) on Wikipedia to find the necessary terminology. While I’m doing my whistle-stop tour of Wikipedia, I often find odd things–like this photo. It’s a picture of bullets from the fourth century BC. They’re sling bullets made from lead and inscribed with a message for their targets. The Greek words say, “Take that!”
The coolest part of imagining Toby’s world was coming up with a viable alternative nineteenth century England. I had to research the monarchy, learn about succession, and imagine a few really big historical what-ifs.
Next Level of Research
My preliminary research is just that–preliminary. I scratch the topic’s surface, find useful bits to fuel my imagination, and–most importantly–make lists of questions. I collated some early information and images on a special Pinterest board called Ships Ahoy! (Click the link; there are teasers a-plenty on the board.) I also saved links to useful sites and articles in a OneNote notebook devoted to the project. It has a section called Pre-Writing, where I file info and questions among other stuff. I constantly dug around for info in these two places during the draft writing.
There’s a very good chance that I don’t have all the facts straight while I write the first draft. If I tried to nail down every fact in the drafting stage, I’d never finish. (But I would have fun learning lots of cool stuff!)
While my Beta Readers do their thing, I will read and study deeper to find the answers to my questions. My sources include websites, but I don’t stop there. I use databases, and I love to discover the information I need in context and from primary sources.
Dickens (yes, fiction!) is on my list, especially to check the fouled up language of my street kids. And I’ll read Patrick O’Brian, not as a primary source, but for superb examples of maritime writing. (His books were set half a century earlier than mine though). Weaving in detail is important–just enough to lend authenticity and pique interest, but not too much to bog the reader down.
So, my first draft may be finished, but now the real work begins! Deep research, editing, and rewriting. Stay tuned for more news on Toby Fitzroy!
Creative Commons Image Credits:
Barbary Ape by Iris Donova
At Sea 1_ed by Matt
Sling Bullets, Public Domain
Stained Glass C Dickens by KotomiCreations