Lou Faulkner’s Men of War is set during the Seven Years’ War. Here Lou talks with editor Fiona Pickles about inspiration and research.
Despite all your researches, was there anything you absolutely couldn’t find out or any detail in the story that had to be changed because the information wasn’t available?
I wanted to find everything I could about two naval officers, Edward Boscawen of the Royal Navy and Toussant Hocquart of the Marine Nationale. Boscawen took Hocquart prisoner three times during the mid-eighteenth century. A system of prisoner exchanges operated then, as neither side could afford to feed and house large numbers of prisoners of war, and this contributed to the rather gentlemanly nature of wars at this time. On the third occasion, Hocquart, on being told who his captor was, remarked, “Ah yes, he is an old friend of mine.”
This seemed like good novel fodder to me. Alas, I couldn’t find out much about Hocquart at all. Boscawen, on the other hand, became an admiral, a privy councillor and a member of Parliament. His home parish was in the next valley from where I stayed with my family and Cornish grandmother as a child. This contributed to the Cornish setting of the novel.
Other than that, I found out pretty much everything I needed to know, though once or twice I forgot things! It turned out that people were really eager to help; the president of my state’s astronomical society, the Plymouth librarian who emailed an enquiring Aussie in his lunch hour with information on coaching inns, numerous people involved in ship restorations and maritime museums. I’m very grateful to them all.
Which came first, your interest in ships and seafaring or your interest in astronomy?
The interest in astronomy came first – and when I moved to Australia, I learned the southern skies which are brighter than the northern ones. Later, in a State Library exhibition which included a mediaeval astronomy book, I saw an illustration of the ancient constellation of Argo, the Ship. That huge, starry ship has sailed through many a story of mine ever since. It’s my favourite constellation – even though it was rendered obsolete by a friend of one of my protagonists.
The 2012 Transit of Venus was visible in the part of Australia where I live. I saw it through a large telescope set up outside a crowded shopping centre, quite a contrast with the vast empty distances visible through the telescope. The sight of that little black disc floating serenely across the face of the sun has stayed with me ever since, and became a central image in the novel, which is set around the time of the 1761 transit.
My interest in ships and seafaring began when some friends took me sailing for the first time. I sat there thinking, “It’s so quiet.” No noise of engines, no vibrations, no smell of fuel. The inlet where they sail has many little creeks and hidden corners, and tales are attached to several of them. I stored all this information away and made good use of it in the novel.
What surprised you most about the process of writing and publishing a book?
That I completed it at all. Quite frequently I thought it would be impossible. Age of Sail is very difficult to write – especially if you decide to design your own chases and battles. I really didn’t want to copy historical battles.
Have you visited any of the locations you describe in the book? Is there one in particular you would like to see but haven’t been able to?
I’ve visited Plymouth! I’ve already mentioned my Cornish grandmother. Her family lived not far from the fictional Trevanna, where my protagonist Henry Noble has his home. My great-uncle worked in Plymouth Dockyard, and I lived for several years in Devon. I’ve also visited Cape Town and Table Mountain, and the plants are indeed spectacular and very different from northern plants, almost like another creation.
I’d love to go to the Comoro Islands, or the Islands of the Moon as they were known in the eighteenth century. I was barely aware of their existence before researching this story, but this volcanic chain between Africa and Madagascar, with all the long history of the Indian Ocean in its past, has great allure.
And of course, I would very much like to go to the Îles Séchelles!
How do you think you would have fared if you had been alive at the time the book is set? It sounds like a dramatic and exciting period, but there would surely also have been major down sides to life in those days?
Major, major down sides. But I would have enjoyed the Enlightenment, which was in full swing at the time, and its sense of getting to grips with the physical universe. I was amazed at the precision of the work that was being done; eclipses and the eighteenth-century transits were predicted to the second, decades earlier. I would have enjoyed the pristine environments too, many of them now gone forever. All this, however, depends on being born into a certain stratum of Georgian England’s society – which wouldn’t necessarily have happened!