“Teach me the sea, Mister Farrell. Tell me the names of the ropes, and the ways to steer a course. Teach me of the sun and the stars, and the currents, and the oceans. Teach me how to be a proper captain for a king’s ship.” — from Gentleman Captain by J.D.Davies.
I’m excited to be meeting historian and novelist J.David Davies at the upcoming Historical Novel Conference this September, in London — having been introduced to his work by way of Richard Spillman’s review of Gentleman Captain on Old Salt Blog (June 13, 2011).
In Gentleman Captain, the first book of the Matthew Quinton series, J.D.Davies transports us to Britain in the 1600’s — a time well before the glory days of Nelson and the supremacy of the British Navy. He writes of the Royal Navy; a time when English sea captains were not the well-trained mariners they were to become in the following century but were indeed, gentlemen captains who often had little or no shipboard experience. An eminent historian, Davies has published academic articles and nonfiction books, among them the award-winning Pepys Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare; 1649-1689. His blog, Gentlemen and Tarpaulins (after his book by the same name) is filled with fascinating historical tidbits, anecdotes and chronicles of his research excursions.
David, I read on your website that you became interested in 17th century British maritime history at a young age, growing up on the south coast of Wales. What was it about that particular era that captured your imagination?
The seventeenth century was a really dramatic time in British history, and I was always interested in topics like the civil wars and the reign of Charles II. When I settled on the Restoration navy as a topic for my doctorate, I realized it was a hugely neglected subject – people tend to have heard about Drake and Nelson but often don’t know a great deal about what came in between. The more I studied it, the more I realized that this was the really important formative period in the history of the Royal Navy – the time when so many aspects of ‘Nelson’s navy’ were first created. But the Restoration period as a whole is fascinating, with larger than life characters like King Charles and Pepys, court and political intrigue, and some of the most dramatic events in British history, such as the Plague and Fire. I think there’s something thrilling about one of the most high-minded of ages also being one of the bawdiest: after all, this was a time when the likes of Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, John Bunyan, Aphra Behn and Nell Gwyn could all have sat down at the same hypothetical dinner table!
You are the author of three nonfiction books: Gentlemen and Tarpaulins, Blood of Kings and Pepys Navy; Ships, Men and Warfare; 1649-1689, which was awarded the prestigious Samuel Pepys’ award in 2009. I’ve read on your blog that you’re working on a naval history of your native Wales, as well as continuing the Matthew Quinton series. How do you manage to write both fiction and nonfiction?
I love the different disciplines, and being able to move from one to the other – clearly there’s more freedom in writing fiction but in one sense it’s also harder work because you don’t have the ‘anchor’ of referring back to the sources all the time. I’ve also found that the one complements the other. I can use the fiction to bring some of the actual history of the period before a much wider audience, although I always have to be wary of a tendency to slip into ‘ex-History-teacher’ mode and write long passages of factual exposition! On the other hand, writing fiction has made me think much more about the language I use in my non-fiction, to make it more readable and interesting; I think there’s nothing worse than dry academic tomes about history that are written in deadly dull prose with no thought whatsoever for the readers. History is exciting and should be written about in an exciting way, regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction!
The Quinton Journals are very layered, with lots of interesting back story. Do you work with a detailed outline, or is your method more free form? Do you keep notebooks about your characters’ histories, or is it all in your head?
I do have detailed notes about the ‘back story’ – indeed, this was the first material I wrote, well before I started writing any part of Gentleman Captain. I think this was the crucial difference between the various failed ‘Chapter Ones’ I’d written and then abandoned in earlier years; the fact that I’d given so much thought to the back story and to the inter-relationships of the various characters meant that when I actually started writing the stories, it seemed straight away as though as I was dealing with real people who were affected by the ‘baggage’ of their pasts, as we all are. On the other hand, there’s a lot in my head, too. For example Phineas Musk was originally going to be quite a minor character, but from pretty much the first words I ever wrote for him, he seemed to keep barging in and demanding a bigger and bigger role! When I come to write the individual books, I spend quite a bit of time on plot construction (I usually hire a cottage somewhere on the coast or in the countryside so I can obsess about the plot 24/7 without driving my partner Wendy nuts…). I then have an outline that gives a number of key headers for each chapter, but when I actually start writing I always try to keep things flexible and to let the ideas flow, reworking the original outline as I go along if necessary. So the writing itself is usually quite easy – it’s the plot construction that takes the time and the really hard thinking!
When you’re not researching or writing, how do you unwind? Are you still a rugby enthusiast? Any other interests?
Yes, I still love rugby although I don’t get to as many games as I’d like. I also enjoy visiting historical places – this is something I’ve done from my very earliest days, and indeed, it was a visit to Pembroke Castle at the age of five that first turned me on to history. We’re quite lucky in that we live about 40 miles north of London with easy access not only to the city but also, going in the other directions, to the many wonderful historic sites in the English Midlands and East Anglia. I love listening to music, especially Handel and other composers of that era, and also reading, but I must admit I don’t read as much as I’d like to these days; I find it’s an unfortunate side effect of writing, namely that after spending all day looking at words on a screen I find it quite difficult to then look at yet more words in the evening!
Do you have any advice for aspiring historians or authors of historical fiction?
I’d hesitate to advise aspiring historians these days, although I suppose I taught plenty of them over the years! As for authors of historical fiction, though, I think the most important thing I’ve learned is something I’ve already referred to. It seems to me from listening to aspiring authors speaking at conferences, etc, that people can be so concerned about doing their research thoroughly and getting every little element of period detail right that they sometimes forget the essential point – historical fiction is fiction first, historical second, and the critical thing is to have a good story with strong, believable characters. So really work on your characters and their back stories before you write anything, then develop a really cracking story, then worry about the period detail, not the other way around. And if you can, actually go to the places that you’re writing about. For example, the forthcoming ‘Quinton 4’, The Lion of Midnight, is set in Sweden in 1666, and although I’d been to the country several times before, I went over for a week last year specifically to visit the locations I’d want to use in the book. A strong sense of place is almost as important as the other ingredients of a good book!
Is there anything else you’d like to say about your work or about J.David Davies, the man?
Only that I thoroughly enjoy what I do, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of all is the really kind and positive feedback that I get from my readers. My main aims in writing the series were to produce stories that people would enjoy and which would hopefully increase knowledge of the seventeenth century navy at the same time, and so far, comments from my readers suggest that I’m achieving both of those objectives! So I’m really grateful to everybody who’s read the books, and I hope to carry on writing them for a long time yet.