I just returned from a research trip a week ago; after the dust of “coming home” has settled, it’s time to sit down and get to work in earnest on my next novel. I’m working on the third book in my 18th century historical trilogy, and to be honest, up until this trip I would have rather been working on a different manuscript! My time away was research into the major section of the book which takes place in the Royal Navy aboard a ship of the line. Part of the reason I think I’ve had “writer’s block” on this manuscript is that the military aspect of the plot is not my favourite topic to delve into from a writing aspect – I love reading about it, but condensing that down into dialogue and prose is not my forté. But I know myself: As with anything, if it’s not my strength I’ll work at it and hone it until it is.
The Cutty Sark
A very important thing for me to remember in the midst of the research is that I’m not writing a maritime history book, but a novel; I’ve got to take the research, sift it for the elements that support my plot and leave the rest of the information aside as “nice to know”. I’ve bought, read and taken notes on dozens of history books focused on the Royal Navy; I spent a day taking in impressions aboard the Cutty Sark (one of the fastest clippers from the days of Sail, on the right), and talking to curators both there and in the Maritime Museum, as well as the British Museum; I spent time on a clipper on the Thames, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, salt spray and tastes of the river. My hotel was literally just round the corner from the largest used book shop in London (Skoob Books)… a very dangerous thing. Trust me. I found some great gems, from a history book on the Seven Years War (exactly in my time period), to a portrait collection of 18th century fashions – invaluable visual aids, with explanations of things like mob caps, waistcoats, etc. If I’d had more time (and more room in my carry-on-sized luggage), I still would have had to leave hundreds of great books behind…!
A Barbary Ape, with Spain in the distance.
Gibraltar itself was a special time: I was there with my husband, who then took off for a 10-day bike ride toward Madrid on the day I flew to London. Gibraltar was vitally important as a British Naval base for centuries, and you literally cannot walk down any street without being reminded of its military past: Atop the Rock are the ruins of fortifications; St Michael’s cave was a strategic hideout; in the town are cannons everywhere; ramparts are now part of walled parks, and everywhere there are military street names, town square names, and military ships in the harbour; Spain is a spit away, and Morocco is visible even on a foggy day; it is literally the gateway to the Mediterranean. Taking a cable car to the top of the Rock you’ll find Barbary Macaque (aka Barbary Apes, though they are tailless monkeys) everywhere; they were originally brought from Africa in the 18th century by British sailors. A few of them escaped and set up house on the rocky slopes above the town, and now they run the show; tourists are lower down in the pecking order than they are, and if they get half a blink they’ll steal your food if you’re silly enough to take it outside. They usually stay up on the Rock, but it’s still not wise to leave your hotel window open…
Gibraltar: The War Memorial with a Russian cannon in the foreground.
So now that I’m back, I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into this new manuscript! Sometimes it just helps to get away, get new impressions, percolate ideas, and become inspired. If you’re stuck on something you’re writing, get out! Go on a research trip, or if you can’t afford it time- or money-wise, then get out to a park, or somewhere different for a change; take your notebook, and let your mind wander. You’ll find a way through the block!