Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Grounding the Story
Along the Great Ocean Road of Victoria, Australia, there is a stretch of coast called the Shipwreck Coast.
When Europeans settled Australia, they would pack their families and set off with high hopes. If they made it around the tip of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and along the southern coast of Australia, they still had to sail through Bass Strait, between Tasmania and Australia, to reach the port of Melbourne.
From 1836 to 1932 approximately fifty ships did not make that last treacherous 130 kilometers. But until you see this stretch of coast, see the breakers rolling in, stand on those cliffs and feel the wind buffeting your body, you don't appreciate the forces involved.
My husband grew up on a farm not far from the cliffs of the Great Ocean Road. He grew up hearing stories of the Mahogany Ship, a fabled dutch ship lost around 1520 and uncovered on the dunes by a storm, then lost again.
He took me to the gorge where the two survivors of the Loch Ard wreck swam in and sheltered in a cave above high tide. It was one of the few spots along the coast where a person could scale the sandstone cliffs. When I stood in that cave in mid summer I was glad I wore a winter coat. I saw the blow-hole, where bodies from the wreck were washed in and battered against the rocks until they disintegrated. (Blow-holes occur inland from the cliffs, when the sea carves out tunnels under the ground and a pot-hole appears).
The diaries of those who sailed along the Shipwreck Coast tell of how the exotic scent of Wattle and Eucalyptus reached them as they stood on the deck of their ship, longing to set foot on their new land. Reading of their experiences, seeing the belongings saved from the wrecks all helped bring the past to life for me.
Most fantasy writers will find themselves writing about a sea journey at some point. And, unless you are lucky enough to sail a tall ship, like me you'll have to do your research from books. Snatch every opportunity you can. I walked through the reconstructed Endeavour (the ship Captain Cook sailed to Australia). And I was impressed by how small it was to sail halfway around the world.
Since I don't know the technical terms for all the sails, masts and ropes on a ship, I don't want to use them in my story. I remember reading Treasure Island as a child and skimming all the strange nautical terms. They got in the way of the story, which was about Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver.
When I write, what I want to do is create a feeling of verisimilitude, so that the reader gets enough of the sense of being on a ship to empathise with the character. So my phillosophy is, research enough to create that sense of being there, then get on with the story.