Hello everyone,

Research is a constant, ongoing process while writing historical fiction. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit surfaces that might be of particular interest beyond its use in a novel. As I continue to work in the historical fiction field, I will post those occasional points of interest here. Occasionally I muse on the writing process as well along with news to keep readers informed of what's going on with my books and other writings.

Please feel free to post comments--I'd love to hear from you.

The photo above is of Snowdonia in North Wales, which plays a large part in the setting of the Macsen's Treasure Series.


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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Me timbers are too stout to shiver!

Since the decision came about to re-edit the first book of the Macsen’s Treasure series, INTO THE PATH OF GODS, I knew a number of historical points needed to be corrected as well as some other logistical issues. One scene that originally took place along a roadside needed to be moved to a more logical location and will now take place on a trading ship. While the updated scene provides the same storyline and character pathways, it will now make more sense and have more impact. As result I needed to check into a little seafaring history of fifth century Britain.

Unfortunately, maritime archaeological finds for that timeframe is scant. However, we do have the remains of two Romano-British ships discovered in the River Thames, one of which was located at Blackfriars beneath 20 feet of water at high tide. It was excavated in 1962-63. This ship is thought to have been built by native British shipwrights in the second century AD, putting it quite earlier than the period of Arthur, but it is also thought to be of the type already in use in Britain since before the Roman invasion. It is probably indicative of the type of ship still in use in the latter half of the fifth century.

Based on this conjecture, I have patterned the vessel in the book after the Blackfriars ship. The following list encompasses the basic facts that the archaeologists recorded.

· Built carvel style
· Hull entirely of oak
· Hull planking had massive floor timbers 12” wide, 8-1/2” thick
· Strakes were 2” thick and caulked with hazel twigs
· Strakes attached to floor timbers with special 29” nails
· Nails were driven through the strakes and floor timbers
· Ends of the nails’ shanks hammered over to embed the tip into the timbers
· No keel; two central planks instead, 2’2” wide, 3” thick
· Beam of about 22’
· Overall length about 55’
· Depth more than 7’ amidships
· Bottom nearly flat, enabling ship to rest evenly at low tide
· Chine angle 30-35°
· Oak planks covered cargo area in central part of ship
· Mast-step: a rectangular socket about one-third of ship’s length from bow
· Bronze Roman coin found in the mast-step as a votive offering
· Assumed only one square sail on one mast
· Must have been a deck, due to depth of ship
· May have been a cabin on deck in the stern
· Cargo had been building stone when ship sank

Some definitions:
Carvel-built: the planks are all flush from keel to gunwale. Planks are smooth-seamed.
Chine: the angle where the side and bottom of a hull join
Gunwale (pronounced GUN-nel): the upper edge of a ship’s side
Stem: a timber forming the front extremity of the ship
Strake: a row of planking on the side or bottom of a ship from stem to stern on the outside of the hull.

The information here comes from George F. Bass’s book A History of Seafaring, published back in 1972. The illustration shows how a reconstruction of the ship might look.
I am currently awaiting delivery of another book which will hopefully have more recent archaeological discoveries mentioned in it. If any of you maritime experts out there know of any good resources on fifth century (or thereabouts) seafaring, please feel free to send a comment with any leads. While the ship in the re-edited scene is not terribly significant, I’m always appreciative of good information. If it doesn’t suit this book, it could very well be useful for another one in the future. Knowledge is a good thing!


historywriter said...

Hi Kathleen,

Just discovered your blog through your tweet. Very nice. And interesting.

I too write historical fiction. My first was about Norway in WW II, still unpublished. Now I'm writing about the Pacific NW from 1860 through the Depression. But your article on the Roman ships caught my eye.

I've fallen in love with 19th century which was part of the "coastal trade" between San Francisco and Seattle. Learning to understand how a ship works, where to find information about particular ships and then write about them has been a wonderful education. I'll be writing a non-fiction piece about her, but my new appreciation of the maritime trade in my area will help the novel I'm working on now.

Too bad the Romans didn't have shipping news or intelligence. Or maybe they did. What an interesting way to follow history.

Kathleen Guler said...

Glad you like the blog. Thanks!

This was my first foray into maritime history and it came about while re-editing a scene that needed more substance in my first book. Without that archaeological find, there would have been far less onto which to pin my scene.

Amazing what all, as historical novelists, we need to learn!

If you have a blog or website about your writing, I'd be happy to link to it.