Andrea here, talking about an often-overlooked element of writing a book—the Author’s Note. When I started my Wrexford & Sloane series, I decided an explanation about some of the elements in the plot would be helpful to readers. First of all, early science and technology plays a big part in the stories, many of the things mentioned are esoteric enough that readers might not have a handle on what I was talking about. (As an avid reader, I find that frustrating, and don’t want to have to go haring off to find research material on my own!) And so, I added an Author’s Note to the first book.
I confess, they have grown longer with each successive book, as I find it fun to share some of the “rabbit hole” research that tickles my fancy. I’ve gotten a number of letters to indicate that some readers enjoy the nerdy stuff as much as I do. (I figure those who aren’t interested can simply close the covers.)
I do try to think of all the things that might need some clarification (without going overboard) But in my latest book, MURDER AT THE MERTON LIBRARY, I got several reader queries about a few scenes in the book where I have a twelve-year-old midshipman in the British Navy was commanding a naval vessel with a crew of adult sailors. “Is that really accurate?” was the question.
Well, the answer is YES!
Now, I am a big fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and the old E.M. Forester Horatio Hornblower books, so I’m very familiar with the world of the Royal Navy during the Regency era. Which led me to forget how strange a child-officer would sound to readers who aren’t.
So let’s take a closer look at a midshipman in Royal Navy and what role he played in the works of the ship. First of all, the name derives from the location—amidships—in the vessel where they were traditionally berthed. (it was somewhere between the relative comfort of the more senior officer cabins, which were close to the captain’s stern cabin, and primitive accommodations in the forecastle for the main crew.
During the Napoleonic era (generally speaking, from 1793-1815) which is also considered the great Age of Sail, a midshipman usually began his career as a naval officer at age eleven or twelve. (Though I’ve read of boys as young as nine commanding a fireship, a very dangerous mission as it involved sailing a derelict ship into an enemy fleet and setting it on fire before escaping onto a following naval vessel to take them back to their ship!) In general, the Navy was less prestigious than the army, so aristocratic boys from prominent families tended to join elite Guards regiments rather than the Navy, which tended to be a harder life.
So midshipmen tended to be sons (usually second or third ones) of the minor aristocracy, or boys from respectable families whose parents could call in a favor from a family friend or relative.
Once on board ship at such a tender age, they would (ideally) be instructed for several hours a day in mathematics, which was very in important for navigation, and other practical aspects of seamanship. They would also work under ships’ lieutenant or sailing master to learn how to oversee the various groups of the crew—foretopmen, gunners, etc.—as they performed their duties.
The goal was to learn the ropes well enough to pass the examination to become a lieutenant, a full-fledged officer, which then put them on track to become a captain and perhaps be appointed to command their own ship. Technically, one had to be nineteen to sit for the exam, but there are records of boys becoming lieutenants at age sixteen due to influence from an important patron.
Midshipmen were armed, and they often commanded gun crews during naval battle—or fought with sword or pistol against the enemy. It’s hard for our modern sensibilities to understand that, but it was a very different world back then. Children in general had very little childhood.
In my story, Horatio, a young relative of Charlotte’s great aunt, the dowager Countess of Peake, plays a key part in foiling a nefarious plot involving steamship technology . . . there are some fun scene with him, but I don’t want to give any spoilers, so you’ll just have to read them for yourself!
So, what about you? Do you read an Author’s Note? And if so, do you enjoy getting an explanation of elements mentioned in the story. Do you find that adds to your enjoyment of the book?