In Command

Midshipman_Augustus_BrineAndrea 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.

Portrait_of_Midshipman_John_Windham_Dalling _RN_(c_1800)_by_George_Henry_HarlowWell, 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.
Warship_diagram_origDuring 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.

British_Naval_Frigate_And_a_Ship_Of_The_Line _by_Tomaso_De_Simone_8739
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.
Henry_William_Baynton_by_Thomas_HickeyThe 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?

25 thoughts on “In Command”

  1. I absolutely read the author’s notes! I love the historical details. I am reading a historical novel, my favorite genre. I don’t understand readers who complain about ‘too much history.’ They make the stories more real in my opinion. I’m looking forward to reading that book!

  2. Notes in historical fiction are usually very interesting and add to my general knowledge of that period of time. I always enjoy them.

  3. I love author’s notes! They lead into so many additional byways and rabbit holes. There can never be too much history. Well, I suppose there can be badly presented history, but that’s something entirely different. After all, there can be badly presented anything.

  4. I love reading your Author’s Notes, Andrea – so much interesting information! And it’s always good to know which parts of a story are based on real historical characters and/or events, so thank you for clarifying! And being an officer at age 12 – just wow! Definitely different times.

  5. What a great post, Andrea!
    Yes, I do read an Author’s Note and generally enjoy doing so. I also read dedications, footnotes, song lists, and whathaveyou. Sometimes authors (particularly self-published ones) squeeze funny/serious things into their copyright statements.

  6. Love author’s notes. Love this blog too – very interesting. I’ve never thought of children on these ships as being officers.

  7. I love author’s notes and an extra material. I really hate when someone mentions a real person but doesn’t tell us what happened to them later. I don’t mind writers tweaking the facts but let us know in the notes.
    I just started reading your books and am really enjoying them.

  8. Of course I read them! I always look forward to the auxiliary material in historical novels or alternate-world fantasies and feel let down if there isn’t any. In fact, since I don’t mind spoilers, I often read the Author’s Note first.

  9. I’m so glad to hear that, Michelle, because I have a LOT of real history in my stories. Though I hope it weaves into the story, and does feel like an info dump. As a reader, I love learning new things as well as well as being swept away in a story.

  10. Thanks, Christina! So glad you enjoy them. I do feel it’s good to point out what is true and what is fiction when the elements affect the plot. I know that I like to know that as a reader.

  11. Thanks, Sally. So glad you are enjoying my stories. I do try to help readers sort out fact and fiction through my Author’s Note.As I reader, I know that always helps me see how things tie together.

  12. Thanks for that interesting and fascinating piece on midshipman! I love the illus that accompanied it. I am also a fan of the Hornblower and Aubrey Maturin Series as well as those by Alexander Kent.
    Not only do i read the author’s notes, sometimes i do further research into the history
    laid out in the book. Your books are great motivators to do extra historical research and lead me down many rabbit holes! I always look forward to your next book as soon as i have finished the current one! Such interesting and unusual plots(and of course, i love the characters…)


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