History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 January 2009

Guest blogger Amanda McCabe

"Smell the salt spray, feel the deck beneath your feet, and hoist the Jolly Roger as McCabe takes you on an entertaining, romantic ride!" -- RomanticTimes Book Reviews

I'm pleased to introduce today's guest, Amanda McCabe, whose latest release is High Seas Stowaway. As well as being a prolific writer, Amanda is one of the most awesome and thorough researchers I know, tackling different eras and settings with aplomb and thoroughness. She's also a member of the Risky Regencies blog where I'm blogging today. And now I'm turning things over to Amanda.

Once I came up with the plot of High Seas Stowaway, I was very excited! I loved Balthazar Grattiano, who appeared in A Notorious Woman and A Sinful Alliance, and was glad I found him the right woman, and the right setting in the Caribbean of the 1530s. But I also realized a lot of work—and research—was in my future. I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of sixteenth century exploration, by the adventure and courage of it all. However, aside from a long-ago college class on the history of Spanish North America, I knew little of the period, and almost nothing of the mechanics of sailing a ship, and finding the way across the sea in a little wooden tub. So I dove right into a pile of books from the library!

The heroine of High Seas Stowaway, Bianca Simonetti Montero, owns a tavern in Santo Domingo, which meant lots of research on the town and the islands. And Balthazar is a sailor, a navigator and mapmaker (sort of like the rock stars of the sixteenth century!). I decided his ship, the Calypso, would be a caravel. Small-ish and lightly built, they were fast, responsive, and comparatively stable in stormy seas. Between 62 and 72 feet in length, with a raised quarterdeck and stern, and three masts (2 for square-rigged sails and 1 for lateen rigs at stern, it could sail easily in cross-winds). They were nimble, versatile, and cost effective (with a relatively small crew). But they were also cramped for space, especially with a full cargo in the hold!

Among the navigational equipment Balthazar would use, one of the most important would be a mariner’s astrolabe. These were made of brass (heavy enough to use on a heaving deck in high winds), in a graduated circle with an aldilade used to measure vertical angles. The essential function was to measure angles and therefore determine latitude by determining the distance of a star or other object above the horizon. Early instruments were only graduated for 90 degrees; later ones were graduated for the full 360 degrees. The navigator would align the plane of the astrolabe to the direction of the object of interest, and therefore read the altitude off the outer degree scale.

Compasses were also used, though they gave only a relative bearing and were therefore not useful with no point of reference. These were a magnetized needle on a pivoting base, with a rough scale of 32 points, generally located on the quarterdeck.

A cross-staff was a piece of wood, about 30 inches long with a sliding cross piece. The long edge was held up to the eye, and the cross piece was moved until the bottom edge aligned with the horizon and the top edge with the rim of the sun, thus reading the angular height of the sun (not easy on a pitching deck! Maybe that’s why all the eye patches…). The navigator would then use this to consult an astronomical table, which gave the sun’s declination (the degree of angle directly overhead) for that date. By subtracting the number from the cross-staff reading, it would determine the ship’s latitude.

(Longitude was not possible until the 18th century. Instead, sixteenth century sailors would use a log-weighted piece of wood tied to a reeled line with knots of equal distances along the length. The sailor would throw it overboard, and count the number of knots unreeled in a half-minute, measured by a sandglass. Thus this would calculate the ship’s speed through the water. Average speed + Direction from the compass readings = Rough idea where they were headed, and how fast. Thus “dead reckoning.” Too much math for me!)

Here are a few of the sources I found especially useful in helping me navigate this mystifying new world, and build a realistic shipboard atmosphere for my characters:

Kenneth Andrews: The Spanish Caravel: Trade and Plunder
Carl Sauer: The Early Spanish Main
CH Haring: The Spanish Empire in America
Jan Rogozinski: A Brief History of the Caravel
Mendel Peterson: The Funnel of Gold
The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea
Lois Ann Swanick: An Analysis of Navigational Instruments in the Age of Exploration
Wayne Curtis: And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails

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Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Amanda, please do explain what the other ten cocktails of Wayne Curtis's book were, and whether in the interests of research you drank them all.
And welcome to the Hoydens!

10:34 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Welcome, Amanda! I, too, was interested in all 10 cocktails in the Curtis book. Your nautical and nagivational research is quite comprehensive, and I'm interested to see how you worked it into the novel. Did your editor worry about there being too much nautical arcana for a romance novel?

11:11 AM  
Blogger Amanda McCabe/Amanda Carmack/Laurel McKee said...

"whether in the interests of research you drank them all."

Of course I did! I'm always willing to sacrifice in the name of research. :) (Though I did not try the early grog called evocatively "kill-devil"--mojitos are more my speed!). There was also an interesting chapter on old-style tiki bars! (not much like Bianca's tavern, but still...)

Amanda, I wasn't able to use every single fascinating fact (fascinating to me, anyway!) about navigation in the story, but hopefully I was able to give shipboard life a more authentic "feel", since I knew little about the technical aspects of Renaissance ships at the beginning. I was able to show the hero using some of this equipment--and luckily my editor did not give me any trouble about it!

11:50 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Ammanda, hello and happy birthday! I've commented before on the excellent research you do. But gor, I had no idea you did this much research. Between the day job and writing, when do you do all your reading? One of these days, you're going to tell me how you allocate your daily hours.

Excellent detail-work on the navigational tools. I like when I have meaty details to read, rather than just the ship's wheel and mast to deal with.

2:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome, Amanda, and wow! Great research! It shows in your books--dead on...Terrific.

Congrats on the great RT review, too!

8:57 PM  

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