J D Davies

Criticism of Naval Historical Fiction: a Guide for New Authors

A very quick posting this week, as unforeseen domestic circumstances have knocked my work schedule for six (apologies to my American readers for that impenetrable cricket reference)… Because of this, and various trips that were already on the agenda for the next few weeks, there’s likely to be a 3-4 week hiatus on this blog. I’ll try and post if and when I can, though, but in the meantime, a recent email exchange with ‘the usual suspects’ of the 17th century naval history field got me thinking about the new world where, quite literally, everyone’s a critic…

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New authors of naval historical fiction will quickly start to garner reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, blogs, and so forth. With a few honourable exceptions, these reviews tend to be pretty stereotypical, and having recently published my fifth novel in the genre, I think I’m now sufficiently qualified to be able to provide a guide to them, so that newcomers will be able to take all such criticisms in their stride. Believe me, I’ve had some or all of the following applied to my work – sometimes about the same book, sometimes even in the same review, for goodness sake.

1/ There’s too much technical nautical language – the principal charge levelled at Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series by those who can’t stand it. Can’t tell your futtock from your cro’jack? You’re toasted cheese.

2/ There’s too little technical nautical language – the principal charge levelled at every other series by those who loved Patrick O’Brian. No mention of futtocks and cro’jacks? Yep, Welsh rarebit time.

3/ There’s too much action – Sorry, this is naval historical fiction. To be true to the reality, you have to include battles. In some cases, very, very long battles, which are bound to take up a great many pages (e.g. in my latest book, which features a battle that lasted for four days).

4/ There’s too little action – Sorry, this is naval historical fiction. To be true to the reality, you have to include long periods in which very little happens. (And even if you haven’t ploughed through literally hundreds of ships’ log books of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, which prove the point in spades, read O’Brian again – and let’s be honest here, folks, for a lot of the time during that outstanding series, nothing much happens.)

5/ Too much of the plot is set ashore – Scenes on shore add variety, especially if you’re in exotic locations (as in my latest book, where I have several chapters set in mysterious, umm, Plymouth), and depending on the period and the theme you’re writing about, you might well need to set quite a lot of the action ashore. On the other hand, if the entire book is set ashore, you’ve probably strayed into writing in a completely different genre without realising it.

6/ Too little of the plot is set ashore – Scenes at sea add variety… OK, you get the idea.

7/ There’s too much soppy romantic stuff – Guess which demographic principally levels this charge at you?

8/ There’s too little soppy romantic stuff – Ditto. (Good morning, dear.)

9/ There’s too much random mindless violence – I refer you back to point 3. The battles of the period I write about were quite astonishingly bloody, and to play that down would be to give the reader a false, sanitised image, and – equally important in my opinion – it wouldn’t do justice to the remarkable bravery and resilience of those who fought through such horrors.

10/ There’s too little random mindless violence – I worry about you. I really do.

But finally, the key to reacting to criticism is to paraphrase the words of that well known vampire hunter, Abraham Lincoln: ‘You can please some of your readers all of the time, and all of your readers some of the time, but you can’t please all of your readers all of the time. I’m still bitter about whoever gave the Gettysburg Address a one star review on Amazon’.