How to Write about Ships for a Landlubber Audience

One of the many reasons people read is to experience unfamiliar places, people, and events. Books (both fiction and non) are written about space travel, aristocracies, Regency balls, cults, dreamland, Mexico, and sports figures. Authors must sufficiently describe these things so that readers who know nothing about space, inherited titles, or dancing in Empire gowns are able to imagine them.

We don’t want to confuse or alienate readers by not explaining things with which they are likely to be unfamiliar. Nor do we want to interrupt our stories or talk down to our readers by overexplaining.

Finding that balance—a story that sweeps readers along into new, exciting, and imaginable territory—requires a sense of your audience. If you are writing a mystery novel that will likely be read by mystery aficionados, it is not necessary to explain what dusting for fingerprints is. If you are writing a mystery novel that features a person being murdered in a grain silo, it is probably necessary to describe the silo rather than assume that all of your readers have seen the inside of one (unless your novel is for a niche audience of mystery-reading farmers).

Writers can define the unfamiliar through the unobtrusive use of context.

In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke uses context to make nautical terms understandable. In order to highlight the drama of a magical event involving ships, she has to explain why certain types of British ships and not others are blockading a French port.

First, let me run a list of nautical terms by you:

Got that? Now, let’s look at how Clarke could have written the scene under discussion. In the following excerpt from chapter 11, I have sternly stripped away anything that could enable a non-sailor to understand what is going on without resorting to a dictionary (which few people want to do in the middle of a chapter):

The ships were all ships of the line . . . . The British Navy blockaded Brest continually, but never with more than twenty-five ships at a time, of which only ten or twelve were ships of the line, the remainder being . . . frigates, sloops and brigs.

This is the missing portion of the first sentence in the excerpt:

I’m still not sure what ships of the line are, but knowing that they include warships gives me an idea that they are important ships. The quick little description heavily armed two- and three-decked signals to me that I should picture large and powerful ships. And even if I’m not clear on what a deck is, knowing there are two or three on each warship adds to the size and complexity of the fleet I am picturing.

Now for the three other types of ships:

Not only are these interestingly named ships smaller than warships—enabling us to visualize a clear size contrast, at the very least—but also they are “agile,” which informs the setup a bit more. Now I know that Britain’s typical approach to blockading (within Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’s historical-fictional world) was to use a mix of firepower and pursuit.

At this point, most readers could probably deduce the scenario, but Clarke helps us out with these additional sentences:

The five additional sentences (lavish, but consistent with the wordy style of this novel) enable us to grasp the crux of the matter without any doubt, even if we still don’t know what a brig is. It is now clear that the warship-only blockade was terrifying and extraordinary.

This is an excellent example of conveying technical information in a subtle, contextual way. Reading it is painless, and later, if readers so choose, they can look up the various types of ships. I suspect they’ll find that the dictionary definitions don’t much alter the scene they have already imagined in their heads.