The first novel in a new series by Richard Woodman has just been released, A Ship for the King. To mark the launch he was kind enough to share some thoughts with me on the novel, the series, and his writing.
"A Ship for the King does indeed mark a return to writing fiction after a prolonged period of writing maritime history. I rather like moving from history to fiction – the one a respite from the other - but in reality the former spawns the latter. I find that when delving into the records ideas are sparked as one encounters interesting characters and situations which offer promising story-lines.
It was this that led me into fiction in the first place. I am particularly interested in historical backwaters, incidents of which either little is known or that have been buried in obscurity because mainstream history has passed them by.
As example of these twin elements – interesting characters and unknown events – were the person of Sir Henry Mainwaring and the raid on Salee on the Moroccan coast. Mainwaring’s life is nothing short of extraordinary; he went to Oxford, became a soldier, then went to sea, turned pirate and later solicited a pardon from King James I. Thereafter he became a courtier, an author, a captain and then an admiral in the Royal Navy, as well as an Elder Brother and later Master of Trinity House. He was caught-up in the turmoil of the English Civil War, declared for the King, defended Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, went into exile, sought to change sides and died in poverty back in England.
It struck me that he might make a very good hook upon which to hang a novel, particularly if he was not the principal protagonist. What is known of his life enabled me to link up a number of events with the emergence of my own character, Kit Faulkner. Mainwaring had nothing to do with the raid on the pirate stronghold of Salee, but Trinity House did, for the raid was mounted by the Brethren of that curious institution and I had already discovered these facts while writing my history of the British Merchant Navy. My knowledge of the background was further increased by the history book on which I am currently working, which tells the story of 500 years of Trinity House itself. It was from all this that A Ship for the King emerged.
This is not intended as a lengthy series. As matters currently stand I am engaged in writing a sequel, the title of which I have yet to decide. Beyond that I have no plans but it struck me that a story that began in the dark days of James I and Charles I, in which the navy was neglected, passed through the years of the Commonwealth navy from which a new maritime force emerged, and ended under the restored Charles II might offer some interesting possibilities.
One of the least understood aspects of British maritime history is the part played in general by merchant shipping and in particular by Trinity House. Merchant Shipping is seen as dull but worthy and since today we do not have a ‘Merchant Navy’ in the sense that we did half a century ago, its contribution to national and world history is being lost. This was the reason that I embarked in the rather ambitious and presumptuous project of trying to formulate a coherent account of the rise and fall of British shipping. Its ramifications are so complex and it touches all sorts of aspects of our modern life that it was rather like herding cats, but it seemed to me to be important that someone, preferably a professional seaman of my generation, made an attempt to nail it before it is too late.
We may be an island nation but we have already drifted a long way from being a maritime power as almost any public utterances about maritime matters show – just listen to journalists calling ships ‘boats’ and you will get some idea of how ignorant we have become.
On the more specific level the historical interpretation of an institution like Trinity House is an even more complicated and labyrinthine problem. An endowed charity, a self-governing private Corporation with statutory powers under Royal Charter and Acts of Parliament almost defies elucidation. I am an Elder Brother of the Corporation and take an active part in its work so that the occasional appearance of Trinity House in my fiction does allow me the opportunity to attempt to explain some of its functions without a heavy lecture. If you require the full-blown history, A Light Upon the Waters, it will be published to coincide with out Quincentenary in 2014.
I involved Nathaniel Drinkwater with the Corporation so it seemed a good idea to do something similar with Kit Faulkner, particularly as the link with Mainwaring led me there directly and effortlessly.
Insofar as the character of Faulkner is concerned, he is interesting in that although bright and intelligent – as Mainwaring recognises – his personal development is lop-sided as indeed it would have been by modern standards, but it is a lopsidedness exacerbated by his indigent background and his early life at sea, which does not really equip him for dealing with the machinations of a court in exile, or the more complex character of Katherine Villiers. How this all plays out we shall have to see, but the upheavals of the period make many things possible."
© Richard Woodman