Incorporating Historical Figures Into A Narrative

Blogging has been a little less frequent of late. I’m working hard on A Storm Hits Valparaíso and that’s taking up most of my free time.

If you are after the usual programming, I have a guest post up on Joe Konrath’s blog called I Can’t Afford A Publishing Deal. For the rest of you, it’s been a while since I showed you what I was working on and Sunday seems perfect for that.

Writers of historical fiction face some unique challenges. We must “build” an authentic world as backdrop for the story, in a similar way that science fiction and fantasy writers do, except we don’t start from scratch – we have the historical record to draw from.

This, however, can be both a blessing and a millstone. You get a framework of sorts for your narrative for free, but it can also become a crutch. In fact, that same framework which gave you a leg-up at the start can become limiting and, if you are not careful, suffocating.

Another pitfall which historical writers must navigate is authenticity. Readers of historical fiction are extremely demanding (in the best possible sense). If you have a South American character eating a mango, when they didn’t appear in that continent until the 1850s, they will know.

You must get all these details right. Anachronisms can jerk the reader out of the story as badly as anything else, rendering the contract void between writer and reader where they agree to suspend a certain amount of disbelief as long as you deliver on the story side. If you have something questionable in your narrative, they will start to suspect everything and then you start to lose them.

Some writers prefer to steer clear of famous historical figures. As they are well-known, everyone can approach your story with their own prejudices. Also, the sheer mass of available information can leave you little room to sketch out your own picture and presents difficulties in shoehorning these figures into your own narrative.

Personally, I prefer “discovering” figures who were famous in their day, but are less known now. While I was researching A Storm Hits Valparaíso, I came across the remarkable career of Lord Thomas Cochrane, whom you may have seen in my preview of Chapter 2.

In his heyday, he was the most famous seaman in Britain, and it’s easy to see why. He was a true larger-than-life character, continually involved in the most improbable comic-book adventures, only some of which appear in my book.

In fact, I had to cut some of his escapades as they were stretching the credulity of the reader. There really is no way for the writer to intrude and say: no, this really happened. And there is no way to hang a sign from a character’s neck saying “real historical figure.”

Either it works in the story, or it doesn’t, and sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. I was loathe to chop Cochrane’s adventures altogether though, and was able to work some of them in as back-story through dialogue in the chapter below. That can be a neat solution for all sorts of reasons, not least that you can cover a lot of ground in a short space of time – although you have to handle it delicately so it doesn’t seem you are just dumping info through having one character make a speech.

That wasn’t the trickiest part of this chapter to write, though. It was the exchange in the second half of the chapter (with the clerk) that took innumerable attempts before I was happy with it. It was one of those scenes that is simple to visualize but inexplicably difficult to get down on paper.

As always, none of the below has been edited yet, so I’m sure that there are errors scattered throughout, my commas have gone wandering (as usual), and that it needs a little cleaning up and tightening here and there.

This chapter takes place about a fifth of the way through the book, but I think it works okay as a standalone read. It’s about the tamest adventure he gets up to throughout the novel – you’ll have to wait for the book for the really good stuff – but I think it gives you an insight as to his character.

Chapter Fourteen—The Proctor and the Marshall

The stagecoach driver opened the door. “Lord Cochrane, gentlemen, we have arrived at Falmouth.”

“Excellent work, young man.” Cochrane descended from the carriage, reached into his pocket and took out several coins. “This is what we agreed, and here is a little extra for making good time. Make sure these horses get a good rest before you return to London. That was quite a clip you were going at.”

“Thank you, sir, very generous of you. Thank you, gentlemen.” He nodded at Cochrane’s three companions as they emerged from the carriage. “I’ll fetch your bags.”

“Smith, Jeffries, help the boy.”

The driver climbed on top of the stagecoach and untied the ropes holding the bags. Smith and Jeffries offloaded them to a waiting porter. When finished, the driver clambered back into his seat, doffed his cap, cracked the reins, and trotted away.

“Now lads,” said Cochrane, “let’s find this boat.”

“Sir?” said Lieutenant Bissel. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are we going exactly?”

“The Mediterranean,” said Cochrane, with a mischievous smile.

“But, Captain, sorry to keep pestering you. I thought you didn’t have a command.”

“You’re right Bissel, I don’t.” Cochrane was still smiling.

“Sir, you’re not planning to…” Lieutenant Bissel lowered his voice “…you’re not planning to steal one?”

“Don’t worry, everything is above board. We will be travelling in my private yacht. Look, there she is boys.” Cochrane pointed at a small boat. “The Julie.”

“Captain…”

“Bissel, look, all of you, come closer. Now listen, no more Captain, a plain Sir will do, at least until we get onto the boat. I’m travelling as an M.P., not as an officer.” Cochrane looked over the three men. “You Bissel, can be my Permanent Undersecretary.” The other two smirked. “Smith and Jeffries, you can be his Parliamentary Assistants. When we’re at sea, I’ll explain the plan, but I want to get out of the harbor without any fuss. Understood?”

“Aye Captain… I mean, yes, sir.”

Cochrane took one cabin and retired for the night immediately. Bissel, Smith and Jeffries were to share the other, but stayed up on deck drinking rum, mulling over their last battle in The Basque Roads, and despairing at the subsequent court martial.

“We could have ended the war there and then, but Gambier was too afraid to get his hands dirty,” insisted Smith, handing the bottle to his left.

Bissel took a swig. “The Captain had no chance at the trial. Half the judges were Gambier’s friends.”

“Well at least the public are on his side,” said Smith.

“I wonder if he should have held his tongue,” said Jeffries, taking the bottle.

“The Captain would never do that,” said Bissel. “And how is anything supposed to change if everyone holds their tongue?”

“The newspapers have been clamoring for the Admiralty to give him another command, talking up his record,” said Jeffries.

“I don’t know if that will help,” said Bissel.

There was silence until Jeffries turned to Bissel, seeking to change the mood. “You have been with the Captain some time now, Lieutenant, you must have some stories.”

“You can drop the Lieutenant for now.” Bissel looked out to the horizon. “Captain Cochrane is the most able officer I have ever served under. That’s part of the reason I’ve been holding out. I’ve been hoping he would get another command so I could serve under him again.”

“Go on,” said Smith. “Tell us a story.”

“All right.” Bissel cleared his throat. “I remember one time… my word, this is about ten years ago now. He was only twenty-four or twenty-five then, but just as mad. It was his first command, a small brig, the Speedy. We had taken damage from a Spanish frigate that wouldn’t give up the chase. At night we managed to give them the slip. We pulled into a small cove, thinking the Captain was going to order some repairs. Instead, he had half the crew painting the ship.”

“Painting?”

“Aye, we had a hole in the stern the size of an ox, but he wanted the ship painted like a Dutch neutral. After a few basic repairs, we hit the open sea, heading straight for Plymouth. Of course, the Spanish frigate appears, bearing down on us, not even bothering with any grape shots, knowing our guns can’t trouble her.”

“She was going to board you?”

“We had neutral colors, but they weren’t taking any chances. But, when she got close, the Captain hoisted the yellow quarantine flag!” The three men laughed. “She couldn’t turn around quick enough!”

“I’d say you got a few funny looks at Plymouth.”

“Certainly did. He flew the Dutch flag the whole way in, to make sure we would have an escort, as he put it, ‘like returning heroes’.”

“Go on, give us another, we still have half a bottle left.”

Bissel smiled. “A few years later, the Captain was given the Pallas, a frigate almost seven hundred ton. She had thirty-eight guns and a crew of over two hundred. They were good days. In just a few weeks we had taken prizes worth over one hundred thousand pounds.” Smith let out a low whistle. “But, on our way home from the Azores, we were surprised by three French. With their larger sail, we knew they could catch up in an instant. It was a dark, heavy sea, a strong starboard wind, and the Captain piled on the sail, but starts tacking, slowing us down. Pretty soon, two of the French were within a half-mile either side, the third a little further off, all preparing to fire. The Captain gave the order: every sail on the Pallas was hauled down.”

“Hauled down?” said Smith. “At that speed?”

“Wait,” said Bissel, smiling. “At the same time, her helm was swung around to take her across the path of the storm.”

“That could snap the ship in two,” said Smith.

“If we were any larger, it would have,” said Bissel. “The French shot past, our hull creaking like it’s going to rip apart. We hoisted sail again, quick smart, speeding off in the opposite direction at thirteen knots. The French took several miles to change course, they were too big to pull that stunt.”

“And you got clean away?” said Jeffries.

“Clean away,” said Bissel.

“A hundred thousand pounds,” said Smith laughing.  “No wonder you are so loyal to the Captain.”

“Well,” said Bissel, “prizes aren’t what they used to be.”

A voice came from behind them, “…and that’s the reason for this mission.” Cochrane had come up on deck as they were talking. The men made to stand, but Cochrane waved them down. “I’m sorry for the subterfuge, but as will become clear, it was necessary. Now that we are safely at sea, it’s time to let you know where we are going: Malta.”

“Malta?”

“This is a somewhat unorthodox mission and, as you may have guessed, not one sanctioned by the Admiralty, but you’ll get full pay from my own pocket.” The men looked surprised.

“Let me explain. You may have noticed we haven’t been getting our fair share of booty lately. And it’s not just our crew; every sailor in the Navy will tell you the same thing. I know some like to joke that it’s just the Captain keeping more for himself, but I assure you my share is falling too.”

“Why is that sir?” asked Bissel.

“It’s complicated, but the answer lies in Malta. You see, tradition declares the sharing of prizes we capture is arbitrated by a neutral party, the Prize Court in Malta, presided over by two men, the Marshall and the Proctor. I have information that something is amiss, that these men may be keeping an unfair portion of what is rightfully ours.”

“How can they get away with this?” said Bissel.

“Well the two of them, the Proctor and the Marshall, charge fees for deliberating on each case and for deciding the share each crewman gets. The problem is, their fees for consulting each other have risen sharply. It seems they find it harder and harder to agree, at a great cost to us and every other seaman in Britain.” Cochrane smiled. “I just want to convince them to get along a little better. Do I have your backing?”

“Aye, Captain.”

 ***

Cochrane had changed out of his civilian clothes into his full naval uniform, and stood outside the Prize Court in Valetta, alone. There were several Navy vessels in harbor; Cochrane had sent Lieutenant Bissel to inform them of what he was doing, knowing he would have their support if anything went awry. As a precaution, he ordered Smith and Jeffries to stay close to the yacht, in case he needed to leave in a hurry.

He entered the reception of the Court where he saw a clerk behind high counter, making notes in a ledger. Cochrane waited for a moment, and without looking up, the clerk spoke. “Can I help you?”

“Perhaps you can if you get your nose out of that book.”

The clerk looked up, a little embarrassed when he saw the Captain’s insignia. “Apologies, sir. How may I be of service?”

“I need to make an appointment to see the Marshall and the Proctor as a matter of urgency.”

“Of course. The Marshall and the Proctor are meeting each other as we speak, that should take all day. However, they should be free after lunch tomorrow. I’ll make an appointment for you to see Mr. Jackson at two o’clock, and the Marshall at four o’clock.”

Cochrane went to leave but turned back to the clerk. “I’m sorry, I appear to have gotten mixed up. Can you give me those times again?”

“Of course. You are meeting the Proctor at two o’clock and, yes, Mr. Jackson at four o’clock.”

“I thought I was meeting Mr. Jackson at two o’clock.”

“You are.”

“Forgive me. And at four o’clock?”

“Mr. Jackson also.”

“Look, I need to see both the Proctor and the Marshall,” said Cochrane, getting a little annoyed.

“Mr. Jackson is the Proctor and the Marshall.”

“He holds both offices?”

“Yes,” said the clerk, “a suitable replacement for the late Marshall, has not yet been found.”

“And I suppose Mr. Jackson is in charge of finding this replacement.”

“Well, he is the ranking official in the Prize Court.”

“And he can’t see me now because he is busy consulting himself?” Cochrane smiled. “Ingenious. Can you show me where his fees are displayed?”

“I’m not sure we have a copy of the fees here.”

“A copy of the Prize Court’s fees must be publicly displayed by Order of the House of Commons, of which I am a member. I demand to see it.”

“I’m afraid it is under review.”

“Is it now?”

“Yes. In fact, that is why they are meeting today.”

“Let me make sure I’ve got this right. Mr. Jackson has called a meeting with himself to see if he is going to increase the amount he is charging himself for such meetings.”

“If you want to put it like that sir, but I assure you everything is above board.”

“We shall see. Where is this meeting taking place?”

“I’m afraid I’m not aware.

“Where is Mr. Jackson’s office?”

“Which one?” said the clerk.

“Either!” Cochrane thumped his fist on the desk. He noticed the clerk’s eyes flicker to the large wooden doors to his right. Cochrane moved towards the door.

“I’m afraid you cannot enter Mr. Jackson’s office without his permission.”

“Which one?” said Cochrane, smiling. He entered, shutting the door behind him before the clerk could scurry around from behind his desk. Grabbing a chair, he tilted it under the door-handle and looked around. He was in a short corridor, with two doors leading off it, and a smaller door at the very end. The first two doors led to offices and a quick scan of both revealed little. The Proctor and the Marshall agreed on one thing: neatness. Cochrane couldn’t find the list of charges anywhere. The only item of interest was a large scroll which seemed to contain a list of Mr. Jackson’s charges on a recent case. He placed it inside his trousers and went for the last door. To his disappointment, it was just the lavatory. However, on the back of the door, he found a piece of paper pinned up: the list of fees. He stuffed it inside his shirt and closed the door, just as two guards burst into the corridor. The clerk and a small, officious man followed behind. “That’s him, Mr. Jackson.”

Mr. Jackson approached Cochrane, who was restrained by the two guards. “Captain Cochrane, you have been found in contempt of court.”

“Nonsense,” said Cochrane. “How could I have offended the court when it isn’t even in session?”

“Take him away.”

“Can I ask one thing Mr. Jackson?” The guards paused. “Are you giving this order as the Proctor or the Marshall?”

Mr. Jackson stamped his foot. “Take him away!”

***

Cochrane heard footsteps approaching as he took the package through the small, barred window. He untied the makeshift rope from the iron bar, putting it under his bed along with the package, then grabbed the chair from on top of the bed, replacing it at the desk just as the door creaked open. The guard entered the room, his lamp bouncing shadows on either side. “Lord Cochrane, you are going to get me in trouble with all this behavior.”

“I would never dream of it. I’m sorry if my stumbling around woke you, I couldn’t find my chamber-pot in the dark. I shall endeavor to be quieter. Please accept my apologies.”

“Lord Cochrane, I have even less interest in guarding you than you have in remaining in captivity. All I ask is that you play by the rules. Now, hand over the contraband.” Cochrane said nothing. “Please, I don’t want to subject you to the indignity of a search, hand it over and the matter will be forgotten about.”

“Well, if you must know, it’s merely a bottle of scotch which I intended to share with you, so that we could civilize this unfortunate situation we find ourselves in.”

“Let me see it.” Cochrane reached for the package under the bed, removed the wrapping, and handed it over. The guard took a close look at the label. “This is indeed a fine bottle.” He smiled. “I’ll fetch some glasses.”

Three hours later, the bottle of scotch was empty, and the guard was asleep at his desk. Cochrane removed a loose brick from the wall and took out a hidden file. He worked as noiselessly as possible, constantly fearing the sawing would awaken his guard. He had been secretly filing away for three nights now, but within a half-hour he was done. Taking his bed-sheets, he tore them into long strips, tying them end to end. As he fastened this makeshift rope to the one remaining intact bar, he heard the guard awakening. He couldn’t hide his subterfuge this time. Tossing the rope out the window, Cochrane pulled himself through the gap in the bars.

A shout came from inside his cell. “Cochrane?”

He gave the rope a sharp tug. It seemed like it would hold his weight. Pressing the soles of his feet against the outside wall, he began lowering himself down.

Cochrane tried not to look down; he knew the drop was about twenty feet, onto stone cobbles. The guard was shouting, it wouldn’t be long before he called for help. He quickened his pace. As he made his way backwards down the wall, he could feel the knots in the sheets loosening. Cochrane dropped the last eight feet onto the street and made for the harbor.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.