Sometimes, it seems like in order to be a really skilled fantasy or science fiction author you have to be an expert on everything. The truth is less extreme; expertise is not required. What is required is a basic conversational ability, a sufficient familiarity with almost everything such that you can effectively enable your characters to pass for experts. It can be intimidating, especially when so many of the things our characters are going to experience are so far outside of our own realm of understanding. Things like what it feels like to kill a man with a sword, or to experience what is to us an alien landscape as something completely normal.
One area in which I know my experience and knowledge is lacking is sailing. While I’ve spent a lot of time in canoes, and a lesser amount of time on ocean-going boats, my grand total time spent on a sailboat is about half an hour, and I wasn’t the one doing the sailing. Since some of my characters and some of my world-building feature sailing prominently, this was a gap that I needed to correct, but since I don’t have large sums of money to buy historic sailing ships, and don’t live near an ocean at the moment, firsthand experience was not going to be an option. I therefore turned to the next best thing: a book.
Many of the things we write about we will hopefully never experience in real life – Verdon’s Tragedy, for instance, features an indoctrinated child super-soldier. To write such stories convincingly, we turn to other stories, both from people who have experienced similar things in real life, and from people with a deep enough understanding of human nature to bring such experiences to life. Fiction allows us to experience such things. We can also use books to experience things that we could experience in real life, but for various reasons have not, like sailing.
From this perspective, Warfare on the Mediterranean in the Age of Sail was only partially effective. I learned an enormous amount about naval warfare in the age of sail, the tactics and techniques involved, how the evolution from oars to sails took place, and the geopolitical context behind conflicts that I only vaguely knew happened at all. However, I only picked up some of the terminology and technical understanding of sailing that I was looking to gain for my writing. In that respect, I’m not sure that I would recommend this book; there are probably better books for that purpose out there, which I still need to find.
From a history perspective, though, this was a good book. Not great – it was too high level of a survey for my taste, giving us only tiny snippets of most of the events featured – but good for what it is. Just about every recorded military encounter in the Mediterranean involving sailing vessels in chronicled in this text, even if it might receive only a single paragraph. Its greatest weakness was the lack of context and depth; because of its presentation as a very high level survey of every single conflict, the reader doesn’t learn very much beyond the tactical detail of each individual encounter, and some of the overall evolution in naval warfare during the time period featured.
That tactical detail might be the most useful part of the book from a writing perspective, though. How tactics evolved in response to changing technologies and in different cultures, why certain nations operated their navies in certain ways, the commonalities and differences that arose, and how certain commanders came to alter the conventional wisdom can all be applied to writing, even if the sailing ships in question might not have gunpowder weapons.
While this book ultimately did not fulfil the purpose for which I originally picked it up, I nonetheless learned a great deal about a part of history that I previously had examined only in the most cursory detail. While I continue looking for the book that will tell me everything I need to know in order to write convincing sailors and sea battles, I suggest you consider reading Warfare on the Mediterranean in the Age of Sail.