Of God and Demons

posted in: On writing | 2
Picture of a sea monster from Wikipedia

I have always felt that one of the most important aspects of writing historical fiction is getting the mindset right. People in the seventeenth century had different beliefs, different sensitivities to ours. Things like torture, which we find reprehensible, was an accepted means of extracting the truth. Infant mortality was a fact of life; if a child died, parents routinely used the same name for a child born later. God was real, up on a cloud somewhere up there above the stars and demons caused much of the mischief in the world.

I wanted to show a little of the superstition of the time in my novel so you’ll find a reference to sea monsters when the Batavia hit the reef on the Abrolhos islands in 1629. They weren’t there (of course) but the fear that they might be was no less real for all that. Then I expanded. I think it’s fair to construe that Jeronimus Cornelisz, like most people of the time, could not swim. I used poetic licence to add a near-drowning episode in his past so that his fear of drowning was almost pathological. When the ship begins to break apart, he finally is forced to face the water.

Without warning the bowsprit broke away. The impact from the plunge dislodged him. Water rushed up and filled his mouth, stifling his cry. He tried to push himself up, back to the surface but something wrapped around his leg. Sobbing with fear he kicked. Dear God, please, God. Don’t let me drown, don’t let me drown. I’ll do anything, don’t let me drown. The grip on his leg disappeared. He groped upward, lungs bursting and his hand struck something solid. His fingers caught hold of wood just as his mouth opened to gulp. Air. He could still breathe. The bowsprit bobbed beside him. Weak with relief, he pulled himself up until he sat astride the floating timber. The water lapped around his thighs, the rain poured down but he was alive and beyond the pounding reef. His God had not deserted him.

And then at the end, at the moment when Cornelisz breathes his last “a shadow passed across the island. Lucretia started, heart jolting. A cloud, that was all. A fast-moving outrider of a bank gathering in the west.”

Just hints, just a feeling for the times. I felt it worked. I hope you do, too.

2 Responses

  1. MonaKarel

    When reading historicals, I appreciate writers who take the time to keep us in the moment.
    I remember reading what we would now call a blog by Gwen Bristow, who wrote the wonderful “Celia Garth,” set in South Carolina during the American Revolution. She said she read numerous diaries and letters written during that era. When a comment about a man’s “lovely long hair” didn’t disturb her, she knew she was ready to write the book.