Ever now and then, I have my characters travel on a ship. Started in Prodigy of Rainbow Tower and it happened at least once in War of Nytefall. The reason is because you can’t always stay on land when traveling. You can come across a river, lake, or ocean because quests/adventures don’t pay attention to coastal borders. This brings up the challenge of creating scenes that are in a very limited setting. We’re not talking cruise ships here (although, you can go that route), but older traveling vessels that look similar to the picture above. This isn’t easy, so what are some ways to make it work?
- Try to use some kind of nautical terminology when describing the ship. You always get a handful of readers who will call you out on being vague, but you also don’t want to get too detailed if you’re uncertain. Describing the keel or rudder will help get the term across since you create context clues. This tip is more important when characters are talking. Sailors would use the correct terminology and it would be really weird if they didn’t.
- There is usually some crewmen above deck, so characters can’t have a private conversation there. In fact, it’s really hard to get a private chat in on a boat even in personal quarters. You have to consider if there are listening ears and how loud the characters are talking. A shouting match will be heard. So, you need to think about location and what off-page people are doing.
- Fighting on a ship is not as easy as fighting on land. You have a major reduction in space for offense, defense, and escape maneuvers. Also, pretty hard to sneak up on another ship when you’re on the open sea. Big attacks like fireballs and swinging a massive axe are dangerous because they can destroy the ship. It isn’t a grassy plain where it can take damage and still be there to stand on. Author and characters need to remember that the fighting area is at risk. This can restrict strategies and even negate certain characters.
- Unless the ocean voyage is the main part of the story, DO NOT draw it out for very long. I would go for maybe one or two chapters if it’s simply to get somewhere. That’s being generous too. The thing is that you can only do so much on a ship. A conversation, look over documents, getting attacked, sea monsters, natural threat, getting lost, and the list does keep going. Yet, if the core of the story isn’t an ocean voyage, it comes off as unnecessary padding.
- Ships can only carry so many supplies too. Don’t act like there is plenty of everything regardless of the voyage. Yes, you can show that they stock up nicely before leaving, but there are only so many problems that you can prepare for. A major diversion from the initial journey can cause worries over supplies. Look at ship schematics to get an idea of how much can be held. You can also check out old ship manifests (I think that’s the term) to see what they typically carried.
So, does anybody else have some pointers on writing with ships? I know of many people who have taken on the challenge. Share your wisdom!