Using Ships in Fiction

Parts of a Ship

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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28 Responses to Using Ships in Fiction

  1. L. Marie says:

    What a unique post! Great idea! I wish I had good advice. I haven’t written any sea stories. But I love to read them. Loved Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. And of course Treasure Island. And I admit I loved the first Pirates of the Caribbean. I especially appreciated the technical knowledge imparted in O’Brian’s series.


    • Thanks. Sea stories seem to be very rare these days. Most of those I have found don’t use the terminology and gloss over the details. Treasure Island and Moby Dick might be some of the best if I remember them correctly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    More great tips from Charles 👍😃


  3. Good points, Charles. You did make the space point but every boat I’ve been on has been smaller than imagined.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. V.M.Sang says:

    I have used travel by boat. I wanted my characters to arrive late and so I had them sail into a storm. I had great fun researching how to deal with a sailing ship in a storm, and learned about reefing the sails and which direction to point the ship. I was also cruel enough to have one of my characters very seasick! That they were all afraid goes without saying.
    I think it’s important to remember that everyone isn’t happy about traveling by ship. My grandson doesn’t like it, and my daughter isn’t very keen. They cross the channel by the tunnel to avoid it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve found that there are plenty of ways to delay a boat. Storms, no wind, reefs, sharks, and other boats are a few examples. It can get silly though if you do too many distractions because the ocean is so vast. One ship running into every problem on the open seas can get some criticism.

      Great point on not everyone enjoying it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. In your #3, authors should also consider that the sea is constantly in motion, and the water responds to objects and actions in a way that land doesn’t. The larger the body of water, the more wave action there will be. Explosions or large beasts will cause the ship to bob and roll. If they weren’t expecting the attack, then anything not tied down will become a potential hazard. Authors can use this to add excitement, of course.

    So people fighting on deck will be on a surface that is always moving under their feet. Anyone up in the fighting tops, like an archer or caster trying to shoot down on attackers, will be coping with a lot of movement as well.


    • True, but there are situationals there. That’s why I didn’t mention it. Experienced characters would know how to function with the motion. If you always have the fight be a mess due to motions then the tension can turn more into eyerolls from the audience. You can only do such hampering so often before you lose people.


  6. I’ve lived there for a couple of years, and my crew is always wanting for something. Could be munitions, food, water. They carry some livestock, because refrigeration isn’t an option. They’ve harvested ice for drinking water at times. You’re right in that technical jargon gets tiring. It is a small space, and I find a couple of key locations getting used quite a bit.


  7. Willow Croft says:

    Yeah, I have an MA in history, with a focus on maritime history, and I still have to refer to my maritime history library from time to time!


  8. Willow Croft says:

    Turtles for food, I’ve read.


    • Makes sense back when sea turtles were more plentiful.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Willow Croft says:

        Yeah, and, according to the maritime history/pirate history books I’ve read, they were low/zero maintenance. They would keep them in a tub of water on deck–providing them a fresh source of meat. Also, it’s been stated that pirates were more concerned with taking ships for resources like food, water, and supplies to fix their ship, over “loot”, but that, of course, was an additional perk.


      • That last fact makes me wonder something. If pirates went after ships for resources instead of loot, why were they pirates in the first place? I mean, what was the job for if it wasn’t to get riches?


  9. Jaq says:

    The devil is in the details.

    When I started writing the first book of my airship pirate series, very similar issues had to be taken into account. We haven’t had shipboard fighting yet but the very idea of an axe is terrifying!

    Apart from nautical details, I also researched dirigibles and came across the small detail of warming a meat pie by sitting it on the engine for a while, reducing fire hazards from cooking which affect ships on both land and sea!


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