Saturday, January 10, 2015

Writing historical fiction: Of sailing ships and contracts . . .

I'm reading Isaac Cowie's very useful memoir, The Company of Adventurers: A Narrative of Seven Years in the Service of the Hudson's Bay Company during 1867-1874.  Not historical fiction. Not set in 1842 as my story, Rivers of Stone is. But a fascinating read for background close to the time of my story.

So far I've learned:

--The Prince Rupert, a three-masted sailing ship called a barque, had an iron-plated bow and oak-sheath at the waterline so that she could sail the icy waters of the Arctic.
--The captains of Hudson Bay Company ships ignored the fur-trading missionaries who sailed in smaller ships, seeing them as competition and close to pirates.
--All the foods taken aboard, from prime beef, to live pigs and sheep and chickens, and drink (rum, beer, wines, to brandy), would be distributed by rank. Those who ate very well in the cabin with the captain were teased that this was the last "civilized food" they would get. Once ashore in the wilderness of York Factory and upper Canada, their fare would be "bear and blubber, fish without bread or salt or vegetables in times of plenty, and leather and lichen off the rocks in time of want" (Cowie 77). 
--Those who signed the five-year contract as laborers slept in steerage and could lose all their pay if they did not work as assigned, with no promise of room or board, which included working aboard the ship. These laborers were recruited from all over northern Scotland and received half a year's pay before boarding. 
--The laborers recruited for the York Factory included blacksmiths, a boatbuilder, and a cooper along with a group of 24 very hardy young men who had been vetted by their parish minister and a local doctor. Apprentice clerks most likely were related to someone already employed by the Company.

There is also the matter of ice. Just how much ice did the Prince Rupert encounter as it sailed from Stromness in the Orkney Islands, past Greenland to Davis Strait and Hudson Strait near Baffin Island on its way to Hudson's Bay in August of 1842? This photo was taken in Davis Strait on September 3, 2014.

Towering Remnants of an Arched Iceberg 6 Davis Strait Canada
Photo by Ngaire Hart Lawson (Flickr)

The challenge ahead will be to continue research and decide how these facts affect my characters in Rivers of Stone

Dougal McDonnell, an Orkneyman, joined the Hudson's Bay Company because he dreamed of owning his own land one day, far from the capricious landowner who evicted his family, along with traditional farmers and fishermen, to replace them with sheep. 

Catriona disguised herself as a boy to travel to the wilds of Upper Canada with Dougal, her husband.

Both will be tested in a world they could barely imagine, but one I hope to bring to life.


  1. I agree. It's always fun to figure out how to incorporate the facts into your story.

  2. Thank you, Gay, for visiting. The research is as fascinating, but as my story develops, all of these details fall to deep background. But I want my story to be as accurate as possible. For example, the question about ice being in Hudson's Bay and Hudson Strait comes from an early reader of a rough draft. Journals of the time suggest that there was ice . . . but he had sailed there and found no ice. Still working on ways to validate how much ice and where it was! May your own writing go well.