Giving Sailors Their Voice

This contemplation grows from both my friend Alice McVeigh’s recent column on reviews and the release of my latest full-blown novel, The Sailor’s Rest.

Before I go further, I will stipulate that reviews are essential to the writing process. Good authors look at reviews and find value in reader comments that will elevate future work. Good authors also know when to accept that a reader’s opinion is an opinion, not gospel. Writers who hope to become authors understand that they must tread a fine line between implementing reader notes to improve their stories and absorbing viewpoints that will dilute and harm the essential truths of their practice.

I have been writing fiction for seven years. I have arrived at a point in my work when I write intentionally. Whatever elements you see in one of my books exist because I intended them to be there. Yes, it is unimaginable that a writer would not know what they are laying down on a page and, thus, they intended to write what they wrote. However, my version of “writing with intent” goes beyond simply planning to write the previous seven words as “…further than simply intending to write the….” Structure, themes, and styles are all utilized to achieve the desired effect. If I use repetitive wording, I am doing so because I feel that will achieve a specific effect.

A few reviews—four-and-five stars—have commented about using cant and Regency terms in The Sailor’s Rest. They point toward the speech mannerisms I created for the sailors of Naiad and Persephone. The general theme is that cant pulls readers away from the story if they take the time to understand what is being said.

Leaning back into intentionality: I am thoroughly aware just how disruptive extensive use of apostrophes, contractions, and phonetic spelling can be to a reader. It forces them to slow down and absorb the sounds I am trying to recreate. That is exactly the reason I do that. In essence, notice must be paid.

Are sailors’ voices important enough to be heard in Pride and Prejudice variations? Must our genre only follow the ninety-year-old model of dukes and earls, impoverished ladies, or spunky heiresses speaking in cultivated tones? Taken an additional step: if they are important enough to be heard, should the sailors’ truths be related in my approximation—cant—of their jargon?

Consider this short paragraph from Chapter 13. Here we see an beached invalid sailor, Gunner Hastings, giving Elizabeth her first hope since Darcy vanished several weeks before.

Hastings reached over and patted Lizzy’s hand. “Now, missy, I h’aint got news nuther good nor bad. I saw whut I saw an’ was smart enuff ta keep me trap shut an’ outta sight ’til they left. T’utherwise th’ crabs’d’lready stripped me bones clean.”

How might Gunner Hastings’s speech have read if I had tried to regularize his speech and make the old sailor sound less like a man from Portsmouth’s back alleys? What would we, as the reader, lose? Before answering that question in a fictional realm, consider the real world.

In 1932, an ambitious project captured the memories of elderly freed slaves. The Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project later became mired in controversy. In the 1980s, researchers matched the printed records to the actual recordings. They discovered the collectors had altered the interview transcripts by changing the interviewees’ patois into speech more comfortable to the ears of college-educated researchers. The transcripts, used by anthropologists for nearly fifty years, had been accepted as accurate renditions.

While the message content was similar, the loss of tonality and word choice limited the utility of the printed interviews for ethnographers. Even “wrong” words establish context and meaning because the speaker thought they were using the word that best fit. A thoroughly different reading of the interviews came to light when researchers listened to the original recordings. In the transcripts, everything was a printed noun. In the original recordings, the nouns remained but were surrounded by aural adjectives, verbs, and adverbs.

Referring now to the old sailor’s comfort offered to Elizabeth, I offer an extreme example of regularization to support my point.

Hastings reached over and patted Lizzy’s hand. “Now, Miss, I don’t have good or bad news. When I saw what was happening, I was smart enough to keep quiet and under cover until they pulled away from the pier. Otherwise, I would have been crab food.”

Yes, this reads easier and quicker. Hwever, is that the objective of reading: to race from beginning to end? The restatement offers the same essential information. However, what of the truth of the words: how they sound and their cadence? What do they tell us about the person uttering them—or is that a nuance unimportant in a plot-driven world?

The first speech expressed Hastings’s story in my approximation of his accented words. Brigadier Fitzwilliam might have uttered the second.

Modern ethnographers, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists know that the words a person says–and the unspoken gestures that accompany them–offer a deeper reading of what is being said. I seek to apply that to my works in the Austenesque universe.

I do regularize speech in my books: notably in The Bennet Wardrobe (see Charlie Tomkins in Volume Seven) as well as in Lessers and Betters. In both instances, I note at the front of the book that I am regularizing the speech. However, I explain my intention by stating that extended exposure on the part of George Wickham to Tomkins and Wilson allowed him to regularize their speech. I liken this to an accent that disappears through lengthy exposure. You live in Georgia long enough, and what had been unfamiliar to New England ears becomes unremarkable. Wickham has spent months and years leading his file. He regularizes their speech.

In The Sailor’s Rest, only Wentworth and the Crofts know sailors. Every other character has never heard of the polyglot that filled the spaces between decks in His Majesty’s Royal Navy.

Looking at intentionality: I decided not to regularize the speech for readers of The Sailor’s Rest. Instead, I determined to place all in the same position as Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Anne Elliot. Our leads had only two months in the company of pigtailed men who hailed from Wales, Virginia, Ireland, Scotland, and every corner of England. They did not have enough time to develop a filter to reorganize what they heard.

You read what I believe the gentry heard—or at least my best interpretation of speech from 220 years ago. I wondered just how much of the cant Elizabeth “got” when she stood in the inn’s dining parlor listening to Sarah Small, Nate Wilkinson, and Gunner Hastings testify. Then, two months later, how easy was she in hearing the sailors talk?This makes their interaction with those who crewed the ships more authentic and meaningful.

In the end, our heroes were able to understand the true meaning of the words spoken by the hundreds keeping them alive.


Please enjoy this excerpt from The Sailors Rest, available in Kindle e-book, on KindleUnlimited, and in paperback.


This excerpt from The Sailor’s Rest, ©2023 by Donald P. Jacobson, is published in the United States of America. Reproduction prohibited.

From Chapter 13

An excitement, previously unfelt by any of the searchers, pervaded the dining parlor. Elizabeth could feel the energy as, hand-in-hand with Anne, she followed Mrs. Croft and Sir Walter into the private room. Anne sensed it—or at least the Somersetshire lass detected something—because she squeezed Elizabeth’s fingers.

As the eleven had become twelve, quarters could not have been closer. Elizabeth stood on tiptoes to watch the tableau as all leaned toward the momentary center of their world. The old hand, now identifiable by the naval queue trailing down his back, stopped before the pair of general officers, straightened, yanked off his greasy cap, and knuckled his brow when he saw Croft’s epaulets. The bodies between Elizabeth and the fireplace muffled the admiral’s gentle rumble. Whatever Croft had said led Tomkins to drag a chair toward the hearth, moving the witness box into more friendly climes. The old mariner dropped into the seat, coals warming his wasted figure. Foote pushed a foaming tankard between the sailor’s gnarled fingers. Pewter tipped back, and his apple bobbed.

Where Croft had taken the lead earlier, he ceded this portion of the meeting to Fitzwilliam, stepping aside to read a message, its quarto-sized sheet scored by deep folds. Elizabeth could not see the message, removed as she was with the table between her and the admiral. However, Sophie stood to her husband’s right and leaned her cheek against his arm as she read the note.

“Sergeant Wilson,” Fitzwilliam silkily said, “I thought we had completed our interrogations. Yet here you and Tomkins present another to give testimony, although I must admit that you are acting differently with this fellow than the chair’s previous occupant. Perhaps you might explain.”

Elizabeth, used to Wilson’s ways, could hear the smile in his voice. “Aye, colonel, er, brigadier—may I call you general as we are a few hundred miles from Horse Guards—we are pleased to present Gunner Hastings. Seems that Hastings had a peculiar sort of front-row seat that answers everything we wanted to know.”

Elizabeth had been patrolling the back of the audience and running her fingers over the writing slope’s dusty lid. Wilson’s last sentence ripped the air from her lungs. “Everything?”

She forced herself between shoulders and confronted the weather-beaten man in the chair. “Please, sir, have mercy on me. Tell me what you saw. Do they live? What happened to them?” She began crying, and her knees gave way. Only the quick intervention of Anne and Sarah prevented her from falling to the floor. The room’s second chair swiftly found its way beneath her.

Fitzwilliam looked down at Elizabeth. “Before Mr. Hastings speaks, Miss Bennet, can you countenance the worst possible news in the hopes that you will hear better? I ask this of you as well, Miss Elliot. If you cannot, I request that you return to the common room.”

The ladies’ nods spurred Fitzwilliam onward. “Now, Mr. Hastings—by the by, that salutation is no temporary honorific because you, sir, are one of our nation’s warriors—please tell us what you saw three sennights back.”

Hastings reached over and patted Lizzy’s hand. “Now, missy, I h’aint got news nuther good nor bad. I saw whut I saw an’ was smart enuff ta keep me trap shut an’ outta sight ’til they left. T’utherwise th’ crabs’d’lready stripped me bones clean.”

A growl from Tomkins pushed the gunner to reef his descriptive sails. “‘ pologies, mum. I saw whut I saw an’ can tell you ’bout it cuz I kept quiet. I may not be long for this world h’ainyways, but d’ruther keep what breath I have ta cool ma porridge.

“As I r’call, ’twas a mis’r’ble night. I was idlin’ between some hogsheads, takin’ my leisure, and tryin’ to stay out of that infernal rain. Th’ tarp kept the worst off’n me. ‘ad made me a bit o’ a bed o’ dunnage and packin’ straw. ‘ad a clear view of th’ hard and th’ steps.

“’bout two bells into th’ sec’nd dog watch…”

Sophie interjected, “Seven in the evening.”

Hastings looked up and gave her a gap-toothed smile. “Yes’m: anyway, at about seven, so meebe two-odd hours aft’r sundown, a ship’s boat puts off’n th’ larboard chains o’ th’ frigate whut ’ad nosed into th’ anch’r’ge on the flood. They tied off on th’ ring by th’ steps right afore me.

“Tell ye this, I made meself as small as I could. They wuz an evil-looking crew, eight plus one. Their boss man was ev’ry pusser I’ve ever knowed: hatchet-faced bastard, ’e wuz. They met up with ’nuther guy, a big-un. Couldn’a ’ear if’n anythin’ wuz said o’er the noise on the canvas overhead, drummin’ laik th’ marines, it wuz.

“They went off, an’ then only the ship’s crew come back, but they wuz luggin’ two fellers whut they slung down the steps an’ inta the boat.

“Afore ye ask, missy, if’n I might make a thought known to ye from my ’avin’ been on more’n one cuttin’ out ’xp’dish’un that might set your mind at ease. We didn’a waste time luggin’ dead frogs anywhere. We’d bring our own back if’n we could, but less’n the cap’n was wanting prisoners, we made sure th’ Frenchies stayed where they fell.

“Whut I’m tryin’ ta say is that if’n that crew wanted those two daid, they wouldn’a wasted time draggin’ ’em back to th’ ship.

“If’n I ’ad a shillin,’ I’d bet on the fact that they was breathin’ when they pulled back to the barky.”

Elizabeth sighed as her shoulders dropped from her ears. Hastings forged ahead. “Tho’ ’twas dim dark, I could see they tossed cargo nets o’er th’ side and winched somethin’ aboard. Soon as they ’ad everything secured, they warped th’ barky’s ’ead about and took th’ ebb out past the bar. Last I’d seen of her.”

Croft lifted his nose and speared Fitzwilliam with a glance. “We’ll be able to find out the name of this mystery frigate from the port captain’s clerk. The only problem is that the ferry is tied up for the day. I doubt we’ll be able to bribe Charon to cross the Humber this late in the day. Our inquiries will have to wait until tomorrow.”

“Oh, nay, admi’r’l,” Hastings jumped in, “I’ve seen that frigate comin’ in thrice. Persephone ’tis. French cut, she ’tis, zur.”

Croft smiled. “Gunner Hastings, once again, my faith in the British sailor is borne out. Your keen eyes have saved us a trip to the port captain and filled in many blank areas in this canvas.

“Now, if I might offer something to extend Brigadier Fitzwilliam’s and my thanks: do you wish a good posting?”

With Hastings’s nod, Croft carried on. “Men like you should not be counting the rats running along the wharf’s edge. Make your way to Hedgebrook House near Lambton in Derbyshire. The master is an old mate of mine from Billy Ruffian. You tell him that Alfie Croft sent you. Be sure you say Alfie Croft. We were mids together, and that’s what he called me. You give him your sailor’s best, and he’ll put honest coin in your pocket.

“I know you are short in the stem, but a navy man’ll know what will suit you. The last I heard was that he started mining. Maybe he’ll need someone talented in the dark arts who can pack charges correctly to avoid blowing the estate to hell—sorry, Sophie, my dear, but I am using naval terms—and beyond.”

The admiral pulled three guineas from his purse. These and his card he handed to Hastings. “Tomkins, get the gunner a room, dinner, and bath here tonight. Set him up for the morning post to Derby through to Lambton. Place everything on my account.

“Again, Gunner Hastings, you have the thanks of my family and Miss Bennet’s. You have shed light on a well-hidden problem.”

11 responses to “What Elizabeth Heard, What She Knew”

  1. Susan Kaye Avatar

    Bon voyage with The Sailor’s Rest. It’s great to see some Persuasion adjacent JAFF.

    1. Don Jacobson Avatar
      Don Jacobson

      Thank you very much. I felt that these two books paired well.

  2. Corrie Garrett Avatar

    Interesting and a good excerpt. Thanks for sharing! I want to go look up that Slave Narratives project now too.

    1. Don Jacobson Avatar
      Don Jacobson

      After “The Cultural Turn” (a process which began in the 1970s), historiographers and ethnologists began to reconsider the interpretation of cultures by dominant-culture researchers. The conclusion (which I embrace) is that the authentic voice of any culture can be lost through observational bias. In 1949, the anthropologist Gilbert Ryle introduced the idea of “thick description” which involed writing detailed narratives explaining situations and their background context. Using this process, a better understanding of people and their cultures can be achieved. My favorite vignette created by Geertz and Ryle was “When is a wink not a wink but rather a twitch.” Knowing the difference allows the observer to understand unspoken meanings shared by others who know if it is a wink or a twitch.

  3. Alice McVeigh Avatar

    In the case of The Sailor’s Rest, it definitely worked. It ‘rang true’ and felt in character.

    If there was page after page of it, unrelieved by simpler dialogue, I might have felt differently, but it was well-judged.

    I also hope that authors who take all the time and effort to research speech patterns of the period aren’t punished for it. For me, though this level of effort isn’t required, they should get extra credit, instead.


    1. Don Jacobson Avatar
      Don Jacobson

      Alice, thank you for your support of “Sailor’s Rest.” Hope you have recovered from your husband’s retirement party. See my reply to Corrie above for more of my thoughts on cultural context.

  4. Hollis Avatar

    Don, I have no problem with you using whatever you choose to write in whatever dialect you choose. I am fully aware of not everyone speaks the “King’s English” especially in rural areas. I am sorry to hear of the homogenizing of speech as I love hearing the different speech patterns and accents. I live in Texas and treasure listening to my state’s citizens who still have a western accent.

    1. Don Jacobson Avatar
      Don Jacobson

      Hollis, Appreciate the notes on my column. We might lose our own “hearing” of the regional accent, but the inflection remains. Then again, I am from Western Massachusetts and those people from the Boston area always sounded so different! Hope you entered the giveaway!
      Entries close on April 14.

  5. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    The two books did pair well! Love the excerpt!

  6. Tamara Mills Avatar
    Tamara Mills

    Seems like you have good reasons for your actions. I got a few criticisms that bothered me way-back-when and I didn’t react very well, so kudos to you.

    1. Don Jacobson Avatar
      Don Jacobson

      It is difficult not to become defensive. Sometimes the review or rating (a drive-by 1-star is the most bthersome) can help refocus your efforts. Other times a writer needs to explain the rationale behind a specific item.

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