Descriptive Writing ...

I've been goofing off the last few days. I just needed a break and I picked up a book at random from my collection of favourite authors. It has been a while since I last read John Winton's classic "We Joined the Navy" but I'm finding it as fresh and as funny as the first time. Part of it is his superb eye for detail and his ability to translate it into words on the page. Here is an example - 

HMS Barsetshire, the Cadet Training Cruiser, was a comfortable ship, at least in the opinion of her officers and her ship's company. The cadets' opinion of her was not known, nor was it consulted. She had been built in the spacious days before Hitler, when it was not unusual for a naval officer to have a private income and when recruiting for the navy was not subject to party recrimination in Parliament but depended on more mundane influences, such as the end of hop-picking and harvesting seasons and the decline of local industries. Her high speed and four funnels made her ideal for service on the China Station where the one enabled her to return from Wei Hai Wei in record time for the Hong Kong Races and the other impressed the Chinese. Her peacetime service in the tropics evidently demonstrated her admirable qualities for wartime service in the Arctic, for she never steamed south of the British Isles throughout the war, except after D-Day when she was attacked by a group of Messerschmitts who, it was assumed, mistook her for a newly constructed Mulberry Harbour.

I think even a non-seafarer reading that gets a mental image of a ship built for one purpose, now fulfilling another, having done everything except what she was designed for in between. He also neatly encapsulates the changing political scene and captures the sense of a society in change, setting the scene for what is coming in the story very well. Elsewhere in this book he has his reader in stitches of laughter with his description of jaded and disillusioned officers, hardened seamen and petty officers who keep everything going and the confused, slightly dazed, 'cadets' being put through endless training, lectures and evolutions. The ship is commanded and officered by a collection of eccentric characters brought to life by his eye for little details of behaviours and sayings which draw you in. You soon realise you know people like these, you've met them, worked with them and even associate with them because they're charming, witty, fun.

My second favourite in the line of powerful descriptive writing is Douglas Reeman. He writes historical novels under the name Alexander Kent and his descriptions of battles, ship handling and day to day life on the ships he places his characters on is, again, the stuff that draws one in. You 'hear' the roar of gunfire, taste the gunpowder smoke, feel the sting of icy spray - and the terror of the men engaged in hopeless battles. This example is from his book HMS Saracen.

Colquhon stood up and walked quickly to the screen. Flotsam from his own ship floated around in the calm water, and he could see smoke from the Aureus's wounds streaming astern towards the scattered convoy. But for a few moments longer he forgot his own duties and stared fixedly at the monitor.

She was less than a quarter mile away, and seemed to be leaning forward as she thrust her blunt bows deep into the blue water, the plume of funnel smoke adding to the impression of desperate effort and urgency. He saw the great battle ensigns, and the two massive guns swinging slowly in their barbettes, their muzzles pointing protectively across his own ship.

Behind him he heard Beaushears croak, "What is it? What is that madman doing?"

Colquhoun said: "It is the Saracen. She's going to tackle the bastards alone!"

Beaushears contracted his muscles against the pain. It was almost as if the shell splinters were gouging his chest wide open. "Tell me Colquhoun! Describe it!" Each word was agony. 

The Captain winced as three waterspouts rose alongside the monitor. "The enemy have found her!" He banged the screen with mounting excitement. "By God she's going to open fire!" As he spoke the two long guns belched fire and brown smoke, and the air seemed to shiver from the force of the twin detonations."

From here on you take the same death ride as the men of HMS Saracen, feeling the ship being torn apart as she takes hit after hit from the battleship she was never designed to stand against. She defends her convoy, steaming out of the battle eventually barely afloat, her survivors grateful to be alive and her convoy intact. You don't have to know ships to feel this and to be able to visualise what is happening. The descriptions draw you in and you feel the blast, duck the shells and the splinters, taste the cordite and smell the fire and the blood. I can only hope my own writing will one day be held to do the same.

For those that have never seen, and probably never will see, the Royal Navy going into battle, I had better explain the term "Battle ensigns." Ever since the 18th Century when, during a battle a ship's colours were shot away and confusion arose over whether or not she had surrendered, major British warships hoist "battle ensigns" as they prepare to engage an enemy. In the age of battleships this meant flying the white ensign at the peak of the foremast, and the mainmast, at the gaff on the mainmast and on the extremities of each of the main yardarms. My father once described it to me as the most awe-inspiring sight you could ever see. I expect it would be, especially when the ship opened fire. The muzzle flash from a fifteen inch gun extends about 300 feet from the muzzle and the blast wave from it will knock you down and do internal damage, which is why it was customary to 'clear the upper deck' when the main armament was to be fired.

So there I have it. Two brilliantly descriptive writers, one humorous and the other more serious, yet both able to paint a word picture for their readers that invokes the emotions, triggers the memory and draws the reader into the scene. Something to work for.

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