Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Research in 'The Bilge'

I was this close to thinking Story for a Shipwright was done. Problem was, I couldn’t quell that nagging little notion that the ending needed something more. Then a beta-reader confirmed it. So, like the good little progressive writer that I am, I began drafting out an extended ending, where I introduce a rather tense situation. To break it up a bit, I decided to have Samuel (the shipwright and narrator) engage in some boat work.

Now, this novel is not about building boats, so I haven’t gone all technical with it—in fact there are places where I think it could stand some expanded and authentic terminology. This, of course, requires more research. I do live in a state surrounded by water, but the likelihood of finding a boatyard engaged in launching a boat this time of year is, well, nil.

Of course there are all sorts of online encyclopedias out there, and I have downloaded volumes of information on nautical terminology and boatbuilding how-to’s. I also love pouring over our subscription to WoodenBoat magazine. And, they just happen to have an online forum for boat builder enthusiasts.

There were a number of forums on which I could have started a thread, but I stumbled down to the bottom of the list and found The Bilge. Honestly, I just love that word, and it seemed to be the catchall for things that don’t seem to fit 'Misc and Boat Related' (although I did end up posting there too).

In case you don’t know what a bilge is, here are two definitions that sum it up:
a. either of the rounded areas that form the transition between the bottom and the sides on the exterior of a hull.
b. Also, bilges. an enclosed area at the bottom of a vessel where seepage collects.
Slang. foolish or worthless talk or ideas; nonsense.

As soon as I arrived, they politely informed me that I had probably posted in the wrong place. I felt like a schoolgirl walking into a seedy old dive amidst a bunch of salty, seafaring bilge rats looking up over their pint of brew at the new lad (due to the ambiguity of ‘jbchicoine,’ they though I was a guy).

“Real research is done ‘aboveboard’,” they informed me, as one of the other guys pulled out a chair.

“Awe, leave the lad alone—we should be flattered that he’s even asking our opinion,” he muttered.

All at once, they seemed to realize they had a new audience and the advice came pouring in like—well, like bilge water!

Once I collected enough information to get me started, I posted my rough draft and opened it up for embellishment:

I worked the railway winch, letting out the cable, inching it along the gentle incline as Derek and Mitch walked its length, out the back exit, toward the ramp. The cradle creaked and the cable groaned as the motor whined. Metal rollers screeched on the tracks where I hadn’t greased well enough, but it crept along, stuttering here and there. As soon as water lapped its keel, I took Derek’s place. I figured that if the whole thing were going to crash on its side, it might as well put me out of my misery. At the rate this day had been going, I half-expected it.

This is what I ended up with (still open to embellishment, if anyone cares to do so). I think it's way better:

I worked the railway windlass, releasing the cable, paying it out along the gentle decline as Derek and Mitch walked the Marjie B’s length, out the back doors, toward the ramp. I had coated the cable, chains, and pulleys so heavily in grease that they couldn't screech or groan if they had to. Only the trucks grumbled on the tracks, occasionally crunching bits of gravel as they crept the length of the rails with barely a stutter. Surprisingly, the motor purred without any more misbehavior. Once water lapped her keel, I took Derek’s place. I figured that if the whole thing were going to crash on its side, it might as well put me out of my misery. At the rate this day had been going, I half-expected it.

Here’s a well-expressed response I received from one of the guys, TerryLL:

Not bad, but still could stand some tweaking. The danger in spending so much time burnishing one paragraph is that it shines like a jewel against the less-polished background of the rest of the narrative. It's often the case that the first two or three chapters of a novel radiate brilliance, thence to trail off like a dying comet, finally flickering out in some contrived ending.

The key to a page-turner is consistency, a plausible story, compelling characters, and a driving narrative. As for structure, let terseness be your mantra; pray for brevity. Words are a precious commodity; hoard them.

Gotta wonder if he’s in the biz. To be honest, they’re all rather articulate—eloquent even—for a bunch of ‘bilge rats’ (their term, not mine).

For me, hanging out at The Bilge has been the next best thing to the boatyard.


  1. Lucky for you to find such a place. Now, if we can just find a forum for psychotic teenagers....

  2. Oh good grief, Scott, those forums are probably out there—but that’d be a way scarier place to stumble into!

  3. Before kayak trips we used to stop at a local dinner called the The Bridgewater.

    We renamed it The Bilge Water.

    Our joke, which has remained for almost twenty years is: "Great coffee at The Bilge Water."

  4. Adds a whole different flavor to it, doesn't it. You've got to love the way the word just belches over the lips.

  5. Thanks for stopping by my blog! I liked your profile comment about being self-taught, as I am in the process of self teaching. Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. Self-teaching lets me go at my snails pace! I hope it will do for me what it's done for your writing.

  7. What a stroke of luck stumbling upon The Bilge. Sounds like a great group, that comment from one of the guys blew me away.

    Great paragraph BTW. I want to read more of "Story for a Shipwright" !!!!

  8. Yes, Deb, the Bilge is quite the place! I have a hunch that there are quite a few writerly guys hanging around down there. And curious too—I told them that I posted this blog and over a dozen have stopped in. Soon I’ll probably start saying things like Argh Matey.(I know, I can't even write that and sound authentic.)

    There’s one guy from Australia—Wild Dingo—he had this to say: “Going topsides is only gonna get him the knowledge and straigh edjoomakashun without the hooha waffle sidetracking shanghaiin lollygaggin an total confusion.” He has certainly broadened my vocabulary!

    I’d love to have you read as much of SfaS as you’d like!
    These last few chapters are a delicate write...hard to say if I’m pulling it off.

  9. Those guys sound like a fun way to get an education!

    I'd love to read SfaS. Shoot an e-mail to me at lsdeb at hotmail dot com. (LSDEB- just to clarify, a few people have tried isdeb) I'm in a writerly slump at the moment but I'm still good to go for reading!