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Discerning Grace

Author Emma Lombard shines a light on women seafarers

An intriguing family story of an ancestor who eloped with an English sea captain sparked author Emma Lombard’s imagination many years ago. Her debut novel Discerning Grace was inspired by her great-great-great grandmother’s tale—and it shines a light on the little-known history of women seafarers. I’m excited to host Emma on the blog today for an interview about the research behind the book. Welcome, Emma!

AM: What’s the tagline or super-short blurb description (“elevator pitch”) for your book?

EL: Discerning Grace is a rollicking romantic adventure featuring an independent young woman whose feminine lens blows the ordered patriarchal decks of a 19th century tall ship to smithereens.

AM: How did you come up with the idea for your book?

EL: When my grandmother shared a piece of juicy family history with me that my 3x great grandmother left her well-to-do family in England and eloped with an English sea captain—I was hooked. I knew all those years ago that this was going to be the premise for my first book series.

AM: What inspired you to write about that particular era or character?

EL: I’ve always loved historical fiction—imagining how it used to be for folks back then. So, once I had the premise for my book, I decided that I wanted to explore what life would have been like aboard a tall ship from the female gaze. Hence Grace Baxter was born. While the premise for my historical women’s fiction novel comes from a piece of ancestral history, I actually decided to go completely down the fictional route. There is no correlation between my long-ago relative and my fictional character.

AM: How did you create a realistic setting for your story?

EL: I read so many non-fiction books, blogs, forums and research papers that dived into ship board life. I learned the bells for the watch system. I discovered the food, customs and superstitions, and wove these into my stories. Being a non-sailing person, I had to learn how a ship responds on the ocean by reading alone (I get horribly sea-sick, so trying to immerse myself on a sail boat for the experience was out of the question). But considering that I’m writing historical women’s fiction, I knew I didn’t need to drown my readers in too much technical detail. A few snippets of commands and visuals of what the ship is doing is enough to help readers be immersed.

And there’s no way I could brave facing a storm at sea, so I had to take other sailor’s accounts of this (and watch stomach-dropping footage on YouTube) to try and understand the visceral emotions. Writing the terror of some characters was the easy part because that’s all me; the challenge was writing the stoicism of sea-hardened officers who could still think clearly and rationally.

Plus, my secret weapon is that one of my beta readers is actually a commanding officer in the British Royal Navy who also happens to be a historian. He really helped me get the nuances of shipboard life just right.

AM: What surprised you in the course of your research?

Just how few records there are of women aboard ships. I had to dig deeply to find letters and diaries of women who (willingly and voluntarily) lived aboard ships to help me understand the challenges they faced—especially raising a family within the confines of a vessel. My biggest godsend was eventually discovering female marine historians such as Joan Druett (Hen Frigates and She Captains) and Linda Grant de Pauw (Seafaring Women).

EL: Do your research findings guide the plot, or do you plan out the plot first and flesh it out with research? (Or perhaps both?)

In my case, research definitely guided the plot. Since I had no expectations about what life would have been like for women aboard tall ships back in the 1820s, I followed the research trails that established the kinds of ships existed back then (e.g. explorers, merchants, anti-slavers), which helped inform the most plausible type of vessel (that wasn’t a pirate ship) on which a woman might find herself on, as well as the journey she could go on around the world. I then fleshed this research out with loads of colorful characters and a fast-paced plot.

AM: Do you prefer to write in silence or with background music? If music, what kind and why?

EL: Silence is golden! I already have too much noise going on in my head with my characters all talking over one another.

AM: What do you have planned for your next writing project?

EL: Discerning Grace is the first in a series, so now that the first book is out, I’m cracking on with books 2 and 3 (both of which have completed first drafts). I’ll still be spending a bit more time with Seamus and Grace before venturing into new waters.

Buy Discerning Grace at your favorite online bookstore here.

Emma Lombard

Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace, is the first book in The White Sails Series.

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1 Comment

  1. Emma Lombard says:

    Thanks for the chat, Amy! Always a pleasure.

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