Category Archives: Coal Belly

A Riverboat's Crew

A Riverboat’s Roustabouts

These days, when someone uses the term, “roustabout,” they’re most likely referring to the workers on an oil rig. However, historically, the term was synonymous with unskilled laborers, and it was commonly used for those who worked onboard riverboats as deckhands. If the boilers were the heart of the boat, then the rousters were its lifeblood.

The crew of riverboats fell into three classes: officers, cabin crew, and deck crew. Officers included the pilot, clerk, and engineers. The cabin crew served as stewards, cooks, and chamber maids on the Boiler Deck and tended to work directly with passengers. The deck crew worked on the Main Deck and comprised the largest section of the boat’s crew. They performed broad-based, non-specific skills; they handled loading and unloading of freight, worked pumps and capstans, and joined in wooding (Loading fuel for the hungry boilers). Depending on the size of a packet, a crew could range from four or five or swell to an enormous size of one hundred twenty-one, like the crew found on the Eclipse.

“Dirtier and more toilsome work than this landing of the freight I have seldom seen.”

John Townsend Trowbridge, The South, p. 350

The pay for the rousters on the Main Deck was low; the average was about twenty-five dollars per month in the 1880’s. This is equivalent to five hundred and fifty dollars today. Life was tough. While meals were provided, accommodation most often was not. Crewmen were obliged to sleep where they could among the cargo and machinery, although occasionally a vessel might feature a tier of bunks on one side of the cargo room.

The cabin crew was paid less and was essentially a small hotel staff working on board. While their pay was lower, their living and working conditions were better than those of the men laboring below. They were able to sleep on the carpeted floors of the main cabin, and eat the leftovers from the extravagant meals served to the passengers. They also tended to be hired by season, unlike the deck crew who were hired by trip.

In this post, I’ve gathered numerous pictures of the crew, focusing mainly on the deckhands. You can check them out below.

The lives of the crew are fascinating to me. Learning about the nuances helped me expand my world in my current project, Coal Belly, a western fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are not only ubiquitous but necessary for everyday life. Many of the characters serve aboard riverboats, so it was important for me to understand the lives of the men and women who worked the packets.

Most of the images above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come. As before, in some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others’, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general. (Sometimes it gives me a good excuse to research something.) You can send me an email or leave a comment below.

This is the latest in my series of posts sharing my findings from my research for Coal Belly. You can check out the other posts in the links below.


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A Riverboat's Menu

A Riverboat’s Menu

Food and food culture say a lot about a place and its people, in many ways it helps defines them. While you don’t have to go to the detailed lengths of George R. R. Martin, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the food culture in your settings. Especially in fantasy worlds. The river nations in my latest project, Coal Belly, are no exception. Since a great portion of the book takes place on a sternwheel riverboat, I spent some time looking into the preparation of food onboard. After all, I want to make sure that everything feels both realistic and natural.

Dining onboard a passenger packet wasn’t all too different from dining at a nice restaurant. Cooks serving onboard a riverboat managed to create extravagant meals of multiple courses from tiny kitchens and working with a small staff. Attentive waiters served the diners during the meal. Ingredients were usually purchased at ports of call and were varied. While every riverboat was different, pantries were often located on the Boiler Deck just off from the Main Cabin and connected by stair to the kitchen. You can see the kitchen of the Cincinnati in the photos below.

While gathering and compiling images for my Riverboat Interiors post from a few weeks ago, I found myself reading a blog entitled The American Menu. There I found the menu from the U.S. Mail Packet Princess dated 1857. This is the same vessel captured in the Marie Adrien Persac painting from the last post. I found the menu itself a fascinating window into the past, and I wanted to share. I’ve posted it below, click to view it larger.

Menu for the Str. Princess
Bill of Fare from the Str. Princess, April 19th, 1857

Henry Voight, the curator of The American Menu, had a lot of interesting observations regarding the Princess’ menu. He notes the lack of French (common on upper-class menus the mid-1800s), spelling differences, and the particular regional ingredients featured among the pound cake and roast beef. Check out his full post over on The American Menu. It’s worth the read, you can learn what “macararonia” happens to be, and get a glimpse into the diet of the Antebellum South, and discover the fate of the Princess.

Lunch in the kitchen at night (Riverboat unknown)
Lunch in the kitchen at night (Riverboat unknown)

If you’re looking for more information and photos of riverboats why not check out my post on Riverboats & Leeves. If you’d to see more of the internals of these boats be sure to look at my post on Riverboat Interiors. Likewise, make sure to spend a few moments investigating the strange case of The Masonic Ironclad. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about anything posted above or riverboats in general, you can send me an email or leave a comment below.

Riverboat Interiors

In 1861, the Louisiana artist Marie Adrien Persac painted “Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess.” In it, he depicted men and women in Victorian finery moving about inside a cavernous Main Cabin onboard an antebellum Mississippi riverboat. It’s an interesting piece, one that partly inspired me to write Coal Belly. I’ve embedded it below.

"Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess" (Adrien Persac, 1861)
“Saloon of Mississippi River Steamboat Princess” —Marie Adrien Persac, 1861

It’s a classic view, looking down the length of the boat. A purser’s office and a refreshment window are in the foreground, while the Main Cabin extends back, lined with the doors that led to passenger’s staterooms. Most of the riverboats operating today have been updated and modernized, but the bones of the old layout remain. Passenger cabins flank an interior salon that transforms into a dining hall during meals.

Usually, riverboats only had a single deck for passenger cabins, located on the second deck of the boat traditionally called the Boiler Deck. (Because it sat atop the boilers.) Later, on larger boats like the Delta Queen and the Gordon C. Greene, other passenger decks were added. This allowed for larger and more extravagant interior spaces, dining salons, bigger passenger cabins, and grand stairwells. Passenger decks were usually elegant and richly appointed, though they tended to be a bit more cramped and not quite as roomy as Persac’s painting suggested. Images of riverboat interiors are rare, but in them, we can see that Persac’s depiction isn’t that far off. Below are a few photos from the interior of riverboats. You can click on any image to view it larger.

My current project, Coal Belly, is a western-fantasy set in a world covered by twisting and interlocking rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are ubiquitous and necessary for everyday life. The complexity of the interiors makes them the perfect mode of conveyance. Riverboats are a mobile cargo vessel for freight, a luxurious hotel for passengers, and home for their crew. While similarities persisted across all packets, each had their own unique style, which allows for a lot of variety and many places to explore. I can’t wait to introduce readers to the world of Achus and give you the chance to wander the decks of the riverboats in Coal Belly.

If you’re looking for other photos, check out my post on Riverboats & Leeves or look into the strange discovery of The Masonic Ironclad. Most of these images above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come. As before, in some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general, you can send me an email or leave a comment below.

Riverboats & Levees

It’s no secret how much I love riverboats. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen a few hints at my love. Some of my first posts on this blog were me sharing images steamboats and packets. I find them to be a fascinating piece of history, a mode of transportation that, like airships, have faded away from practical use but still retain a sense of wonder and freedom.

“It is a strange study, — a singular phenomenon, if you please, that the only real, independent and genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi river, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, and not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.”

—Mark Twain, Letter to Will Bowen, August 25, 1866

I like riverboats so much, I’m writing Coal Belly, a western fantasy set in a world covered in twisting rivers. It’s a place where riverboats are ubiquitous and necessary, and I have been having a blast writing it. It’s allowed me to do a ton of fascinating research. Along with extensive reading, I’ve been exploring the vaults of the Library of Congress looking for images. Within, I have found quite a few old photos, and I figured it’d be fun to share a few with you.

There’s a lot out there, so I am going to pick a theme. Today’s theme focuses on steamboats alongside the levees where cargo and passengers were loaded and unloaded. You can click on any image to view it larger.

If everyone enjoys this post, I’ll be sure to share more going forward. All images were acquired from the Library of Congress’s website. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. While my knowledge is not as extensive as others, I’d be happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images.

Shut up and write!

Mark Twain Writing
I’m an over planner. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I like to plan—and there is nothing wrong with that—but sometimes I take it to an extreme. When I wrote my first manuscript, Coal Belly, I learned a valuable lesson about my tendency to over plan.

It started with a map. After I had finished it apparently I needed to draw out the deck plans for the riverboat central to the plot. When that was finished I had to draw a new highly detailed map the capital city where a section of the story took place. That obviously wasn’t detailed enough so I needed to divide it up and name all the neighborhoods. Then I needed to draw out the various symbols of the various factions within that capitol city. Next I needed to… no…no, no, no, no, no.

No.

I didn’t need to do half that. Eventually I realized I was spending so much time creating busy work for myself that I was getting nothing done. I was working on collateral and not on the actual story itself. That’s a problem. Research is fine when it’s crucial but there comes a time when it begins to get in the way. Learning to recognize when I was doing something necessary and when I was just spinning my wheels was essential for me to get things done. I had to quit working on all the tangential stuff and focus on the work itself. The actual work. I needed to just shut up and write.

I have to remind myself about this daily. I need to separate the busy work from the real work. There’s always a blog post to write, a character to outline, an article to read, a comment to compose, a map to draw, a playlist to assemble, a twitter conversation to follow, etc. The list is endless and it can get in the way and keep you from finishing. (Rule #2) It’s different for each of us but somewhere inside we all know if what we are doing is needed to finishing our project or if it’s just a distraction.

Whenever you catch yourself doing something that isn’t what you want to be working on, do a double check. Decide if it’s really worth your time or if you should just sit down, shut up, and write.

My Process Part 1: The Planning

chalkboard

So a few folks have asked about my process, and I figured – why not write a series of blog posts on the subject? Now I realize I’m not the first person to do this, and there are plenty of books on the subject of how to write. I am sure all of them have great advice. I’m not going to give advice. I just want to share how I personally work. Before I get started one thing I really want to stress: no one’s process will be perfect for someone else. Everyone writes differently. Just because it works for Stephen King doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you. That’s okay. You won’t find your stride except through trial and error. Glean what sounds interesting and ignore what doesn’t. Try lots of different approaches and find your own rhythm. Above all, keep writing.

In this first post I am going to talk about my first step: The Planning.

1. Architect

If you have listened to Brandon Sanderson’s lectures he classifies writers into one of two groups: Gardeners and Architects. Gardeners work best without a lot of structure, they have ideas which grow and develop as they write. Gardeners don’t like to be tied down. If they are forced to plan, they often get bored as all the mystery and excitement in storytelling is lost to them. I am jealous of those people. I can’t do that. I tried. I am awful at it. My first few failed attempts at writing were born of me trying to write without an outline. Big mistake. Me without a plan is like a ship without a rudder: I go all over the place, I write sloppy, I confuse myself. My attempts at being a Gardener are the reason that I have a great many unfinished manuscripts sitting on various harddrives scattered around my office. I like big complex plots with lots of moving parts and I found out it’s difficult (read: impossible) for me to see all the details of the plot in action when I don’t have a pretty solid outline to follow. When I finished my first outline for “Coal Belly” it was like a light went off in my head. It worked. Things clicked and I was able to get my project finished—it actually came together and made sense. I didn’t get lost in the weeds. It’s important to realize this about me because everything in my process is built off my planning. Without a solid plan I am worthless as a writer.

2. My Outline

I want to be really open here, so I am going to show you what a part of my outline looks like. It’ll be raw and rough and full of errors, but that doesn’t matter. Usually only I see it. (Except today.)

My outline is pretty basic: it’s a list of items I want to include in various chapters. I’ll call out particular details I want to focus on and sometimes I make notes of elements I want to remain mysterious. I might even throw in a rough bit of dialog that I think would work. Sometimes I describe to myself what I want the tone of my particular chapter to feel like or what music I hear playing. The more complex the plot, the more notes I might have. The length and depths of my notes vary depending on the project and the chapters.

One thing I want to stress is that my outline is fluid. It’s a living document. It changes and gets updated as I write. It’s not sacred. When I make adjustments to plot in my prose I go back and make quick adjustments in the outline. Nothing crazy, just small notes—that way it doesn’t consume time I could be spending on writing.

I recently released the prologue for “The Stars Were Right” to the public, you can read it here (and I’d recommend it before continuing on – spoilers follow). The outline entry for the Prologue looks exactly like this:

Prologue
⁃ We witness the murder of an eyeglass dealer.
⁃ this chapter is told from thaddeus russel’s perspective. (third)
– Talk about Bell’s visit
– start showing the city
– keep the killer mysteruous
⁃ Mention Hagen Dubois’ new shop “up the street.”

That’s it (errors included!) It’s pretty straightforward, and I let the rest come to me naturally. Those points are the details I wanted to hit in the prologue when I actually sat down to write. (I’ll dive into this further in Part Two, “The Writing” and go into details about how I keep track of the little things that show up as I work.)

I will spend a great deal of time upfront making sure the plots work well together and the story has a good pace to it. It cuts down on my writing later on. A solid outline is why I was able to finish “Old Broken Road” in 4 months. I knew where it was going and I was able to write to that. On my current project—Deep, which is going to be pretty complex—my outline is about 3/4th done and is over 5k words. My outline is my treasure map. It leads me to the finished story.

3. Character Planning (or Lack Thereof)

This is where I am going to deviate a bit from my Architect analogy. It’s true I do plan a lot when it comes to plot but I tend to leave my character planning in a more malleable place. I have ideas, often times a name, but frequently I find those ideas are easier for me to work out in the prose rather than to set up ahead of time.

When I first envisioned Waldo Bell, the main character in “The Stars Were Right” I knew only a few things about him. He was a blue-collar everyman who worked as a caravan master, and he was a foodie. A lot of his personality, his quirks, and his faults didn’t show up until I started writing. When I did try to lock myself down, I found that I had to go back and change the notes around my planned-Waldo to fit the actual-Waldo.

Same goes for the shopkeep who is mentioned in the Prologue. I knew he was an anur—a race of amphibian/human hybrids—and that was about it! I didn’t know about his family, or the history of the shop, or his fondness for browline glasses. All of that came as I wrote.

Yep, sometimes this causes problems. Characters can deviate from what I had plotted out in my outline. That is fine: remember what I said about my outline being a living document. If a character moves in a completely different direction than I planned, I adjust the outline and keep moving.

4. Maps and Visual Inspiration

I love maps. I love them a lot. I even wrote a whole blog post about them. Maps help me visualize the city, nation, or land I am moving my characters through at any given point in the story. Often times I work on these during my outline. That way I don’t spend too much time revising borders, city names, etc. Sometimes I find it easy to draw them up to help set a scene. Even when I am not writing I often sketch maps. I have a whole sketchbook full of rough maps dedicated to imaginary places I might someday visit, from the fantastic to the mundane.

I’m a user experience designer by day and a pretty visual person. Along with my own maps I keep a collection of inspiring imagery that I find fuels my creativity around a particular story. Anything I stumble across in my browsing that sparks something in my imagination used to go in a folder on my harddrive. Now they get added to a secret Pinterest board, until I am ready to show ’em off. When I sit down to write I’ll often skim my collections as they help me get into the right mood to write.

See my Pinterest collections:

A Final Note:

There is such a thing as over planning. I have learned this. I would use my planning as a distraction from what I should be doing: writing. Instead of working on prose I was sketching a logo I was describing, or instead of streamlining a chapter I was checking the spelling on my outline. The whole focus on planning is to assist the writer in the work, not to overwhelm the writer. If planning starts to get in the way I stop. Then I get back to my writing.

Wrapping up:

So that’s my planning process. It’s pretty straightforward. I build my stories like an architect, have a fluid outline that I work off, I let my characters be themselves, and often keep stacks of random images and maps around to keep track of my world. Next up I’ll go into the actual writing, and explain how I actually get that outline into a format that people would enjoy reading as opposed to a grocery list of plot points.

Have any questions on how I go about my planning? Feel free to leave a comment below! I promise to do my best to respond to any question asked.