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Why I Write Historical Fiction by M.M. Bennetts

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We have a special guest today!  M.M. Bennetts, author of the historical fiction novel, Of Honest Fame (Diiarts), is here to talk about writing historical fiction! Educated at Boston University and St Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider, as well as an accomplished pianist, regularly performing music of the era as both a soloist and accompanist. Bennetts is a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor. The author is married and lives in England. You can visit the author’s website at www.mmbennetts.com.

Why I Write Historical Fiction

By M.M. Bennetts

Somewhere along the line we’ve got the idea that history itself is dry and academic, that it’s about battles, names and dates, and curiously, very few people.   But history without the people isn’t really history at all, it’s geography.

And I want to put the people back.

Recently, I read this line by journalist, Charles Moore:  “In studying history, you must imagine yourself into the truly difficult choices people had to make in the past…”

And I thought, Whoa!  That is exactly it.  Nothing can say it better.

And that is the whole job of the historical fiction writer.  For us, it is not enough to live in another person’s skin within the contemporary world, but (possibly we have a strain of masochism?) we have to complicate matters still further by adding the past senses of smells, sights and sounds that are long gone or diminishing.  Then add to that, imagining ourselves into those unequivocally awful decisions and their aftermaths.

But when we get it right, how great is the result.  How much it deepens the experience of the reader.  And how it transforms our view of our current world by understanding our birth, the nascency of the ideas with which we live, the consequences of actions long since taken.

Historical fiction is one of the greatest communicators, if you’ll pardon the hackneyed expression.

When I was studying at St. Andrews, and skiving, I frequently wandered into Innes’ Stationers and Books, climbed the stairs to the panelled haven where the book department was and sat down on the stool they had there to read.  And it was there that started reading Dorothy Dunnetts’ Lymond sequence.

And for the first time, someone was talking about the Renaissance and Europe as interconnected–artistically, economically, militarily–and doing it through a set of characters with whom I became wholly engaged.  It may have been history made easy, but it was also history made embracing.

Look at how many people were engaged by Patrick O’Brian’s novels about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin.  Probably more than half the bearded blokes at the conferences leading up to the bicentennial of Trafalgar in 2005 were O’Brian devotees. And that’s how many of them had come to it.  O’Brian had been their window to the past.

And the fact of the matter is I want to see our history, our past, alive and available to all.  Not just to academics in university linen-fold panelled libraries.  Not saying I don’t like faculty libraries or their reading rooms.

But I want more than anything to see people today realise that the past isn’t names and dates, it’s people–good people, bad people, all of whom loved, lived, fought, triumphed, had families, contributed, didn’t contribute, died or survived to fight another day…

And historical fiction can do that.  And do it most effectively.

It can, if skillfully written and well-researched, bridge the gap between our modern-day lives and views and theirs, however many centuries ago they lived.  It can throw open the shutters of our minds, show us their lives–their strengths, their courage, their fears, their failures–and in the process, teach us not only about the challenges of the past, but about answers for the present.

And how cool is that?

A Few Facts about the period of my novels:

1.  Napoleon was only 5’3″ or 5’4″ at most.  I’ve seen his clothes.  He had tiny feet too.

2.  The shoes of the period have neither a right nor a left–they’re like ballet shoes.  And this is true of men’s shoes as well as women’s.

3.   In Napoleon’s army, the buttons on the trousers of the French Infantry were made of tin.  Tin turns to powder in extremely cold temperatures.  So during the French army’s retreat from Moscow in autumn and winter 1812, those poor fellows couldn’t even keep their trousers up.

4.   Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary from 1812-1822, was a fine cellist.  So was the Prince Regent, later King George IV.

5.  The London fog was every bit as bad in the early years of the century as in the old Sherlock Holmes’ movies.  It was often so dense, even during the day, that you couldn’t see from one side of a square across to the other.  This was caused by the use of coal as the primary means of heating the houses.  Paris, on the other hand, was fog-free–they used wood and charcoal for heating.

6.  From November 1806, because of Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, until the end of the wars, across Europe, there was no tea, no coffee, no sugar, no chocolate and no cotton to be had.  Just like during WWII.

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