Today, I’m delighted to welcome Steve M Gnatz to the blog with a post about the research he undertook for his new book, The Wisdom of the Flock.
My research process was truly a “labour of love”. It began in 2005 when I read an article about the interaction between Franklin and Mesmer in the late 1700’s. Specifically, the article mentioned Franklin being asked to head the French commission investigating Mesmerism – a quasi-medical process that we would now probably identify as hypnotism. That was fascinating to me because I knew nothing about how Franklin might approach such an endeavour. I knew that Franklin was an inventor (lightening rod, bifocal glasses, etc.) but I had never really thought of him as a scientist. He was, of course, and a good one. Franklin, and the other French scientists involved, applied what we would now call the scientific method to his investigation of Mesmerism – some have even called his experiments the first “blinded study” partly because they used a real blindfold on their subjects.
However, I next learned that Franklin had invented a musical instrument called a glass armonica for a beautiful young musician (Marianne Davies) in England prior to his time in France.
Of particular interest to me was that I learned that Doctor Franz Mesmer was subsequently using a copy of Marianne’s glass armonica in France in his seances. That got me thinking that perhaps there was some sort of a love triangle going on. This is where the fiction enters into historical fiction. There are copious books that one can read about Ben Franklin, and a few about Mesmer, but none about Marianne Davies – so I was free to make up her character more than the others.
The Wisdom of the Flock: Franklin and Mesmer in Paris is based on real people and events. If there is a specific date given in the book, the event happened on that date – perhaps not exactly as described – but it happened. I just filled in the blanks in the historical record.
Whatever the resources studied, my foremost objective as a historical fiction author is to try to bring the characters to life. The readers will have to decide if I am successful or not. However, I find that the easiest way to do this is by telling the story through conversations between the characters. Since we rarely know from the historical record what was actually said – especially in the 1700’s, well before the advent of audio recording equipment – this gives me some freedom and also allows me to flesh out my characters “personalities”. I envision and portray Ben Franklin as a virile, confident, occasionally pedantic, hedonistic socialite in Paris at the age of 70 plus. That image has gotten me into a little trouble with some critics who have found it hard to believe that he was not the corpulent, gouty, elder statesman they imagine – but I believe that the historical record bears me out on this. One need only read DuPont’s inscription to the 1779 painting by Duplessis (included here* and as a frontispiece in the book) as evidence. Or consider that he really did propose marriage to a French woman (and a major character in the book) Madame Helvetius near the end of his time in France.
I believe that the filter of time tends to oversimplify historical figures. I wrote about this on my own blog back in January and you can find that post here: https://stevegnatz.com/2021/01/why-do-we-stereotype-historical-characters/
We come to think of historical figures as good or bad, triumphant or tragic, famous or infamous – not the complex people that they most likely were. My book attempts to breathe a little life into these people who lived nearly 300 years ago.
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?
I included a bibliography at the end of The Wisdom of the Flock and would refer the interested reader to that resource as it represents my “go to” list for writing this book. It includes many published books but also journal articles and even a PhD dissertation. Because Franklin’s letters are all digitized and available for viewing on the web, it was easy to get access to his main form of communication – letter writing.
The internet is a wonderful tool for researching a historical fiction novel. Just remember not to believe everything that you read!
As I’m sure is a fairly common practice for historical fiction writers, I create a spreadsheet as a resource with a timeline of important historical dates and events across the top and the characters names down the side. I can then make notes at the intersection of the two. For example, when were Marianne, Franklin, and Mesmer all known to be in Paris so that they could interact? When did Mesmer leave Paris, and did Marianne go with him?
I will also specifically recommend the books on Benjamin Franklin by Claude-Anne Lopez for anyone that really wants to get a feeling of what he was like. I believe that she developed a better understanding of his personality than anyone of our time. Unfortunately, Ms. Lopez passed away in 2012 and I never got to meet her. In her lifetime, she not only translated all of Franklin’s papers from French to English, but also wrote several key books that helped me understand Franklin as a man. I thank her for that.
In addition to reading any books that I could find on my main characters, I also found that books on “ancillary” characters were helpful. There are many famous characters portrayed in The Wisdom of the Flock – Marie Antoinette was the queen of France at the time, Pierre Beaumarchais (playwright), John Paul Jones (navy captain), even Casanova was circulating around. Books on these historical figures helped me flesh out their characters and hopefully avoid stereotyping them.
Getting to know as much as I can about the historical characters is fun and helps me form my own opinions about who they were. While we can, of course, never really know them, historical fiction allows the writer and the reader to almost feel that they do.
Thank you so much for sharing. It sounds like you really enjoyed the research process of writing the book (yay), and I wish you luck with it.
Here’s the blurb:
A WORLD OF ENLIGHTENMENT, REVOLUTION, AND INTRIGUE
1776: Benjamin Franklin sails to Paris, carrying a copy of the Declaration of Independence, freshly signed. His charge: gain the support of France for the unfolding American Revolution. Yet Paris is a city of distractions. Ben’s lover, Marianne Davies, will soon arrive, and he yearns to rekindle his affair with the beautiful musician.
Dr. Franz Mesmer has plans for Marianne too. He has taken Parisian nobility by storm with his discovery of magnétisme animale, a mysterious force claimed to heal the sick. Marianne’s ability to channel Mesmer’s phenomena is key to his success.
A skeptical King Louis XVI appoints Ben to head a commission investigating the astonishing magnétisme animale. By nature, Ben requires proof. Can he scientifically prove that it does not exist? Mesmer will stop at nothing to protect his profitable claim.
The Wisdom of The Flock explores the conflict between science and mysticism in a time rife with revolution, love, spies, and passion.
Mild sexual content
Available on Kindle Unlimited.
Meet the Author
Steve Gnatz is a writer, physician, bicyclist, photographer, traveler, and aspiring ukulele player. The son of a history professor and a nurse, it seems that both medicine and history are in his blood. Writing historical fiction came naturally. An undergraduate degree in biology was complemented by a minor in classics. After completing medical school, he embarked on an academic medical career specializing in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. There was little time for writing during those years, other than research papers and a technical primer on electromyography. Now retired from the practice of medicine, he devotes himself to the craft of fiction. The history of science is of particular interest, but also the dynamics of human relationships. People want to be good scientists, but sometimes human nature gets in the way. That makes for interesting stories. When not writing or traveling, he enjoys restoring Italian racing bicycles at home in Chicago with his wife and daughters.
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