Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Richard Feltoe

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On Writing, with Richard Feltoe

Richard Feltoe's epic Upper Canada Preserved: The War of 1812 series is made up of six books, including the brand new, final instalment, The Ashes of War: The Fight for Upper Canada, August 1814—March 1815 (Dundurn). Richard is one of Canada's foremost military history experts, as well as a living history reenactor specialising in the War of 1812.

A comprehensive and revealing portrait of one of the most pivotal periods of Canadian history, the Upper Canada Preserved series is a must-read for history junkies.

To celebrate the conclusion of the series, we're speaking to Richard about all six books. In our conversation today, Richard tells us about what happens after completing a writing project of this magnitude, the current legacy of the War on our international relationships and why "The War of 1812" is in itself a misnomer.

Open Book:

What first prompted the 1812 series and how did you approach such a large — and presumably daunting — project?

Richard Feltoe:

Having been a Living History reenactor hobbyist for over thirty years and also being a museum curator, my personal interest (read passion/obsession) with the North American War of 1812-1815 and in particular the Canadian militia regiment of the Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada was augmented by my “professional” desire to do background research on the subject. As a result, I accumulated a significant archive of copies of original accounts and documentation that over the years I used to enhance my own interpretations at reenactments and answer the growing number of questions posed to me as I unintentionally became referred to as an “expert” on the war. As a result, more and more people encouraged me to use this accumulated information and produce a book about this regiment. So I did, under the title of Redcoated Ploughboys.

This, in turn, led to an increased demand for additional information about the battles and campaigns and the overall course of the war here in Upper Canada (where more fighting took place than in the rest of North America combined). Initially I was reluctant to do this, as I believed the subject was already covered. However, once I started looking, I found that while there were plenty of books already “out” about the war, they seemed to fall into one of two categories.

Some sought to document the course of events on all fronts and over the entire duration of the war, but I often found them to be, of necessity, dissatisfyingly sketchy on specific details of individual campaigns and battles. On the other hand, there were also plenty of books documenting, sometimes in microscopic detail, the events of a particular battle; but often at the relative cost of ignoring or glossing over the story of how this event fitted into the surrounding campaign in that specific geographic region and the course of events that took place pre and post battle.

No one it seemed, had produced a work or tried, over the last fifty years, to tell the story of the course of the overall war in relation to where most of the fighting actually took place (Upper Canada), and, at the same time, trace the sequence of events surrounding the individual campaigns and battles in sufficient detail to enable the reader to follow the story and effectively “put themselves on the field”. My goal therefore became to fill this gap.

OB:

How does it feel now that you've completed the War of 1812 series?

RF:

After over three and a half years of virtually non-stop research, writing, mapmaking, editing, photography, drawing etc., it’s almost a feeling of being “lost” as to what to do next and feeling “guilty” to be sitting watching TV instead of being “on the computer”.

OB:

Did the project evolve through the writing of the books or did you have a specific structure you wanted to follow throughout?

RF:

Probably a little bit of both. There certainly was, in my mind, a visual impact I wanted to make with the sequence of maps to tell the story of the battles, the use of then-and now perspectives in the geographic imagery and the putting of troop involvement numbers and casualty figures right on the page instead of being “dumped” into a series of appendices or notes at the back of the book. However, thanks to the skills of my editorial and design team at Dundurn, these concepts were converted into a reality that certainly turned out better than I had originally imagined.

OB:

The historical and modern images juxtaposed in the books are a unique experience for readers. Why was it important to include the contemporary photographs?

RF:

I cannot say how many times I have visited historic sites and been presented with a “visitor experience” in the form of a manicured lawn or guide paths etc. or found that the site has been completely altered or obliterated by subsequent development. As a result, where there is original artwork that shows things as they originally were, I get great satisfaction by taking copies of these vistas and trying, as far as changing physical geography and private property will allow, to put myself in the artist’s shoes, find the exact point from which he did his rendition and look at the view. For the books therefore, I took the modern pictures with the deliberate intent of giving readers who may never visit these places the opportunity to see these locations “then” and “now”, while those who do visit them will be able to orient themselves more easily and appreciate what it was like at the time.

OB:

Do you see a legacy from the War of 1812 in our relationships with the U.S. or the U.K. now?

RF:

Despite the fact that 200 years have passed since these events took place, I can say without hesitation that today’s international relationships still bear the hallmarks of those times in the attitudes and opinions that were established between 1812 and 1815.

OB:

What are some of the most common misconceptions about the War of 1812, or what are some of the facts you were most passionate about communicating to readers?

RF:

The very name commonly applied to the war is by far the biggest misconception that most people have. It was not the War of 1812, it lasted from 1812 to 1815 and was principally fought not merely in North America, but on the Northern frontier with Britain’s North American colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, that today we call Ontario and Quebec. Which is why I prefer to call it the North American War of 1812-1815.

OB:

Tell us about one or two of your favourite history or military focused books that you've read (fiction or non-fiction)?

RF:

I have always been an avid reader of historical fiction and authors such as Thomas Costain, Josephine Tey, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rosemary Sutcliff, Ann Perry and Ellis Peters, still fill my bookshelves. However, from the point of view of being a military-based influence, then it was, without doubt, the series of historical novels written by an author by the pen name of Ronald Welch (real name Ronald Felton, which I found spooky when I later found out). These books, while being individual stories, were also connected into a series as they traced, through a multitude of generations, the experiences and involvement of members of a military family (the Carey’s) within various periods in history from the Middle Ages to World War I. I have copies of all his works and still re-read them with enjoyment and appreciation of the fine job he did in telling a story and making his readers feel they were “there”.

OB:

What are you working on now?

RF:

I have a few ideas on the “stocks” including: an atlas of the war that would use the maps and images I compiled for the Upper Canada Preserved series. A comparative analysis of the various drill books and manuals used for training by the British Army in the Napoleonic era. And finally, a novel, that combines my experience and knowledge of the Napoleonic period, and the War of 1812-1815 in particular, with an extension of the story started by Ronald Welch (Ronald Felton) in his Captain of Foot novel.


Richard Feltoe was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and holds a degree in economics from the University of London. He is the curator and corporate archivist for the Redpath Sugar Museum and is active as a living history reenactor, re-creating the life of a Canadian militia soldier from the War of 1812. His other publications include The Flames of War and The Pendulum of War. He lives in Brampton, Ontario.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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