One of the most often-asked questions of a writer is "where do you get your ideas?" Sometimes, it's from a life experience. Sometimes, something as simple as an image can set off the whole spark for a novel. Bliss Bennet is here to tell us how a minor historical footnote inspired her debut novel, A REBEL WITHOUT A ROGUE.
"We have got an addition to the family since you were last here, it is a little Girl said to be a daughter of poor Harry’s, it was bro’ very much against my inclinations."— John McCracken to his brother Frank, September 1798
It’s amazing how a few short sentences from a primary or secondary research source can prove to be the catalyst for an entire novel. I first came across the lines reprinted above while reading a biography of Irish social reformer and abolitionist Mary Ann McCracken. Though well-known in late 18th and early 19th century Belfast for her progressive social beliefs and her activism on behalf of the indigent and the enslaved, today Mary Ann McCracken is primarily remembered as the younger sister of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the leaders of the northern rebels during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Arrested by the British after the rebels’ failed attempt to seize Antrim in June, “poor Harry” was offered clemency if he testified against other United Irishmen leaders. He refused, and was tried and executed in Belfast on July 17, 1798.
Shortly after her brother’s execution, Mary Ann McCracken was informed that the impetuous Harry had left behind an illegitimate child, and that “his inability to make provision for her had been his only sorrow in his last moments.” Taking the burden of the four-year-old child’s provision into her own hands, the unmarried Mary Ann helped the girl’s Irish mother and family to emigrate to America, then moved the child, whom she called Maria, into her father’s house in Belfast.
What would it have been like, I began to wonder, to have been that child? To have been born the bastard daughter of an Irish peasant, to have lived with a rural Irish Catholic family for the first years of one’s life, and then suddenly to find oneself uprooted and thrust into a genteel city family, one with Scottish roots and Presbyterian beliefs? And, on top of it all, to know that one’s father had been executed as a traitor? As I thought about this “what-if,” the main character of my first historical romance, A Rebel without a Rogue, and her quest to redeem her father’s reputation and win a secure place in her father’s family, was born.
By all accounts, the actual Maria McCracken grew up beloved by her aunt Mary Ann, with whom she lived in Belfast (except for time at a boarding school in Ballycraigy) until her aunt’s death. Even Maria’s own marriage did not separate them; “it was a foregone conclusion that Maria would bring her aunt to the new home,” her biographer writes.
A happy child and adult, though, does not a romantic heroine make. I hope Maria’s descendants will excuse the major liberties I’ve taken in imagining a far different course for the fictionalized characters I’ve loosely based on her life.
Historically-minded readers can find out more about the real Mary Ann McCracken (a far more fascinating woman than I’ve depicted in my novel) in Mary McNeill’s The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken: A Belfast Panorama. Dublin: Allen Figgis, 1960.
Bliss Bennet writes smart, edgy novels for readers who love history as much as they love romance. Despite being born and bred in New England, Bliss finds herself fascinated by the history of that country across the pond, particularly the politically volatile period known as the English Regency. Though she’s visited Britain several times, Bliss continues to make her home in New England, along with her husband, daughter, and two monstrously fluffy black cats. Her mild-mannered alter ego, Jackie Horne, blogs at Romance Novels for Feminists (www.romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com).