It’s probably something about me that I genuinely enjoy doing the research aspects of writing. Not so much as the actual writing parts, naturally, though much of it is easier. The strange and wonderful things that you can find when just reading around a topic just serve to reaffirm the idea that the past is another country.
Doing some research for my current WIP, Airborne Empire, I found one such wonderful piece of information. During the Age of Sail and the Napoleonic Wars era, ships’ cannons extended almost the entire length of the ship, meaning that some were housed in the captain’s and officers’ quarters. When the ships were preparing to go into battle, the furniture in those quarters would be packed down and drawn behind the ship in “furniture boats”, allowing the cannons to be used. So far, so sensible, right?
Where we see the true extent of the past being another world entirely, is that the British, French and Dutch navies (despite being perfectly happy to fire iron weights at one another) had a gentlemen’s agreement never to fire on one another’s furniture.
That reads like utter madness to me, and likely to anyone of a modern mindset (though I can think of more than a few British politicians who probably think that warfare still works like that). What do tables and chairs matter when you’re about to sail your crew of hundreds directly into enemy guns? Bizarrely, these kinds of gentlemanly rules persisted into the 20th century.
One of the challenges of writing any kind of fiction that is not set in the here and now is working out the mindset of these kinds of rules. This is an agreement that appears to put furniture and the comfort of your officers (and even the opponent’s officers!) before the lives of your own crew. To a modern reader, it’s utterly absurd, and yet at the time it was standard practice.
It does make me wonder what practices we have that people in a few hundred years will look back on and say “That’s completely mental. What on earth were they thinking?”
Most of them, I expect.