Fictionalized History

Making Fiction Stranger (or at least more compelling) Than Truth


The presidential campaign of 2016 is – blessedly – almost over. If you’re like me, you can’t wait to be done with it.

On the other hand, to the fiction writer, the election has been morbidly fascinating, with the obscure, outrageous and frankly unbelievable “plot lines” that it has thrown off with head-spinning frequency. Virtually every day, it seems, my wife reads the latest headline aloud and my first question is to ask, “Wait, did that really happen, or is that Andy Borowitz?” Because many developments have seemed as if they could only have sprung from the inventive, twisted mind of the great satirist.

I’ve also had a professional interest in this issue because I’m in the process of starting a new novel that revolves around the intersection of law and politics. My historical mystery series, the Lincoln & Speed Mysteries, features the young Abraham Lincoln and his real-life best friend Joshua Speed fighting for justice on the rough American frontier of the 1830s. Lincoln was, of course, a courtroom lawyer before he became a famous politician. In each of my two books, These Honored Dead, published in August, and Perish From The Earth, forthcoming next summer, the plots involve murder mysteries that Lincoln and Speed must solve as part of Lincoln’s courtroom defense of the accused killers. I’m planning to explore Lincoln’s political side in the next book in the series, while maintaining the historical mystery format. Even though I’m writing a historical novel set 180 years ago, the election of 2016 poses a challenge to me: how can I make fictionalized history more compelling than truth, especially after an election whose everyday reality has all too often seemed stranger than fiction?

In a fascinating recent article in the New Yorker, 2016: The Novel, the historical fiction writer Thomas Mallon imagines a future historical novel about the 2016 election. Mallon notes that the campaign has been filled with events and persons who would make for compelling, transporting historical fiction. Mallon proposes to make Hillary Clinton his principal point-of-view character, with the “dark gymnasium of her mind” and her “twenty-five years of self-suppression.” By contrast, Mallon claims that Donald Trump as a prospective lead character “lacks even the two-dimensionality required in a sociopath.”

To fully flesh out his future historical novel, Mallon suggests that the 2016 election has also supplied a “substantial point-of-view character who’s willing to make an offer of his soul” (he tabs Paul Ryan, although several other possibilities also come to mind), as well as a lively chorus in the persons DNC and RNC chairs “Debbie Wasserstein Schultz and Reince Preibus, both with names out of Dickens, or at least Terry Southern, and both in a constant state of scurrying panic.” And though the article was published before his final contribution to 2016’s insanity, Mallon presciently carves out a role for Anthony Weiner, “another minor character with a manna-from-heaven name and career story,” who Mallon predicts “is the sort of character who could run away with the book.”

Anyway, inspired by Mallon’s thought exercise, I’ve been searching for an actual episode from Lincoln’s life where his legal and political careers collided in a way that could provide the basis for compelling historical fiction. And I think I’ve found it.

If you think this election has been ugly, you should have been in Springfield, Illinois, for the election of 1838. The political year opened with an acrimonious dispute between rival candidates for the plum patronage job of Registrar of the federal land office. The Registrar was entitled to a percentage of every sale of federal land, which was a huge part of the economic activity in western states like Illinois at the time. Culminating a long-running quarrel, the losing candidate confronted the winner at the Spottswood Hotel in Springfield, whereupon the winner took out a pistol and shot him dead. All this played out in front of an audience of Springfield’s elite. Indeed, the state’s attorney (prosecutor) had to recuse himself from the case because he was a witness to the murder.

Lincoln was hired to defend the murderer and pled self-defense. After the prosecutor’s recusal, the case ended up being prosecuted by Stephen Douglas – yes, that Stephen Douglas, the same man whose famous debates against Lincoln two decades later set a standard that this year’s presidential debates failed to meet, to put it charitably. So it was Lincoln vs. Douglas in the courtroom in 1838, twenty years before it was Lincoln vs. Douglas on the campaign stump.

Meanwhile, at the same time, Lincoln’s law partner and political ally John Stuart was engaged in a bitter campaign for Congress against … the very same Stephen Douglas. At an early joint campaign appearance in the grocery story of William Herndon, one of Lincoln and Speed’s other roommates, Stuart and Douglas (in the words of one historian) “both fought ‘til exhausted, the grocery store slippery with slop.”

Then, in a formal debate at the Springfield market house in late July 1838, Stuart responded to a choice insult from Douglas “by deed rather than word, expressing contempt by picking up the little giant [Douglas was famously diminutive] and carrying him all the way around the market house before setting him down again – a feat that surely delighted a western audience.” In return, Douglas bit Stuart’s thumb, a standard response in western fighting. Stuart’s thumb got so infected that he missed the next debate, with Lincoln standing in for him.

On election day, it was widely reported that Douglas had been elected. But then additional votes for Stuart kept trickling in from unlikely sources, and in the final official tally Stuart prevailed by 36 votes out of nearly 37,000 cast. Douglas protested, but to no avail. I believe he might have even claimed the election was rigged….

A strong basis for a meaty, entertaining legal historical mystery? I think so. Now all I need is six or nine months of sustained focus and 90,000 words to see if I can bring it to life.


Photo credit: billy3001 via Visual hunt / CC BY
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