Putting The Fact In Historical Fiction


My Lincoln & Speed mystery series is a series of legal historical novels starring the young Abraham Lincoln, newly sworn into the bar in Springfield, Illinois, and his real-life best friend, Joshua Speed. In the time period in which the mysteries are set, the unmarried Lincoln shared a room – and, indeed, a bed – with Speed, the son of a wealthy, slave-owning family from Louisville, Kentucky who ran a general store in Springfield. In my retelling of history, young Lincoln and Speed are a sort of Holmes and Watson of the American frontier, with Lincoln solving mysteries that arise in his legal cases, as aided by Speed, his best friend, occasional sparring partner, and the narrator of the books.

Historical fiction uses real-life persons and events as a jumping off point for creative storytelling. The history centers the narrative and adds a unique dimension to the fiction. In my series, I’m trying to give the reader a sense of what it would have been like to be sitting across the table from, and sharing a bed with, the most famous man in American history, only no one in the narrative knows it, as the young Lincoln is not yet the “Lincoln” – statesman; bearded; his face heavily creased from shouldering the burdens of trying to save the Union – whom everyone thinks they know.

The use of real-life persons – especially persons as famous as Lincoln – as characters in fiction also imposes a constraint on the writer. For example, while mystery stories often place their protagonists in physical danger, I’m not sure how my readers would react if I killed off Lincoln in his early 30s, long before he has the chance to free the slaves and save the Union. I could do that, I suppose, but it would become one of those alternate histories – “What if the Nazis had won World War Two?” – that are their own brand of historical fiction.

As I’ve written the books in the series, I’ve come to understand the degrees of creative freedom that my readers are comfortable with. I think they want Lincoln to be the “Lincoln” they know, or at least on the path to becoming that famous personage. But readers are must less invested in my secondary characters and, accordingly, I have more degrees of freedom with regard to their actions – and their fates.

My latest Lincoln & Speed mystery, Perish from the Earth, is being published this week.

In Perish, a murder aboard a steamboat forces Lincoln to make a fateful choice on which the future of the Nation may hang, if his own client doesn’t hang first.

At the heart of Perish is the real-life figure of Elijah Lovejoy, an outspoken newspaper publisher and Abolitionist who was the victim of an infamous mob riot in Alton, Illinois in 1837 that made newspaper headlines from coast to coast. I recreate this riot in my novel; it is (I think) one of the best scenes I’ve ever written.

Lovejoy is a fascinating historical figure – brave and ornery, idealistic and pig-headed, reckless and pure. “I can die at my post,” he said once, “but I cannot desert it.” Better still, for my purposes, Lovejoy’s world and Lincoln’s world were closely intertwined. They lived at the same time, cared about the same causes, and Lincoln often tried cases in Alton, where Lovejoy made his famous stand. In short, Lovejoy is a perfect subject for my historical fiction.

But in writing Perish – and in doing publicity for it as well – I have had to walk a fine line. At one time, Lovejoy was a household name. Indeed, the late Senator Paul Simon, in his biography of Lovejoy, called his fate at the hands of the pro-slavery mob “one of the two greatest boosts the antislavery movement had from the day of independence to the outbreak of the Civil War,” the other being publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852.

Today, Lovejoy is much less well known. Still, some history buffs (who are, presumably, a share of my readers) may be familiar with his story. I couldn’t craft the narrative in such a way that such knowledge would act as a “spoiler” and prevent them from enjoying the mystery story. At the same time, Lovejoy’s real-life fate carries enough historical significance – and is so remarkable – that I was hesitant to change it. Here, as so often, truth really is stranger, and more compelling, than fiction.

So I spent many months while I was writing Perish trying to figure out how to use the Lovejoy character to greatest effect. At one point, the Lovejoy riot scene was the opening chapter in the book. Indeed, it was the first chapter of the book that I actually wrote. Later on in the drafting process, it was the climactic chapter. In the final manuscript, I settled on placing it in the middle – in effect as the dramatic end to the second act of the three-act story. That way, I think, I’ve made the best use of the real-life history to animate my imaginative fiction. If you give Perish a read, you’ll have to see if you agree.

As a post-script, let me note that using real-life persons in fiction can give also rise to some interesting issues of legal liability. Since all of my characters are dead – indeed, died well over 100 years ago – these concerns really don’t affect me. But what about historical fiction that uses living persons as characters? Our fearless editor Matt Knight tells me he’ll devote an upcoming post to this issue. I look forward to reading it and learning along with you.

Photo Credit: Tjflex2 | Visual Hunt | CC BY-NC-SA


Learn more about Jonathan Putnam and his Lincoln & Speed mystery series at www.jonathanfputnam.com.

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