The Birth of The Lincoln Deception

After many years as a trial and appellate lawyer, David O. Stewart became a bestselling writer of history and historical fiction. His histories have explored the writing of the Constitution, the gifts of James Madison, the outrageous western expedition and treason trial of the mysterious Aaron Burr, and the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Today, David shares the background for his historical novel The Lincoln Deception.

The Birth of The Lincoln Deception ~~ by David O. Stewart

The dusty volume, a biography of John Bingham, was stiff when I opened it in the main reading room of the Library of Congress.  I suspected that no one had looked at it since it was printed, on cheap paper, in 1989.

I trudged through each page, looking for something that would illuminate the historical narrative I was researching about the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson.  Bingham, from Ohio, should be remembered far more than he is.  Not only had he led Johnson’s impeachers.  He also wrote the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection, and prosecuted eight people accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

A single paragraph in that neglected book drove me to historical fiction. The author reported an account of Bingham’s death in 1900.  Bingham, the story went, told the doctor attending him that during the conspiracy trial he learned a terrible secret about Lincoln’s assassination. If revealed, the dying man added, the secret could have destroyed the republic. He told only War Secretary Edwin Stanton, who took the secret to his grave. Now, Bingham added, the secret would die with him.  Which it did.

For months, I couldn’t get that account out of my head. After I had written the impeachment book and another work of history, I decided to investigate Bingham’s secret. The Booth conspiracy, I was reminded, aimed to kill not only the president, but also Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, General Ulysses Grant and Secretary of War Stanton. It was not just an assassination; it was an attempted coup d’etat. 

Conspiracy theorists have gummed over the Lincoln tragedy for more than a century. They have blamed Jefferson Davis, Pope Pius IX, and even Stanton. Their theories have ranged from unpersuasive to ridiculous. I concluded that Bingham had kept his secret well. I could not write a work of history about it.

Still, the tale festered in my mind. So I decided to make up Bingham’s secret, which meant I would be writing fiction.  My version of Bingham’s secret had to be plausible, consistent with known facts. As my saying goes for historical fiction, you can make up a lot, but Lincoln has to be tall.  One protagonist, I decided, would be the doctor at Bingham’s deathbed; I drew another from local history in eastern Ohio.

Thus was born The Lincoln Deception, which was reissued recently, to be followed by two successor titles through the year.

For me, veering over the last ten years between historical fiction and narrative history, I believe the two genres enrich each other.  Writing narrative history makes me insist that the facts in my novels accord with what we know about that time and place and people. (Lincoln is tall!)  Indeed, when mastering historical facts, the writer asks the same questions a novelist needs to apply to her characters.

Why did a person make a statement or take an action? Are accounts of those words or actions plausible? Is the person reporting the incident reliable? What motives drove that person to record or relate those facts? (In novels, cue the unreliable narrator!) I have to know as much as I can about the foreign land of the past in order to recreate it for readers.

Writing fiction, in turn, opens my historical writing to the world beyond the cold records. Even with immense public figures like Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, the facts we don’t know dwarf what we know. Writing fiction makes me ask more questions about the historical characters I write about.

What happened when the person was off-stage? What did she think or say? Did she grieve or laugh or wonder? Why don’t we know more about an episode – were key figures trying to cover something up? Were they ashamed of something? Silences in the record can tell so much.

To take the process full circle, those same questions apply to every character in a historical novel:  those who are imagined (like the two amateur investigators in my novels) and those borrowed from history.

I am far from unique in writing both historical fiction and narrative histories. Distinguished genre-straddlers include Simon Sebag Montefiore, Allison Weir, and Shelby Foote. And many others.  Maybe there’s something to it.

Many thanks, David. Imagine my surprise to discover that the man behind The Lincoln Deception was John Bingham, who shares the name of both my father and my grandfather. Perhaps there’s more to the legacy of this story?

The Lincoln Deception by David O. Stewart ~~ In 1900, John Bingham lies dying in Cadiz, Ohio. He tells his doctor, Jamie Fraser, that he learned a terrible secret thirty-five years before when he prosecuted John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators. That secret of the Lincoln assassination, he confides, could destroy the republic, but will die with him.

Fraser, a 39-year-old widower who is weary of small-town doctoring, becomes obsessed with Bingham’s secret. Fate throws him together with the voluble Speed Cook, the last black man to play in the big leagues and aspiring newspaper publisher. Together they puzzle over the fragmentary evidence of the Booth conspiracy and set out to learn more. Their trail takes them to Booth’s nephew (a star actor himself) and the man’s beautiful business manager (who captures Fraser’s heart), and leads to the nation’s leading cotton tycoon, a man with murky connections to the Sons of Liberty, a Northern pro-Confederacy group from the 1860s.

Fraser and Cook face immense risks — a mugging on an Indiana riverside, a race riot in New York City, and a terrifying trap atop the new Williamsburg Bridge. Confounding their pursuers with resourcefulness and courage, they reach a Washington, DC showdown with the shadowy tycoon and the senior surviving general of the Confederate Army and the appalling truth of Mr. Bingham’s secret.

David O. Stewart’s first historical mystery, The Lincoln Deception, was reissued on April 14.  A sequel, The Paris Deception, will reissue on June 28, and a third book in the Fraser/Cook series will reissue in October (The Babe Ruth Deception).  In February 2021, Dutton will release his nonfiction book, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Mona Lisa – 500 Years of Mystery

Lucille Turner, author of Gioconda, has written an intriguing article on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and tells us how the artist and his famous painting influenced her writing. Over to you, Lucille!

Gioconda-Lucille-TurnerLeonardo da Vinci was a major player in the evolution of human understanding. Few men have incarnated such a strong, early connection between art and science, and few have retained such an aura of mystery over such a long period of time. We know Leonardo best for his portrait of the Mona (Madonna) Lisa, a 500 year old icon of popular culture and myth. But why all the mystery? I asked myself this question when I first began to research the life of Leonardo da Vinci for a book I had in mind, called GIOCONDA. The answers I found made me something of a Leonardo devotee, because the man behind the painting was, in the end, the biggest mystery of all.

The first thing that struck me about the portrait was its non-delivery. Leonardo kept it closely guarded at his side for years, refusing to deliver it to the man who had commissioned it as a wedding portrait, Francesco del Giocondo. By the time the painting arrived in France in the year 1516, exactly five hundred years ago, it was quite well travelled. By then, Leonardo had worked on it for almost twenty years, layering his paint on in fine applications until the portrait gradually acquired the depth it still has today. But other things also contributed to the mystery of the Mona Lisa, and one of them became a sort of Leonardo fallacy, a “Da Vinci Code”.

Where there is mystery there is rumour, and over the years Leonardo has been accused of dabbling in many things, from sodomy to alchemy and beyond. Hardly surprising that author Dan Brown was drawn to the aura of legend that surrounded him. In ‘The Da Vinci Code’ Leonardo is said to have been a member of the Sanhedrin: an order connected to the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians. It is doubtful that he was, but history leaves the door open to the novelist, and anything is possible when there is no evidence against it. Still, there was one thing in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code that rang true to me as far as Leonardo was concerned.

The beliefs of religious orders like the Rosicrucians owe their origins to the ancient Mystery Schools and Gnosticism. The Knights Templar were originally formed as guardians of the Holy Grail: the cup that was said the have been used by Jesus during the Last Supper. In The Da Vinci Code it was the nature of the Holy Grail that caused the sensation: person not cup. The grail was therefore symbol rather than object. The link to Leonardo resided, for Dan Brown, in the theory that Leonardo’s work was rich in symbolism, or to use a Dan Brownism, that a ‘Da Vinci Code’ did in fact exist.

Before we all get out our decoders, it would be more accurate to say that Leonardo’s art contains symbols rather than codes. It could also be said that the painting of the Mona Lisa owes its fame and enduring quality to the symbolism embedded within it. We see a woman sitting on a balcony against the backdrop of a view, smiling. On the surface of it, there is nothing particularly extraordinary or symbolic about that — or is there?

Perhaps the mystery lays not so much in the woman herself as in the associations she provided. From Leonardo’s perspective, these associations form the fabric of the painting. They are the link between Lisa and her background; they are Leonardo’s particular connection between science and art.

By the time he painted the portrait of Mona Lisa, Leonardo had understood how the eye works, and peripheral vision in particular. He had also understood that the brain receives the images we see upside down, and that it corrects these images. In short, he sensed that what we see is not exactly the whole picture. Sight must be processed; the old rules of linear perspective, which had marked the art of pre-Renaissance Italy so strongly, were incorrect. The three dimensional image that we see is recreated essentially in the brain, not in the eye.

How likely would it have been that Leonardo brought all his discoveries to bear in one painting, and that the painting in question was Lisa’s portrait? Quite likely, I think. Picture, if you can, the face of the portrait. The eyes, it is said, appear to move, to look in all directions at one time. The smile, it is said, is either a smile or it is not a smile. Or is it just half a smile? As it is with the eyes in the portrait, it would seem to depend on who is looking and where they are looking at any one time. But it could also depend on how they are using their peripheral vision.

The power of peripheral vision always strikes me when I think about a juggling act. The juggler can only keep going if he uses peripheral vision. The moment he focuses on one ball, instead of all the balls at once, the spell is broken, the balls fall. Apply this to Leonardo’s portrait, and we sense the same process at work. We focus on the smile and it vanishes. We focus on the face and it reappears. We focus on the eyes, and the smile vanishes again. We step back and focus on nothing at all, and the smile is there. When Leonardo painted Lisa, was he giving us peripheral vision in a portrait? Does he force us to use our peripheral vision when we look into his painting? Many people say that when they look at Mona Lisa’s face she elicits a response. Are we then mesmerised, held in the trance of the juggler?

The idea that Leonardo has painted the secret of sight in Mona Lisa is an entrancing one, but there is more to his painting than one pretty face. There is also the background. It would have been common practice at the time to provide a simple background of drapes or flowers for a portrait, but Leonardo being what he was, preferred something a little more spectacular. It is unlikely that Lisa del Giocondo would have been aware of the mountainous, primeval landscape that was being conjured at her back when the portrait was being painted. But since Leonardo had no intention of delivering it anyway, that would not have worried him. The landscape is certainly a strange one. Rivers are being formed and mountains are being made. The slow work of time is taking place behind Mona Lisa’s back. What did Leonardo mean by it?

To understand the background, we need to see Leonardo and his painting as one complete whole. A man who is curious about everything, and especially about the connections between everything, will sooner or later produce these connections in his work. This is really what he achieved with the Mona Lisa, and it has given the painting its enduring quality and its air of almost supernatural mystery. He did not just paint a woman; he placed her in the centre of a world that he had understood better than anyone else of his time. The slow work of time and paint made the miracle of the Mona Lisa. Five hundred years have passed, and we continue to wonder how he did it.

What a story, Lucille! Many thanks for being on the blog today and best wishes for continued success with your writing.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Historical Non-Fiction Author – Charlotte Gray

Charlotte GrayCharlotte Gray is the author of eight non-fiction bestsellers including Gold Diggers, Striking It Rich in the Klondike, Reluctant Genius, the Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell and Sisters in the Wilderness, The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. She is a highly regarded writer and historian, and I am truly delighted that Charlotte has agreed to talk about writing historical non-fiction.

I’ve asked many of the same questions posed to historical fiction writers – the similarities in Charlotte’s responses are striking.

You have written several books of literary non-fiction. What drew you to this genre?    I began my writing career as a magazine journalist, with 5,000 word articles about a range of subjects, particularly politics. My goal was to explain the How and Why of events, not simply the What.  I wanted to take readers behind the words they could grab from any front page or screen, and illuminate the visions, personalities, personal dynamics and motives of the players.

It didn’t take me long to realize that, to understand Canadian politics, I needed to know some Canadian history. But I found few books that brought this country’s past alive for me. So I took the writing craft that I had learned as a magazine contributor, and applied it to history.

What do you think attracts readers to your books?    I get a real buzz when readers tell me they love my books because “they read like novels, but I learn so much from them.” I do not write fiction, but many Canadians have a block about reading history. So I use fictional techniques (scene-setting, construction of dialogue from primary sources, build-up of suspense) that allow readers to feel that they are in a familiar genre – even though they are not. At the same time, I do a huge amount of research, looking for both the most important facts and for the kind of details that fire the imagination – what people look or sound like, what they were eating etc.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?    My approach to research is to cast the net as wide as possible, and gather as much information as I can. I know that this is exactly what writers of good historical fiction do too: they don’t rely on generic colour details to enliven their prose: they know exactly how a particular woman prefers to dress, in what colours, fabrics, styles and so on.

Have other writers of historical non-fiction or historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?    My great Canadian mentor in historical non-fiction was Sandra Gwyn, who wrote The Private Capital. Ambition and Love in the Age of Macdonald and Laurier. She was a good friend and my predecessor as Ottawa Editor of Saturday Night magazine. At the moment I am consuming the books written by the American historian Adam Hochschild, such as To End All Wars, about World War One. I constantly learn from writers like these about innovative ways to structure a story, and how to inject wit into my prose.

I read a lot of historical fiction, by writers like Hilary Mantel, Jane Urquhart, Edward Rutherfurd and others. The good stuff really works for me, but I find many novelists have trouble writing convincing dialogue from a distant era. And their female characters sound like liberated twenty-first century women, because it is so hard to get into the mindset of a woman who has been raised to think she is second-best or worthless.

What ingredients make for successful historical non-fiction?    Trustworthiness. I have worked hard to establish a reputation as a non-fiction writer who does not invent characters, events, conversations. If I say what somebody is thinking, I know about their internal monologue from private letters etc. So readers can know they are increasing their knowledge and understanding of Canadian history without constantly asking themselves, “Did this really happen?”

Another reason that readers like my books is that I approach some of the big events of the past (settlement in Upper Canada in the 1830s, the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s) from unusual angles. What was it like for the women living on those hardscrabble pioneer farms? How did miners survive living in tents when the Yukon temperature fell below -40C? This allows a reader to identify with people who lived decades or centuries ago – just as he or she can do with a character in a novel.

Are these ingredients quite distinct from historical fiction?    A novelist is not under such constraints to stick to the known facts…he or she can let their imaginations run! (But if they have somebody driving a car in the 1880s, that’s a problem!)

But any author faces the same challenge – how can I grab my reader’s attention?

Can you tell us what you mean when you say that the frontier between fiction and non-fiction is under constant negotiation?    A novelist like Hilary Mantel is scrupulous in her research, and in her two novels about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) never places one of her characters somewhere when records show that he was somewhere else at the time. So she works almost like a non-fiction writer, except that at the same time she is shaping a particular story, describing Cromwell’s inner thoughts (for which there are no records) and describing scenes that are totally imaginary.

At the same time, biographers are increasingly speculating on the inner lives of their subjects, although they have no evidence on which to base a sentence that begins, “He thought…”

The fluidity of the line between fiction and non-fiction has persuaded me to do endnotes for my next book, as well as the Source notes that I have always used for my books. The endnotes will appear on my website, so they can be consulted by readers of both paper and electronic versions of the book.

How do you select new stories to tell?    I look for stories that pique my curiosity, and that also challenge me to tell them in a way that will engage readers. There must be good primary material (letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings) and my publisher must like the proposal! There are many stories that catch my attention, but if there is no material for me to use, or if the story or person is unlikely to have popular appeal, I know I cannot do it.

My next book, The Massey Murder, A Maid, Her Master and The Trial that Shocked a City (to be published by Harper Collins in September 2013) arose from my decision to do a True Crime book. I could see that book buyers love crime stories – thrillers, true crime, crime fiction, trials. Those books were flying off the shelves at CostCo and Indigo!  I realized that this would be a great doorway into the past. I spent a long time looking for a crime story through which I could paint a larger picture – the turmoil in Canada in the first year of the First World War. The book is set in February 1915, but it covers a lot more ground than a simple murder.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?    Ha! Only the obvious ones we all try to employ: establish a routine, get enough sleep, make sure I get some physical exercise every day, keep reading good books. Perhaps my most important technique is to walk my dog every morning along the Rideau River, musing over the day ahead.

Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it?    My publishers tell me I have a brand, which is a Good Thing. This is all about marketing, isn’t it? And most authors I know (myself included) feel a little uncomfortable about sharing such a concept with cars, cell phones and breakfast cereals.

However, at the same time of course I am proud to hear people talking about the “Charlotte Gray brand,” or suggesting that a new book by a rising star is “in the tradition of Charlotte Gray.” I hope that it means lively writing, strong characters, narrative drive and an ability to send readers time-travelling backwards.

Have you considered writing historical fiction?    No, I don’t need to. I love what I’m doing, and I think there is enough drama in history so I don’t need to make anything up.

What do you do to connect with readers?    I do a lot of public speaking (I’ve just been a panelist on CBC Radio’s Canada Reads) and I have an active website and blog. I reply to all letters and messages I receive. I love hearing from readers, either in Q&A sessions after a talk, or through my website, because it is my chance to hear what they enjoy or want to know more about.

What do you know about your readers?    I know they are very well-read! Their bookshelves must be groaning, because they tell me about other books they have enjoyed – many from outside Canada. Many of my readers belong to Book Clubs.

What data do you collect about your readers?    I’m afraid I have no idea how to collect data from my readers. I would certainly love to know more about them.

What strategies guide your writing career?    I have a very simple strategy: I only write books that I myself would want to read. Luckily, my success has meant that I’ve been able to stick to that plan.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?    I might have paid more attention to my brilliant teachers when I was studying history at university! I’m appalled at the huge gaps in my knowledge. But otherwise, I have few regrets. I am happy that I didn’t start writing books until my three sons were teenagers, so I could have uninterrupted periods each day in which to write. Having a happy family is the most important achievement in my life, but it takes work.  That’s why many women writers, such as Carol Shields, start their careers as published writers a little later than most male writers.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?    This has been a fascinating exercise for me: I’ve enjoyed the conversation. I am particularly happy that you asked almost exclusively about writing: you didn’t ask about reviews, prizes, awards, public recognition etc. Those are horribly important these days, because they drive sales and motivate publishers – but most writers feel paralyzed if we start thinking about them, and anticipating whether or not we will be on some crucial list.

Many thanks, Charlotte. As mentioned above, your responses are very similar to writers of historical fiction, which I find fascinating. Your next book sounds like a compelling story and I look forward to reading it. Readers might also enjoy your essay titled “Creative Non-Fiction”: The Best of Both Worlds.