The Story of a Novel – where’s the story arc?

My time is fragmented into small slices these days – see recent post Writing While Caregiving – and it might not surprise you to know that small bits of time are not conducive to creating a novel. However, I have now accumulated many potential plot points and difficulties for my heroine to face. What’s not yet working is the overarching story arc and its corresponding character arc.

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With so many novels set during WWII, and many recent ones featuring female spies or women working with the resistance, I want this one to be different. And yet readers enjoy characters who are larger than life, who face danger and impossible odds and yet survive. What is the right blend for Claire – my protagonist. Who will be her friends and her foes? How will her biological father factor into the story? Will he have a large role or a minor one?

And then there’s the question of how the war will change Claire. Will she experience a love affair? An unexpected betrayal? A brush with death? The loss of a parent or brother or sister? The destruction of her home? Will she be wounded? If so, how? Those of you who have read of the plane crash I survived might not be surprised to know that I’m toying with that idea.

As you may have guessed from an earlier post, D-Day will play a role in this story. The planning and build-up to D-Day was a phenomenal feat with the British, the Americans, and the Canadians playing significant roles. Interestingly, despite being leader of the free French, Charles De Gaulle was kept out of the planning for D-Day. In fact, he didn’t even know the timing until the last moment. Not surprisingly he was furious with Churchill, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. How might that bit of history factor into the story?

I have a feeling that tunnels will be involved in some way. Miles and miles of underground tunnels were built during World War One. Many of these underground passages survived into World War Two. I’ve also discovered that there was a hidden tunnel complex inside the White Cliffs of Dover that formed Britain’s first line of defence in World War II. Such interesting tidbits are hard to ignore.

So, you see, I have lots of work to do to flesh out both the story arc – drawing on real historical events – and the character arc. I’ll be back when there’s more to share.


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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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.


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