Monday, March 6, 2017

From Non-Fiction to Fiction: Guest Post by Burt Solomon

BURT SOLOMON is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and National Journal, where he covered the White House and many other aspects of Washington life during the first Bush presidency and President Bill Clinton’s first term. Solomon has written articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe, and has appeared on NPR, CBS’s “Nightwatch,” as well as on C-SPAN. In 1991, Solomon won the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency. He is also the author of the acclaimed Where They Ain't, a history of baseball in the 1890s. Solomon, his wife, and their two children live inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway.

Burt Solomon:
The Murder of Willie Lincoln

I promised myself when I set out to write books that I’d never write one I wouldn’t want to read. It’s a dictum I haven’t always obeyed. My first book, called Where They Ain’t, satisfied that strict condition and then some. The nonfiction account of baseball in the 1890s in Baltimore, where I grew up, was a paean to the city of my grandfather’s boyhood and to the modern roots of baseball. It was a labor of love.

My next two books, nonfiction histories of Washington in the 20th century, were labors of like. They succeeded in putting to use the things I’d learned as a reporter in Washington since Jimmy Carter’s day (and in paying tuition bills).

Now, I’m back. The Murder of Willie Lincoln was truly a labor of love.

I got the idea one morning, staring at the computer screen: a murder mystery in the Lincoln White House. I love murder mysteries—they’re a pleasure. I love Lincoln. What fun it would be to read. So I’d better write it.

Fiction was new to me—to write, not to read. (That’s mostly what I read for pleasure.) And so I decided to stick as close to nonfiction as I could. I found a real death—of Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, in 1862—and turned it into a murder. I kept almost everything else the same—the characters, the events of the day, even the weather hour by hour in Washington City. My favorite three pages in the book are the Afterword, in which I explain what is factual and what isn’t.

What I love about history is immersing myself in it until I feel like I’m there. So I did as much research for this novel as I’d done in writing nonfiction. I plowed through newspapers, magazines, manuscript collections, diaries, memoirs, archives, a slave ledger—whatever I could find. I wanted to give a feel for Washington in 1862, both physically and in its political and social dynamics. Real stuff was more vivid than I could invent—the hogs in the gutter, the secessionists scattered throughout the government, the “70 separate and distinct stinks” from the canal that is now Constitution Avenue.

The scariest thing was the prospect of writing dialogue for Lincoln. The railsplitter-turned-emancipator has a complicated voice—homespun and august, vulgar but biblical. And besides, he’s … Lincoln. The grandest we’ve got. What helped is that Lincoln has seeped so deeply into Americans’ consciousness, he really is part of our national soul. We carry more of him around with us than the penny and $5 bill—we all know what he sounds like.

The plotting of the murder mystery was a continuing challenge. The beginning and the end were relatively easy, once I’d decided whodunit (which changed, by the way). Connecting them up was hard. I went through at least eight outlines and many more permutations before I found a plot line that worked. Structure is everything in a murder mystery, making sure it isn’t solved too quickly and that each step in the investigation makes sense. I now subscribe to the quotation from Mark Twain that fiction is harder than nonfiction because it has to make sense.

Inhabiting the detective was fun. John Hay was the 23-year-old assistant private secretary to Lincoln and almost like another son. He was, in reality and in my story, a witty, irreverent, charming fellow who chased girls and made Lincoln laugh. My agent at the time, Wendy Weill, suggested that a series detective needed quirks, like Nero Wolfe, the 300-pounder who grows orchids on the roof of his Manhattan brownstone. So I spent a few months thinking of quirks. John Hay wound up as a poet, which he was (I’ve made him a bad poet, which in my humble opinion he also was, and is way easier to write). And I’ve made him a boxer, which he wasn’t but I am (and have wanted to write about).

Hay is in every scene, and everything happens from his point of view. He isn’t a skilled detective—he makes a lot of mistakes—but he’s persistent, and he’s brave. I kept most of Hay’s true-life self, but I basically made him me as I would love to be.

Just another reason why this is a novel that I, personally, would grab off the shelf.

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