Lots of Research

D.P. Reisig wrote a story about Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer for the anthology MURDER THEY WROTE.  She’d been researching Lincoln for a long time since she’s going to write a novel about another case he had before going into politics.  And since I knew she’d read book after book about him, I thought I’d ask her some questions about some of the details in her story.

Please welcome D.P. Reisig to my blog.

  • The short story you contributed to the anthology MURDER THEY WROTE was about Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, defending his friend’s son on a murder charge. What drew you to Abraham Lincoln?

The fact that he grew up here in Indiana and we used to have the Lincoln Museum here in Fort Wayne drew me to him. The more I learned about him as a person the more I respected who he was and what he went through to become a national leader. He had to conquer a lot of personal demons and that makes him interesting as a character. He didn’t give up.

  • Was Lincoln REALLY honest Abe? In your story, you show him as a master of “shenanigans.”  What sort of things did he pull in a courtroom?  Can you give us an example or two?

He was more intelligent than a lot of the people around him. When he believed he was right, which was usually, he would do what he had to do to win. He was not above trickery. Where the honest part comes in is that he didn’t sell out his moral beliefs. He was always fighting to do right as he saw it. He was not greedy or corrupt. He did what he honestly thought was best for people and society. He was very devoted to the idea of this democracy. Some examples of things he did as a lawyer was: in the case of a sixty-year old woman accused of killing her husband when the husband attacked her, he didn’t think he could win the case, but he believed the woman had been abused and acted in self-defense, so he helped her escape. Another example, he purposely wore old-fashioned, worn out clothes in the courtroom so the jury would see him as one of them. He went through a “disrobing” act, taking off his jacket, vest, and tie and standing before them in shirt sleeves and looking homely.

 

  • Lincoln mentions that he’d rather be home with his wife, “chasing him with a butcher knife.” Did that really happen?  How unstable was his wife?

Yes, apparently his wife, Molly, he called her, did chase him down the street with a butcher knife, but Lincoln realized how bad this looked and took the knife away from her and made her go back inside. There have been several books written about Mary Lincoln and scholars might differ as to how unstable they thought she was. Mary was likely bipolar. She and Abe developed an understanding between them, and they could help each other through their dark periods. Her deepest misfortune came after his death when she no longer had him to defend her and cater to her moods.

 

  • You also mention his first love, a sweet young girl. What happened to her?  How did Lincoln end up with Mary Todd Lincoln?

Ann Rutledge was much like Lincoln. An intelligent young girl who liked to read. Her father ran the tavern in New Salem, where Lincoln moved after leaving Indiana. She was engaged to another man who left for the east coast on a trip and never returned. For Lincoln, Ann was safe because she was engaged. He flirted with her and found himself falling in love. When this other man stopped corresponding with Ann, the two of them became unofficially engaged. They were about to make it a formal engagement, when this other man wrote that he was returning to claim Ann, then Ann became ill with typhoid fever that was running through the area and died that same month. Lincoln saw her for the last time the day before she died. He went out with a few women before settling on Mary Todd, but none of these were very serious. Mary Todd wanted to marry an important man and set her cap on Lincoln. Lincoln broke their engagement because he got cold feet, then felt guilty and they started dating quietly and soon married.

 

  • You’re working on a novel with Lincoln as the protagonist. Can you tell us a little about that?

This will be another historical mystery based on a real crime that was never officially solved, though four men claimed to have killed the victim and openly bragged about it. I like working as closely with history as I can. The story deals heavily with mob violence. In frontier Illinois and Missouri, mob violence was the rule. Certain judges set the precedent that individuals should not go against the wishes of the mob, and if they did, they could be charged. This was a subject that concerned Lincoln very much. He saw mob violence as a huge danger to democracy and freedom. He felt it threatened to shake the foundations of this country and perhaps even destroy the nation. Lincoln gave several speeches against mob violence.

 

  • You gave us hints that Lincoln’s childhood was not the best. What was his father like?

Lincoln did not get along well with his father at all. Some would say he even hated him. When his father was dying, Lincoln declined to go see him, even though he was asked to come. Lincoln said it would solve nothing, that there was no purpose in it. Lincoln’s father thought he was lazy because he preferred reading and studying to physical labor. His father loaned him out to other men as paid labor then took all the proceeds. His father’s eyesight began to fail him in older age and he grew more bitter and mean. His father was very jaded by life.

 

  • Do you have any favorite books about Lincoln? Research books, included?

That’s a tough one. I enjoy them all because they all offer a different prospective on the man. It is difficult to assume that any one source is correct in capturing the man. Each book shows you just that one person’s judgment of Lincoln and who he was. My favorite account of Lincoln is actually a movie, Lincoln (2012) with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role. When I watched it for the first time, it fit perfectly with who I felt he was from having read all the research material. I thought it was the closest you could come to truly meeting him in this day and age. Honor’s Voice by Douglas Wilson is good, and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Abraham Lincoln by William Herndon, his law partner. My favorite books are often locally written accounts by people who knew him or whose ancestors knew him. They are often more colorful and show how he was interpreted by the common man.

 

 

  • What are some of your other passions besides writing?

I have a lot of passions, which makes it harder to dedicate myself to just one thing. I love traveling, gardening, painting, cats, movies, antiques, entertaining. To name a few. I work as a nurse practitioner, so I spend a lot of time studying different medical topics.

 

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Interruptions and Research..For supernaturals?

I’m over halfway through the free supernatural mystery I’ve been writing for my webpage.  I was flying through pages until this week.  And then everything slowed to a snail’s pace.  Part of it was because of interruptions.  Now, mind you, I usually welcome these.  If left to my own devises, I’m all too happy to plop my fanny in my writing chair and only come up for air to eat lunch (my husband usually puts that together from leftovers or he makes sandwiches–he’s amazingly good at those) or when I glance at the clock and I have to hustle to make supper.  (He expects something solid for that, and he’s a bit picky).  That’s why I make out menus for meals.  BUT, this week, I got stopped a lot more often that.  I don’t know if it was because of the bitter cold weather or because we were going to change months, but I had one phone call after another.  I AM NOT COMPLAINING, because I remind myself All The Time that I love it when my kids or grandkids still think of us and give us a call.

Add to that, I added a chapter to my story where the demon enforcer and his deputized witch drive to a nearby Druid community to search for the plant, wood betony.  Now, when I started this book, I never realized that I’d need to come up with some plausible plants to make magical pouches and protection potions.  Silly me.  But when I thought of that as a fun plot twist, the question became–what in the heck would you dry to grind for a spell like that?  My old, falling apart book, COUNTRY SCRAPBOOK–All About Country Lore and Life, by Jerry Mack Johnson–came to the rescue.  I had no desire to find out if there actually WAS such a spell.  My witches are fantacized, but I wanted the ingredients to sound FEASIBLE, so I spent more than a little time reading that the ancients believed that wood betony protected journeymen by night from all harm, including witchcraft.  People gathered its leaves and flowers to brew tea to help heal ulcers and wounds, too, among other things.  Yellow gentian rendered poisons ineffectual.  A few seeds of fennel placed in keyholes kept ghosts at bay.  You get the idea…

By the time I came up with a recipe to put in a fabric pouch to wear around your neck, I was pretty happy with myself.  And then I wrote that witches wouldn’t grow wood betony in a witch garden, because it might bring them harm, but SOMEONE had used it…on purpose…and Hester and Raven decided that person might have gotten it from the Druids who live close by.   Another fun idea.  Except…I had no idea how I wanted to distinguish a Druid’s magic from a witch’s, and I wanted their settlement to be different, too.  Which meant…more research.

And boy, I’m glad I took the time.  Because Druids weren’t even close to the brown robed priests TV often show them as.  Did you know it took twenty years for someone to train to be a Druid?  That most knew three languages–Latin, Greek, and Etruscan.  And that they were so respected for their wisdom and honesty, other countries hired them to be judges and lawyers in important cases?  Or that women could be judges and lawyers, too?  I sure didn’t.  I’m still no expert on Druids, but I found the right flavor for my Druid community and hopefully, it gives the right impression.

Anyway, between fun phone calls and looking for answers for ideas to make my story more believable–even though it’s fantasy–I spent a lot of time at my writing desk NOT writing.  But it’s all part of getting words on paper, isn’t it?  I’m back to pounding away on keys now, and I’m making progress again.

For your week, I wish you Happy Writing!  Or whatever makes your story better.

Book Signings

My husband and I went to hear Anna Lee Huber at Barnes & Noble on Thursday night, and as much as I enjoyed it–and I enjoyed it a lot–I think he enjoyed it even more.  He has a thing for World War I and II history, and Anna’s new Verity Kent mystery series takes place right after World War I.   She had information neither of us had ever heard of.  Did you know that Britain recruited aristocratic women to be spies and go behind enemy lines when Germany cut off Belgium and occupied it?  The conditions of that poor country and German-occupied France was deplorable.  Never mind the conditions in the trenches.

Before Anna even started her presentation, she let us chatter with her about writing and publication.  John loves that, too.  He actually likes talking writing and the business end of it as much as I do.  Probably has to out of self-defense.  Anna writes TWO historical mystery series.  Both of them intrigue me.  Her Lady Darby series is set in 1830s England.  Now, as everyone must know by now, I’m a huge fan of Julia Donner’s Regency romances, which take place from about 1810 to 1820 (unless Julia reads this and corrects me).  Anna loves research as much as Julia Donner, but she purposely picked the 1830s because no one had written very much about that time period.  A good writers’ tip.  Find a niche of your own.  The 1830s were between the Regency period and the Victorian years.  A nice pocket to explore.  Too soon for Jack the Ripper–which always intrigues me:)  That series is her Lady Darby series, and I’ve already bought the first book (on sale as I write this) to try.

Her second series is the one John’s excited to start.  It’s the years right after World War I with plenty of flashbacks about the war.  It’s her Verity Kent (she’s a spy for England) series.  The second book in the series recently came out:

The good news is that Anna Lee Huber was interviewed on NPR the morning of her signing.  The sad news is that John and I and ONE other person showed up to hear her, besides her mother.  Fun for us, since we got to ask more questions and interact with her more.  And she’s DELIGHTFUL.  Just saying.  But not so good for her, because she didn’t sell many books.  She took it in her stride.  Book signings are like that.  Sometimes, people show up.  Sometimes, they don’t.  And only the heavens know why.

Talking about people showing up, I’m plugging the reading event (with Kyra Jacobs, Julia Donner, TG Wolff, L.A. Reminicky, and me in Decature on Nov. 17 at 6 p.m. again.  It’s hosted by The Next Page Bookstore and Monster Pizza.  Hope you can make it.

AND, it snowed today.  Just enough to let you know it’s cold outside.  So I hope you’re holed up inside and hitting the keys.  Happy writing!

 

P.S.  If you look up Anna Lee Huber on Goodreads and look at her reading lists, etc., she has a shelf of books she uses for research…in case you’re a history buff like someone I know who writes Regencies.

 

 

Writing & Research

I write urban fantasy–make-believe.  So why am I doing more research than I did when I wrote mysteries?  It came as a shock to me when I ended up with stacks of print-outs on voodoo and Norse gods, Wiccan Sabbats and Gorgons.  How could supernaturals be more work than killing someone?  But it’s simple, really.  Whatever a writer puts in a story has to FEEL real, and if some fact is off-key enough to jostle a reader out of the flow, it’s a misstep.  So if I put the Norse goddess Freya in a novel–Empty Altars, I’d better have my basics in decent shape.

My friend, M. L. Rigdon, writes fantasy, but she also writes Regency romances as Julia Donner.  She has to research more little details (Were gloves buttoned? What fabric of gown did a woman wear at home instead of for a fete?), than I ever stopped to consider.  Until I wrote Empty Altars.   Then little things tripped me up.  I couldn’t say “They went to bed,” because what was their house like?  What did they sleep on?  What did they do to keep warm?   Mary Lou read my  novella Uncommon Allies, set in Medieval times, and e-mailed me, “Send these to me before you put them online.”  Because even after I’d done a decent amount of research, I apparently hadn’t done enough.  The mistakes are mine, but at the time, I thought I was in good shape.

In the beginning, I have to admit, I wasn’t a big fan of stopping every other chapter to look up what gargoyles were carved from, the history of griffins, or the origin of Pegasus.  But I learned that research not only adds a richness to a story that was lacking before, but it also inspires ideas.   Now, granted, I’ve known people who spend more time on research than on writing.  Somewhere, a writer has to strike a balance.  But authenticity rings true in a novel.  It makes the characters and setting come to life.  It places the reader in the protagonist’s world–and nothing’s better than that, to live and breathe along with the main character.

The other thing to consider is that readers are SMART.  Most of them are smarter than I am.  Someone who buys one of my stories is going to know more about Norse myths or witchcraft or Druids than I do.  I can’t compete with them, but I sure don’t want to disappoint them, so I try to get all of the facts I use right.  Because if I’m wrong, they’ll notice.  And it will jostle them out of the story.  And that’s the last thing that I want to happen.

As writers, we want to grab the readers’ attention and keep it.  We want them to keep turning the pages.  If we screw up, they notice.  They might even forgive us.  But it puts a bump in a story that might make suspending disbelief impossible.  And then we’ve lost that reader.  Maybe forever.