Oct 30 2017 1:00pm

History’s Mysteries: The Joy of Writing Historical Thrillers

Read Lawrence Goldstone's exclusive guest post on the joys of blending historical fact with thrilling fiction, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win his latest historical thriller, Deadly Cure!

For a historian, writing fiction—especially a thriller—is a combination of challenge and opportunity. The challenge, of course, comes from the need to hew as closely to the real history as possible. Tempting though it may be, I can’t allow myself to cheat, alter actual events, or have characters behave as they did not or would not in real life. I study the dress, food, geography, and even speech patterns of whatever period I’m writing about so that the fictional world I create has a feel of nonfiction. 

The opportunity is that I get to play with some important historical milestones and fill in gaps, all the while creating what I hope is a crackerjack yarn. Although I must take care to only include things a character would have done, there is the fun of being able to include anything a character could have done.

All it takes to get started is an event or series of events that spark the process. For example, in my first historical thriller, Anatomy of Deception, it was the discovery that famed physician William Osler had penned a diary he called The Inner History of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and left instructions that it not be opened until fifty years after his death. Osler was one of the hospital’s founders, as was the brilliant surgeon William Stewart Halsted. There was a revelation in that journal—which was finally opened in 1957—about Dr. Halsted that was just too juicy to pass up. 

My next thriller, The Astronomer, was about a plot by the Inquisition to murder Copernicus and thereby suppress his theory of heliocentric astronomy. That one got started when I learned that Copernicus never saw the final typeset of his great work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). It was presented to him on his deathbed when he was only semi-conscious and almost totally blind and contained a preface inserted by the publisher that he would never have approved had he been aware of its presence.

For Deadly Cure, the idea sprung when, while researching something entirely different, I stumbled across an ad that the Bayer Company ran in a number of journals at the turn of the 20th century.

I knew about Bayer aspirin, of course. Just about every kid in America took Bayer for pain and fever when I was growing up. But Bayer heroin? That bore some significant further investigation. What I discovered was a fascinating tale, the details of which I won’t reveal here, but it was precisely the sort of thing that lent itself to the kind of thriller I love to write. I’ll only say that for its initial marketing campaign, the Bayer Company aimed its new wonder drug at children, mostly as a cough suppressant but also for a variety of other ailments. Here’s another ad, which also ran widely.

Marketing to children led me to Abraham Jacobi—probably the most important pediatrician in American history and the man for whom Jacobi Medical Center is named—as well as Justin Herold, who was one of the pioneers of forensic science. Herold was an especially interesting character. At 24, he was appointed coroner’s physician in New York City—the youngest man ever to hold the post—and 15 years later published A Manual of Legal Medicine, which is remarkably detailed and set a standard for forensics that has held ever since. He was forced from his position by political hacks and went into private practice, eventually offering expert forensic testimony in more than 2,000 criminal trials.

Another of the cool opportunities in writing historical thrillers is the chance to broaden the tableau, to blend events surrounding the central plot into the narrative, again taking care to maintain both accuracy and authenticity of personalities. For Deadly Cure, I was able to use the war in the Philippines, the monumental arch erected at 23rd Street and Broadway in New York to honor Admiral George Dewey—which subsequently fell apart only years later—the city’s new subway system, the anarchist movement (with its “scandalous” sexual mores), and the incorporation of the city of Brooklyn into what became Greater New York on January 1, 1898. I was even able to include a scene with Theodore Roosevelt, which I was pleased to discover was organic to the story. 

When it all works—and of course, I hope Deadly Cure does—the reader gets to turn the pages with excitement while taking a joy ride through the past. I can only hope anyone who picks up Deadly Cure will have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Deadly Cure by Lawrence Goldstone!

To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your username appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your username appears in black above your comment, You’re In!

Deadly Cure Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) October 30, 2017. Sweepstakes ends 12:59 p.m. ET November 7, 2017. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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Lawrence Goldstone is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books and has written for the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, New Republic, Chicago Tribune, and Miami Herald. He and his wife, author Nancy Goldstone, live in Sagaponack, New York.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
James Joyce
2. JamesPatrickJoyce
I look forward to the book. Thanks for the opportunity.
John Smith
5. jsmith2jsmith
Oh, dear, who would think of taking heroin when there's always morphine?
Christine Smiga
6. ceecee76
Heroin in Bayer, cocaine in Coca-Cola, whiskey for whatever else ails you; our ancestors must have been walking around in a daze most of the time.
Thomas Walker
7. twalker
Sounds really great. Would love to win the book
Jennifer Hodges
8. ViolinGeek
Would love to win this! TBR pile for sure!
10. Katrina Klauer
Sounds interesting.
Russell Moore
13. russrpm
Most of what I know, I've learned by reading mysteries. Looking forward to this one.
Mildred Mayo
15. Mildredmayo
This would keep me from doing housework. Hope I win as I will use any excuse.
Helen York
16. helenmyork
I assign interesting historical novels to my students for extra credit! These might just make the list!
Vernon Luckert
17. vl4095
I love to read all kinds of historical fiction.
Andrew Jensen
18. atinman
Combines two of my favorite things, History and Reading.
Myra Ramirez
20. myram319
"Deadly Cure" sounds like my kind of Book!
Barbara Bibel
24. bbibel
This sounds fascinating. As a medical librarian, I will find it most interesting. I would love to win a copy.
Donald Forsythe
25. donniecakes
This looks like a great read. Here's hoping I win a copy.
Sheila Korman
27. skkorman
I would love to read this book—thanks for the chance to win a copy!
susan beamon
28. susanbeamon
This book sounds facinating. So many drugs that are illegal today were once used as everyday cures. That is bizarre.
Sandy Klocinski
29. attea2d
Thanks for the opportunity to win! Would love to have it.
lynette thompson
Sounds like a great read, snow is coming and I love to sit by the fire with a great book.

Happy Halloween
Lynette Thompson
Terrie Ash
31. teria222
Historical accuracy would be a bonus, allowing me to consider the book educational!
Carolyn Sherve
32. CWS
History and mystery, what more can you ask for?
Barbara Fish
34. Barb Fish
This definitely sounds like a book I would like to read.
Ferne E. Knauss
35. Corduroy7
This looks like an excellent novel to read. Adding it to my wish-to-read list. Winning a copy would be even more delightful. ;)
Patrick Murphy
36. Ditch
I liked Anatomy of Deception, so I look forward to this one also
Lori Provenzano
37. Mountainesque
Absolutely fascinating. Tough position to be in when you're at the mercy of an industry where the lines between expertise, experience, good intentions, progress, greed, and quackery could not be easily delineated.
Michael Carter
38. rubydog
This sounds really good.
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Marybeth Mank
39. Gr8chefmb
The premise and background research sound absolutely intriguing! I love reading books that combine fictional elements with actual history. The topic of early healthcare 'remedies' is truly fascinating, especially given the fact that so many were actually more harmful and addicting than originally thought. It's kind of scary in a way, sometimes more so than what the imagination can come up with.
Doug Phillips
40. Cougarphan
Did someone say historical mystery? I'm in! Thank you.
42. pegkeohane
Mr. Goldstone, I would love for you to take on a historical novel of John Snow.
Ruth F
43. piedmontgirl
I am going to be looking at my bottle of Bayer Aspirin a little differently.
charles j hauser jr
45. admiral
Love historical mysteries but have to admit I was not familiar with Lawrence Goldstone until now. I have just ordered his first book Anatomy of a Deception from BN based on reading this article. Hope to have a chance to win his latest
charles j hauser jr
45. admiral
Love historical mysteries but have to admit I was not familiar with Lawrence Goldstone until now. I have just ordered his first book Anatomy of a Deception from BN based on reading this article. Hope to have a chance to win his latest
Pearl Berger
47. Sunshine
Fascinating and captivating. Love to read this novel.
pearl berger
48. beach
I love historicals and a thriller, even better. Thanks.
ellie lewis
49. italia
Extremely interesting feature and a wonderful novel. Many thanks.
51. mprimo1
Thanks for the oportunity to win your book. I look forward to reading it.
Darlene Slocum
52. darandsam
Your books all look like good reads, I want to read them. Thank you
53. K. Martin
Heroin for kids? I wonder what the consequences of that were? Masses of child junkies? Hard to imagine, but hey, nothing surprisesme anymore.
Don Maker
54. DonMaker
As a new writer of HF, I look forward to reading this book.
Gwen Ellington
55. mamadonie02
The mention of Bayer sold me! I'm fascinated by ancient remedies and love historical mysteries.
Ruth Bousquet
57. ruthing73
Sounds like the perfect book to me...can't wait.
vickie dailey
59. kidcurry
Love history and mystery 2 of my favorite subjects mixed together. Both are extemely interesting and can provide insight as to past events
Lynn Jarrett
60. OkieReader
I remember taking the tiny Bayer baby aspirin as a young child. I look forward to winning (hint, hint) and reading this book!!
Lynn Jarrett
61. OkieReader
I remember taking the tiny Bayer baby aspirin as a young child. I look forward to winning (hint, hint) and reading this book!!
62. BuffaloGirl
Very interesting premise.
Joanne Mielczarski
64. jtmswim
I love historical fiction. I am looking forward to reading this book.
Susan Wells-Johnson
65. MINIZilla2004
I take Bayer low-dose, daily.....hmmmm......I need to read more about this!
69. Debbie F
thanks for the chance.
Irida Oosthuizen
72. yogair
Thank you for the opportunity. I hope I win, can't wait to read this!!
Pat Murphy
73. murphyp2011
Sounds like something to put at the head of my TBR list.
Martha DeMarco
74. md238
WHat an interesting concept for a book, would love to read this!
Mary Ann Woods
75. puttputt1198eve
Historical fiction and favorite genres. Can't wait to read it.
Sharon Haas
76. kazul
Thank you for the guest post! I'm happy to hear that authors of historical fiction enjoy researching as much as I enjoy all the new things I learn from their hard work.
Richard Brandt
77. rsbrandt44
Bayer Heroin! Now I know what my friend meant when he said he was trying "that thing with the needles."
Jackie Wisherd
78. JackieW
I have read lots of thrillers but none with this particular subject. The book sounds very interesting. I will put it on my TBR list.
81. Eowana Jordan
Happy Halloween and here's a toast to you to keep writing!
Hoping I win and if I don't that someone who loves reading as much as I do does!
Cheryl Hurst
82. TravelAddict
The most entertaining way to learn about historical events is through page-turning historical fiction. I would love to win and read this Goldstone novel.
Louis Burklow
83. Nash62
This looks like the kind of historical thriller I love; I'm looking forwrad to reading it.
Eric starker
84. starkeee
Thanks for the opportunity - sounds like an interesting read!
Diana Nuehring
85. djnuehring
Historical fiction is one of my favorites and I love the depth of research you go into when writing. Look forward to this next book.
Susan Pertierra
86. orchidlady01
I love reading thrillers, mysteries and historical fiction so your books would fulfill this niche!
87. pcal2
What a (sad) world it would be without mystery stories! When you can add real history to the mix, it just makes it that much better!
Karen Hester
88. rosalba
Thanks for a chance to learn about these drugs. Bayer heroin, who knew?
Carole Knoles
91. carknol
It seems that the most horrifying notions are the ideas that those things that should be good for you might be menacing. The murderous mother, the clown killer, and the poison apple would be examples. The heroin aspirin fits right in there. Sounds fascinating.
Richard Derus
93. expendablemudge
Heroin cough suppressant for children from the aspirin people. Autres temps, autres moeurs.
Barbara Lima
I love it when you can't open information until 50 years later--
96. LStirling
Historical novels are a great way to bring the past alive. A wonderful blend of fact and fiction.
Martha LaChance
97. mlachance9
Thanks for the chance to win an interesting sounding book.
Clydia DeFreese
98. clydia
I am in awe of mystery writers who have such talent. Kudos to all of you. I look forward to this new book. Thanks for the sweeps.
Caroline Lennek
99. clennek
Love the way you get your ideas for these thrillers....great giveaway!
Lisa Ahlstedt
102. Lisanne624
I love the interesting historical facts that somehow aren't commonly known. This sound like a really great read!
Susan Morris
103. Samfor3
Can hardly wait to read this book. It sounds like children were guinea pigs for these "cures". I love reading the history behind companies and products we take for granted. Thank you for the chance to win.
Earl Messer
104. JEarlM
I find the stories that take a small and perhaps inconsequential event from history and weave a tale around it both fascinating and fun.
105. LW
I was not aware of Mr. Goldstone's books. I will certainly be checking him out now. I have read of all of Erik Larson's historical fiction books and loved them so I am very interested in another author following the same line.
Marjorie Manharth
106. mmanharth
All that research is absolutely appreciated by your readers.
Sue Dittmar
107. SKDittmar
That was my biggest problem when writing papers - I loved doing the research and didn't want to stop. Loved discovering something I didn't know OR a fact that just made everything click. Thank you for your writing and your work.
Sue Dittmar
107. SKDittmar
That was my biggest problem when writing papers - I loved doing the research and didn't want to stop. Loved discovering something I didn't know OR a fact that just made everything click. Thank you for your writing and your work.
Beth Lechman
108. Iluv2rede
Sounds like an interesting story. Thanks for the chance.
110. jcruz
I am a sucker for fiction books with historical facts!
Betty Lipton
111. catmom
All of your books sound interesting. Historical fiction is always a great read for me. I would love to win "Deadly Cure!"
debra fitzpatrick
113. debbie240
I love my mystery with a side of history. Please enter me in this sweep.
Claudia Jones
I was interested to read about Abraham Jacobi and Justin Herold. Reading historical fiction provides an opportunity to learn as well as to be entertained.
alicia brown
115. KansasAlicia
This sounds so facinating! Historical mysteries are my absolute favorite! I have added this to my TBR list!
Julie Kubitz
Historical fiction/thrillers are one of my favorite genres! I have to admit that I have not read Anatomy of Deception, but I will now. I think Deadly Cure would be a great addition to our historical fiction table!

Julie from King City Books Mt. Vernon Il
119. moose in VA
Having read titles by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone before, I look forward to another thriller!
Gail Weitzel
120. gailanne
This sounds like a wonderful premise for a thriller. Can't wait for it!
Mary Hoffman
121. MaunaKeaMary
Remarkable! You have taken historical facts, mystery, medical background interests & woven them all together like a fine tapestry. I am now so very intrigued and am looking forward to reading this. Thank you
Carol Lawman
125. juju2cat
I'll take 3 Bayer, please. JK. I would love to read this!!
sue weatherbee
127. dane711
I've read his books in the past and look forward to this one! Thank you!!
128. Carl Scott
Excellent looking book, thanks for the chance to win a copy
Sally Schmidt
129. bigcootie
A long list of books to add to my TBR stack! Thanks for the chance to win Deadly Cure.
130. Polly Barlow
I wonder what and how muchin this book is fact and what is just fiction.
I'm going to see if my library has the first books by Lawrence Goldstone.
Then I'd like to read "Deadly Cure".
Krypton Imai
131. krypton
I like believable stories. I think it really makes a difference when the author does his homework.
Pamela Pifko
132. prpifko
Very interesting; definitely on my TBR list. I would really like to win this book - thanks for the opportunity!
Patricia Nicklas
136. pmernick
Sounds fascinating! Thanks for the giveaway
Lori Byrd
139. Sunshinehdfan
Sounds so good. Thank you for the chance to win.
Linda Leonard
142. linsleo1
Love your approach to writing historical fiction. Would like to read "Deadly Cure". Thanks for the opportunity.
Laurent Latulippe
143. krag48
I love history. Looking forward to this.
Melissa Keith
144. melly801
Winning this book would make me feel sooooooooo good!!
Joy Isley
145. JOYE
I have always loved reading history so this book really appeals to me.
Kristi Beard
146. KBeard
I love the joy of a good thriller as you can't wait to turn the next page!
Kristi Beard
146. KBeard
I love the joy of a good thriller as you can't wait to turn the next page!
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