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.
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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.