World War I: Fragging Officers and PTSD?

The sequel to my historical novel, The Lincoln Deceptionis set at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.  Accordingly, I’ve been doing some considerable reading about World War I and the peace treaty that proved to be “The Peace to End All Peace,” as some have it.  Recent forays into two American novels about The Great War have proved fascinating and surprising.

In Three Soldiers  (1921), John Dos Passos drew on his own extensive experience of the war.  In 1917-18, he drove an ambulance in Northern Italy and then in Paris.  His novel is unreservedly antiwar and steeped in a matter-of-fact social realism combined with the occasional romantic over-writing of a young man.  (Dos Passos was 25 when the book was published.)

Nine Breeds of Historical Fiction

[This piece first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books]

Historical fiction is flourishing, and its advantages are many. For readers, it combines the familiar with the unknown, as novelists imagine the motivations and thoughts of historical figures. For writers, it provides grounding. Certain characters are already known and even defined. Better yet, the real world produces the most improbable characters. What fiction writer would dare create a character so complex and powerful as Abraham Lincoln? Yet historical fiction comes in many flavors. Here, for starters, are nine:

Fear of the Shallows

Looking back over the year just ended, I am struck by the proliferation of door-stopper books.  This phenomenon — which afflicted both fiction and non-fiction — emerged in many of the most celebrated books which logged impressive sales numbers.  To cite just a few:

“The Lincoln Deception” on has finally listed the audiobook version of The Lincoln Deceptionnarrated by L.J. Ganser.  I’m a huge fan of audiobooks, and listen to them all the time in the car, even on very short trips to the market or the gym.

Right now I’m near the end of the audio version of Bernard Cornwell’s 1356a chronicle of 14th-century slaughter at the Battle of Poitiers which I am enjoying immensely.  I think Cornwell is quite wonderful — the Sharpe series, in particular, is a fantastic depiction of Napoleonic times — but a good reader adds to the distinctiveness of characters and the depth of dialogue.  Jack Hawkins, who reads 1356, is very good.

Killing Them Softly

Death plays a big role in most history books, and definitely in biographies.  The death of a central feature often concludes a book.  Even if the book’s story ends before the main characters shuffle off this mortal coil, readers want to know how it all ended for the people they have spent several hours reading about, which usually leads to an epilogue.

Washington Navy Yard: Some Tough History

For someone writing a book about James Madison (that’s me), yesterday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard has powerful echoes.  While the new national capital was being hacked out of forest and swamp in the 1790s, Congress arranged to buy land for a naval support facility.  Soon the navy yard at Washington City was the center of America’s small but tough fleet of armed frigates and smaller warships.

(For a great history of the early Navy, check out Ian Toll’s Six Frigates.)

John Bingham: American Founding Son

Today marks the launch of a new biography of Congressman John Bingham of Cadiz, Ohio, American Founding Son, by Gerard Magliocca of University of Indiana School of Law.  It’s great to have this fresh and excellent examination of Bingham, a key force in helping to shape the America that emerged from the Civil War:

  • Bingham is the source of the largest single expansion in the rights of citizens since the Constitution was ratified:  the commitment to “equal protection of the laws” and “due process of law” embodied in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Without those provisions, the federal government might never have had the power to support the civil rights movement over the last sixty years.

Aaron Burr on Staten Island

Aaron Burr in his later days.

Aaron Burr in his later days.

Aaron Burr’s final days on Staten Island are the subject of a delightful new volume by Martha Smith Kakuk and Ray Swick:  Aunt Abby and Aaron Burr’s Last Days:  Staten Island, the Summer of 1836, and the Death of America’s Most Notorious Man.

Brought out in a limited addition by the Printing Press, Ltd. of Charleston, West Virginia, the pamphlet features the poignant reminiscences of Abby Bailey, who befriended Burr at a Port Richmond hotel during his last summer on earth.  Though there has always been something shabby and seedy in the portrayal of Burr’s final months, Bailey emphasized that the inn was a pleasant one on the shore that afforded views of the steamers and other craft going by, and Burr’s room was “the pleasantest of the house.”

Looking for America in World War I

On a recent trip to France, as part of research for a novel I hope to write next year, my long-suffering wife endured several days in northeastern France looking for traces of America’s role in World War I.  The weather was just right for imagining nasty, soggy trench warfare, where half the casualties were from illness, not wounds.  Though it was late May, it was cold and rainy.

Les Monthairons -- a military hospital in World War I.

Les Monthairons — a military hospital in World War I.

“The Lincoln Deception”: One step closer!

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I just received a few “advanced reader copies” (i.e., copies for reviewers) of my forthcoming novel, The Lincoln Deception.  It’s a great pleasure to see them, though the book doesn’t go on sale until August 27.  You can reserve a copy by pre-0rder from Amazon.

I dedicated this one — a historical mystery that tries to unravel the secrets of the John Wilkes Booth Conspiracy — to my father; the dedication says he “loved history, and a good mystery.”  I wish he was around so I could share it with him.  I hope he’d like it.