A conversation with Jonathan F. Putnam

 I am delighted to host Jonathan F. Putnam today. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jonathan at Bouchercon in New Orleans last year where I snagged a signed copy of his first book. Since then, I’ve been a big fan of his Lincoln & Speed Mystery Series, perhaps because they feature places in and around where I grew up in Kentucky, Illinois and points farther afield. The Lincoln & Speed books feature the young Abraham Lincoln and his real-life best friend, Joshua Speed, as a kind of Holmes and Watson of the American frontier.  The series includes 2016’s These Honored Dead (starred review by Kirkus Reviews) and 2017’s Perish from the Earth.  The third book in the series, Final Resting Place, will be published next summer. Jonathan’s latest book is Perish from the Earth.  In Perish, Lincoln is faced with a fateful choice on which the future of the nation may hang, if his own client doesn’t hang first.  Lincoln and Speed must work together to free Lincoln’s client and ensure that justice prevails. And you don’t need to trust my judgment. MyShelf.com wrote of Perish: “One of the best books I have read in a long time. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you are either a mystery buff or a history buff, this book is for you. If you happen to be both, I’m certain you will be captivated by its raw and honest look at this part of American history and by the beauty of the language used to portray the people, both real and imaginary.”  Enough background, let’s hear from Jonathan. Historical fiction, particularly a series that features a well-known character, relies on accuracy. What role do primary sources play in your research? Or are secondary sources adequate? JFP: My books are the product of substantial original historical research.  I’ve visited the locations where my books are set; read lots of documents from Lincoln’s real-life legal cases; read innumerable first-person accounts from the 19th century about Lincoln; read the substantial extant correspondence between Lincoln and Speed and other members of Speed’s family, and conducted additional original research on Speed, who is a much less well known figure in history. One set of sources in particular that I’ve mined are contemporaneous travel diaries.  Westerners at the time, like Lincoln and Speed, were mostly concerned with survival.  Life on the frontier was hard.  They tended not to write down a lot about their everyday lives.  But lots of Easterners and Europeans traveled to the Mississippi River Valley to see first-hand what was then the “Wild West”.  It was sort of the European Grand Tour in reverse.  Many of these travelers kept diaries, and I’ve tracked a lot of them down.  They provide an unmatched record of the details of daily life on the frontier in the 1830s, and I’ve relied on them to create in my books what I think is a very realistic portrait of Lincoln & Speed’s life and times. TdeH: I remember having a conversation with you at Bouchercon about word choice and how it is a fine line between writing for a 21st century audience and maintaining accuracy in the historical context. JFP: The travel diaries and other 19th century primary sources also help make my books sound like they were written in the period.  Speed is my first-person narrator, and he tells the reader the story with a real immediacy – as it’s happening to him and around him.  To make the reading experience fully immersive, I need to make sure the vocabulary, metaphors, etc. Speed uses in telling the story are ones that would have been available to a storyteller in the 1830s. At the same time, I’m always aware that readers are reading my books in the 2010s.  So I try to make them accessible and easy to read, though with enough of an antique patina that you can imagine taking a trip back in time with me and Speed. TdeH: How much research did you do to set the series versus what you do to continue with the various books? JFP: By the time I published my first Lincoln & Speed book I had done a ton of research on the two protagonists and their life and times.  That research is in the bank, so to speak, and I continue to draw upon it.  But I also do original research for each new book.  For example, Perish from the Earth, my most recent book, is set along the Mississippi River, in Alton, IL, St. Louis, and on-board steamboats.  For the book, I traveled to Alton and St. Louis to see first-hand the places where my scenes were going to be set, as well as rode up and down the Mississippi on a steamboat. TdeH: I’ll interrupt here and say that I was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and love reading anything set on that river! But you are talking about points farther north from my part of ‘the cape.’ JFP: I was actually going to set a scene in Cape Girardeau, but I kept misspelling it in the draft manuscript and finally decided it was too much trouble.  Kidding. Seriously, during my visit to Alton, I discovered an unexpected piece of Lincoln history: the actual two-story brick building, perched on a hillside overlooking the river, in which Lincoln tried cases when he came to Alton.  In Lincoln’s time it was the shipping office of a Captain Ryder, who loaned his building to the judge whenever the court came to town.  Today it’s a popular lunch spot called “My Just Desserts”.  Ann, the owner of the restaurant, sat down at my table amidst the lunch rush and told me all about the history of the place.  She couldn’t have been nicer.  If you’re ever in Alton, I recommend the All-Star Sandwich.  And a slice of Peanut Butter Pie if you saved room for dessert. TdeH: Restaurant advice duly noted. Any advice to authors of historical fiction about trimming the amazing facts you’ve learned and keeping only some? JFP: I was a trial lawyer for two decades before I became a writer.  “Libel law” covers false and defamatory statements that one person makes about another.  In libel law there’s a well-known saying that ‘the truth is a defense’ – in other words, if you say or print something nasty or derogatory about someone, if you prove that the statement is true that’s a complete defense to any claim against you, even if publication of the statement is hurtful, etc. In the course of writing my historical fiction I’ve come up with a related catechism, which I remind myself and other writers of frequently: ‘the truth is not a defense.’ In other words, just because something actually did happen in real life isn’t a good reason to include it in a historical fiction story.  In my view, the history you use needs to serve your narrative.  If the actual history gets in the way of the narrative, then you need to change to the narrative, or alter the actual history just enough to make the story work. TdeH: Excellent advice! And a reminder that whether it is historical or contemporary fiction writing is about distilling and editing. Related to this, how do you play with historical fact? Is it an inevitable part of translating the time into fiction? JFP: For the two characters at the core of my story, Lincoln and Speed, I stay completely true to their actual biographies.  In real life, the two men shared a room – and, indeed, a bed – in Springfield, IL during the period when my books are set.  Lincoln worked as a lawyer and served in the state legislature, while Speed ran a general store.  As accurately as I can portray them, my characters Lincoln and Speed are identical to the actual Lincoln and Speed of the time period in question.  My books also have a number of other well-known historical figures portrayed true to their actual selves.   For example, Robert E. Lee makes a cameo appearance in Perish.  Lincoln and Speed encounter Lee in St. Louis in November 1837 while he’s working on fixing a problem with the city’s river port, which is exactly where and what Lee was doing in November 1837. As I get further away from well-known historical figures, I feel more comfortable allowing myself degrees of imaginative freedom.  For example, one of the main supporting characters in my books is Speed’s younger sister Martha.  In my series, Martha lives in Springfield near Lincoln and Speed, and she is kind of a spunky younger sister who helps out in the crime-solving, while giving her older brother a suitably hard time.  Her presence as an independent-minded young woman in the narrative also lets me raise what I think are very interesting questions about what women were and were not allowed to do at the time. In real-life, Speed did have a younger sister named Martha, although I’ve made my Martha a few years older.  But virtually nothing is known to history about the real Martha Speed – and I would know, because I’ve researched her exhaustively, tracking down census records, old family histories and the like.  So other than the name, approximate age, and younger sister relationship to Speed, the Martha character is entirely my creation.  A lot of people tell me she’s their favorite character in the books. TdeH: Now when I say that Martha is my favorite character you won’t believe me. JFP:  No, I do believe you.  Really. TdeH:  Jonathan, we’ve appreciated having you spend time with MissDemeanors today. I’ve enjoyed reading These Honored Dead and Perish from the Earth and will click on the Amazon link now to pre-order next summer’s Final Resting Place. Hopefully Martha continues to play a role.  For more about Jonathan and the Lincoln & Speed mysteries visit jonathanfputnam.com or follow him on Facebook at Jonathan F. Putnam, or on Twitter @Speed_Lincoln

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