Just The Facts: The Attempted Murder of Theodore Roosevelt

I’m basically a nonfiction guy, a journalist by trade. I believe in facts. I feel comforted by facts. Also inspired and served by them, as I shall explain. At the same time, I love fiction—to read and to write—because it takes me inside the facts, to understand what they mean.

My favorite quotation about the difference between fiction and nonfiction comes (of course) from Mark Twain: “Fiction has to make sense.”

One way for a historical story to make sense is to ground it in facts—in reality. This suggests a writing process that begins with the factual underpinnings. Online research is useful, but most of it is shallow and repetitive. There’s no substitute for old-fashioned research in libraries, archives, memoirs, biographies, diaries, newspapers (many online and searchable!), and any number of primary and secondary sources. All of this provides the basis—the context—of the story-to-be, which then can be tweaked and twisted as necessary to tell a good yarn.

I was working on my third nonfiction book when I was staring at the screen one gray morning and an idea popped into my head: a murder mystery in the Lincoln White House. I love murder mysteries. I love Lincoln. Why not?

So I got to work—researching. First I looked for a death that could be turned into a murder, and I found one quickly. Willie Lincoln, the president’s precocious 11-year-old son, died on February 20, 1862 of what the doctors said was typhoid fever. Perfect. Could I turn this into a murder?

My next stop was the National Library of Medicine (thank you, taxpayers!), part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. There I learned of the possibilities for a suitable poison—specifically, of calomel, a mercury-based drug that was common at the time. Like all drugs, too much can kill you. The symptoms of too much calomel, I learned in 19th century medical journals, mimicked the symptoms of typhoid fever in all but one respect. (You don’t want to know.) The discrepancy became a point in the plot line in The Murder of Willie Lincoln.

The more vivid the detail, the easier it is to suspend a reader’s disbelief. Detail by detail, in an accretion of details, verisimilitude works.

Historical reality can also be a wonderful tool in plotting a mystery, offering intrigues I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. The Lincoln White House, it turns out, was seething with intrigue and secessionist sentiment. The gardener taught Mary Lincoln how to pad her invoices, so she could spend more money to redecorate the rundown mansion than Congress had allowed, and then he blackmailed her. The doorkeeper at Lincoln’s office consorted with secessionists. Ready-made suspects. Plot lines flourished.

The historical realities surrounding Theodore Roosevelt, the subject of my new novel, The Attempted Murder of Teddy Roosevelt, offered even juicier possibilities. In reading Edmund Morris’s biography of TR’s presidency, I learned of a collision in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on September 3, 1902, when an electric trolley broadsided the president’s horse-drawn carriage, killing his Secret Service man and throwing TR at least 30 feet in the air. Ah, an attempted murder.

No shortage of suspects, given the facts of TR’s turbulent presidency. He hadn’t been president for even a year and had already earned enemies galore. Emma Goldman, the anarchist leader, had been arrested in Omaha for threatening the president 11 days before my story begins. J.P. Morgan and others on Wall Street were aghast at TR for filing a lawsuit, which he eventually won in the Supreme Court, against their Pacific Northwest railroad trust. Roosevelt upbraided the Army’s commanding general at a White House reception. Suspects, all. Again, research shaped the plot.

Research helps in bringing characters to life, and it imbues the writing in indefinable yet definite ways. While touring the Old Soldiers Home in Washington, where Lincoln often spent summers, I asked the docent about the railing along the staircase to the second floor. It was the original, he said, and I gasped: Lincoln’s hand had rubbed along it, and now mine had, too. This was a molecular link to the past—and the moment, in my mind, that the story came alive. At the Library of Congress, I found a note John Hay had pierced onto the page of a scrapbook with a toothpick-like skewer. I felt him hovering.

Sometimes, however, the facts get in the way of a good story. In the TR book, , for the sake of advancing the plot, I killed off two characters who actually lived 15 and 20 years longer.

I’m a purist about nonfiction—the accuracy of quotes and events—and I worried about these novelistic departures from historical fact. I thought of a solution—including an Afterword that specifies what is true and what is not. (Most of the coolest things are true.) These three-page addendums allow me to keep mainly to a nonfiction narrative while letting my imagination wander.