Tag Archives: author Q&A

Lincoln & Speed Mystery Series Author Releases Latest Novel

Lincoln scholar Jonathan F. Putnam has just released his newest Lincoln & Speed mystery novel, A HOUSE DIVIDED, available for order today.

Set in Springfield, Illinois, during Lincoln’s time as a frontier trial lawyer, the series has already captured the imagination of mystery fans and history buffs alike, including Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The novel retells the story of the greatest unsolved murder mystery from Lincoln’s actual law practice, a case in which a man accused his two brothers of murder, even though the corpse was nowhere to be found.  Of the real-life legal case that inspired the mystery story, Lincoln later wrote, “It may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred.”

A HOUSE DIVIDED also marks the appearance of a beautiful, intelligent young woman named Mary Todd.  Few figures in American history are as misunderstood as Lincoln’s future bride and First Lady.

Below, he shares with The Writing Well his writing process for his latest book,

Q. What inspired you to feature Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, a close friend from his Springfield, IL days, in your historical mystery series?

As a long-trial trail lawyer (for a large New York City law firm) and lover of history, I was fascinated by the young Abraham Lincoln in the period of his life when he was just starting out as a trial lawyer on the frontier, in Springfield, IL, long before he became a famous politician. Then I learned that he shared living quarters for four years with a well-born Southerner named Joshua Speed, who had come from a wealthy, slave-owning family in Louisville. The two men, I discovered, became close lifelong friends. I realized I could tell the story of young Lincoln through the eyes of his best friend Speed.

Q. What kind of readers does your series attract? How do you reach them?

Hopefully anyone who enjoys an entertaining murder mystery with a dollop of real-life history. As you know, I do a lot of in-person book talks at historical societies, libraries, bookstores and the like. I love sharing my passion for history and the relatively unknown time period of the American frontier in the 1830s.

Q. Having attended your author talk in Lawrenceville, GA, I know you painstakingly research your time period to make your stories come alive with history. What is your research process?

I try to do as much original research as possible in order to bring to life the frontier and this time period in Lincoln’s history. I’ve done research at the Lincoln presidential library, the Speed family estate (Farmington, now a historic site), and the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Kentucky. I’ve visited all of the locations around the Midwest where my books are set. I’ve tracked down dozens of travel diaries from the period, where visitors to the frontier recorded their observations about how the area looked, smelled, tasted, etc. I’ve spent countless hours looking through the records of Lincoln’s actual legal cases in order to pick out ones on which to base my mysteries. I’ve also read many, many non-fiction books about Lincoln.

Q. What was the most interesting kernel of history that you uncovered in your research into the courtship of Lincoln and Mary Todd, the subject of your latest book? Do you think history has been kind to the Lincolns or accurate?

In my new book, A HOUSE DIVIDED, a big part of the story revolves around Mary Todd, who shows up in the book, as she did in real life, in Springfield in late 1839, having moved in with one of her elder sisters, Elizabeth. In my story, as in real life, Mary is a huge hit in Springfield as a whip-smart, beautiful, and highly political young woman. (This latter point was particularly important, as Springfield was the new state capital at the time.) Mary had a great many suitors, including both Lincoln and Speed. In the book, we see the two men fight over her hand even as she helps them uncover essential clues toward solving the murder mystery.

Mary Todd Lincoln

As I did my research for the book, I came to realize what an unfair reputation Mary has in history. While Lincoln is one of our most beloved presidents, Mary is one of our least popular first ladies. But the Mary Todd who appeared in Springfield in 1839, and shows up in my book, is a complete stranger to her historical reputation. In fact, in real life, Mary’s family was strongly opposed to any potential match with Lincoln on the basis that he was unmannered and without prospects. (Mary, by contrast, had come from a prominent Kentucky family; her father, Robert Todd, was president of the Kentucky State Bank.) Mary herself was in no hurry to get married, although this had less to do, I think, with Lincoln specifically than with the fact that married women at the time had very few legal rights or options. Well-to-do young women — that is, women who did not have to marry for financial reasons — tended to put off marriage for as long as they could.

Q. What can you tell us about your writing and editing process? What is the most challenging aspect of going from idea to a publish-ready novel?

I am pretty disciplined about writing five days a week. I don’t have a set word count per day or anything like that — if I have a few good hours of writing in the morning and a few more in the afternoon I consider it a successful day, whether I’ve advanced the manuscript 500 words or 1500. I heard someone say at a writers conference recently that skipping one day of writing means missing an opportunity for a small break-through, and skipping two in a row means missing the opportunity for a large one. I think that’s a great way to think about the process.

It usually takes me about a year to write a book. I have four long-time readers (two men and two women) who have very graciously agreed to read drafts of each of my novels and give me their feedback. They are invaluable to me. Also, my wife, Christin, is the first and last reader of every word I write. It’s a difficult position for her, giving me substantive input while still being supportive of the creative process (and divining which of those I need at any given moment!), but she’s very good at both parts of it. Which is why we’ve been married for so long, I guess!

Usually I start out knowing how a story begins and with some sense of how it ends. It takes me a while to figure out the path from A to Z. And then takes me even longer to realize that that initial path doesn’t work and I need a different one.

Q. How has your writing changed from when you began four books ago to where you are today?

Hopefully I’m a much better writer! Certainly I feel like my storytelling has improved with each book. And I’m much quicker now to realize when an element (character, plot point, surprise, etc.) is not going to work with the rest of the story and to change course, rather than becoming committed to the idea, and spending a lot of time on it, before realizing I need to change it.Many attorneys become successful authors.

Q. How has your legal background helped you embark on a career as an author?

As a trial lawyer my essential job was to tell stories to the judge and jury. I took the available facts and shaped them into a narrative that was as favorable as possible for my client. I’m still a storyteller, but now rather than telling my clients’ stories I tell my own. Also, my background as a trial lawyer gives me insight into Lincoln as a lawyer and definitely informs my courtroom scenes where we see him stand up and argue for the lives of his clients.

Q. Any tips for first-time authors — on how to make their stories believable and engaging?

I honestly wouldn’t worry about the ‘believable’ part – readers are very willing to suspend disbelief in order to get lost in a good story. We need to make an emotional connection with your story — either your characters or the stakes (or, ideally, both). We have to care about them, just as we care about people and issues in real life.

About the Author

Jonathan F. Putnam is a writer and attorney. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he is a nationally renowned trial lawyer and a recognized Lincoln scholar. The books in his Lincoln & Speed Mystery series include A House Divided (July 2019); Final Resting Place (2018); Perish from the Earth (2017); and These Honored Dead (2016).  Jonathan has given lectures about Lincoln to historical societies, libraries, schools, civic organizations, and lawyer groups around the country. 

Find out more at www.jonathanfputnam.com. Follow Jonathan on Twitter at @Speed_Lincoln; Jonathan F. Putnam, Author on Facebook; and @jonathanfputnam on Instagram.

A Question of Self-Defense: Woman Turns a Would-be Attack into a Successful Psychological Thriller

FreeofMalice-Cover-LR

Today on The Writing Well I am delighted to feature debut novelist Liz Lazarus of Atlanta, whose new psychological thriller, Free of Malice, is generating a lot of buzz, especially among book clubs.

In her author bio, Liz shares that her novel was inspired by an actual foiled attack when she was a college senior at Georgia Tech nearly two decades ago. She was living off campus when she was jarred awake by the sound of her bedroom door crashing open. She fought back before this would-be-rapist eventually fled. Though Liz physically survived the attack, emotionally, her sense of security was shaken. As a means to heal, she began writing about that night and the changes to her life.

At a time when college assaults are at epidemic proportions (a recent Association of American Universities survey of 150,000 female college students found that 23% had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact),  the timing has never been better for this story. Free of Malice poses the question of whether shooting the would-be attacker as he was fleeing the property would be deemed self-defense in today’s criminal justice system. In her gripping novel, which is half who-done-it, and half hypothetical courtroom drama, Liz takes the reader on a suspenseful journey of self-discovery and empowerment of the victim even as readers second-guess who is behind the attack.

“As a long-time courtroom and Law and Order junkie and major fan of Perry Mason, I could not put this book down,” writes one book club fan. Another early reader called it “a gritty, intense, engaging Southern “courtroom” drama with gripping suspense.”

Below, Liz shares more about her process writing the book and her experience navigating the many publishing options available to new writers.  I learned a lot from her insights and her incredibly detailed and highly effective marketing approach to get the book in the hands of readers most interested in the psychological issues of violence and gun ownership as well as  the often murky area of what constitutes self-defense in today’s justice system.

 

Q. As discussed, your novel, Free of Malice, was inspired by an actual incident. What made you decide to write this book 20 years later?

Liz: Writing this book was always on my “bucket list” but I had some great career opportunities that I chose to pursue first. Just a few years after the incident, my employer offered me an expatriate assignment in Paris, France, so I moved overseas for three years, which was a fantastic experience, both professionally and personally. When I returned to the states, I had the chance to pursue my executive MBA at Northwestern, which was another great opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up.

My career continued to flourish, but didn’t really allow me the time to do the research I needed for the book. At one point, I wondered if the story would still be relevant, but the truth is that it has only become more newsworthy over time. I finally decided to take a leave of absence from work to write the book which finally allowed me the time to put the thoughts that had been swirling in my mind to paper. It also led to my career transition, as I became a partner in a consulting firm once I had completed the novel. The best description I can give is that this book was a calling, and I feel like it unfolded at the right time. There have been a few coincidences, or “G-d-winks” as people say, that have led me to believe that I choose the right path.

Q. Your story tackles the legal questions about self-defense — whether you can legally shoot an intruder if you are not in imminent danger (i.e. they have backed off). What was the most surprising aspect of the law that you uncovered while researching this question for your book?

Liz: I learned so much about the criminal justice system during my research and had the great Scales of Justicefortune to consult with a few criminal defense attorneys regarding the story. I’d have to say that one of the most interesting parts of my research was the whole jury selection process. It’s almost more accurate to call it de-selection as both sides do their best to rule out jurors who would be damaging to their case.

I was able to gain a “fly on the wall” view of the process as I tagged along with one of the attorneys and found it fascinating. For example, one of the questions they asked the potential jurors was if anyone was a supervisor. At first, I couldn’t understand why that would matter until my lawyer friend explained that they were looking for people with leadership experience as they would likely be nominated as jury foreman.

Q. I heard you say that it was easier to get your pilot’s license than to navigate book publishing. What made you decide to self-publish? What are your top 2-3 tips for new authors thinking of going down a similar path?

Liz: Yes, getting my pilot’s license was one of the other “bucket list” items I completed, and it’s true, it was easier. The reason I say this is that there is very clear instruction when learning to fly a plane, both in textbook application and in maneuvering in the air. There are steps to take and my flight instructor guided me along the way. For traditionally published authors, once the galley is complete, the publishing house takes over. They have a “flight instructor” to steer the content editing, copy editing, layout, cover design, printing, distribution, etc. but because I self-published, I had to learn all these steps myself.

Would I do it differently in the future? There are pros and cons to both. The biggest pro to traditional publishing is that you are “pre-qualified” meaning that the quality of your work is not put into question. Because there is large variation in quality in the “Indie” or self-published world, I’ve had to make an extra effort to prove my work is of high quality, even though I paid for rounds of professional editing and layout.

I wrote a blog called “The 12 Steps to Self-Publishing” that has a lot of useful tips I learned – it’s on my website if you’d like to read more. Since you asked, my top 3 are (1) buy your own ISBN so you control the distribution (2) pay for a professional editor – it’s worth it, and (3) print on demand with a source like CreateSpace so you can make corrections because there will be more typos than you can possibly imagine.

Q. I love your author website and your marketing approach to reach readers. What elements of your marketing have been most effective? How important is it for independent authors to know who their readers are and reach them online?

Liz: Goodreads has been a great source. Early on, I ran a few giveaways, which increased exposure for my book and provided some advance reviews. And, the support staff at Goodreads could not be more helpful—they are top notch.  I’m a strong believer in knowing and segmenting your target audience. I would tell all authors to ask these questions:

  • Description – who is your target audience?
  • Passion / Motivation – what are their passions, motivations?
  • Messaging – what do you want them to know about you and about your book?
  • Influencers / Leaders – who are the people who speak out for this group? How do you reach them?

Per your question, reaching readers and influencers is key. I choose my books by referrals and I assume most readers do, too.

Q. What has been the response to your book so far? What audience segments are most interested in your story? Any surprises there?

Liz: The response has been humbling. I joke that you can’t tell if your baby is ugly and I had no way to measure my own work. But, when strangers write such positive notes on Amazon and Goodreads, I’m really blown away. Right now, we’re at 80+ reviews on Goodreads with a 4.5/5.0 stars, which is amazing. There are a few groups that have really “taken” to the book.

  • Book clubs – I’ve had a few book clubs tell me that they had the most vigorous debates after reading Free of Malice. Here’s one quote, “Our book club read this first novel by Liz Lazarus and this was by far one of the BEST discussions that I have ever experienced!!! The twists in this book will have you second guessing until you get to the end.”
  • Attack survivors – because part of the book is based on a true event, when I was attacked in college, I wrote about the after-effects to heal. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was writing the beginning of my book. I’ve had several rape survivors tell me the book was cathartic, that they felt more normal after reading my book because some of the neurosis they felt was shown in the Laura character, too.
  • Women interested in guns & self-protection – I’ve spoken to several groups in this category and they have been so receptive and supportive, particularly when I share tips I’ve learned about self-protection and gun safety.
  • One group I expected to hear more from was the EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapists since this unique therapy is depicted in the book. That said, we haven’t diligently approached that group yet so maybe it’s just a matter of time. One of my favorite endorsements does come from an EMDR therapist, “Utterly absorbing! Integrates state-of-the-art psychotherapy techniques with all the elements of a classic thriller.”

Q. One of the more interesting features of your book marketing is that you actually have a song that you co-produced which is the theme song to your book. How did this come about and do you think it has added another dimension to your story for your readers?

Liz: I absolutely love that my book has a theme song and it was always my intention. You see, thomasbarnnete-600x600the young, black lawyer character in my book is loosely based on my best friend from college, Thomas Barnette. We met our first day at Georgia Tech when we both got lost trying to find the civil engineering building and we’ve been close ever since. Back then, I had no idea that Thomas was such a talented signer—he kept that part of his life hidden.

One day after we had graduated, he played a CD for me in his car and the man’s voice was amazing, kind of a Seal meets U2. I literally didn’t believe it was Thomas so he had to sing to me to prove it. From that day on, we talked about producing a music CD. Ironically, right after I took my leave of absence from work to write my book, a check arrived for some salary I had deferred and it was the exact amount we needed for the CD. So when you asked earlier, why so long to write the book, co-producing Thomas’ CD was another worthy diversion.

In my novel, the lawyer character takes the stage at Eddie’s Attic, one of the many Atlanta locations that I feature. Here, readers can either pull out their QR app and hear the real Thomas singing Let Me Breathe or go to my website, www.freeofmalice.com and hear it online. To me, it adds another dimension to the book, to hear the character’s voice. Thomas also sang at my launch party and we are planning a few joint events throughout the year.

Q. What’s next for you? Do you have plans to write another book?

Liz: Free of Malice just launched in late March, so I’m still promoting the book – doing radio shows, podcasts, visiting book clubs and other groups. I do have an idea for another book that is alluded to at the end of this one (no spoilers!). I’ve received quite a few comments from readers like, “can’t wait for Liz’s next book.” I didn’t expect that reaction at all but take it as a huge compliment. Now the challenge is live up to those expectations, right?

 

About the Author

LizLazarusA native of Valdosta, Georgia, Liz Lazarus graduated from Georgia Tech with an engineering degree and went on to a successful career at General Electric before joining a consulting firm.

She lives in Atlanta, is engaged to fiancé, Richard, and is a partner at a consulting firm focused on strategic planning. When she is not working, Liz enjoys reading, traveling, and spoiling Buckwheat, their cat. Follow her on Twitter @liz_lazarus.