William Martin’s talk to focus on Civil War Washington, DC
May 6 Sweetser Lecture in Wakefield, MA
“As a kid, I was drawn to big stories on broad canvasses,” says historical novelist William Martin, who will be at The Savings Bank Theater on Tuesday, May 6 to deliver the final Sweetser Lecture of the season. His talk will focus on Civil War Washington as depicted in his latest book, The Lincoln Letter.
In a recent phone interview, Martin offered a sneak peak into next week’s talk and his own creative process of writing historical fiction.
“The kinds of movies I saw and the kinds of books I was reading in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s made me want to get into the storytelling business,” Martin says.
It’s a business that has brought him much success, beginning with his first novel, Back Bay, published in 1979.
“It was almost an act of homesickness,” Martin says of writing Back Bay. “I was living in Los Angeles at the time and wishing I was back in Boston. I couldn’t sell a screenplay or two that I had written after I graduated from film school. Movie producers kept saying, ‘The way you write, you ought to write a novel.’
“So I had this story about Boston in my head and said, ‘I’m going to write that as a novel,’” Martin remembers. “That became Back Bay and it became enormously successful. That form has always worked for me and has always connected with my readers.”
In the years since Back Bay was published, Martin has written nine more bestselling novels including Nerve Endings, Cape Cod, Harvard Yard, City of Dreams, The Rising Moon, Annapolis and The Lost Constitution.
Martin says that he has never felt limited by the historical fiction genre.
“Historical fiction for me is liberating,” Martin says. “I’ve written adventure novels, war novels, romances and dramas, all of them wrapped up within the mantle of historical fiction.”
“The Lincoln Letter was motivated by my own desire to write a novel about the Civil War,” Martin says. My editor always felt that there was a great story in the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s passage from constitutional lawyer to moral leader.”
Martin contrasted the process of writing fiction to the veal stew that he was preparing for dinner as he spoke on the phone. He said that writing a novel for him is like pouring all of the ingredients into a funnel.
“And then it starts to spin around and it’s all together,” Martin says, “and then it starts popping out of the funnel.”
When it comes to his work schedule, Martin says he focuses more on time than on output, at least at the beginning. Since his novels usually have a modern story running in tandem with the history, Martin says that it takes a lot of planning and preparation before he actually starts writing.
“I just try to stay up in the office for eight hours a day,” Martin says. “Eventually I will start to produce at a rate that’s pretty prodigious. At the beginning it’s always fairly slow. I can always justify the time as research or outlining. When the pressure is on, it will be more like 12, 14 or 16-hour days.”
The historical research for his novels begins with reading the classic histories of the era he plans to write about.
“For the Lincoln Letter, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, which captures Washington at the time and Lincoln’s cabinet,” he says. Martin then read Margaret Leech’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize winning Reveille in Washington, which is about the social life of the nation’s capital during the Civil war.
He spent time in Washington and visited sites associated with Lincoln, including Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln’s summer cottage and the Peterson House, where Lincoln died. After visiting the major Civil War battlefields, Martin says that he moved to more specific studies.
“I read the Washington Daily Republican newspaper for almost every day of the Civil War,” Martin says.
For his talk on May 6, Martin promises to bring “some incredibly rare slides of Civil War Washington that show a place that you would barely recognize.” One of the slides, he says, “has appeared in no history or geography books about Washington, D.C., yet is maybe the best image of the city that anyone with a historical frame of mind could hope to find.”
Martin promises that that his talk will be both entertaining and enlightening.
“If you think you know the Civil War and the city of Washington during the Civil War,” Martin says, “come and let me surprise you.”
William Martin’s May 6 Sweetser Lecture will take place at 7:30 p.m. in The Savings Bank Theater at Wakefield High School, 60 Farm St., Wakefield, MA. Advance tickets are available at Smith’s Drug Store at 390 Main St., Wakefield, MA or at the door.
[This story originally appeared in the May 1, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item.]
Filed under: Columns & Essays, Feature stories, History, Wakefield | 1 Comment
Tags: Abraham Lincoln, book, books, Boston, Civil War, D.C., fiction history, historical, Lincoln Letter, MA, Mark Sardella, novelist, Sweetser Lecture, Wakefield, Wakefield Daily Item, Washington, William Martin, writer