My interest in blending historical and fictional characters in a novel came with the reading of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 book Ragtime. In that panoramic story, which covered the first two decades of the 20th Century, Doctorow weaved a cornucopia of real people through his colorful tale.
Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, and famed architect Stanford White are among the historical figures who appear on the pages of Ragtime. Quite a lineup.
This is not meant to suggest that Doctorow invented the real-people-in-a-novel literary device. Far from it. It dates to at least 1859, when Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities. And although Dickens used real people only sparingly throughout the book, in its introduction, he credited Thomas Carlyle's history of the French Revolution as a key source of his research.
In Leo Tolstoy's epic War & Peace, published in the 1860s, numerous real figures appear, including Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself, whom Tolstoy depicted as cold-bloodedly ruthless–no surprise there!–during his doomed invasion of Russia.
Enough of the 19th Century. If it was Doctorow's Ragtime that hooked me on writing historical fiction, then it was Max Allan Collins who reeled me in and made me want to write historical mysteries.
About a decade ago, I began reading Max's Nate Heller mystery series. These riveting stories are set against such historical backdrops as the Lindberg Kidnapping, the assassinations of Louisiana politician Huey Long and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, the ill-starred final flight of Amelia Earhart, and the Chicago World's Fair of 1933-34.
Up to that time, all of my published mystery writing had been the continuation of the Nero Wolfe mysteries–seven books in all–after the death of Wolfe creator Rex Stout. But I had always wanted to create my own characters, and Max's stories stimulated me to do just that.
With my background as a Chicago newspaperman and an intense interest in Chicago history, I developed my own central character, Steve "Snap" Malek–"Snap" because of his fondness for snap-brim hats. I chose the Chicago Tribune as his paper because I had worked at the Tribune as a reporter and editor for more than 20 years in the 1960s and '70s. And I chose to set me stories in the '30s and '40s because of my long-time fascination for that period.
My first Malek story, published by Echelon Press Publishing in 2005, is Three Strikes You're Dead, set in 1938. Following the Max Collins model, I started out by doing intensive research. For me, that means poring over microfilm of the newspapers of the era in the public library.
Because of my research, I was able to inject several people into the story who were in Chicago at the time. They include baseball legend Dizzy Dean, who was traded to the Cubs that year, and Helen Hayes, the great stage and film actress, who was performing in the city at the time as Queen Victoria in the play "Victoria Regina."
Subsequent Malek novels from Echelon Press Publishing are Shadow of the Bomb, set in 1942 against a backdrop of the early work on the atomic bomb at the University of Chicago under the direction of Enrico Fermi, and A Death in Pilsen, set in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood in 1946. In the latter book, the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright appears, every bit as crusty and irascible as he was said to have been.
In all, writing these three books–a fourth, set in 1948, is under construction–has been about as much fun as I've ever had in a 48-year writing career.