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Bringing Lincoln to Life with History and Fiction

Author and Lincoln-aficionado, John Cribb discusses his process of bringing Abraham Lincoln to life in not one, but two novels.


There is one question about The Rail Splitter and Old Abe, my novels about Abraham Lincoln, that I hear probably more than any other: How accurate are they?

It’s a good question. Readers want to know what they’re getting.

In many historical novels, the author has invented the main plot and characters, setting them in the past. Think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. But in some works, the story focuses on characters who actually lived and events that really happened. The Rail Splitter and Old Abe fall into that latter category.

I wanted to write both books as novels because I wanted to bring Lincoln to life for readers, and as we all know, fiction can do that in ways nonfiction cannot. I also wanted to give readers an accurate portrayal of Lincoln and his times, so I spent years digging into history. My research fell into three general categories.

The first was book research—lots of it. I have more than 250 Lincoln-related books on my bookshelves, everything from general biographies to books about life on the frontier or during the Civil War.

Many are old, out-of-print books that contain first-hand accounts of Lincoln by people who knew him, people who had interactions and conversations with him. Those descriptions were invaluable in building characters, scenes, and dialogue.

The second category of research was internet sleuthing. I drew on several Lincoln-related web sites such as the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, where you can see digital images of his original writings, and The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which are fully searchable. I also consulted good websites about the Civil War.

The amount of Lincoln scholarship out there is unbelievable. That’s been true since long before the internet came along. Generations of historians have dedicated themselves to Lincoln studies. Writing my novels would not have been possible without their hard work.

The third category of research involved visits to places where Lincoln lived and worked. I had the joy of visiting all the major Lincoln sites, from Sinking Spring Farm in Kentucky, where was born, to Ford’s Theater in Washington, where he was assassinated.

I found it crucial to walk where Lincoln had walked and, as much as I could, soak up the atmosphere of his world. The historians, rangers, docents, and guides at places like Gettysburg and New Salem, Illinois, are often experts in a particular slice of Lincoln’s life. Their insights were invaluable.

So there is much history in these two novels. Most of the events I depict actually happened. I put dates at the tops of chapters to let readers know when they happened. Almost all the characters were real people such as Mary Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass. Whenever possible, I drew on letters, diaries, speeches, and first-hand accounts to base dialogue on words they actually spoke or wrote.

Together, The Rail Splitter and Old Abe span four decades, so I had to condense and simplify events. I occasionally bent the timeline for minor events, and of course I had to focus on certain parts of Lincoln’s life and leave out others. I sometimes invented minor characters to help move the story along. And I used my imagination to provide details of action and dialogue. That’s what makes it fiction. And that’s what made these books so much fun to write.

Even though there is a lot of history in The Rail Splitter and Old Abe, I tell readers to remember that they are novels. The line between fiction and fact is sometimes hard to discern in historical novels. But I hope I managed to bring Lincoln alive in these pages, and I’ve tried hard to remain true to his spirit and his times.


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