Every good book I’ve ever read intrigued me not just because of the main story, but because it had subplots and vignettes that kept the main story buoyed with a touch of complexity and diversion. One of my favorite subplot techniques is the interweaving of real history into the storyline. There are many facets of using historical events as a subplot in my stories that I enjoy. Among them, performing research and finding twists and turns from real-life events are my favorites. The old adage, “History Repeats Itself” has become a mainstay subplot of my novels.
Let me give you a few examples.
Dying to Know—In my debut novel, dead-detective Oliver “Tuck” Tucker is faced with solving his own murder and dealing with a series of grisly others. Some of the murders go back over forty years. The historical subplot revolves around the American Civil War—a significant era in the history of real-life city Winchester, Virginia. The story, and resulting murders, begin when the discovery of unmarked Civil War remains threatens to halt a multi-million dollar development project. The battle between history and development is a fact in Winchester. For years, the county has considered building a highway bypass around parts of the city. But in its path is at least one Civil War battlefield. More angst and skirmishes have resulted over this conflict than perhaps in some of the many battles Winchester actually fought in the war. If you know anything about historical sites, you might know that the protection of historical lands often trump new construction, development, and even some modern zoning laws across our country. And trust me, getting in the way of development is a sure fire way of creating a crisis in your community. Land barons are often in battle over future development with societies sworn to protect historical sites. In Dying to Know, the land dispute and Civil War connections to Tuck’s murder are rooted in real Winchester History and drive the story from several viewpoints.
Dying for the Past—Tuck and his pals are back in Book II and encounter the death of a mysterious philanthropist who seems to have a wad of Grover Clevelands in his pocket—1930’s Gold Certificate one-thousand dollar bills. Notwithstanding a plethora of sketchy characters, Dying for the Past’s historical subplot focuses on 1930’s mobsters and their pre-World War II collaboration with our own FBI. This theme follows Tuck and others chasing “The Book”—an old mobster’s journal detailing Nazi and Russian spy rings around Washington D.C. and New York City. This subplot is based on true events in our history. In the late 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. Government sought the help of folks who knew our ports, rail yards, transportation hubs, and the gritty underbelly of American cities where spies and saboteurs might hang out. Who did they turn to? The second largest intelligence network in the country—organized crime. During those days, the U.S. was concerned about Nazi, Japanese, Russian, and even Italian efforts to conduct wartime sabotage and subversion operations against us here at home. Organized crime families had deep inroads into some of the biggest targets in the country—New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, Detroit, and many other port cities. Well-known gangsters such as Lucky Luciano were reputed to have assisted American authorities in the war effort. In Luciano’s case, his organization reportedly helped gather intelligence for the invasion of Sicily and in the protection of New York’s ports against saboteurs and spies. Borrowing from these historical vignettes, I transposed some of the mob connections to Winchester and molded the plot around just such a storyline—1930’s mobsters helping track World War II spy rings. The result, with some colorful characters involved in the present day murders, set the foundation for a murder plot that lasted for more than seventy-five years.
New Sins for Old Scores—In an unrelated mystery series that my brilliant agent, Kimberley Cameron, is offering to the market as we speak, I use a real World War II OSS operation—Office of Strategic Services—and superimpose it into present-day Northern Virginia. The story surrounds Richard Jax, a Virginia State Police investigator under suspicion for the murder of his partner. Jax is thrust into the story when he is almost killed after stumbling onto a strange human-trafficking operation out of an old World War II Inn. Unbeknownst to him, he connects with Captain Trick McCall—a murdered OSS Operative from World War II—who was believed a double agent who betrayed his country. Together, they pursue their two cases—separated by seventy years—and learn that history is repeating itself. The story surrounds real-life Operation Paperclip, the American OSS operation to spirit scientists and industrialists out of war-torn Europe before the Nazi or Russians could further exploit them. Operation Paperclip was responsible for the U.S. making significant scientific gains, especially nuclear and jet propulsion technology, being explored by the Germans. In New Sins for Old Scores, I superimposed this human-capitol operation into modern-day Middle Eastern theaters of combat, and added in a rogue element of prior World War II operatives and modern-day mercenaries who move Middle Easterners out of Afghanistan and Iraq to the U.S.—for profit and exploitation. This spin on Operation Paperclip helped me create a viable plot that was worth murder to keep secret, and linked the modern human traffickers to real-world World War II spy exploits. It also raises the question—could it really be happening? So once again, I took a historical episode and superimposed it into a modern-day murder mystery to create the environment and plot necessary for my characters to be plunged into crisis and murder—and link their cases to crimes of the past.
History appeals to me in many ways as a reader, but it motivates me as an author. In a time that every plot and every character-type seems to have been written over and over as often as redos of Superman, historical events give me a foundation of facts for which I can create new plots and characters, and hopefully offer a new spin on intrigue.
I have two other novels—Dying to Tell and The Killing of Tyler Quinn—that have a historical subplot woven into modern-day mysteries. But I’ll save those discussions for another time.
Tj O’Connor lives in Virginia with his wife and three Labs. Dying to Know is the fourth of his eight novels and is currently available in bookstores and online. Dying for the Past is his first of two sequels to Dying to Know and will be released January 8, 2015—available now for pre-orders! Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism and investigations.
Learn about his world at www.tjoconnor.com and Facebook at www.facebook.com/TjOConnor.Author.
This Blog also appears at http://midnightwriters.blogspot.com/