Where do your ideas come from?
It’s a question that writers face all the time. I’ve asked it. I’ve answered it. There’s an easy, tongue-in-cheek response: the Muses. The reality is that in many cases, authors simply don’t know. The Muses work in mysterious ways.
With The First Assassin, however, I know precisely when and where the idea for the book was born.
In early 1996, I was working on my first book, The Unmaking of Americans. I spent a few days in South Texas, interviewing public officials. My stops included San Antonio, Laredo, and Del Rio. I also went through a little town called San Diego, which, as I learned later, was the birthplace of William F. Buckley Jr.’s father.
After this excursion, I had two days to get from Del Rio to El Paso, where I was scheduled to meet Border Patrol agents (including Silvestre Reyes, who later became a congressman). I had planned the long drive. I wanted to see West Texas up close. On the first day, I visited Fort Davis. That night, I went to the McDonald Observatory.
My constant companion on this trip through Texas was an audiobook of With Malice Toward None, a biography of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates. It was a set of about 18 cassette tapes, checked out from my local library. I knew the basics of Lincoln’s life, especially as they related to the Civil War. But this was my first experience with a full birth-to-death biography. There was much to learn.
On the second day of my drive to El Paso, I was well into the tapes. Lincoln was elected president, the Confederate states were starting to secede, and the crisis of the Union was at hand. I drove north, past the Guadalupe Mountains and into New Mexico. Lincoln was heading south, on his inaugural journey to Washington, D.C.
My own destination was Carlsbad Caverns. A day of spelunking lay ahead. As I approached the park, the audiobook described Lincoln’s harrowing flight through Baltimore–and the so-called Baltimore Plot, an alleged conspiracy to take the president-elect’s life as he passed through the city. I had not heard of the Baltimore Plot before. The story gripped me. I remember sitting in the parking lot of Carlsbad Caverns, listening to the tale unfold. When it was over, I left my car and walked to the visitor center. I decided that I would make an effort to investigate the Baltimore Plot.
I also had an idea. What if someone had put a price on Lincoln’s head, four years before John Wilkes Booth fired his fatal shot? Wouldn’t that make for a great thriller?
At that very moment, The First Assassin became a book I had to write.