The Lincoln Letter

After reading The Lost Constitution in 2008, I reached out to William Martin. Having never ventured into historical fiction previously, I was amazed at how he made our nation’s past come alive on the pages of a novel and wanted to thank him for showing me a new way to learn.

Later that year Kathy and I decided to go to New Hampshire to stay at the Mount Washington Hotel. Why? It was a key plot location in The Lost Constitution, and I wanted to experience it in person. On our journey, Bill met us at a Boston restaurant and spent a few hours discussing writing, family and his beloved Red Sox. We became friends and keep in touch.

His newest novel out today – The Lincoln Letter – takes the reader on a suspenseful ride. It’s likely to be another bestseller. (Here is a short video about The Lincoln Letter.)

Coincidentally, my other favorite author – in the non-fiction arena – marketing guru Seth Godin wrote a blog last month, stating: “Forty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a typical bestseller to stay on the bestseller list for months or even years. Now the typical book lasts for two weeks. More titles, more churn means less cultural achievement.” Since William Martin has had bestsellers in five decades, I asked him a few questions last week about the publishing industry and The Lincoln Letter:

You’ve written bestsellers in five decades. How has promoting your novels changed?
“There have been many changes in the business overall, but then and now, here is the rule for writers: you do whatever you can to sell your book… from bookstore signings where one person shows up to book-and-author luncheons with a thousand people to television network appearances if they ever come your way. You just spent a year and a half in a room writing something. So be prepared to go to war for it. I’ve always believed that.”

What is the storyline of your new novel?
“In the spring of 1862, Abraham Lincoln ruminates in his diary about the need for emancipating the slaves and about the problems emancipation will create. He loses the diary. Who gets it then? What do they do with it? And who has it now? Boston treasure hunter Peter Fallon tries to find out. The book is a modern suspense tale and a historical thriller, too, and a vivid picture of life in that Civil War sinkhole, Washington, DC. And along the way, you’ll look into the eyes of Lincoln, Stanton, the notorious Wood brothers, the even more notorious John Wilkes Booth, General McClellan, Alan Pinkerton, young Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Walt Whitman, too.”

If new readers pick up The Lincoln Letter, what should they know about recurring characters Peter Fallon and Evangeline Carrington?
“Peter and Evangeline are like the Nick and Nora Charles of the 21st century. They are a team. They lived together once when they were young. They were planning to get married at the end of the last book. That’s up in the air now.  And when someone tells them about some amazing treasure that’s lost out there, they can’t help themselves, no matter how dangerous the hunt may become. They crack wise with each other all the time; sometimes they argue, but they always look out for each other.”

How many hours of research did you put into completing this one?
“It’s hard to divide the time between the pre-writing research and the in-action research. Creativity is seldom that linear. The reading and site-visits are going on throughout the process. My wife kept saying to me, in the first summer I was writing The Lincoln Letter, ‘What battlefields do you want to visit?’ And I would say I didn’t know… because I didn’t know what battle would be in the book. So we visited Manassas, Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Gettysburg. All the while I was writing toward a battle, but I finally settled on Antietam.”


Backdoor Plans

Early this Monday morning I went through my daily exercise and stretching routine, then grabbed my swimsuit to change and head to the YMCA for my thrice-weekly hour in the pool. Glancing at my trunks, I noticed a three-inch long hole in the seam. Since I only keep one swimsuit on hand, I was disappointed there would be no swimming today. (My wife says I’ve become obsessed with the sport since taking it up two years ago… and I think she’s fairly accurate in that assessment.)

Suddenly, I sensed a tremendous surge of embarrassment flowing through my body, as it occurred to me that when I last swam, there is a strong possibility the lifeguards had a – how shall I say this? – unique view of my backside. Increasing that overwhelming feeling was the fact there is always an exercise class of older ladies occurring in the deep end while I swim. Wondering what they might have seen when I toweled off afterward added to my stress.

Having had a few minutes to think about this, it now seems rather humorous. There is a strong possibility no one noticed, and, if some did, well, it gave them a good laugh for a few minutes… or at least something to talk about when I left. (FYI: I always put on a pair of shorts over my swimsuit for the walk into and out of the Y, so get that vision out of your mind.)

Of course, there is a great lesson to be learned here. In everything you do, it’s important to ‘take a pause’ every so often and assess your organization – from top to bottom. You’ll be more successful by setting aside your routine for awhile to take a close look at the moving parts. That’s a much better approach than simply assuming everything is going along swimmingly.


Brothers United

Tonight on ESPN, the Downtown Athletic Club will announce the 77th recipient of the Heisman Memorial Trophy – awarded each year to the ‘outstanding college football player in the United States.’ Right now, players you’ve likely never heard of are participating in the 112th renewal of a contest that best exemplifies what the sport is supposed to represent.

Go Navy. Beat Army.

Go Army. Beat Navy.

With all the bad news that’s surrounded college football the past year, it’s good to wrap-up the season with a matchup that’s rooted in tradition, honor and respect… and once upon a time some darn good football. Most people aren’t aware that during an 18-year period in the middle of the last century, players from the nation’s service academies won five Heismans: Doc Blanchard, Army (1945); Glenn Davis, Army (1946); Pete Dawkins, Army (1958); Joe Bellino, Navy (1960); Roger Staubach, Navy (1963). Success didn’t end there for these gridiron legends.

Blanchard became an Air Force fighter pilot and retired as a colonel. After fulfilling his military commitment, Davis played in the NFL. Dawkins was a brigadier general who led the 101st Airborne, earned his Ph.D. and – as a civilian – was vice chairman of Bain and Company. Bellino served 28 years in the Navy and Naval Reserve, then became a successful businessman. Staubach led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories. In 2008, Roger the Dodger sold his real estate firm for hundreds of millions.

This year, as always, I’ll be watching. Not really caring who wins – don’t tell my former Navy fighter pilot father-in-law – just appreciating the teamwork, discipline and execution of athletes who know there are more meaningful things in their futures. Playing football for the academies (including Air Force) is most about learning to work with your unit to carry out the plan… which serves them well when they transition to young military officers.

Of course, after beating the heck out of each other for 60 minutes on the playing field, both teams will walk together toward the Cadets and Midshipmen in the stands for the playing of their songs. It’s a mutual display of admiration and acknowledgement that soon they’ll be fighting for the same side. There will be sadness for the team that comes up short on the scoreboard today – and a memory to last a lifetime.

Go Army. Beat Navy.

Go Navy. Beat Army.


Always Remember

Last week, our youngest – for an 8th grade class – had to interview someone about the ‘most historical moment’ of his/her lifetime. She chose her grandfather, who just celebrated his 80th birthday. He told her the assassination of JFK tops his list, as he was too young to remember Pearl Harbor, although having spent 27 years as a naval fighter pilot beginning in 1954, he certainly understands the meaning and significance of ‘a date which will live in infamy.’

I was three-and-a-half on November 22, 1963, and have been fascinated by JFK since my sophomore geography teacher told us about his experience as a senior in high school in Dallas on that fateful day. I’ve read most of the conspiracy books, watched all the famous news programs, walked Dealey Plaza and spent time in the Sixth Floor Museum. I’ve even seen Lee Harvey Oswald’s unmarked grave in Rose Hill cemetery – a hunt completed with my sister and brother-in-law on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.

Today, we remember the victims of 9/11, so I asked our daughter – who’s a senior in college – what she recalls from being a sixth grader in 2001:

“They didn’t tell us about it right away, but we knew something was wrong, because teachers were crying and kids were being picked up. After a while we had this assembly, and the guy basically told us God had performed so many miracles that day, which didn’t make sense to me. Oh, and I remember asking one of the lunch aides why kids were leaving, and she said ‘must be a lot of dentist appointments.’ None of the adults knew how to handle the situation. They saw us as kids, but a lot changed for us on that day. As part of the post-9/11 generation, I think we would better handle something like this, or at least know how to talk about it.”

It’s a common conversation piece to ask those who experienced historical moments where they were and what they were doing when they found out. For those alive today, the discussions might include the Crash of 1929, Pearl Harbor, Germany’s surrender, Jackie Robinson, JFK, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Neil Armstrong, Nixon’s resignation, Challenger, the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.

Of course, as time passes, memories become less clear. Yet, as long as we pause to reflect, those dramatic events will remain part of who we are as a nation. We’ll pass them on to future generations, and hopefully teach them new lessons. A friend who’s a printer made a magnet for clients a couple of weeks after 9/11. He gave one to us. It shows an American flag and says, “We Will Never Forget.” We haven’t. It’s still on our refrigerator.


Random Selection

The Jury Summons arrived three weeks ago… instructing me to be in the holding room before 9 a.m. today. Traffic during the commute was congestion-free, so I walked through the doors of an empty courthouse 45 minutes early. I had turned in one page of paperwork and read two chapters of a novel on my Kindle by 10 o’clock, when the clerk finally arranged us with instructions to ‘not get out of order.’ I convinced myself it was my juror number that placed me as the first to enter the courtroom and be seated – and not my punctuality.

The bailiff said, “All rise,” and the robed judge appeared from behind closed doors. After swearing in and a few minutes of instruction, he turned voir dire over to the opposing counsels. Thirty minutes later, the Honorable Tom Lawrence told each party to present its ‘strikes’ and soon called out the accepted jurors. Much to my surprise, he skipped past me and proceeded to name numbers two through five, followed by a couple of more strikes, before identifying the final two members of the five male and one female panel that is likely rendering judgment as I write this recap. A quick ‘thank you for your service’ and 18 people – all seemingly smiling brighter than a half hour earlier – quickly left the building.

On the drive back to my office, I thought about the Q&A that led to the half dozen selected to determine a gentleman’s fate. There weren’t any of those ‘I couldn’t possibly find someone guilty’ answers I heard some of the other six other times I experienced this process. The only question asked directly to me was by the defendant’s side. “I’m not trying to be funny or disrespectful, Mr. Handler, but what exactly is an executive business coach?” When I saw him quickly write something on my questionnaire during my response, it occurred to me that “I help business leaders focus on what they’re trying to achieve” probably wasn’t the right juror for someone accused of defaulting on a contract.

Jury duty is a privilege Americans are blessed to have… yet I don’t know anyone who reacts with a resounding ‘how lucky am I’ when he/she pulls a summons out of the mailbox. There are way too many things going on in our busy lives to take a day or two away from work and watch the wheels of justice slowly turn. Good idea – as long as it’s someone else serving. Then again, if I ever have the unfortunate experience of being party to a trial, I hope citizens fulfill their responsibility and show up at the designated time. I’d sure want someone like me on that jury.