In this months issue of Writers’ Forum, May 2022 #243, I interviewed psychological thriller author, Owen Dwyer, about his research secrets. He told me all about how he weaved true events into his fictional novel, The Garfield Conspiracy, published by Liberties Press.
The book is about a writer suffering from a mid-life crisis who begins to be visited by the characters he is researching for a book he’s writing on the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield. Owen started his research with Roscoe Conkling, whose name he had come across whilst exploring on Wikipedia. The strangeness of the name intrigued him.
Further investigation revealed Roscoe Conkling to be the most influential Republican senator of the Reconstruction Period (between the end of the Civil War and beginning of the twentieth century in America). Owen discovered he was a political enemy of President Garfield and a hero to the assassin Charles Guiteau.
Owen turned to primary sources to do more in-depth research into Charles Guiteau, such as the New York Library of Congress, which has a great reservoir of material from Guiteau’s trial, including transcripts, newspaper reports and testimonies. He discovered that far from being a natural killer, Guiteau was a weak and vulnerable man who never fired a gun in his life before the assassination. He had a serious mental illness which went untreated and was dismissed at his trial. He was also heavily influenced by his religion, as many of his time were – it was hard to comprehend how literally people took ‘the word of God’.
This realisation inspired Owen to research the Oneida County community, a group of people in the Oneida district of New York often called ‘bible communists’.
“I read an article from the New York Herald, written in the 1870s by a journalist called Norduff, in which he described the habits and behaviours of the Oneida County community including one incident where a young man called ‘Charles’ who was subject to their practice of ‘mutual criticism’, fainted from the pressure of having to stand and listen to his peers deriding him without being permitted to reply.”Owen Dwyer
Owen wondered if this man could it have been Charles Guiteau. He was both intrigued and disturbed to discover how Charles Guiteau mind worked, how he inhabited an entirely different world to those around him.
Charles Guiteau genuinely believed he deserved high office up to and including the presidency and that by killing Garfield he was advancing his cause. He was also convinced that he was acting on direct instructions from the ‘deity’ by committing the murder. this realisation helped him to shape his character within the novel.
Owen revealed that finding the historical characters’ ‘voices’ was difficult as there are no recordings of any of the nineteenth century characters in existence. He had to rely on their personal letters and political speeches, which by their nature were elaborate. My characters therefore ended up with florid vocabularies, with which they reproached my main protagonist for his irreverent, scandal worthy and preposterous behaviour.
The fact Guiteau shot Garfield is not in dispute. It was the reason why he shot him that led Owen into the conspiracy zone.
“I thought of several possible masterminds who might have been manipulating Guiteau for their personal political or financial gain and stress tested these against known historical data to see which was the most plausible. I wanted to make sure my theory would stand up to the scrutiny of a thorough historian.”Owen Dwyer
Owen’s advice when approaching research is that you should start with your objective and work backwards. Don’t accept the first corroborating piece of evidence you find, but cross-check against other sources. That way, you’ll properly interrogate your subject, make it more plausible and possibly unearth other interesting information you might not otherwise have found.
In The Garfield Conspiracy Owen accessed and studied the mind of a ‘lunatic’, which gave him new and valuable insight into mental illness – he felt more informed and sympathetic as a result – about both himself and others.
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