This blog post comes from Suzanne Jurmain, writer behind “Murder on the Baltimore Express.”
The Story Behind the Story
“So, how does a book begin?” kids sometimes ask me.
“With an idea,” I say.
“But where do you find those ideas?”
“Oh,” I tell them, “ideas are all around, but sometimes it takes a while to realize that you’ve got one.”
And that’s something I know for a fact—because all my books have grown from a single basic idea. It was an idea I didn’t recognize at first, but it began to take shape a very long time ago, way back in the days when I was a shy, pigtailed little girl who had three very big wishes.
I wished I could be an actress like my mother, who appeared on the Broadway stage.
I wished I could be a writer like my father, who wrote scripts for his own television show.
And I wished to be a time traveler who could fly to past centuries to visit Cleopatra, William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, or maybe Thomas Edison.
Now, of course, wishing was easy, but doing all those different things was not. Still, I tried.
At three, I tried to be a writer. Since I didn’t yet know how to spell, I dictated stories and poems to my mother. My first poem:
Dirty flowers bend and break.
Clean flowers grow up again.
Okay, it was pretty bad. My first story, a fairy tale called King Saltagong, was even worse. But I kept trying and, after a while, my stories and poems got better. I really liked writing, but I didn’t want to spend all my time at it. Why? Because I wanted to ACT.
I loved pretending to be other people. I loved dressing up. And sometimes, I was such a drama queen that my mother called me Suzie Heartburn. At four, I made my acting debut on my father’s TV show. In my teens, I studied drama at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, and, until I went to college, I played characters—who were usually villains—on a number of network television shows.
And I loved it. I loved learning how to write and act. But figuring out how to be a time traveler was harder.
I couldn’t invent a time machine because I wasn’t good at science and math. But I could read biographies. I could read history books and, with the help of those books, I began to time travel in my dreams. In my imagination, I flew through centuries. I visited people in prehistoric caves. I walked the streets of medieval London and, in my mind, I lived the exciting lives of great artists, scientists, and kings.
And all that kept me pretty busy. So, before I knew it, a lot of years went by. Soon, I wasn’t a skinny little pigtailed kid anymore. I was almost grown-up, and I had to choose a profession. But what? Should I be an actress? A writer? A historian? I loved all those things, so how could I choose? How could I possibly decide? For months, I worried. I dithered. I procrastinated. Then one day, when I was sorting through some old books I’d loved as a child, I suddenly had the answer. I could be an actress, writer, and historian—all at once! And I could do it by writing cool books about history for kids.
First, I would use books to time travel through history looking for great stories to tell. Then I’d act out those stories in my head, so I could imagine exactly how my characters looked, walked, talked, and lived. And finally, I’d write down those stories—but not the way some old, boring, dusty, half dead, white-bearded professor would write them. No. I’d write about history as if I were writing an exciting novel. My books would be true—but they’d be fun. I knew I would love every minute of writing them, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Since then, I have published nine books about history for young readers, many of which have won awards. Each of them has taken me on a wonderful journey, but Murder on the Baltimore Express is special: First, because it’s given me a chance to write a thriller, which is one of my favorite kinds of books; and second, because it’s allowed me to honor my father by writing about his hero, Abraham Lincoln.
My dad, the son of poor immigrants who spoke little English, admired our sixteenth president because Lincoln had risked his own life to end slavery and had risen from poverty to the presidency through hard work. Often, when I was a child, he told me stories about Lincoln’s life, and one of those stories inspired this book.
Sadly, my father is no longer here to read it—but YOU are! So, I hope you’ll grab a copy and join President-elect Abraham Lincoln, hotshot detective Allan Pinkerton, and his brilliant assistant, Kate Warne, as they dodge Confederate assassins and take a thrilling, chilling, real-life ride across dangerous, divided, pre-Civil War America on . . . the Baltimore Express.