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Materials engineer finds second calling as historic novelist

AFRL materials engineer TJ Turner signs book copies

AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate engineer and author TJ Turner signs copies of his first book, Lincoln’s Bodyguard, in April 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lori Hughes)

AFRL materials engineer and author TJ Turner models vest prototype

Engineer by day, author by night: AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate engineer TJ Turner demonstrates a conformal body armor prototype, part of a project he worked on to develop more comfortable armored vests with greater coverage. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lori Hughes)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, OHIO -- On the grim evening of April 14, 1865, a horrible event sent shock waves throughout a nation struggling to heal, opening fresh wounds and throwing the country into a long period of mourning.  President Abraham Lincoln was shot and mortally wounded by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth as he attended a play at Ford’s Theatre.

But what if it had never happened?

That’s the question AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate engineer Dr. TJ Turner explores in his first novel, Lincoln’s Bodyguard, and recently-released follow-up, Land of Wolves.

The alternative history tells the story of Joseph Foster, a man of native-American heritage who was the trusted bodyguard of the 16th President.  He heroically saves Lincoln from death on that notorious night.  His actions, however, drastically alter history as we know it, resulting in a nation of festering resentments, corrupt industrialists, and a tired and politically weakened third-term president with demons of his own.

In plot twists that involve a kidnapping, murder, and treason, the reader is often left wondering who to trust.

For Turner, the Lincoln’s Bodyguard series has been a labor of love.  From a very young age, the materials engineer was bitten by the writing bug.  In fact, at eight years old, he was already an active writer, penning a crayon-illustrated story that he mailed to science fiction author Isaac Asimov. 

The more practical world of research, however, soon drew Turner in.  Earning his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, he began his work as an AFRL research engineer, where he specializes in the testing and characterization of metals and alloys.  He also serves as a Major in the Air Force Reserves, having deployed multiple times, earning two Bronze Stars.  He said both his military and research experience considerably influence his writing.

“I love American History, which goes hand in hand with our military studies we get through our service time, and I love the research aspect of the whole process,” he said, adding that his military background also gave him the confidence to know that he could write credibly from that perspective.

“When I finished grad school, I mentioned to my wife that I was thinking of writing a novel,” Turner said.  “I had just written a 300-page doctoral dissertation, so how hard could it be? Well, my wife laughed and said something like, ‘You can’t write a novel, that’s hard!’ And the challenge was on!”

Once again putting pen to paper, Turner decided to go for broke. 

He said his subject matter inspiration came as he drove home from work and listened to a discussion on the radio in which the host offhandedly mentioned that history might have been altered had Lincoln not been assassinated.  As a history buff himself, this suggestion set Turner’s mind in motion. By the time he reached home, he had mapped out the basic plot.

Turner drew from his involvement in the Antioch Writers’ Workshop as he worked his way through the drafting process.  Having been a past participant, and later, a board member of the locally-based writing education program, he had not only met members of the writing and publishing community, but had refined his writing style and gained an understanding of the commercial publishing industry.

After about ten months, Turner completed his first draft of Lincoln’s Bodyguard.  After carefully researching and sending queries to a few agents, he signed with one and was on his way to becoming a published author.

Recalling the first time he saw his book in print, Turner said, “It was an exciting day.  I came home one day, and there were two boxes of advance reader copies, so I cracked them open and there it is.  At that point you say to yourself, ‘This is real!’”

With the success of his first book, Turner was inspired to continue reimagining history through his second novel, Land of Wolves, released earlier this year. The sequel picks up where the first novel left off and delves more deeply into the relationship between the protagonist and his strong-willed love interest, Molly.  It also answers lingering questions about the fate of his daughter Aurora.

Although the idea of a second book had been in his mind from the beginning, the inspiration for Land of Wolves again came to Turner suddenly, as he and his family were vacationing in the Western states.

“My oldest daughter, who wants to be a writer, loves the Little House on the Prairie series. So we drove out west for vacation and stopped along the route of the Ingalls family, seeing the homestead and camping out at one of the locations where Laura played. By the time we made it to Yellowstone, I was already deep into plotting the sequel in that setting.”  Within six months, he had drafted the follow-up manuscript.

While Turner acknowledges that a novelist engineer might be an unusual combination, he said for him, the two worlds complement each other.

“They are my yin and yang,” he said. “When I spend too much time on the technical front, I feel out of balance. Then I need to head back to the writing, or do something else creative. I think the two sides feed off one another. I’m a better researcher because of the creative side, and I’m a better technical writer from all my time spent writing papers or having to clearly explain the basis for research in proposals. They’re two sides of the same coin.”

Continuing his symbiotic pursuit, Turner is already thinking ahead to new projects.  He is already working on his third Bodyguard book, a prequel focusing on his favorite character, Molly.  He predicts this volume to be his best yet.

“Somehow Joseph found this other amazing character, and together they are better than either are by themselves,” he said.

He explains that when he conceived his characters, he purposefully made his protagonist a flawed person.  His love interest, Molly, emerged as someone who helps him triumph from adversity. “Joseph has had an amazingly hard life, and then has these terrible circumstances thrown in the mix. He grows from them, but not without the help of Molly.”

Turner has his eyes on other writing projects as well.  He has been working on another historical novel about the Revolutionary War in New York City as well as some more intricate, in-depth works.

For Turner, writing is not just a sideline endeavor, but a way to explore his passions in another realm.  It is a pursuit he actively encourages others to take up as well. Now, as President of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop Board of Directors, he shares his knowledge and experience with a whole community of up-and-coming writers. 

“First of all, I encourage people to read, read, read,” Turner said.  “And then you’ve just got to sit down and do it.  Once you get going, just write from day to day.  It adds up.”

With a laugh, Turner added a final piece of encouragement.  “If I can write a novel, anyone can write a novel!”