AFRL engineer-novelist draws inspiration from history, military service

  • Published
  • By Holly Jordan
  • AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Air Force Research Laboratory materials engineer Dr. TJ Turner’s recently-released novel is a journey back to a tumultuous period in American history—a time of national divide, bitter resentments, and the impending clash between North and South. But more than that, it is the story of unsung female heroes—characters Turner says were inspired by real women, past and present.

Released April 2, 2019, Angel in the Fog is the third book in Turner’s Lincoln’s Bodyguard series, an alternate history that envisions the post-Civil War era had President Abraham Lincoln escaped the 1865 assassination. The first two books in the series explore the fast-paced and danger-filled life of bodyguard Joseph Foster following the thwarted assassination attempt. For his latest novel, a prequel, Turner shifted the focus to another captivating character.

At the heart of this work is Molly, an unforgettable female presence throughout the series. Molly plays a pivotal role in Joseph’s story as his partner, love interest, and unwavering source of strength. Throughout Turner’s first two books, allusions to Molly’s troubled past draw forth a sense of intrigue surrounding her character and pique the reader’s curiosity about her origins. Her compelling personal history and much more are at the heart of this latest novel.

“As I wrote the first two books, I began to feel that Molly was more than a supporting character,” said Turner. “By my second novel she really wrote herself into the story in such an integral way that I had so many requests for Molly’s backstory—who was she, where did she come from? I began to feel that she was the most interesting character in the series and that she deserved a story of her own, so that is what I decided to do with this book.”

As Angel in the Fog begins, the reader finds Molly as a young girl witnessing the destruction of her family plantation and the brutal torture and murder of her parents. This pivotal event leads Molly into a life of misery until she is recruited by a mysterious figure and trained to become a Union intelligence agent. Intrigue, danger, and a critical mission to protect President-elect Lincoln soon follow.

While Molly shines as the central character in the novel, Turner went beyond her narrative to delve into the lives of other female characters who played integral roles in Civil War history. Although the book is a work of fiction, Turner says he researched real people and situations and remained as true to history as possible. Carefully weaving their lives around Molly’s own, he gives real-life historical women a prominent role in Molly’s story.

“There is just so much history lost to time, and that is particularly true with the contributions of women in American History,” he said. “I have two daughters, and I wanted them to have a story they could relate to, with strong female characters. So, much of this book revolves around a mentor relationship between Molly and this absolutely amazing real-life woman, Kate Warne. She was a widow who forged a new path by becoming a detective with the Pinkerton Agency, and then led intelligence operations for the Union during the Civil War. Absolutely incredible for that time period, and a true pioneer.”

Additionally, Turner says he drew from the inspiring women he has worked with, both within AFRL and during his multiple deployments overseas. As a major in the Air Force Reserves and a two-time Bronze Star recipient, he says he has encountered many people and events in his professional life that have influenced his writing.

“Before writing this book I was deployed to Afghanistan to take command of a task force,” he said. “It was an amazing experience, but incredibly hard, partly because the commander immediately before me was killed in action. She was someone I didn’t know personally, but I had heard tremendous things about. That whole experience was certainly an influence for this book, especially for Molly’s character.”

Turner explained that in writing this book, he sought to pay tribute to the women who have influenced the nation’s history, sometimes even sacrificing their lives in the process. He says that although women of the Civil War era were severely constrained by the norms of society, their courageous and pioneering spirit was nonetheless as vibrant as that of his present-day colleagues.

“I’ve had incredible female partners, co-workers, and commanders in the military, and of course, my wife, Nancy. They are all strong independent women, so I put a little bit of each of them in Molly.”

Turner says that for him this writing process was a fascinating experience, particularly during the research phase. 

“I loved doing the research, trying to fit the story into our actual history so that when someone finished, they might not know where the fiction started and where the history left off,” he said. “There are so many little unique stories and anecdotes that you come across that sometimes what actually happened is harder to believe than the story I’m putting to paper. It made getting past the research hard all by itself, as I didn’t want that phase of the writing process to end.”

Turner said at times it felt as if history were playing into his hands. During his research, he learned of a woman named Hattie Lawton who worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, for whom the fictional Molly also works. Anecdotal evidence reveals stories of Lawton’s accomplishments and bravery, but no record of her life exists before or after her time with the agency. This tiny but compelling snapshot of the life of a courageous woman gave Turner the perfect opportunity to weave her story into Molly’s. Throughout the book, Molly uses the alias “Hattie Lawton” to disguise her undercover activities.

“It was like it was meant to be for Molly’s story,” Turner remarks.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Turner says he is currently working on another novel that also centers on a female lead. Although not part of the Lincoln’s Bodyguard series, he does not rule out the possibility of returning to that familiar ground for another installment. “I can’t wait to see how she’s received,” he said. “Perhaps there are more Molly stories to come.”

For now, much of Turner’s focus is on promoting Angel in the Fog with book signings, interviews, and other engagements. For more information on Turner, his books, and upcoming events, visit