Please welcome my special guest, S.W. O’Connell, the author of the Yankee Doodle Spies series of action and espionage novels set during the American Revolutionary War. O’Connell is a retired Army officer with over twenty years of experience in a variety of intelligence-related assignments around the world. He is long time student of history and lover of the historical novel genre. So it was no surprise that he turned to that genre when he decided to write back in 2009. He lives in Virginia. He’s here today to chat about his second novel, The Cavalier Spy.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Cavalier Spy. When did you start writing and what got you into historical fiction?
As a retired Army intelligence officer, I always imagined I’d write some kind of spy story. Many people in the business have that fantasy. I’m not sure why, but many of my colleagues over the years mentioned they had a spy novel they were “working on.” Well, I didn’t. Too busy with other things. Like catching spies. Protecting America’s secrets, and taking kids to soccer games. But as my years of service drew to a close, the opportunity to consider writing gradually emerged. As long as I didn’t write about contemporary things. I was once offered the chance for a deal by a big time NY literary agent if I would write about my recent work. But that is a bridge too far for me.
But I am a history lover with a history degree and had devoured historical novels over the years. So that is what got me thinking in that direction. My long held field of interest , historically speaking, is the Napoleonic Wars. But who, at least in the USA, knows of or cares about Napoleon? So I thought of a likely venue that most Americans had some inkling about: the American War for Independence. After all, everyone carries a picture (or two) of George Washington around in their wallet, right? Now, truth be told, there are a lot more Civil war aficionados then Revolutionary War, but I thought that I could maybe buck one trend and set another. So in 2009 I began the long, dark process of… writing.
What is your book about?
The Cavalier Spyis the second action and espionage novel in the Yankee Doodle Spies series. Set during the final months of 1776, it is about young Continental Army officer, Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed, and his efforts to make his way in a world of war and espionage. After agreeing to serve General George Washington as an intelligence operative, he has to mould a small band of young men literally “on the fly” as the Continental Army is hounded by the British from New York and then across New Jersey. Along the way, he manages to torch New York City, recruit a new band of rogues as spies, figure out how to penetrate the British Army, and… I can’t say. Creed is not an expert spy – so he improvises along the way.
Spoiler alert: I use a portion of the book to reveal how Creed came to America – he is an immigrant, as were so many who served in the Revolutionary War. The story is one of hardship as the struggle in the Jerseys was bitter and vicious as whole communities were torn apart, as was the cause for independence. This is also a tale of George Washington, the ultimate spymaster and commander, as he improvises to keep his army and the American cause from falling apart. In the end, Creed matures in his role along with his master and they, together, improvise a vital victory for the Americans and keep the rebellion alive.
What was your inspiration for it?
Well, my inspiration for The Cavalier Spy was my first novel in the series, The Patriot Spy. And that has an interesting genesis. One would normally begin a Revolutionary War story at the beginning, say at Lexington and Concord. Or maybe at the siege of Boston, perhaps when George Washington assumes command and the Continental Army is formed (June 1775). Well, that was my original plan. However, I suddenly recalled an event that happened when I was a boy – somewhere around nine years old. I am from New York. At the time we were in Brooklyn and my father took me to Prospect Park. As a boy I loved going there in those days. They had a zoo, a lake, a riding academy with bridle trails. There was one of those old fashioned carousels too with the brass ring and all. Just a lot of fun things for kids.
But one day, my dad took me over to a monument tucked away from all that. He told me the story of how, right near where we stood, George Washington’s army was cut off while trying to defend “Long Island” from the invading British and that the Maryland Regiment sacrificed itself in heroic combat to save the Continental Army. He closed his tale with the comment, “And every year the Maryland National Guard lays a wreath at the monument.” My dad at the time was an infantry company commander in the New York National Guard, in an outfit called “The Fighting 69th. I think that is why the story appealed to him. Guardsman to guardsman, so to speak. So I decided to begin my tale at that battle. As I began my research (remember, I’m a Napoleon guy) I learned the battle was America’s first battle as a nation, as the colonies declared themselves “to be free and independent states” shortly before the campaign. A fitting place to begin, I thought.
What type of challenges did you face while writing this book?
Making time to write is always the biggest challenge. And staying “normal” while writing is more difficult than I thought it would be. Living a normal life. If I didn’t have other commitments, I think I could be overwhelmed by the writing life. It is like a drug, once you get going. So many things to write-so little time. So, in my situation, I have to take chunks of time and “go to the mattresses” in a blitz to knock out chunks of the story. A lot of people look at me with eyes agog and say, ‘How DO you have time to write?” My flip answer is, “You’ve never seen me golf!”
As to the writing itself: I have the advantage of weaving my fictional plots and characters into actual historic events. The history necessarily drives things. For example, Creed has a love interest, but she is separated from him by war (she’s stuck behind British lines) so their relationship becomes hard to maintain. Sort of like Horatio Hornblower and Lady Barbara in C.S. Forrester’s famed Napoleonic naval books. The other speed bump is social media. Today, an author needs that presence. I had to learn how to use Facebook, Twitter and develop a Blog. So as not to make them into exercises in shameless self-promotion and narcissistic banter, I tend to focus on giving my followers and “friends” nuggets on the American Revolution. Not that I don’t hype my writing. I just do it on selective occasions.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
A good yarn, but with enough of the history that they’ll learn something about the American struggle for independence. Not just the politics but what it was like to be in armed rebellion against the most powerful monarch on the planet with no army to speak of. Understanding this war is necessary to understand America. More so than the Civil War. But I also want people to like the characters – both the good ones and the bad ones. I try very hard not to make the British caricatures. They have a job to do as well. They are doing their duty to their rightful king by suppressing an unspeakable rebellion, usually, within a code of honor. The Americans are fighting for something more nebulous – a cause. That makes it more difficult for them. The fictional characters portray both side plus those caught in the middle. The silent majority if you will, who merely wanted to get on with their lives.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Yes – but I love history so research to me is recreation. I guess I have read about thirty books or so-on the War for Independence and looked through about as many. For specific things I need that are not in the books, I use the internet. I do get out to as many of the locales as possible but Google Maps comes in handy too.
What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate?
I walk my dog, Jeb. A two mile plus walk usually clears the mind. Or I go to the gym and pump some iron. Since these are historical novels I have the advantage of using the historic events to my advantage. I craft fictional plots and weave them through the actual historic events. I mix fictional characters with real ones. This helps move my idea mix quite nicely. Also, when the fictional plot is stymied, I can press down on the history pedal a bit and get through the log jam. Or, I can go walk Jeb…
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
I try very hard to stay in the moment… to be in the story myself. I try to imagine the actions and reactions of each character and re-live them on the keyboard. I often go back through these several times. I grew up on swashbuckler books and films so these are in many ways the best parts.
Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to right. Can you relate to this?
Nausea might be a better word for me! It is hard work. It is good work and rewarding work. But it’s not easy. Many people think it is.
Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?
I usually write in what I would term “grand spurts.” I have no set timeline. A grand spurt is anywhere from two to ten days of six or so hours a day. It can be days, weeks or months between grand spurts. I think that may help the muse recharge. And it doesn’t make writing feel like a job, which it in fact, is.
What was your publishing process like?
I found it a long process and an interesting one. As the writer, I create the manuscript. But the publisher creates the book. I received a lot of great guidance from the publisher. Their editors were very good. I learned to pay attention to their edits and often very sage comments. Consulting on the covers was fun. Working with the map makes is also fun. My first novel’s map was done by a real map maker. But with The Cavalier Spy, I went with an artist to give it more of historical sketch appearance.
How do you celebrate the completion of a book?
I really don’t. In fact, I didn’t even think of celebrating. First of all, completing a book is draining: mentally, physically and emotionally. Once I have recovered from all that, I go right to the next book.
How do you define success?
That’s easy for me. If only one person sincerely tells me they enjoyed the book, I feel I have done my job. When they ask when the next one is coming out, I feel I have exceeded my wildest expectations.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
I like telling the stories: the history; the characters; the events; and the plots. These are stories I want to read. It thrills me to craft them for others. It’s a real kick in the head (apologies to Dino).
Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?
Oh absolutely! I have a blog called Yankee Doodle Spies on Blogspot. I post about twice a month. I have a piece on my latest novel but most of the posts are stories and musings about the American Revolution centered on People, Places or Things. I try to keep it whimsical and include visuals whenever possible. My Facebook presence is two-fold. I have a Timeline as S.W. O’Connell but prefer folks to go to my Facebook Page called Yankee Doodle Spies. The page includes daily posts on historic events, usually a “this day in the American War for Independence” type of piece. I share from other Rev War sites and include my own original content that I call, The Rev War Minute. I’d love to have as many people as possible “Like” the page and follow it. My Timeline has more time sensitive information such as Revolutionary War events upcoming or my musings on things. My last and very recent venture is Twitter @SWOConnell. I Tweet out snippets on the day’s Revolutionary War events, often with a visual. Every few days I’ll tweet about my books. I am on Pinterest as well but have posted very little there thus far.
Where is your book available?
The ebook version of The Cavalier Spy is available for purchase from Amazon Kindle, Apple iBookstore, BN Nook, Kobo Books, OmniLit, etc.
The print version of The Cavalier Spy will be available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble Bookstores, Brodart, Coutts, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Emery-Pratt, Follett, Ingram, The Book Despository, The Book House, etc.
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