S.W. O’Connell is the author of the Yankee Doodle Spies series of action and espionage novels set during the American Revolutionary War. The author 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.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Cavalier Spy. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: The Cavalier Spy is an action and adventure story about a young immigrant to the New World (Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed) who gets caught up in the American Revolution. It tells his story while presenting a unique look at the War for Independence through the eyes of those people (on both sides) caught up in the conflict and in espionage. It takes off where the previous novel in the series, The Patriot Spy, leaves off. George Washington has his back to the wall after the British take lower Manhattan. He launches the protagonist, Jeremiah Creed in a series of desperate gambits to save the American cause from crumbling just months after independence was declared.
Q: What do you think makes a good historical fiction work? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: The history. And remember, history ends in story. So the historical story should be compelling. This includes the setting and the historical characters (if any). Obviously the fictional plot should move along and entertain. It should also mesh seamlessly with the historic events. Finally, the fictional and historical characters should complement each other. The fictional characters should be true to the story line. The historical characters should be as true as possible to what they really were. The sweet spot is when they become as interesting as the fictional characters.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: One advantage of doing novels set against a military background is that the known military events can provide a guideline. For example, the main character can’t slip into British occupied territory and meet his significant other if he is 100 miles away fighting for George Washington. SO the historic setting provides a template for the writer, but it also places some restrictions on the writer. In my own writing, scope out the historic timeline first. Then, I settle on the fictional plot and sub plots that I must weave through it. Since this is a series, I can draw on a cast of existing characters, fictional and historic. But I always add new ones too. That’s the fun part. Getting to the second part of your question: I do improvise as I go along. I may take the plot anc characters in a totally different direction while crafting a scene. And I don’t typically decide who is good or bad up front. I let the scenes I write draw that out. This doesn’t include my core protagonists…. Usually.
A: Well, Creed joined the rebellion to lead soldiers in combat but is unwillingly drawn into intelligence work by General Washington himself. So he is, at first, not very enthusiastic about his situation. However, he determines to make the best of it. I knew I wanted to create someone who was sympathetic and generally good guy. But one who could stand out and lead men into places they wouldn’t, or shouldn’t go. I wanted someone a bit self-deprecating and loyal to his values. He had to be valiant. He had to be upstanding. But he had to have a past. And he is somewhat mysterious – he has a past. Some of his past was revealed in The Patriot Spy. A LOT more is revealed in The Cavalier Spy. I didn’t really do any character interviews or sketches. I had the idea for how he should be pretty clear in my head. I do think he matures into his role in The Cavalier Spy. Just a real people involve when sent into combat and other stressful situations. He won’t be the same.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: I need a foil on the other side for Creed. His name is Major Sandy Drummond. I decided up front to not make him a cartoon or stereotype. He, like Creed, gets thrust against his will into espionage work after he gets wounded in battle. He doesn’t know much about the work but grows into it quickly. To make him realistic I drew on what I thought a mid-level officer of the period would be like: professional, demanding, dedicated, etc. Since he is a dragoon officer he is a bit more used to operating on his own. Oh, and he is a Whig. That means he is from the political party in England that seeks reconciliation with the Americans. But, like the other Whig officers, he is committed to suppressing the illegal rebellion.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: Having a lot of battle scenes helps! But actually, The Cavalier Spy is less of that than The Patriot Spy. However, there is lots of movement as the war turns to the maneuver phase. And this enables my character to engage with the populace along the way. He gets several secret missions. These enable me to craft scenes with suspense, intrigue and action. As for specific writing – I improvise scenes all the time. Although I have the plan, I never know where or when I will divert from it. That keeps it interesting to me, the writer, in the hope that it will be more interesting to the reader.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: Well, I do lots of research on the war and the general events that provide the background to the story. Then I try to develop the timeline with the venues. The ones that will provide the background, I try and draw out through description or the events (scenes) that take place there. I have four major settings in The Cavalier Spy. Each helped drive the story and the characters. I also researched the weather for this one. As it played a major role in shaping events in two of the settings.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: I’ll answer the second question first. Yes. Since this is a series, I really just picked up where the first book ended as the saga of Jeremiah Creed, willing patriot soldier but unwilling spy, continues. Theme one is how he molds his men into soldier-spies. Another is his relationship with George Washington and Washington’s fictional chief of intelligence. The overall them of the story is adversity and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. This goes for Creed, the American army, and the American cause. The story takes place, after all, during the times that tray men’s souls. Apologies to Thomas Paine.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: With regard to editing, not thus far. As a staff officer in the Army I learned to lose my sense of pride if I wanted to get my point across. Likewise, the advice of professional editors, particular with regard to the basics of scenes, characters, point of view, etc, seems very helpful to me. So long as they don’t try to inject themselves into it in ways that makes it theirs. I have yet to encounter that. As to where craft ends and art begins, who knows? If the story is good, and the characters are good, that’s what matters. But the sum of it is art-like, almost like a painting made of words.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: The dedicated writer must love the stories. I am dedicated to what I write because I love the stories want to get the stories out. Stories about the American Revolution; about the soldiers and spies who fought it; and about the people who lived it. So, as hard as the writing is, and it is hard, it’s an enjoyable hard. Like running a marathon I suppose.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I disagree. Homework is a drill. A better analogy is doing a term paper. But you get to pick the topic, length, etc. The process of writing is difficult and sometimes tedious. But if you are committed to the tale you want to tell, it’s not homework.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: For me it has been hard knocks, trial and error and trying to emulate (but not copy) some of my favorite writers.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Pick something to write that excites YOU. Write often. Write what you love. Love what you write.
Title: The Cavalier Spy
Author: S. W. O’Connell
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
Purchase link: http://www.twilighttimesbooks.com/TheCavalierSpy_ch1.html
About the Book:
1776: His army clinging to New York by a thread, a desperate General George Washington sends Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed behind British lines once more. But even the audacity of Creed and his band of spies cannot stop the British juggernaut from driving the Americans from New York, and chasing them across New Jersey in a blitzkrieg fashion. Realizing the imminent loss of one of the new nation’s most important states to the enemy, Washington sends Creed into the war-torn Hackensack Valley. His mission: recruit and train a gang of rogues to work behind British lines.
However, his mission takes a strange twist when the British high command plots to kidnap a senior American officer and a mysterious young woman comes between Creed and his plans. The British drive Washington’s army across the Delaware. The new nation faces its darkest moment. But Washington plans a surprise return led by young Creed, who must strike into hostile land so that Washington can rally his army for an audacious gamble that could win, or lose, the war.
“More than a great spy story… it is about leadership and courage in the face of adversity…The Cavalier Spy is the story of America’s first army and the few… those officers and soldiers who gave their all to a cause that was seemingly lost…”
~ Les Brownlee, former Acting Secretary of the Army and retired Army Colonel
“Secret meetings, skirmishes and scorching battles… The Cavalier Spy takes the reader through America’s darkest times and greatest triumphs thanks to its powerful array of fictional and historical characters… this book shows that courage, leadership and audacity are the key elements in war…”
~ F. William Smullen, Director of National Security Studies at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and Author of Ways and Means for Managing UP