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’ 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.
Book description: 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.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your writing background?
It started with my high school paper where I was a less than impressive author. But I learned how to take criticism from the staff editors. I have done lots of writing in my academic life as well as during my time in the Army. In the case of the former I wrote numerous research papers of various lengths. In the case of the latter, my writing ran the gamut from investigative and intelligence reports, staff studies, white papers, issue papers, decision papers, etc. Of the military writing I always preferred the white papers as they are open ended thought papers focused more on substance than style. Some time ago I also published a newsletter and later a magazine, which I did author some pieces.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
That’s an easy one – when the magazine failed! Publishing was a challenging endeavor and I enjoyed the challenge. But it occurred to me after I shut it down that I missed the writing part the most. There are so many things out of your control when you are a publisher but other than the editor’s fastidious pen, a writer controls his world. So I decided my next endeavor would be as writer.
Yes, I was. I had pretty diverse tastes as a young reader. I read all kinds of youth literature: animal stories, fantasy tales, history, detective stories. Some of my early fond favorites included: Wapiti the Elk, Freddy the Pig, The Hardy Boys, and Detectives in Togas. I read all kinds of comics, too. We could walk about four miles to a used comic store and buy or trade comics. As I grew older I read a lot of the classical literature stuff. Some of it as school requirements, but I read a lot of my own choosing. But my consistent favorite was history, primarily military history. In my early teens, I did go on a Jon Carter binge and then Conan. But I’d also read books by Harold Lamb, who wrote about some of the great persons and events in history. And I also turned more and more to historical fiction. Later I discovered James A. Michener, Thomas B. Costain, Leon Uris, C.S. Forrester, Wilbur Smith and others. I went on the spy thriller binge for a long time as well. But the historical novel became my favorite genre.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
It’s a combination of the two. Let me begin by stating that I have a general outline for each book in the series (in my head) so I know what each novel will cover. For the specific book I am writing, I build an outline and then do a short chapter by chapter summary. Both are subject to dramatic change! I usually turn the short chapter summary into a more detailed story board and this is subject to radical change! The reason for this is simple. I like to enjoy what I write, and as I go along I let the story take me places that interest me at that moment. This isn’t whimsy, but more like , “what should really happen next?” So I write to that. And after I write that I ask, “now what should happen next ?” Because the turn I take can open up a new angle to the plot or characters, or throw me into another sub-plot. And then I might go back and make radical modifications. For example, after I finished the first draft of The Patriot Spy, I decided to change who the bad guy was. I only needed a few modifications to do it. Oh, and after the second draft was done, I added a new first chapter and a new last chapter. This changed the identity of The Patriot Spy! And it did so months after I completed the first draft. Note to self: don’t do that too often.
Did your book require a lot of research?
I do some fairly extensive research. A lot of it I had done in the course of my reading and academic life. But I discovered as I began to prepare myself to write the Yankee Doodle Spies series, I lacked a lot of depth when it came to the American War for Independence. It occurred to me that if I, who spent a lifetime learning history, knew so little about that period, what did the average person know? So I decided that the series would present a lot of historical information. Someone who reads the entire series (I plan on eight books, it was an eight year war) will walk away understanding the struggle for independence our first patriots waged against all odds. As for the research itself, I mostly use secondary sources. These include some well-regarded historians of the period as well as some lesser known folks.
What was your goal when writing this book?
To tell a fun story that draws the reader into the time of the American struggle for independence. I also wanted to highlight the heroism and sacrifice of the first patriots without making them cartoon characters. History is about real people, after all. Not that much different than we are today. And I try not to make the British and Loyalists into a bunch of baddies. Not always that easy as you have to have that struggle. And that’s what a lot of the series is about: George Washington’s struggle to keep the rebellion alive and the British and Loyalist struggle to suppress it. The tale is told at the macro level through the senior officers my main protagonist engages (on both sides). And it is told on the micro level through his fictional experiences, woven into historic events.
Who is your target audience?
People who like action, adventure and intrigue, spiced with knowledge of our struggle for independence.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
That the American Revolution was a long and hard fought war. That it was a civil war as well as a national conflict and a world war. And that intelligence played a vital role in the struggle for independence. But I also want them to appreciate the human side of the war shown through the historical and fictional characters portrayed. That the people who waged it were fascinating, daring, and as fragile as any of us. That the events and personalities of the mid-eighteenth century are as compelling as those set in a galaxy long ago and far away…
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
Both! I have experience in military intelligence, but I fantasize military and intelligence situations in the historical setting of the American Revolution.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
That what I am writing makes sense. As I go along with the writing process, I really get paranoid about that. Not that I am writing nonsense (I think) but that the reader gets a sense of what is happening. That the plot unfolds for them. I do chock my stories full of people, places and things. They are like an old Boy’s Life adventure tale that moves along. But hat can lose some readers who are used to a limited number of characters interacting in a limited venue. About half way through my first novel, The Patriot Spy, I decided to seek out some folks to read as I went along and give me feedback. They are mentioned at the beginning of each book. The feedback is invaluable.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
No, I don’t. Although I had two, sort of, at one time. I learned something from each, and that was beneficial. But they cost me a lot of valuable time and were never really committed to the project or to me.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Yes, I do. As part of my research, I publish a blog I call… wait for it… Yankee Doodle Spies. It’s on Blogspot at: www.yankeedoodlespies.blogspot.com. Another good way to learn about my work and gain lots of knowledge and nuggets about my work, and the American war for Independence, is my Facebook Page, also called Yankee Doodle Spies. I have my own S.W. O’Connell Timeline on Facebook as well. And of course there is Twitter. Find me @SWOConnell where I put out daily this day in the #RevWar tweets as well as tweets about my blog and books.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
Yes, book three in the series is called The Winter Spy. It continues the evolution of Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed as an intelligence officer and George Washington’s evolution as commander in chief of a near hopeless cause.
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
Getting the stories out! These are tales the need to be told. I think we as Americans, perhaps the western world, have lost our sense of who we really were and what made us great. The American struggle started as clash of new ideas – those of the enlightenment. But these ignited to eventually bring about the clash of empires. The men and women of the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies were unique. The events not only formed our nation but set the model for non-monarchial rule that would eventually sweep across Europe and Latin America. It was a big deal. We need to remember it. My reward is remembering in an entertaining way.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
Yes. I wish I had more time to write. But I am glad I am doing it in the age of computers! I make lots of mistakes and hand-written manuscript would bog me down in my own scrawling. So modern technology helps tell the story of events over 200 years ago. I kind of like that.