A retirement tale about a former military officer and former Federal Agent who retired and became an award-winning novelist.
FROM GOVERNMENT BUREAUCRAT TO HISTORICAL NOVELIST:
A Retirement Tale
By Will Hutchison
A friend once asked me if I would be busy enough after retirement to occupy my time, and keep my interest. This was probably because my Government career spanned 26 years in the military, and another 20 years as a Special Agent in Federal law enforcement. My friend’s question caused me to reflect on my life since I left the Government.
Having been retired now for several years, I spend my time writing, mostly historical fiction. I work out of my house in Gettysburg, PA. If I’m not writing, I’m trying to get book projects published or promoting my latest published work, a novel about the Crimean War, entitled Follow Me To Glory.
The passage to becoming a novelist from the military and law enforcement was exciting and challenging. They say everyone has a book inside them, but when it comes down to putting pen to paper…or finger to computer keyboard…it is a complex and often frustrating exercise.
It is very much easier to think through a book concept, a summary of the idea in a thousand words or less, than to actually write it. The final book needs to be more like 90,000 words. There are critical decisions to be made, as well: fiction or non-fiction, historical or contemporary, and many others. I found it a moving target from the beginning, as you will see.
During a recent radio interview, the host asked, “What is an American doing writing a novel about British officers in a British war?” I gave a stock answer, “Mid-nineteenth century military history has always been a fascination of mine.” On reflection, it is not so simple. In truth, it was a unique series of events and discoveries over the past several years, one following the other, falling like dominos.
There I was in 2003, a retired military officer and a retiring NRC Special Agent, looking to the future. In my careers, I’d been the author of investigation reports, procedures manuals, budgets, annual reports, but never, of course, under my name. I had decided along the way to make writing books my retirement career. It seemed logical to focus on my passion, which is 19th Century military history. Why didn’t I first write about my own experiences in war or police work? The answer is I have too many books on history in my head, not yet written.
My initial literary effort was an attempt to carve out a non-fiction book exploring the adventures of British officers who were observers on General McClellan’s staff in the American Civil War. They were in Canada, sent by the Queen when there was a real possibility of Britain and the United States going to war. Even before they arrived in Canada, the war drums were silenced, leaving the troops on the Canadian border to face boredom and a cold winter. When in 1862, General McClellan sent them an invitation; about a dozen intrepid officers went south and joined the Army of the Potomac as observers.
To my delight, I quickly found that researching for a book is much like so many investigations I had conducted in my military and police careers. I began my quest with what evidence was available. There were many McClellan-related documents and his various military reports. I even discovered a series of photographic images taken of the British observers while they were at McClellan’s headquarters in early 1862.
Unfortunately, no amount of investigation could identify all of these observers. This left me with the unsatisfactory prospect of writing an incomplete history. By this time, however, I was hooked…obsessed by the project. The game was afoot, and there was no going back.
I always wanted to try my hand at writing a novel. Why not now? Writing to entertain and creating characters was something new, and exciting. The book would be a fictional tale about a few of these British officers that I was able to identify, and it would not stray far from historical record, to give it balance and credibility.
In the series of photographs, I was drawn to two particular officers, whose faces I saw continually. They wore braided-front frock coats, of the type worn by Foot Guards officers of the period, and even today. At the time of the American Civil War, there were only three such infantry regiments in Queen Victoria’s Guards Brigade, narrowing my search considerably. The question was…which regiment?
More clues were sifted out of the soft-focused sepia-toned images, which eventually narrowed them down to being in the Scots Fusilier Guards. Officers of the Queen’s own Foot Guards, the elite of British military - what better setting in which to nurture a tale of adventure.
This was as far as I could go in the United States. In search of new evidence, I went to London and introduced myself, hat in hand, at Wellington Barracks, the Guards headquarters.
I had identified myself as a former warrant officer, a Sergeant Major in the British army, although an officer rank in the US. However, this credibility was not enough. I also had to prove my internal fortitude by downing copious pints of an amber beverage at a small establishment nearby the barracks, called The Buckingham. Only then was I allowed free access to delve into the remarkable Guards archives. I was treated most kindly, and with a generous portion of patience for my lack of knowledge of the mysterious ways of the Guards. I went through endless records and photographs.
I had brought an American Civil War photographic image of these observers with me for reference. On this image, the names ‘Fletcher’ and ‘Neville’ had been written above two officer’s heads in period handwriting. Fletcher was soon identified as Henry Charles Fletcher. He was, indeed, in the Scots Fusilier Guards, and was posted to Canada at the time of the American Civil War. I was also able to ferret out Edward Neville, Scots Fusilier Guards, who was in Canada with Fletcher.
After returning to the United States, I developed a fictional character from the combined backgrounds of Fletcher and Neville. I named him Ian David Carlyle, and made him the second son of an Earl, just to complicate his existence, then began to write about his time in Canada and the United States.
In the course of writing the first few chapters, it became clear that these gentlemen would have experienced combat, and emerged as the fine officers they were, six years prior to the American Civil War, in the Crimea. My fictional character could do no less.
I decided to set my first novel in the Crimea – Ian, my young Scottish aristocrat, would mature in Victorian Britain, and develop into a warrior. He would lead men and fight his way through the Crimean War (1854-1856). I would then bring him into the American Civil War with McClellan in the sequel.
This began a two-year odyssey of intense research. I voraciously explored Victorian England, devouring the wondrous ambiguities of the British aristocracy of the nineteenth century; the escapades of students at Eton College and the Royal Military Academy; and finally the ponderous staff work of the Horse Guards (more or less our Pentagon) in London, where Ian was first posted.
I was duty-bound to trek the battlefields of the Crimean War, in today’s Ukraine, to feel them for myself. There is a crevasse in the Alma River where Ian conceals himself from raining artillery fire. I know that crevasse, because I’ve been there, soaked through and caked in mud.
I wanted to do justice to the Scots Fusilier Guards officers and other ranks who fought this poorly managed, horrible little war, and came out of it with pride and dignity in themselves and their regiment. Thus, it was only after extensive research, and walking the walk of Ian Carlyle, I felt confident to begin serious writing.
My first draft was a ponderous 150,000 words…a veritable treatise. My patient friends read it, and summed it up in one word…boring. Wounded, but not critically, I started over.
Before I began rewriting, I literally went back to school. I studied fiction writing under numerous mentors, and began to learn the craft…to create the story through dialogue, rather than narrative… to say it, not tell it. I went to seminars on screenwriting to fine-tune my dialogue skills.
After a few false starts, I began to find my rhythm. Once there, the pages flew by. I deepened my characters, and I added what I hoped was a bit of beauty and tenderness in the person of a caramel-skinned London barmaid. She and Carlyle become friends and lovers, extending the passion and heat of war beyond combat.
I rewrote the entire book, several times, shaving it down until it moved fast enough for my liking. The result brought a smile from my critical friends, and the reviewers have been most kind.
I’m frequently asked how I organize my writing schedule. I can easily work ten hours or more a day, whether promoting, researching, or actually writing. However, I find that most of my creative work is best accomplished between midnight and sunrise. I embrace the quiet, when I can travel inside my characters.
I’m already writing the sequel, which my publisher naturally wants yesterday. The pure joy of writing is now my passion – it never seems like labor. Am I busy enough in my ‘retirement?’ The answer to my friend was an unqualified ‘Yes’ – busier than I ever imagined. I often wonder how I ever found the time to work a real job.
Will Hutchison is a graduate of Syracuse University, with twenty-six years as an NCO and officer in the US Army and Marine Corps. He has spent his life in interesting and often dangerous endeavors, from leading Marines in Vietnam, to working as an undercover drug agent in Amsterdam with military CID, to serving as a Federal Special Agent conducting criminal investigations and counter-terrorism initiatives at nuclear plants. He resides in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he pursues his writing and photography, with occasional law enforcement consulting projects. As an avocation, he has written and lectured on nineteenth century military history internationally for over twenty years. He also consults as an area expert for other authors in military matters, history, and law enforcement. To meet the author and find out more about his latest book, you are invited to visit his web site at: www.followmetoglory.com.