A Patriot Spy and Her Inspiring Creator: Sarah’s War by Eugenia Lovett West
Betty Freidan once said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Author Eugenia Lovett West could well have inspired those words: her writing career began during her fifties and will peak this year, when, at age 96, she’ll release two new novels.
One of these is Sarah’s War (SparkPress, 2019), which is set during the American Revolution, when main character Sarah Champion finds herself set up by her aunt as a spy for the patriots.
“I seem to end up writing about strong women working their way through problems in interesting settings,” Lovett West says. She knows something about that kind of life, having spent many years travelling throughout four continents with her husband and raising four children. During this time she did some freelance reporting, and wrote a book she describes as “historical thriller.” Then, in 2004, she entered a writing contest at St. Martin’s Press with a book she had previously self-published as a gift for family and friends. She didn’t win the contest, but editor Ruth Cavin was impressed enough to offer Lovett West a two-book deal. This launched her mystery series.
With Sarah’s War, Lovett West returns to historical novel writing, and she includes in it her love of suspense and a fast-moving story – two things she contends mysteries and historical novels have in common. Regardless of genre, she says, for a writer “there is always this compulsion to want the reader to turn the page.” So she injects suspense and a fast pace via “red herrings and judiciously scattered clues” in her mysteries, and by “balancing facts with the imagination” when writing historical novels.
Sarah’s War is a story that balances real and imagined characters and events, something Lovett West admits is a challenge. George Washington, General Lord Cornwallis and General Sir William Howe all feature in the treacherous situations the fictitious Sarah finds herself having to navigate. The British really were holed up in Philadelphia for the winter of 1777-78, waiting for better weather to resume fighting. British officers did attend society functions, and hosted dances and soirees in their headquarters. And there really were threats on George Washington’s life. In the novel, Sarah schemes and flirts her way into British officers’ confidence, her battlefields the drawing rooms and ballrooms of Philadelphia, her role as a spy drawn from what actually happened during the war.
Researching and writing this book has given the author an enduring interest in the American Revolution and the period. “I had no idea,” she says, “how close we came to losing the war for independence and how much we owe those dedicated patriots who managed to form a democracy that must be preserved.” She also tried when writing the book to maintain a strong sense of what it was like to live in that dangerous time. To convey this convincingly, she “did boots on the ground” research in Philadelphia and Valley Forge, and spent four days reliving the Battle at the Brandywine River. “I knew where every regiment in both armies was standing,” Lovett West declares, “and how the British general, Lord Cornwallis, made a serious mistake by letting his troops fall out for lunch, giving Washington’s men a chance to escape.”
To confirm and clarify what she’d learned during location research, she turned to written records and also called upon period experts. “I spent a lot of time at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library with journals written at that time. An emeritus professor of American History at Wesleyan University checked facts and advised. In the end,” she says, “there was a lot of cutting – it really hurt.”
Her journalist background had prepared her for those painful cuts. “Working as a journalist is great training,” she counsels. “You learn to cut adverbs and adjectives and meet deadlines,” skills which she confirms are applicable to articles of 300 words or novels of 300 pages.
In addition to journalism, Lovett West has this advice for writers who want to sustain a long career into later life: first, it takes time to develop as a writer. “My first novel was sheer trash, but I was learning to find my voice.” Second, trying out different genres is good practice, especially for younger writers. “I started when I was in my fifties. With hindsight, I probably should have kept to one genre; younger writers have the luxury of experimenting.” Overall, though, “if the urge to write is there, one makes the commitment. The key is just sitting down and applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
Eugenia Lovett West continues to look ahead, and may return to writing history. “It’s a wonderful learning process that benefits both the writer and the reader. But at age 96,” she says, “each day is a gift. My aim is to live with kindness and courage – and the will to keep creating.”
About the contributor: Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith is the author of two non-fiction history books: the family saga, Strength Within: The Granger Chronicles (Baico, 2005), and Muskoka’s Main Street: 150 Years of Courage and Adventure Along the Muskoka Colonization Road (Muskoka Books, 2012). She is also a photographer and poet, and blogs here.