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From Memoir to Novel

shadow-war-jacketShadow War: A Tom Locke Novel began as a memoir and ended a novel.  Before I became a novelist, I was many things. Paratrooper. Professor. Private warrior. Some might say mercenary. I spent years in Africa raising small armies, decommissioning warlords, transacting arms deals in eastern Europe, and preventing a genocide near Rwanda.

When people think of mercenaries, they think of lone gunmen wandering the jungles of the Congo. They would be correct, circa 1962. But today it’s a booming business, with private military companies bought and sold on Wall Street. Last year mercenaries fought in Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria, Yemen and elsewhere.

I wanted to reveal the secret world of mercenaries in a memoir. My typical day in Africa, minus the gun shots: breakfast with an Ambassador or CIA station chief, lunch with the country’s incredibly corrupt Minister of Defense, afternoon beers with a warlord like “General Mosquito” and his drunk child soldiers, and midnight drinks with an arms merchant looking to buy or sell something, including one’s soul. People are shocked at the stories I share, and I think: It’s so much worse than you know.

Writing was hard, at first. Beyond the challenges of character development, plot pacing, dialogue and the rest, there was another constraint: the truth. Cleaving to accuracy tempts lawsuits, government censure and reprisal killings (mine or someone else’s). My former employer, a four-billion-dollar private military company, threatened to sue me for millions. The US government contracts I worked on were sensitive, and I didn’t want to accidentally leak secrets. Lastly, warlords and African presidents have no sense of humor when it comes to things like, “Former Mercenary Tells All.”

Head in my hands, my agent recommended I turn the memoir into fiction, avoiding the traps of truth and allowing me freedom of narrative. Sometimes fiction can be a better truth-teller than non-fiction, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”  John le Carré, a former British MI6 spy, did this during the Cold War. We learn more about the hidden conflicts of the Cold War through the eyes of George Smiley, his protagonist, than in the footnotes of scholarship. I aspire to do this for the post-Cold War world through Tom Locke.

I also found a co-author, Bret Witter, to help craft a great story. Bret’s an amazingly versatile writer with several bestsellers behind him. We’re a great team, and I’ve learned much from him.

Shadow War centers around Tom Locke, a former American special operations soldier turned high-end mercenary. He’s conflicted about what he does, but does it very well. He works for a multi-billion-dollar private military company that “shapes the environment” for clientele.

Locke is sent covertly into Ukraine. His mission is to ensure America’s chosen oligarch becomes president and pushes back against Putin. However, nothing is as it seems, and soon he is fighting for his survival. The book lays bare the realities of modern mercenary work.

Meanwhile Brad Winters, Locke’s boss, is scheming his way through Washington, Houston, London and Wall Street, playing one off the other with a private army at his back. The man is cunning and ambitious, and wants what all people like him desire: everything.

Also, there is Alie, a former humanitarian worker and now an independent war journalist. She’s got grit, and—like all the characters—is based on an actual person. Women in this action series are not relegated to stock love interests or other similar ornamentations. They reflect today’s women in international politics, both on the battlefield and behind doors of power.

Shadow War is based on actual events and explains what’s behind the headlines and ahead of foreign policy. It’s an action thriller but bends the genre with a new type of war and warriors.

Sean McFate
Sean McFate is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. He served as a paratrooper in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and then worked for a major private military corporation, where he ran operations similar to those in this book. He is the author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, and holds a BA from Brown University, a MA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He lives with his wife in Washington, DC.