Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Dan Morales, author of Operation Archangel: The Scouts of St. Michael.
FQ: Thanks very much for your time today Mr. Morales. As cliché as this question may sound, I’m curious to know what inspired you in selecting the subject matter for this book?
MORALES: Thank you so much for having me. I was inspired by a true story I read, about a young British Boy Scout during WWII whose job it was to deliver secret messages between Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) bases on his roller skates. He was such an integral part of the team that the MOD actually requisitioned him new wheels when his wore thin.
My idea came to me in its simplest form: The Boy Scouts vs. the Hitler Youth. How could I pit these two very alike yet very different groups against each other? I just let my imagination run wild and asked a lot of “what if” and followed where the questions led. The result was Operation Archangel. Dreaming up the idea was the easy part. Turning it into a believable story that fit into actual history? That was a bit harder.
FQ: In line with Question 1, what were your ‘go to’ resources to capture accuracy for the premise of the story?
MORALES: All my research. I read lots of books. I watched dozens of hours of YouTube videos and movies. Scouting for Boys by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, like the handbook which my character Reggie carries in his back pocket, was always close by for reference. I went through two outliners just marking the bits which sparked something cool. Wikipedia is another invaluable source. My bookmarks are filled with links to pages about both the BS and the HY. I had to learn as much about one group as the other. As Sun Tzu in The Art of War said, “Know thy enemy, know thy self, and in a thousand battles, a thousand victories.” He also said “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” But that’s a line for another book. (Hint hint)
FQ: Why select six orphaned boys as the mainstay for your characters? Were there real young men who were your template in creating the fictitious characters?
MORALES: That’s a great question. When I first started working on the story, I was a bit conflicted by the number of boys and the ages of each. I just figured on six, four teenagers and two almost teenagers. Having read some of the Harry Potter series, I knew that having more than three protagonists would take a lot of figuring out. I didn’t want one character to outshine or steal the spotlight away from any of the others, but I wanted each to be as fully developed as I could write them. Keeping track of character arcs, characteristics, where each fit in the story or into a specific scene became a kind of a giant balancing act.
Also, it’s historically correct. Orphans are parentless, so it was thought that their training officers would imprint on them as father figures whom they would strive to please, so they were specifically considered for covert agent training. Plus, as orphans, as cold as it sounds, they’re wards of the king, so to speak, and he could do with them as he pleased. Like sending them deep into Nazi Germany. Not that he would have. This is fiction after all.
FQ: Were you a boy scout and if so, is there a specific memory of your experience that stands out that you can share?
MORALES: This book is the adventure I was looking for and thought I would find when I joined Cub Scouts. I advance from Cub Scouts to Webelo but I didn’t advance beyond that. I never made it to the actual Boy Scouts and it’s one my biggest regrets. I would love to be counted among the exclusive ranks of Eagle Scouts everywhere. My experience was a far cry from the action and adventure faced by the scouts in my story, I certainly never had the chance to shoot down a German dive bomber. I spent more time making crafts and helping with community projects. Hats off to my den mother Mrs. Lis, St. Albert the Great Troop 3481. She did a great job.
I guess my biggest memory from that time was telling my troopmate Tim where babies come from. I had just learned myself. Mrs. Lis was none too happy with me that day. That woman was a saint for putting up with me.
FQ: It would seem you have a fair amount of knowledge of paratroopers. Did you serve in the military and more specifically, did you have occasion to jump from aircraft during your service?
MORALES: I have no military experience, another regret. I think military service would have done me good and helped me mature much sooner than I did, if I even have. I think the brotherhood is also an important aspect that I missed. I don’t know if I would have qualified for the jump boots, but I would have tried. I got a ton of material from resources I found online. The British government did a fantastic job of training their military, paratroopers included. They created hours of training films, footage that I watched during my research phase. If you fall down the rabbit hole and start digging, YouTube has some rich content to mine.
FQ: The story is set in a small town in Kent, England. Have you been to the area? If so, what resonated with you most while there? If not, what was your process in developing such depth?
MORALES: No, I’m sorry to say I’ve haven’t been to England yet, aside from an airport layover when I was 10. To be quite honest, I just looked at a map and the name Hawkhurst jumped out at me. A quick search on the internet informed me of the rich, infamous history behind this little village in Kent. I visited Hawkhurst ‘virtually’ and instantly fell in love with St. Laurence Church in the Moor. It’s the inspiration for the fictional St. Michael’s of my story.
There’s also a wonderful film from 1946 called A Matter of Life and Death,starring David Niven and Kim Hunter, a kind of romantic-fantasy WWII story set in a small English village. It’s an amazing movie. In it, the village doctor has this device in his office that allows him observe the entire village from overhead, a bit like Google Streetview. Those images helped inspire and inform my version of Hawkhurst.
FQ: I’m fascinated with this period of history. We are decades beyond the evil of Hitler, yet it is a deep well to draw endless fodder for penning a terrific read. Were there ever moments where you lost steam and if so, how did you overcome the block to continue forward?
MORALES: J.K. has said, as a writer, you have to steel yourself to the fact that you are going to write a lot of rubbish. There is nothing that can be done but write it out of your system. At moments when I got stuck I would walk away from it and go back to digging in my research, learning more about the time, place, people, politics, etc. I believe in the power of my subconscious to do some of the work for me, as long as I give it enough to work with. Once I fill my head, it all gets jumbled around and hopefully comes out as something I can put to paper. But that’s not something I can control, so I have to practice patience with myself and keep writing the rubbish out so the good stuff can rise to the surface.
FQ: Off topic for a moment. Your credentials are impressive and given the relevance, I wonder what your views are toward today’s climate concerning the accuracy (or inaccuracies) of reporting in general.
MORALES: The first of the Scout Laws is “A scout is trustworthy.” There’s a reason it’s first because all else flows from it. If you aren’t honest and truthful, you aren’t worthy of trust. People who live by the truth have nothing to hide or fear. Liars lie for a reason. When they do it repeatedly and habitually, they have a mental disorder or something to hide. It’s fairly simple. In today’s over-saturated media environment, one must constantly consider the source of information, and if that source is worthy of trust or has something to gain by perpetuating a lie or propaganda.
FQ: In your acknowledgments, you list a handful of people who were key in assisting in the creation of this story. Were any of your fictitious characters fashioned after any of these real people?
MORALES: There is one and I gave him his own name in the novel. My nephew was the inspiration for the Warrant Officer character of the same name. He was my first nephew and I’m very proud of the fine young man he’s grown into. It was he who I was picturing the whole time I was writing that character. He’s the model on the cover of my book who’s wearing the blue RAF tunic as part of his uniform.
FQ: Without establishing a spoiler, you leave an open end to this story. Does this mean there is a sequel in the future?
MORALES: See answer to question 2. Short answer: Yes. Long answer: After a lot more work and some good luck. Book two On Unholy Ground (working) is underway.
FQ: Again, I want to thank you for delivering such an engaging read. What’s next? Are you able to give us a glimpse?
MORALES: You’re quite welcome. Thank you again for giving me the opportunity. I really wish I knew what was next. I plan on writing more novels and trying to engage as many readers as I can with my Scouts of St. Michael series. I think it has real franchise potential (of course every writer feels that way about their book) but if people keep using the word cinematic to describe it, who knows. Maybe someday the right person will pick it up and it’ll be Netflix series -- here we come. Stranger things have happened.