Bill Schweigart has found inspiration in some of the most unlikely places.
He drew on the experience he gained through five years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard for his first novel, and the idea for his second book came straight out of local history. He’s finishing up the first draft of “The Beast of Barcroft” now.
"Every town deserves to have a fictional bogeyman, and I want to revive (that in) Arlington," said Schweigart, 40. “In my version, something similar will come out of the woods to stalk the residents and it will definitely have an agenda.”
Schweigart graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1995. His first novel, “Slipping the Cable,” began to take shape when he ended his term of service and was living in Atlanta.
He wrote the novel on the weekends and finished it in about four years. Many of the ideas were pulled from his time at sea — and many of those ideas developed during bouts of seasickness.
"I always say the start of (my first) novel was born while I was throwing up," Schweigart said.
"I had always written short stories — and then when you get an idea for a novel, once the mind is expanded by a new idea, it never regains its original shape."
Billed as a nautical thriller, "Slipping the Cable," tells the story of a tense battle of wills between a Coast Guard cutter’s vengeful captain and a junior officer who hopes to desert to Key West.
Schweigart sent his novel to various literary agents with no luck.
Life went on. Schweigart got married, became a father, moved to the Washington area, picked up new hobbies and started working for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Last year, the death of Schweigart’s 70-year-old father prompted the aspiring author to try publishing again.
His first thought was to write and sell a children's book that was inspired by his father. But his wife, Kate, had an idea that helped revive the original project.
“When I read Bill’s draft, I was drawn to his characters and I knew that ‘Slipping the Cable’ deserved an ISBN number," Kate Schweigart said. "As agents did not seem to be biting on a nautical thriller, I thought it would be best to skip the middle man and go straight to publishers.”
The couple realized that small independent publishers were gradually replacing big, traditional publishing houses, and more and more authors were turning to self-publishing.
Schweigart began rewriting and re-editing his work, and he took his wife's advice. He contacted an array of independent publishers and found a taker in Martin Sisters Publishing.
"You have to hustle, and you have to go to Barnes & Noble directly and sell yourself," Bill Schweigart said.
Now an Arlington resident of nine years, Schweigart is drawing the inspiration for his second novel from local lore. He was in Misha’s coffee shop in Old Town Alexandria one day when he stumbled upon a newspaper article that told the story of an African Civet that was loose and scaring people in Arlington in the 1970s.
"It created enough local havoc that they tried to contact the local zoo and figure what the heck is this thing," Schweigart said.
He was particularly interested in the story because it took place in Arlington’s Barcroft neighborhood, where he lives. The New Jersey native became interested in local history and set out to dig up articles that might enlighten him.
He contacted the Virginia Room at Arlington Central Library and received the unexpected surprise of having a staff member personally find and send him a variety of information on the incident.
Arlington’s unique qualities, including its use of green space, helped shape the story, he added later in an email.
"I've been fascinated with the network of trails in Arlington, the rivers, the wildlife… For being so close to D.C., there's a surprising amount of green space,” Schweigart said. “It's like a wild, shadow circulatory system right under everyone's noses, weaving between the neighborhoods. I'd wanted to write about it for years, and when I discovered the ‘Beast of Barcroft’ blurb in a story about the history of Four Mile Run, everything fell into place."
Schweigart, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter Sydney live in Arlington with their beloved puppy, Bear.
He continues to work on the children's book that was inspired by his father and blogs in character as the book's protagonist Heidi the Tidy Elf at http://www.heidithetidyelf.com.