by Mary Margret Daughtridge
To me, story ideas are like acorns. You cannot guess the mature size or shape of the story, or even see that the seed is a story until you see them sprout.
That moment of story germination is what I call what if.
The what if of SEALed with a Promise happened as a result of my research for SEALed With A Kiss. The reason I initially chose a SEAL was because I needed a military hero who was away from his family for long periods and one who wouldn’t be doing what he was doing if he didn’t love it. I knew no more about them than any romance reader—and truthfully, didn’t want to know much more.
Here’s the deal. I didn’t want to write a “military” romance, and I certainly didn’t want to write romantic adventure/suspense. So when I sat down to do my research I wasn’t looking for the finer points of body armor or the difference between a Glock and an AK 47.
I thought I’d get a few background details, absorb some lingo, and since the story wouldn’t be set on a battlefield or even a military base, I didn’t think I’d need much.
But a funny thing happened on the way to getting up to speed with SEALs. I became fascinated. Oh, still not with weaponry or spy craft but with the character of the men themselves.
The question that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go was what kind of men are these? I found out the Navy has been asking the same question for forty years, ever since that task of developing a Special Operations force was given to the Navy by President Kennedy.
The Navy wants to know because training a SEAL is expensive—over a million dollars per—and time consuming—three years plus—and fewer than twenty percent graduate. They give them every sort of test known to psychology, and they know a lot about them. But though they’d love to get better at figuring out what the magic ingredient is that makes a man able to become a SEAL, they never have.
I wanted to know because these are men who have pushed themselves to, and beyond, what most people accept as “human” limitations. I became fascinated with the question of what did it feel like to be them? What is it like to have chosen to live on the other side of the stopping place?
SEALs are also men who have been de-socialized. They have been trained to go beyond the limits of civility, to never fight fair, to loosen the constraints of morality. They have been taught to lie, cheat and steal—and of course, to kill. To kill really, really well and in lots of inventive ways.
The most amazing and fascinating thing about SEALs to me is that going beyond human limitations has not de-humanized them. They are not the grim-faced Dirty Harrys or anger-displaced Rambos. On the contrary, there is about them a joie de vivre that springs from their extreme self-confidence. Life does not intimidate them. If they don’t see the humor in a situation, then they create some. Sometimes the humor is so crude and earthy, you’re laughing uncontrollably while you’re thinking, I cannot believe he said that! Sometimes it’s so sly and understated, you wonder if the humor was accidental—like the SEAL, ready to climb into a tub of ice water for a NatGeo channel program, who deadpans into the camera, “A SEAL will do anything for science.”
SEALs demonstrate a generosity of spirit, and an open-hearted willingness to care. They have a rather touching (to me) innocence. I find myself wanting to protect them.
Occasionally readers think I disrespect SEALs by showing them doing things a "knight in shining armor" shouldn’t do. But I have come to respect them too much to ever diminish their character by idealizing them. The harsh reality of being warriors has not taken away their humanity. I will not cheapen or de-humanize my SEAL characters by holding them to an imaginary standard. As former SEAL John Roat, said when it was suggested that a hero should act more “heroically” in a certain scene, “We are not Superman.”
They are not Superman and to me, that makes them more heroic—not less.
But I’ve digressed. I was telling you about the “what if” that led to SEALed With a Promise.
I learned how SEAL training takes young men—unacquainted with hardship, smart but naïve as only middle-Americans can be, well brought up, healthy in body, mind and spirit—and turns them into focused, disciplined and deadly unconventional warriors. All I could say was, “Thank God, they are on our side.”
And then I thought, but what if a recruit was none of those things—except healthy and smart? Smart enough to cover up his criminal career, begun at the age of ten. When it came to the lying, cheating, stealing and dirty fighting part, a guy like that would be a natural. What if, in the course of SEAL training, he learned honorability, accountability, generosity, loyalty, and trust? Beleive me, he wouldn’t become a SEAL if he didn’t. The men who run the SEAL program might not be able to put their collective finger on the precise ingredient, but they are well aware that ultimately, what makes a man a SEAL is character.
And then, what if, once he was a seasoned, battle-hardened SEAL, with a full complement of SEAL skills, he suddenly had a chance to settle an old, old score?
In SEALed With a Kiss I explored what makes a hero, and what sacrifices a hero must make.
But Caleb “Do-Lord” Dulaude, the hero of SEALed With A Promise has sacrificed nothing to be a SEAL. On the contrary, joining the Navy, and then becoming a SEAL has rewarded him with everything he wanted—everything that seemed impossibly out of his reach when he was a kid, growing up on the dirty, ragged edges of society. There’s plenty of action, plenty of challenge, and lots of scope for his talents. Without having to buy in to American middle-class values, he has found respect, friendship, and the opportunities to satisfy his mind’s voracious appetite for knowledge. Higher education and continued personal development is encouraged among SEALs. He’s already earned two PhD’s and he’s thinking about another. That being the case, he doesn’t understand why being a SEAL doesn’t do it for him anymore.
He reckons he’s just tired from a long deployment in Afghanistan.
And then the past, a past he buried seventeen years ago along with his mother, suddenly comes alive again when he sees the only man he ever wanted to kill. As a SEAL he has all the skill he needs to finally a keep the promise he made so many years ago. The only thing stopping him now is that he canot allow other SEALs to suffer dishonor on his account.
I know. That sounds like a set up for romantic suspense—which I’ve already said I don’t write. I want to write stories that, at heart, are about the development of a relationship. I want to look at how love changes people, makes demands on them, requires sacrifice. I want to write, not about winning wars, but about winning love.
So I added another what if.
What if, with revenge on his mind, he meets the woman of his dreams—dreams even being a SEAL had never fulfilled. What if, by getting close to her he can have his revenge without implicating any other SEAL?
Creating a nice love story for Jax, the hero of SEALed With a Kiss wasn't too difficult. Jax didn’t give me a hard time even though SEALS do not readily accpet direction from anyone who is not a SEAL. I promised if he would work with me, I’d solve his problem for him.
SEALed With a Promise was another story (in every way!) Caleb and I had quite a power struggle over our two very different agendas. I was determined to write a romance. He wanted a techno-thriller. It took some doing to convince him a happily-ever-after had more to offer him.
In the end, I’m not the one who persuaded him. That was quirky Emmie Caddington’s doing. She showed him there was something else he’d wanted way back then. She showed him what love means.
That's the story in a nutshell--or in this case it's the what if an acorn shell.
So what's your starting point? Or if you'd rather, tell us about your favorite bad boy gone good hero.