Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow

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 na├»ve 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.


  1. Fascinating stuff, MM...I'm always interested to hear how this story-writing thing works for other people! And I agree, it's amazing the paths a story will lead you down. I'll admit, I don't much like research, but you know it's a good one when you WANT to look deeper into things.

    My hero always seems to be my starting point. I may not have a very clear picture of him at first, but every so often, a good-looking mythological creature will arrive in my head with a list of demands (and various other needs which he may or may not acknowledge), and the story spins from him. Don't know why it works this way for me, but my hero has always worked as my acorn, you could say:-)

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  2. As always, MM, your posts are a pleasure to read.
    As for my starting points, they can be either the hero or the heroine, but mostly, it's the hero. If he doesn't inspire me, the story goes nowhere.
    Looking forward to the new book!

  3. Hi Mary Margaret,
    Interesting stuff--as always--about the SEALS. I always thought my husband, a retired Navy chief, would've made a good SEAL. But the intelligence community snagged him, and he never looked back. He definitely has all the qualities you describe, but I don't know if he could actually kill someone (well, except for me when I am driving him crazy--LOL)

    My acorn is always the story. The characters come second to the story for me.

  4. Great post, Mary Margaret~

    I always had a thing for SEALS ever since a guy I had a massive crush on growing up became one. It fascinated me because he was quiet, friendly, and very sensitive. He was the kind of guy who brought home stray or hurt animals and nursed them back to health. I could never imagine him hurting a flea no less knowing 180 ways to kill someone and using it.

    I remember running into him after he completed BUDs. He was the same guy, just with a much nicer body and this quiet sense of purpose that made him even more attractive. I don't think I've ever gotten over my crush on him.

    My starting points seem to change from book to book. With Romeo, Romeo it was a family dinner scene that popped into my head. With Too Hot To Handle, it was a what if scenario I thought up. With Breakfast In Bed, I wanted to know if a guy who was the spoiled only son of a very Italian family could become a Domestic God and what would make him want to.

  5. Must. Add. Another. To. The. TBR. Pile.

    sigh... so many books, so little time!

  6. MM, super post, and I can't wait to see your recipe and everyone else's coming up in Barbara Vey's Publishers Weekly's Anniversary blog party and get your book! :) Really cute titles on the recipes, coming Mar 14! :) The acorn and oak tree reminds me of Jack and the Beanstalk. LOL :)

  7. MM-great post!

    As you all know, my brother goes to the Naval Academy, and while he doesn't plan on becoming a SEAL, I see so many similarities in him that you described in this post.

    Also--like you said, they have to create humor in many situations. When I went to the Army/Navy game last November, we heard so much about the practical jokes going on as part of the big game's tradition! :)

    I really enjoyed getting to know Caleb in your book!


  8. Kendra,

    I love the thought of a hero who shows up with a list of demands!

    I always feel so guilty because I know if I wasn't writing this book, they wouldn't be in such a fix.

    Maybe from now on, before I start a book, I'll ask which SEALs would like to volunteer...

    No. Better not. They already have strong enough ideas about how they want the story to go. Sometimes I have to get a little rough with them and remind them who's boss.

    I put it this way:if you ever again want to "get any," you'd better start cooperating with me.

  9. I know what you mean, Cheryl. "What if" makes a starting place for the story but only the hero and heroine can tell me where to go with it.

  10. Marie,

    Interesting that you see a possible SEAL in your husband.

    I think one of the reasons I remain fascinated with the SEAL character is that I know I don't have what it takes---and wouldn't even if I were younger, more athletic, better built, and of a sufficiently masculine persuasion.

  11. Robin,

    You put your finger--with such clarity, always--on the essential question for the character-driven writer.

    This is the path he's on. These are the conflicts that he has adapted to. Now, what would make him CHANGE?

  12. Terry,

    I think there is a "beanstalk" quality. The process has an overnight feel, and what the acorn sprout grows into, is often a surprise.

    Now, if I could just get it to lead me to riches!

  13. Love your what if's. Wish my budget fitted my to-read list.

  14. Danielle,

    I think many good men display "SEAL" qualities. I'm not surprised you see them in your brother. I'm sure they have a lot to do with how he got to the Naval Academy in the first place.

    For my mental model for Caleb's most positive qualities, I used one of my uncles, and his son, a general.

  15. "Wish my budget fitted my to-read list"

    Amen, and amen, Sheila!

  16. GREAT post, as always, MM!

    Like Robin, my starting points seem to vary from book to book. My September release Treasures of Venice started after listening to a piece of music from the opera "Jewels of the Madonna." Wild Sight started with my hero, Donovan O'Shea and my WIP started with my heroine, Amber O'Neill. I never know where the next inspiration might spring from. ;-)


  17. I am anxious to read this book. Being married to a Navy SEAL is quite interesting... 16 yrs and counting. I am sure the research on the subject was sometimes unbelievable.

    I will look for it when it comes out.

  18. Cindy,

    The first time someone asked me, "Where do you get your ideas?" I was stumped. What did they mean?

    The ideas come from LIFE. That's where I "get" them.

    Thank you. Your comment perfectly illustates what I was talking about. :-)

  19. SSN,
    As you know, everything SEALs do is secret and any facts about what they do after training are hard to come by.

    But since I'm most interested in character-study anyway, the best and most useful parts of my research have come from retired SEALs who generously allowed me to get to know them and have patiently answered my questions about what they would do in this or that situation.

    To the extent I've gotten SEALs right, I credit them.

    Thanks for coming by to comment. :-)

  20. Mary Margaret,

    I know your research with the retired SEALs was insightful. I married my SEAL two weeks before BUDs training. Although difficult at times, it was worth every minute.

    A certain quaility is common for all SEALs. They are good men, with the greatest intentions and will. You will always have great material to write very exciting stories. Probably more than you bargained for. ;)

    (Sorry, didn't realize I signed in under SEAL Strong Nation)

  21. Great post, MM!

    An author friend had worked with the SEALS in Coronado and loved the stories she heard.


  22. I am just finding the time to check in today and kicking myself over what I almost missed. This was such a great post MM. I loved it so much! I hope you write about SEALs forever! I can't wait to read Do-Lord's story. And, you can digress any time you want. I will happily follow along.

  23. Suzanne,

    Married only two weeks before BUDS? Oh my goodness! For those who don't know, BUDS is the basic training for SEALs.It's hard to imagine how a man going through the intensity of BUDS would have anything to give to a marriage.
    Talk about a challenge! I have a feeling "difficult at times" is a whopping understatement. :-)

    Though I don't want to invade your privacy, I'd love to ask you some questions. Could you email me privately?

  24. Linda,

    I have a couple of sources who work with SEALs and they've been invaluable--but gosh, I envy your friend!

  25. Better late than never, Sharon! Thanks for the kind words. I always feel honored and humbled when I leave fiction behind and talk about the very real, special men on whose characters I'm basing my story.