A (Story) Problem of Treason

I’m closing in on the end of my first draft of The Left-Handed Fate, and I have this story problem. I think I’ve solved it, but it continues to bother me. In fact, it’s bothering me so much, I think it might not just be a story problem. I think it might be The Point. It was not supposed to be.

So here’s the problem. If you’d like to know the history behind it (which I, obviously, think is really important), you can read all of that below*. But the TL;DR is this: it’s 1812, America and Britain are at war (and it’s a war in which both sides are really, really pissed at each other and have been for about thirty years), and I need an American midshipman and a British privateer to work together on something that will give one side measurably more power–possibly the power to win the war out of hand–than the other.

But it’s actually more complicated than that. Not only do they have to work together, but my American midshipman, temporary prize-captain of a British privateer, has to effectively decide to ignore both his orders and every shred of common sense he has and hand the ship back over to its original crew so that the privateer can continue a mission that’s completely against American interests. The situation is so impossible that, once he’s decided to proceed along this course, basically the only thing that can possibly happen to the kid when it’s all over is a court-martial that, in the absolute best case, will kick him out of the navy. In the worst case, he’ll be declared a traitor and hanged. On the other hand, in this story, helping the privateer complete its mission is really the right thing to do.

This is not my twelve year-old protagonist. It is, however, his hero, Stephen Decatur, who still would probably not have approved of his actions.

Now, the factors that I put into place in this story to enable the boy to make this decision–to make it not only the morally right decision, but also one that makes enough practical sense that an actual officer under orders could choose the way the kid does–these factors, they are not inconsequential. They are so potent that, if hehad not bowed to them, he would have lost his ship and likely his life anyway. But the fact that the choice is there doesn’t make it a logical one, especially for a kid for whom the simplest and most justifiable answer–the only answer that’s likely to be accepted by his superiors, no matter what the circumstances–is to follow his orders even if they mean destruction. Any other decision involves some degree of working with the enemy, and therefore some degree of moral ambiguity, even if it’s the only one that saves the lives of his little prize-crew and the ship itself.

On the one hand, what I’ve set up creates enough justification for his making the choice for it to be believable. On the other hand, it still basically constitutes an act of treason during wartime, and my protagonist is still a twelve year-old boy–a boy who spends basically the entire book trying to figure out how to be a good leader when leadership is forced upon him. Either way, it’s suddenly sort of looking like The Point–or one of The Big Points–where it wasn’t before. Before, it was just a story problem I needed to solve. Now I think it’s more important than that.

But it’s also occurring to me that I never seem to figure out what The Point of anything I write is until I’m a chapter away from being done. I never sit down and think, I want to write a story about this theme or this idea. It’s always that I have an idea about a villain, or a weird historical thing, or just something I think is cool and want to use somehow. The Points always seems to turn up on their own. This will be the seventh manuscript I’ve written to completion, and this is actually the first time I’ve really sat up and paid attention to this pattern I seem to have.

It’s all just stuff I’m turning over in my head until I get my editorial notes–maybe I’m wrong and it is just a story problem after all (in which case, presumably I’ve solved it: yay!).  But it’s going to be uppermost in my mind as I give the finished draft its first complete reading this week and I work through whether Acting Commander Dexter’s arc is what it needs to be.

Writerly folks–does this happen to you? That A) The Point turns up way late in the game; or B) that what seems to be just a story problem you think you fixed continues to bother you so much it threatens to become What The Book Is About?

*The history, for you nerds who care:

It’s 1812. War has just been declared between the United States and Britain. A fascinating thing about this point in history is that our government actively didn’t want to get involved in foreign wars. They wanted this so badly that it took an incredible amount of work on the part of Jefferson and Adams over the course of three combined presidential terms to get Congress to authorize the construction of a blue-water Navy. That’s right–it seems absurd, looking back now, when any cuts to our defense budget make a huge chunk of our legislators start screaming that America is dead, but there was a point when our Congress believed a tiny regular army (and functionally no navy) would do just fine, supplemented by state militias and private coastal vessels. (You know that big debate going on right now, the one about guns? These were the “well-regulated militias” the Second Amendment’s talking about. The right to bear arms had a lot to do with the fact that militias were still relied upon to do most of the work that, two hundred and some years later, we delegate to the large professional military that many of the Founding Fathers emphatically did not want.)

Jefferson got Congress to authorize the building of six frigates; Congress fought tooth and nail against a blue-water navy because they didn’t see the point. They didn’t want us sending some teensy navy out against any of the bigger navies on the Atlantic, who were almost certainly going to smash it to pieces. At the time, Jefferson wanted to stop the Barbary States from harassing American shipping, but Britain was already causing the trouble that would eventually lead to the War of 1812.

Due to its decades-long wars with France, it was constantly short of the sailors needed to man the hundreds upon hundreds of ships of the Royal Navy, and additionally it viewed any trading (neutral) America did with France as unacceptable. Therefore, British ships made a practice of interfering with American shipping, preventing it from trading and also stopping American ships and literally taking sailors from them. Britain claimed to be taking only Englishmen who had deserted from British ships; in practice, many, many Americans were kidnapped, too. Congress believed that building an American navy to defend American shipping was pointless, because in any contest against the might of the Royal Navy, American ships would lose. Even when war became inevitable, Congress (and, in fact, President Madison) believed more good would be done by privateers than the tiny navy itself.

Meanwhile, Britain was furious at America both for insisting on neutrality when Britain was fighting Napoleon, who it (rightly) saw as a threat not only to British interests, but also to all of Europe and maybe the whole world. Worse, because France had been such a critical ally in the Revolutionary War, many Americans (not all, but many) were inclined to think if we came in on either side, we ought to come in on the French side. Britain was furious because it saw Britain and America as natural allies, linked by a common past and a common language. It was furious because it felt that its need for seamen so far outweighed America’s wish to protect the sovereignty it had just fought a war to gain that Britain actually saw America’s protests as something like betrayal.

Got it? Good. What hopefully is obvious in all of this is that it’s not a likely time for an American midshipman and a British privateer to decide to join forces.

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