I hope you’ve been enjoying my journey to tell how I developed my Ahab’s Legacy book series. Here’s the next installment, this one about Book Three.
Son of Perdition is the coming-of-age story of Timothy Jacobs, a young man determined not to be like his infamous father. But how should I develop this character? What setting should I use? I could have come up with a clever tale and then shaped history to fit my plot. But that’s against everything I believe in as a historical writer. Instead, I studied my chosen era and shaped my protagonist’s life around what really happened. (At left is the e-book cover designed by Jeff Gerke.)
Of course, the first thing I wanted to do was tell a compelling, character-driven story, one with plenty of internal and external conflicts. In this case, I’m creating the tale of a young man determined not to be like his father, whom the maritime community regards as evil. Starting out, all I knew was that Timothy would, like any good protagonist, run into many obstacles on his life journey, one of them being a major war and another being a worthy adversary.
For Timothy’s antagonist, I chose Isaiah, the son of Mr. Starbuck, Captain Ahab’s late, lamented, and godly first mate. (In Moby Dick, both Ahab and Starbuck have young sons.) And, of course, a handsome young man like Timothy must have a love interest, so I gave Isaiah a younger sister named Jemima, a fairly common name for girls on Nantucket Island during that time. Because Isaiah despises Timothy for being the son of Ahab, he creates all kinds of havoc when Timothy and Jemima fall in love. Now conflicts abound.
Next, because I had been date specific in my first two books, I chose a timeline of nine years, 1857–1865, which would include events before and during the Civil War. Timothy comes from a seafaring family: his father was a whaler, and his stepfather is a cotton importer, who also just happens to smuggle slaves out of Norfolk and into Boston, an activity based on actual historical events. Therefore, Timothy will love the sea and will seek a seafaring career. Coming as he does from a well-to-do family, he will be well-educated and will train for a position of responsibility and leadership. Thus, the next logical step for him is to receive an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis on his way to becoming an officer in the U. S. Navy.
Beginning my story in 1857, I decided to use names of real-life faculty to interact with my fictional characters, placing these characters in situations and conversations that actually could have happened between faculty and students. I was careful not to malign anyone or have them do anything out of character. If anything, I might have gone a bit overboard in my heroic portrayals based on what I had read about these people and quotations about them from their contemporaries.
This brings me to the research part of my project. I started looking for books that would give me a true history of the Naval Academy. Among the many resources I found on Amazon.com, a golden jewel of information rose above all the rest: The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy, by Charles Todorich (Naval Institute Press, 1984). When I got my hands on this book, I knew heaven had opened and manna had come down. This is the definitive book on the antebellum U. S. Naval Academy, just what every author dreams of owning. It contains details of what and whom my hero would encounter, even obscure and complex details needed to reveal the daily lives and personalities of the midshipmen at the academy.
This book was Charles’s master’s thesis at the University of Maryland, meaning he did extensive and detailed research and took years to write it so he could get it right. His credentials as a naval academy graduate and his degrees in law and American history gave me confidence that I could count on his work being accurate. While writing my novel, I travelled to Annapolis with my husband and we had only two hours to search the stacks at the Academy’s Nimitz Library. No way could I ever have dug out everything I needed. Fortunately, Charles had done the work for me. I could use his book to frame the action in mine.
As a non-military person, I needed to find out what it takes to make a naval officer. I needed to know what the attitudes and ideals of the times were, how the academy personnel and students got along with the citizens of Annapolis, and what the young men did when the Civil War broke out and cherished friendships among northern and southern cadets were shattered. Charles writes about all of these in detail in The Spirited Years. These are the details that add TEXTURE and REALISM to my story.
The value of historical fiction is that it helps to make the past personal and relevant. Charles’s book has the best of both because he personalizes the midshipmen through real stories. I believe that the best fiction includes the personal human dramas of history. Since he had done all the research, all I had to do was wander through the orchard and pluck the ripe fruit from the trees. In addition, and actually most important, he gave me insights into the kind of men who stayed the course through the rigorous academy training when others were dropping out. (At left is the original print book cover.)
Here are some of the specific parts of his book I used to frame my story:
First, the actual buildings, the stage for my play. Now I knew where the midshipmen lived, studied, ate, drilled, attended class and church services, and played.
Second, the midshipman course of study, essential to reveal the rivalry between my protagonist, Timothy Jacobs, and his antagonist, Isaiah Starbuck, each of whom was determined to be first in his class, an honor that actually went to Midshipman William T. Sampson. I certainly did not change that bit of history.
Third, the administration and faculty, including Superintendent George S. Blake, especially his character, personality, demeanor, physical description, and how he interacted with the students. I also learned that Blake’s wife took on the responsibility of teaching the young men proper social behavior and even invited them into her home, as did many other citizens of the city.
Fourth, the interaction between the people of Annapolis and the Academy also includes the annual Winter Ball and other events in the Academy’s lively social life, which are essential to any young person’s coming-of-age. I also appropriated several actual midshipmen, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan, George Dewey, William T. Sampson, and others to interact with my characters. I took special care to include one Charles W. Flusser so that in my small way I could honor this most popular and gallant young man who died in a naval battle during the Civil War. Before reading Charles’s book, I’d never heard of this heroic patriot. Another Academy faculty member, Thomas T. Craven, developed and oversaw the summer cruises, upon which the midshipmen learned seamanship. The details of the summer cruises provided several dramatic moments in my story.
Finally, because my timeline included the Civil War, I was greatly appreciated Charles’s discussion of the arguments among the midshipmen over slavery. This is the most important historical issue I hoped to bring forward in my novel. Everyone in American knows about the Civil War. But because of some of the poorly researched or outright misleading books and movies, many young people have been confused and ill-informed about what really ignited that terrible conflict that took the lives of 600,000 of our citizens.
During his research journey, Charles uncovered first person letters and narratives that revealed the agony each young man went through in deciding what he would do once war was imminent. I incorporated his accounts into my story. For instance, he wrote a short passage in The Spirited Years describing the departure of southern midshipmen and the heartbreak it caused among close friends. Next time, I’ll post my rendering of that same scene using my fictional characters, two southerners and two northerners.
After finding The Spirited Years, I contacted Charles and we became friends. He served as my advisor and approved the final manuscript. Because of his help, it’s a project I’m very proud of.
Here’s the story:
Timothy Jacobs, a handsome midshipman at the U. S. Naval Academy, is determined not to sail the disastrous course that destroyed his infamous father, Captain Ahab. Certain of his own goodness compared to the man he both hates and admires, Timothy feels his good works are salvation enough. But after he is wounded during a Civil War sea battle, his all-consuming rage at God launches him on a bitter journey all too reminiscent of the father he vowed not to be like. (At right is the Monongahela, the ship Timothy served on during the Civil War.) Will Timothy learn the lessons his father ignored? Will childhood sweetheart Jemima show him the account of his father’s ill-fated voyage in time? Can Timothy accept that both he and his father have misunderstood the merciful, loving nature of God? Don’t miss this stunning conclusion to the Ahab’s Legacy Series, which began with Ahab’s Bride. “Louise M. Gouge has once again combined history, romance, and adventure to create a story as grand in sweep as the distance from the bottom of the sea to heaven on high.” Charles M. Todorich, Author the The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy
If you’ve missed any steps on this journey, please check this list of all my posts on Ahab’s Bride.