Writing a series: Balancing Act
My current WIP, Home is the Sailor, the fourth and possibly last novel in the Royal Navy series, is giving me my first serious deadline problem. There are lots of reasons, including the cumulative stresses from a major move and the seemingly interminable grind of getting my books back into print after the past year's game of musical publishers, but there's something else: I know that no matter what I do with this story arc, it's going to tick off some readers. But I'm equally certain that if I try to write what I think people expect (and there's always a good chance my guess is wrong), I'll be selling my characters short. I don't want to do that.
Will Marshall and David Archer have occupied most of my published work—Ransom, Winds of Change, Eye of the Storm, all novels, and two novellas—Castaway and See Paris and Die (in the latter they are major supporting characters). A few short stories are floating around, too, that will eventually be collected in the revised Sail Away, and another novella in the works that deals with the 'lost years' while they were shipmates but not yet lovers.
And when characters spend that much time floating around in one's head, they do begin to acquire a sort of reality. No, I don't hear them 'talk' to me; they don't have tantrums—they are fictional, after all—but I do have an obligation not to twist them out of shape. If you've documented an individual, human or otherwise—let's say a dog—and you have established that this dog is female, a German Shepherd/Chow cross, has a blocky Chow body but Shepherd coloring, is brave but stubborn, and loves smaller dogs but tends to be overly assertive with big ones, you can't write that same dog into a story and have it be a male Dalmatian and a complete coward who bullies little dogs. An established character has to act in a way that's consistent with his or her history.
When I wrote Ransom, I had a vague notion that David Archer would not spend his whole life in the Navy. He is a natural rebel at heart, and as a bullied younger son he has a tendency to sympathize with the underdog. This is a problematic attitude in a society that cherishes its hierarchy and believes that the best use of a nation's resources is to reinforce the status quo and keep those on top firmly in control, and the underdog in his place. It's a particularly difficult personality for a military officer tasked with enforcing those values. Davy can do the job, but he's come to the point where he's not willing to make the effort unless it means he can serve under Will, because as far as he's concerned Will is the only reason for remaining in the Navy.
Will has surprised me a bit. He's the sort of person who generally accepts 'the way it is' and adapts himself to the system. He doesn't reach out to others easily, either—he is so very shy in personal matters that he might have gone to his grave a virgin if circumstances had not pushed him and Davy together, and though he's recognized their love as a good thing despite social prohibition, he's far more uncertain emotionally. Will got a bad shock in Winds of Change, and he has never quite recovered—he may never recover completely. (He had a bit of a shock in Eye of the Storm, too, when he discovered that he could find someone besides Davy attractive!) But in Eye of the Storm, set during the year-long break in the Napoleonic Wars, they're ashore and trying to deal with the changes in their lives, and figure out a way that they can be together. If he couldn't serve with Will, Davy would leave the Navy altogether, and at some level Will would actually prefer to see that happen—not because he doesn't love Davy, but because he nearly lost him and is terrified that it could happen again. If it did, that would break him. And I don't want to take this series in that direction.
What I'm attempting to do in Home... is to let them find a solution to this, but they're seriously distracted by a family tragedy; the Home of the title is Grenbrook Manor, David Archer's family seat. When he brings Will back for a visit, they're immediately drawn into a problem that is going to change Davy's life forever. That will to have a major impact on Will's life, too, no matter what choices they make.
And I know that no matter how I resolve this story, there will be readers who want them to just go on sailing forever, and will be upset if I do anything else. On the other hand, I really want to give these characters a believable happy ending, and a quick look at the casualties among officers of His Majesty's Navy suggests that if I send them sailing off into the sunset—into another decade of battle—it's likely to be a pretty short trip.
So… I've just got to stay honest, stick with the story and hope to come up with a solution that will make Will, Davy, and the reader equally satisfied. Or content, at least; when they get a little time to themselves, the boys can manage the 'satisfaction' part well enough.
Copyright Lee Rowan, March 2010