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Special Guest Star

HMCS SackvilleIt’s been a quiet season for author notes, but with good reason. New projects are waiting in the wings (one of which I’ll be blathering about soon) but in the meantime, the regular schedule for Champions continues: Tuesday, July 29, will see the launch of Outports. And it’ll feature a special guest star.

One of the great privileges any writer enjoys is the ability to include real people in his or her fictional worlds. Obviously I’ve done this a lot –– Defense Command is riddled with the stolen souls of my friends, including everyone from Wes Pellew (I wonder who he is) to the irrepressible Schwartz T. Babcock. But for the most part, the inclusion of these characters has been to reduce my workload. Why dream up an unbelievably young and overachieving political operator when you happen to know a real one? Creative effort loses to intellectual laziness, every time.

But in Outports, we have a guest star who actually isn’t included because I’m lazy; she’s included because I’m a great admirer of hers –– you might say I have the ultimate May-December crush on her, since she’s well over 70 now –– and because I hope other people will take more notice of her. If you’re reading these author notes with any regularity, you’ll know who she is… but because it’s been a while, I’ll be plain: it’s HMCS Sackville.

HMCS SackvilleLast May, I was in Halifax at the invitation of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust –– the organization that maintains this country’s last remaining corvette –– and based on these tales, you can probably guess I had a good time. But as I was wandering around the ship before our infamous Battle of the Atlantic dinner, I was troubled by the fact that I was writing a series set in the 1940s, and yet had no way to include Sackville. Too many aspects of the alternate Champions timeline were (and are) different from our actual history, so there seemed no logical way for a vessel basically built as a wartime expedient (for a war that wasn’t even taking place) to exist.

But Champions (like His Majesty’s New World before it) is stacked with so many historical conceits that I had no excuse; a way needed to be found. And it was while I was standing alone on Sackville’s bridge for a couple of hours (I was very early for dinner) that the answer became obvious: Alex likes to swim in coastal waters. Sackville was conceived of to patrol coastal waters. They’re both undersized heroic ladies, both possess a poor sense of humor, both are apt to be underestimated by their bigger peers… but neither is willing to do less than her best. One is made of steel, the other of flesh, but both are stronger than their years suggest. They even dress the same –– blue and white coat and blouse, blue and white dazzle camouflage.

What better pair could be asked for? And where else would they meet, but at sea?

It was settled, but I had to wait over a year for schedules to work out, so I could finally get them together. Now it’s happening. The inclusion of a Flower-class corvette in Champions might be my biggest historical conceit yet, but if the naval historians I studied under have a problem with it… well, honestly, they probably won’t. Either way, Alex and Sackville are totally swimming together.

And as we’ll see in Outports, their collaboration does grant a fine opportunity to explore some of the realities of the 1940s Royal Canadian Navy. I don’t believe it’s widely known, but the Second World War RCN became the Allies’ third-largest fleet (behind just the Royal Navy and the United States Navy). From a handful of destroyers at the start of the war, Canada’s armada grew at a blinding rate, so that the convoys keeping Britain alive could be defended against German U-boats. This rapid expansion meant that many of the crews on those ships were (to put it mildly) short on experience, young, and prone to improvisation, and when you read the official histories you realize how unbelievable some of their deeds had to be.

Boys who were often too young to serve, some of whom had never seen the sea, were thrown into a desperate war in the worst sort of conditions, but they proceeded to do what we all hope we’d do in their place: they found ways to win. It got ugly, and crazy, and I’ll share some of the particular tales in a note after Outports is released, but suffice to say that Sackville and Alex will show us the tiniest microcosm of the real Battle of the Atlantic, and the very young men who fought it.

The excerpt online today is mostly about those very young men, and about how ‘old’ Alex is feeling… plus how awkward she still seems, at least to herself. We also get to meet the Captain of HMCS Sackville, Commander Jim Reddy, who I promised a cameo in the story in exchange for navigation advice. If he reads this, I’ll probably never be able to show my face aboard the real ship again. But it’ll be worth it.

Outports launches on Tuesday, July 29; for now, click here to see how it goes when our whitecoat, and our white ship, meet up in the fog.