04 January 2024

And Down the Rabbit Hole We Go!

Happy New Year!

Another holiday season rapidly retreating in the rearview mirror, and here I am, penning yet another initial blog post of the new year. After reading far too many "Writing Goals For The New Year" blog posts (some of them the ghosts of my own work in seasons past), I've decided to buck the "This is what I plan to accomplish this year" trend amongst early 2024 writing blog posts, and instead talk about what I've been doing as background for my current work-in-progress.

(By the way, this will be the first of two posts: this one is mostly set up and background.)

So... research!

Why does it have to be soooooooo fun??????

Ask any writer about research, and unless they make up every single "factual" aspect of their writing (looking at you, spec fictioneers!), they'll have at least one anecdote about how they were researching something, which led them to another topic, and another topic, and another, and another.... you know, human nature.

Back in the beforetimes, when there was no internet (soooooo the Dark Ages), I can recall as a boy reaching for one of of the volumes of one of my family's prized possessions: a set of encyclopedias (in my family's case our chosen beacon of knowledge came courtesy of World Book), looking up something, reading the short informational article on it, and then seeing something else interesting further down the page. And when the Internet happened, it was only a matter of time before the live linked articles at open source knowledge depots such as Wikipedia began to facilitate the replication of such behavior.

Talk about your colossal timesuck!

As I said, human nature, right?

Add in the complication of a deadline, and here we are: the eternal writer's dilemma; how far down the
rabbit hole ought one to stray? That one takes some rigorous and honest cost-benefit analysis.

Let's take my current journey down the primrose-bunny-path-hole:

My protagonist's backstory includes a deceased naval hero father who served during the Barbary Wars (1801-1815): that series of naval actions the fledgeling United States undertook against state-run piratical enterprises run out of a number of cities in North Africa. Put bluntly, it became too expensive to continue to pay protection racket money to the rulers of cities such as Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Cheaper to build a navy (which American political leaders such as Jefferson and Madison were nervous about giving too much power to) and go flatten some palaces.

The Burning of the Philadelphia by Edward Moran

(This conflict is where the Marine Corps Hymn got the inspiration for half of the immortal opening line: "From the Halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli," by the way.)

So over the course of collecting the names of as many participants in these actions as possible ("Presley O'Bannon," "Willian Eaton," "Stephen Decatur," "Richard Somers," "Edward Preble," "William Bainbridge," etc.), I came across the name of one James Leander Cathcart.

A quick thumbnail: Cathcart was born in  Ireland in 1768, sent to the American colonies to be raised by a sea captain uncle, Cathcart went to sea early, and in 1785 was taken captive by Algerian pirates while serving on a merchant brig, the Maria, out of Boston.

As with so many captives whose families didn't pony up ransom payments, Cathcart was initially put to work doing slave labor on construction projects in and around the port. Through a combination of good luck and pluck on his part, he was able to parlay a stint as a garden in the palace of the dey (ruler) into a change of his status. Over the succeeding eleven years, Cathcart managed to work his way up to working as dey's secretary responsible for translating and leading ransom negotiations with the diplomats of "Christian" nations looking to conduct business in the Mediterranean unmolested by such pesky inconveniences as Algerine raiders.

In 1796 Cathcart was tapped to negotiate his own release in addition to that of his surviving colleagues from the Maria. Once a treaty had been drafted, the dey sent Cathcart to the United States to deliver it. It is a measure of Cathcart's success as a "slave" of the dey that he actually owned the ship in which he traveled to Washington, D.C.- bought with the profits Cathcart had raked in thanks to the contacts he made while in the dey's service.

Once freed Cathcart married the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family, began having children (the couple eventually had twelve), and embarked on a career as a diplomat, filling minor posts in places such as Madeira (where one of his sons, a future U.S. Senator from Indiana, was born).

Oh, and he kept a journal of his time as an Algerine slave.

Perhaps I ought to have mentioned that sooner?

Sailor, Slave, Businessman, Diplomat....Memoirist?

Tune in next time and we will dig beyond the thumbnail, and reap the barely dreamed of benefits of running down this line of inquiry!

See you in two weeks!


  1. Replies
    1. Hey R.T. - yes! Just wait for the second installment!

  2. Ah, yes, World Book Encyclopedia - I had a set of those, too. And Cathcart sounds FASCINATING! Almost as good as Charles Elliot ;)

    1. Definitely interesting, and a complex fellow. Not sure he’s in Elliot’s league, though! Few are.

  3. Looks like Cathcart didn't miss too many meals whilst slaving away. Looking forward to part 2.


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