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Erin Beaty’s debut young adult novel drew inspiration from a personal place: Beaty’s career in the Navy. Beaty served as a weapons officer and later as an instructor at the Center for Naval Leadership. Here, she shares how her experiences helped to shape The Traitor’s Kiss—a book about a girl who becomes a spy in order to win her freedom after being deemed unmarriageable by her family.

a traitor's kiss erin beatyI was probably about ten before I learned it was unconventional for a girl to like math and science. It didn’t make sense to me, though, because my mother was a microbiologist and computer programmer. And I was never afraid to be smart, either. My dad always said what attracted him to my mom most was her intelligence. “Never dumb yourself down for anyone,” he told my sister and me. “A man who can’t deal with a woman with a brain isn’t a man—he’s a boy.”

Little did I know how many man-children I would meet in my life.

The military is a male-dominated profession, but being female had no bearing on academics at the Naval Academy. Engineering equations hammered everyone equally, and their answers were right or they were wrong, which was probably why I liked them so much. Outside the classroom was a different story. The majority of guys didn’t try to keep women down, but just one is too many.

Things frequently became worse when we succeeded. Often it was assumed a woman was ranked highly to fill some quota, or—worse—as a result of currying favor. How that favor was rumored to have been achieved usually said more about the haters than the woman. I’m ashamed to say women weren’t immune from treating each other poorly, either.

It was better in the fleet (at least for me), where professional competence was easier to quantify. I was my chief’s first and only female gun officer, but once I proved I could shoot straight and work hard, I was okay in his book. My superiors judged me by how little extra work I created for them, and I preferred both measures of performance. I was a naval officer, and I could do my job well; that I sat down to pee should have been irrelevant.

To many of my peers, however, it was easier to believe my gender was the only reason I was ranked number one, rather than accept they’d been beaten by a woman. I hate to admit it, but even years later I wonder if there was an element of truth in their accusations. That’s what sexism does: It not only prevents women from advancing, it strips their achievements of legitimacy.

I want to be accepted and judged on my abilities, not my body parts. While the world is fantasy, if you strip my novel, The Traitor’s Kiss, down to its core, the message is that we should value ourselves and each other for what we are inside. It’s a sad reflection on our society when that idea is considered “feminist.”

In creating characters who would emulate this notion, I started with a young woman who shared my desire in how she wanted to be treated. I gave Sage parents who treasured each other on deep levels and set a high standard for her in matters of love. Then I trapped her in a situation where she could have none of those things but opened a crack she could exploit. It was up to her to do the work, though, as it’s up to young women today to take control of their own happiness.

The playing field may be tilted, but that doesn’t mean you can’t win.

When it came to love, Sage needed someone who was attracted first and foremost to her sharp mind, so I created a soldier who was used to judging people on merit. While he might have had some insecurities about whether he deserved his own success and whether he could meet the challenges he faced (don’t we all), her abilities never threatened him. In fact, her wit, compassion, and courage brought him to life in ways he didn’t expect.

If young adults finish my book feeling it’s cool to be smart and that’s the kind of romance they want for themselves, then that’s something I can be proud of.

Erin Beaty was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, which means she can’t drive a tractor, but she won’t eat veggies that come from a can. She graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in rocket science and served in the fleet as a weapons officer and a leadership instructor. She and her husband have five children, two cats, and a vegetable garden and live wherever the Navy tells them to go.