Friday, December 3, 2010

Dangerous Women

By Donis Casey

Originally posted October 30, 2010

As I was beginning to write Hornswoggled, the second of my five Alafair Tucker novels, a well-known author said to me, “You’re on the merry-go-round, now.”

How right she was. The writing life goes in a circle, especially for a series novelist. The excitement of an idea ... the pain and horror and ecstasy of the actual writing ... the amazement when you finish the MS and realize that you’ve got something ... the terror of sending it off to the editor or agent ... the anxiety of the rewrite ... the relief of acceptance ... the joy of first holding the physical copy in your hand ... the drudgery of promotion ... the irony and resignation of the royalty check (for most of us). The excitement of an idea ...

When I write, I’m not thinking of the book’s “theme.” I am thinking about character and motivation. Somewhere in the middle of the process it sometimes occurs to me that a theme is emerging, and when the book is done, I’m often surprised to realize that the story in that particular book is about something more than the mystery.

I tend to think more of my entire series as having a theme. This series is different from any writing I have ever done before, in that it’s about a woman who leads a traditional life. All the books and stories that I had written before the Alafair Tucker mysteries had to do with unmarried, childless, professional women, often scientists, always intellectuals, mostly messed up and unhappy.

After all, I came of age in the ‘60s, and like most people, my values were formed in my youth. I was very into the revolution.

Toni Morrison said that her father told her, “Once you know a man’s race, you know nothing about him at all.” It’s the same with women. Once you know a person is a woman, you don’t know anything about her interests, needs, talents, abilities or desires. Not every woman is suited to motherhood and homemaking. Thank goodness we have choices now.

Once I got to a certain age – the one where you begin to realize that nothing is as black and white as you thought when you were young and knew everything – it began to dawn on me that perhaps by so totally rejecting the qualities that have always been associated with women, I was somehow buying into the idea that there was something inherently inferior about them. And that anything that appeals to or deals with women can’t be all that important.

But when I consider my foremothers, what they had to put up with and how smart they had to be to manage - were their lives and interests somehow less important than a man’s? I think not!

Still, when I chose to write about a wife and mother, I handicapped my chances for writerly fame and fortune. To quote Erica Jong, “Critics have trouble taking fiction by women seriously unless they represent some distant political struggle or chic ethnicity ... We may glibly say that love makes our globe spin, but battles make for blockbusters and Pulitzers.”

My series is an homage to a mindset in which love and family matter indeed. But don’t think for a minute that Alafair is weak or vulnerable. Her love for her family has teeth and claws – and makes her dangerous.

That’s a theme I find fascinating to write about.

Donis Casey is the author of the award-winning Alafair Tucker series, set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. The most recent title in the five-book series is Crying Blood (February 2011). Donis is a former teacher, academic librarian, and entrepreneur who currently lives in Tempe, AZ, with her husband, poet Donald Koozer.

Photo by Don Koozer.


Linda Leszczuk said...

Well said. Thank you. (Excuse the earlier deletion. My fingers aren't quite awake yet this morning.)

P.A.Brown said...

That's very true that it seemed to come down to you either choose a traditional role and be 'trapped' or reject it and be a success by living by men's 'rules'.

But in terms of fiction, how many male characters in mysteries are family men? How many are even married? The one's I can think of -- Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Robert Crais' Elvis and Pike, Lee Child's Reacher, are all single and when they do hook up with a woman it never goes well.

It used to be said you shouldn't even have relationships in mystery books. The original hard boiled ones like Chandler's had nothing but bad luck with 'dames' so is it really any different when readers want dysfunctional relationships in their favorite characters. Settling down and being happy at home removes some of the hard edge readers want in those books. (Now mind you, I only read the harder mysteries and thrillers, so I can't speak to the cozy or traditional mystery. But even Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple were single.

Ramona said...

Donis, as a reader, I seek a book's theme from page one. As a writer, and as you noted here, I understand that sometimes the theme doesn't reveal itself to the author until s/he is well into the writing. I find this an interesting phenomenon. I am someone who likes to focus as much on what the book is trying to say, as what's happening in the action.

That love and family matter indeed--what's a more serious or worthwhile theme than that one?

Ally said...

An interesting topic, especially because this relates to the topic of my analytical paper for my master's of fine arts this semester. Part of the problem of endowing your sleuth with hearth and home is that it removes a number of factors: freedom to move, responsibility to only oneself (we can all list our sacrifices because we have a family), and the antisocial, introverted, often aloof attitude that makes the sleuth famous. It also adds in cheap tropes of threats to children and spouses, etc. Saddling your hero with diaper duty makes it hard to see them as the hardboiled protag. Mind you, I've read a few that are the exception, specifically would be James Patterson's new series about a cop with 10 kids. Not a traditional sleuth, but that is one thriller that manages to combine the two diverse worlds and almost make them work. Though I'd argue, the premise is a bit hard to swallow.

One of my questions in this paper is how broken a character can be and still be relatable. Because our mystery heros are almost always damaged beyond repair, it is impossible to see them as whole enough to maintain a healthy family.

Anyway, there are my thoughts on it. Thanks for the mental exercise...:)

VR Barkowski said...

Despite the hype, we can't do it all, not men, not women. Anyone with ten children, male or female, has no business risking their life to "bring down a perp" unless the threat to their own family is immediate and imminent.

Moreover, for a character to risk his or her life for the sake of a job when s/he has a family waiting at home is irresponsible and selfish. Regardless of gender, this does not make for a compelling character. Men may have more opportunity to indulge self-absorbed behavior, that's debatable, but I'm not sure it's something female sleuths of any ilk should aspire to. Of course, I come from a family of cops, so my perception is probably skewed.

That any man or woman would be considered weak because their family matters to them is disheartening, indeed.


Donis, you raise a couple of interesting issues. Having "grown up" in the late 60s and early 70s, I found myself embracing a lot of our generation's perspectives while simultaneously clinging to those of my parents.

I wound up creating my own definition of what a woman can and should do: whatever she wants - the same as it is for men.

I also find myself focusing on the characters and their motivations. The theme is often not apparent, or something I need to work out. Based on the main character, however, it always comes through.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Donis Casey said...

Interesting that many of these comments are more or less proving my point - the perception is that a woman with a family (or man, either, VR) can't possibly make an effective or engaging sleuth. One of the great challenges of writing this series is figuring out logical ways for my protagonist to become involved in murder investigations, and discovering how she discovers the answers. I don't think my series is particularly cozy. There's a lot of humor involved in raising a bunch of kids, but the time and place I write about is hard, tough, and occasionally very dark.

Pen N. Hand said...

I'm going to chime in on the other side with some examples of a full family life that are read and enjoyed.
Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Roderick Alley and Ed McBain's Detective Steve Carella both had stable family relationships. McBain did give secondary characters up and down relationships.
J.A. Jance's Joanna Brady has a stable marriage after the violent death of her first husband.
Two other women writers who's main character have a good marriage are Marsh Muller and Susan Wittig Albert.
Nevada Barr's Anne Pigeon and her husband never seem to be in the same place at the same time so I don't know if she counts.