The protagonist or hero of a story is one of the most important elements a fiction author must deal with, one that deserves a great deal of forethought and consideration.
When I set out to write my first mystery, AT RISK, on July 22, 1996 (yes, I actually remember the date) I already had the opening scene in mind. What I needed was a character to tell the story. A hero.
First off, I decided that my hero would be a guy, in part, because I like guys and, secondly, because much of the fiction that I’d been reading featured male protagonists. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and George Bagby, and later, I fell in love with Dick Francis’s equine novels. And my perception at the time, flawed as it may have been, was that guys had a lot more freedom, took more chances, and were more exciting than . . . well, me.
Then there was the fact that I wanted a lot of freedom writing this character. I didn’t want him to resemble me too closely because I suspected I might feel inhibited if I thought the reader was thinking: this is who the author is.
So, I took a chance, bucked the tradition of women writing female protagonists, and developed barn manager and amateur sleuth Steve Cline. Without realizing it, I bucked another tradition by writing a very young protagonist at a time when older sleuths were the norm. His youth (he’s 21 in AT RISK) was actually trickier than nailing the guy thing.
While I was working through the first drafts of AT RISK and the opening chapters of DEAD MAN’S TOUCH, I took two writing courses offered by Writers’ Digest magazine’s Novel Writing Workshop. Both times, I requested a male instructor and was lucky to be paired with Steven Havill and William G. Tapply. Havill writes a police procedural series set in New Mexico, featuring Undersheriff Bill Gastner, and Tapply’s series features Boston estate attorney Brady Coyne. Both men, along with my husband, were a tremendous help and quick to point out when I got it wrong!
So, who is Steve? To make him more complex and interesting and real for the reader, I gave him personal issues to deal with along with the story problem. He grew up in a wealthy but emotionally distant family with two older siblings. He attended a private school and spent many of his summers “at camp” because his parents were too busy to parent. Despite the excessive wealth, his relationship with them was damaging, and eventually Steve becomes estranged from them when he leaves college to work in the horse industry. Many of the choices he makes, including his penchant for risk-taking, are linked to his strained relationship with his father and a subconscious need to prove himself.
Steve has been so much fun to write. He’s young, reckless, flawed, but also principled. At times, he seems real.
Speaking about real, many of the horses I’ve known and loved, or have just worked with, have found themselves in the pages of my books. A troubled horse in AT RISK, Cut to the Chase, a.k.a. Chase, is modeled after a horse who used to be boarded at a hunter/jumper farm where I worked. The real Chase, whose official name escapes me, was an open jumper: a huge seventeen hand, coppery chestnut gelding with a lot of white on his legs. The barn crew used to affectionately call him “Jaws” because he loved to nip his handlers. What fascinated me about the real Chase was the fact that, though ornery when handled from the ground, he was a sweetheart under saddle. He was a gorgeous, fluid mover and a truly gifted jumper.
What has surprised me most about my fictional horses is the way they magically come to life, seemingly on their own. One of my favorites is Russian Roulette. He’s a character in DEAD MAN’S TOUCH and TRIPLE CROSS.
I didn’t intentionally model him after any horse from my past, but he came to life nonetheless. Here’s a brief excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS when Steve is getting ready to go talk to the police and wondering whether he'll be free to leave once he meets them:
I gathered my trash together, left it sitting on the tack trunk, and walked over to Ruskie’s stall. He poked his head over the stall guard before curling his neck around to nuzzle my waist. I hooked my arm across his neck and smoothed my hand down his face. Resting my forehead against his mane, I breathed deeply, inhaling the indescribable blended odors: his skin, his sleek chestnut coat, the sweet smell of his breath, all combined with the mix of straw and hay, and I was reminded of the generations of horses who had passed through this barn. Derby runners, most of them.
Ruskie was uncharacteristically still, and I wondered if he sensed the tension fizzing in my nerves and pressing against my skull like a bad headache.
I had no guarantee I’d be here tomorrow. None at all.
He lipped the thin belt keeper at my waist, then smoothed his muscular lips along my belt. Knowing that a nip was likely next on his agenda, I straightened.
I stopped at Storm’s stall and patted him, told him to be a good boy, and when I turned around, Jay said, “What? No hug for me?”
I grinned and told him to wish me luck.
Here are a couple photos of the actual Derby Barn at Churchill Downs that I took while researching TRIPLE CROSS:
This is the Derby Barn. Note the press. They are everywhere.
“The horse: friendship without envy, beauty without vanity, nobility without conceit, a willing partner, yet, no slave.” ~ Anon