Monday, September 24, 2012

Mystery on Monday - Guest Sandra Parshall on Author & Protagonist

It's a pleasure to welcome author Sandra Parshall today. Readers often wonder how much of the author is in our characters. Here are Sandra's thoughts on the subject, and on her series protagonist Rachel Goddard. ~ Sheila
Rachel Goddard and I have been together for years, but I still have trouble persuading her to do what I think is best. Her significant other, Deputy Tom Bridger, has the same problem, so I’m not alone. Both of us have a strong tendency to shelter her and keep her on safe ground rather than pushing her headlong into danger. But that doesn’t lead to exciting books.

Over the course of five novels – and the sixth, in progress now – Rachel has given me an ongoing lesson in letting go, stepping back and allowing characters to do what they think is right.

Rachel isn’t me. We share a love of animals and the drive to protect them from harm, but she has a self-sacrificing boldness that I lack. She isn’t fearless, but she can push down her fear and act when necessary, in situations where I would turn and run as fast as I could. Tom warns her away from dangerous situations, but if something she cares about is at stake, she’ll get involved sooner or later.

I try not to let her come across as a too-stupid-to-live heroine who hears a frightening noise in the basement and, instead of calling the police, goes down to check it out with nothing but a flashlight (with a weak battery) in hand. Rachel would call the police and wait behind a locked door.

Sometimes, though, she has a rational reason to venture into possible danger. The peril isn’t always physical. In The Heat of the Moon, she waged a battle of wills against the most powerful and frightening person in her life, her mother. In Disturbing the Dead, she defied Holly Turner’s strange, menacing family, literally taking the girl away from them and shielding Holly when her relatives tried to get her back. In Broken Places, she almost faltered when she came up against a threat she didn’t think she could afford to fight, and she ended up in near-fatal peril because she didn’t recognize the danger until it was too late, but she won out because of her inner strength and intelligence. In Under the Dog Star, she again tried to save a child from an awful family, and at the same time mounted a feral dog rescue effort in defiance of armed locals who wanted to shoot the animals. Would I have crawled into that low, narrow cave to save a dog? Never. I would have made sure somebody did it, but it wouldn’t have been me. I had an attack of claustrophobia just from writing the scene.

I almost succeeded in keeping Rachel out of physical danger in Bleeding Through. After all, she endures a psychological crisis in this book, as her sister Michelle’s visit reopens old wounds. Isn’t that enough suffering for one novel? But I wasn’t letting Rachel be herself, particularly in the story’s climactic sequence. Rachel knew it, and so did my editor. I had to admit they were right: I was holding her back. When I turned her loose, she did what she had to do. Although I wrote the scene, I’m still shocked when I think of it. I haven’t reread it in the printed book yet.

I’m still waiting for a reader to tell me Rachel shouldn’t have done that. So far, all I’ve heard is affirmation of her action. I’m glad she lived through it. And I’m a little afraid of what she might do next.


Sandra Parshall writes the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries. The fifth in the series, Bleeding Through, came out earlier this month. To learn more about the author and her books, visit her website at She blogs on Wednesdays at Poe’s Deadly Daughters.


  1. I like Rachel as she is and Sandra has done a great job portraying her to the readers.

  2. Sandra, love the "too-stupid-to-live" comment. I'm sick of characters, female or male, who go right on in when they know something's terribly wrong, and who don't know what a light switch is for. Go Rachel - call for backup!

  3. Thanks for hosting me, Sheila.

    I'm also exasperated when characters do idiotic things just because the plot demands it, and I try hard to make Rachel's involvement in dangerous situations believable. Usually she's trying to protect someone else, as I said. I'll admit it's a real struggle with each book to find realistic ways to get her involved in the crime story.

  4. I think a successful writer that is 3-4 books into a series with a key character could also do well as a profiler.
    Sure, in the beginning we writers are feeling our way with our character as his/her personality fleshes out. I feel strongly it happens best when the writer is not tied to an outline. If, IMO, the writer really gets into the fledgling character's head, the character has to insist that the writer portrays situations in tune with the character's make-up.
    By the time the writer is several books into the series, that character has certainly become a very real 24/7 presence to the writer. I'll bet the writer often goes about his/her non-writing life thinking how the character would handle situations the writer is in the midst of.

    (Was that confusing or what!)

    Bottom line is, a writer that is a few books into a successful series could certainly could have a second career as a FBI Profiler.

    I'm completing the second book in my mystery series featuring a New England horse trainer, Ike Cherny, and Ike and his horses spend a lot of time with me. I even help him out with chores when he has a busy day!

  5. Having continuing characters affects plotting choices in a major way -- you have to consider each possible story in the light of your character's abilities and interests. You need a plot that will fit your characters. That's probably why so many series writers enjoy taking a break now and then to write a standalone, which doesn't have those restrictions.

    1. So true. Or as I like to ask myself in light of my new series - how many dead bodies can one photographer trip over?

    2. OTOH, sometimes we have to trust readers to suspend disbelief. :-) If everything else is believable, we might stretch the truth a little bit now and then. If we're really lucky, most readers won't know what the truth is in the first place.

  6. As mystery writers, I agree we need to be careful not to let our main characters plunge into situations that are dangerous without a viable reason. My Kim Reynolds mystery series features an academic librarian who does find herself in danger. But her nature is actually cautious. It's a balance we need to maintain.

  7. I like to think that we create our ongoing characters to resemble our better self--you know, the one that makes the right decisions quickly, the one that has snappy lines on the tip of her tongue, the one that has an essential moral compass. They're the people we want to be when we grow up.