My Protagonist And Me

Triss SteinTriss Stein is a small–town girl from New York state’s dairy country who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn, her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home.

Where do they come from, those characters who populate our books?  Many authors say all of them have bits of the author’s own self. Others say they are entirely from the imagination and, because writers imagine things, they can write characters who differ from themselves by gender, ethnicity, age, occupation and of course, historical era, too. (That loaded topic could be a whole other blog. Or book)

Sometimes there is a paradox when an author denies vehemently that a fictional character or story is in any way based on his own life. This usually happens when it is obvious that the story is his life, yet he is shocked –  shocked, I say! – that anyone would think so.  And sometimes they just show up.  A character opens a door, and there she is, fully ready to take the stage.

When I tried to write my first mystery, and set it in my Brooklyn neighborhood and the life around me, I could not make it work. The protagonist came out being me and I was not able to imagine a story about that.

I solved that problem by writing a book set somewhere else and having a main character who wasn’t me at all. She was a single, childless, worldly journalist, my exact opposite. She was my road not taken, the person I dreamed about becoming when I was much younger. Eventually I knew I had not thought about her nearly enough. Plus, I didn’t actually know much about working at a newspaper and I was running out of excuses to keep her out of the office!

For my new book, Brooklyn Bones, first in a new series, I wanted a character who was not me but had a more complicated, richer life than that first heroine. She needed to be younger than me, so she would be dealing with the complications of building her life. (Now she’s a lot younger, as it took a long time to get it right. She hasn’t aged a bit but I sure have.)  I wanted her to be a native, old time Brooklynite (not me) but with extra perspective (me, a little bit).  Her current life, in a gentrifying part of town and a Ph. D program in urban history, is a long way from the blue collar Brooklyn Bonesneighborhood where she grew up. (Aha! A source of conflict, which all mysteries need.)  I added a little – no, a lot! – more conflict by giving her a teen-aged daughter.  (Nope, I didn’t have them when I started the book. Mine were all grown up, another way I have perspective she doesn’t.) Her life has not given her much sophistication but it has given her a lot of what used to be called moxie. (Do I have that? Not really.) She is a single mom, whose young husband died in an accident. (I’ve been married a lot of decades.)

And yet. Because  I wanted to write about being a mother, she is one. Because I wanted to write about Brooklyn’s varied, fascinating and often mythologized past,  she is a historian whose work takes her into some dark stories, both old and new. So though she is not me, in some ways she is me.

There was one more thing I needed. I could make long lists of all the protagonist qualities that would help to tell my stories, but the book didn’t start until I heard her voice. My stories need a narrator. Meet Erica Donato.

 “It began with a sobbing phone call from my daughter, the kind of call every parent dreads.  All I made out  was that something terrible had happened; she was terrified, she would never get over it and it was all my fault. Chris is fifteen. Pretty much everything  is all my fault. “

When I wrote those words, I  knew I had my heroine.  She’s not the person I am, and not the person I once wanted to be but she is a person I would like to know.