I’ve done some awful things to Rachel Goddard over the course of six novels.
She’s been hypnotized and brainwashed, shot and shot at, held at gunpoint several times, tied up, locked in a cupboard, and beaten. She’s crawled deep into a low, narrow cave, and she’s barely escaped with her life from a house filled with gas.
Some writers think of their characters as their children, but if Rachel were my daughter, would I let those things happen to her? Absolutely not.
I think of Rachel as a friend. But do I want a friend to endure such horrors? Well… If she’d let me write about it afterward, maybe so. And that’s the arrangement Rachel and I have. She gets to have experiences I would never dream of exposing myself to, and I get to write about them.
Readers often ask authors how much they have in common with their characters and whether their fictional people are idealized versions of themselves. I do share a few things with Rachel — a love of animals, a hatred of injustice, intolerance of anyone who harms the weak and helpless — but she’s younger, much better looking, and smarter than I am. She has a lot more courage than I do and less fear of the consequences when she jumps into a sticky situation. Rachel isn’t me, not even an idealized version. She’s her own person, and has become a more distinct individual with every book.
When I started writing about her in The Heat of the Moon, Rachel was a frightened young woman who didn’t understand her own emotions and memories, didn’t know the truth about her family, didn’t know who she could trust. She gained strength by fighting for the right to make her own choices and follow her own path. I’ve watched her become a confident, bold woman who knows what she wants out of life and can’t be intimidated.
Writers are constantly told — by editors and agents, by writing instructors, by critics — that our protagonists must “grow and change” if we want our books to be satisfying. Of course, we can all point to hugely successful characters who stay exactly the same from book to book, but on the whole that advice is sound. If we want our characters to become real people on the page, we have to let them progress in a normal way and allow their lives to change as everyone’s life does. For me, that has been the greatest pleasure of writing a series: putting Rachel through a new ordeal in each book and seeing her come out stronger and more mature at the end. I left her suspended in a terrible place at the end of the first book, and although I didn’t originally intend The Heat of the Moon to be the start of a series, I’m glad I’ve been able to continue writing about Rachel and have seen her achieve some of the happiness and peace she deserves.
The girl in The Heat of the Moon could never have stood up to greedy developers the way the woman in Poisoned Ground does. Years have passed, a lot has happened, and there’s a world of difference between the Rachel I began writing about and the Rachel who lives in the pages of my latest book.
She has become more than my creation, more than my “child” or my friend. She has become my heroine, in every sense of the word.
If you’d like to see what she’s up to in the new book, leave a comment and you’ll have a chance to win a signed hardcover of Poisoned Ground. Giveaway for U.S. Residents only.
Sandra Parshall won an Agatha Award for her first Rachel Goddard novel, The Heat of the Moon. The sixth book in the series, Poisoned Ground, comes out March 4 from Poisoned Pen Press. Sandra is a past member of the national board of Sisters in Crime and remains active in the organization. An avid animal lover and amateur photographer, she lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two cats.
Sandra, thanks so much for being my guest today. I hope you come back and visit us often.