Monday, September 17, 2012

How I Cured My Ailing Main Character

Donna Huston Murray, author of Cured, offers us another post today, reposted from her web site at

The ride from Philadelphia to Ithaca, NY, feels especially long in bad weather. I spent the time with a yellow tablet in my lap playing with names for a Pennsylvania farmer’s daughter who would become a cop. As the main character of my new suspense series, I might need to live with the name for years to come—if I should be so lucky. Before my husband and I arrived at the Thomas Farm B&B, the birth certificate read, “Lauren Beck.” Who she was remained to be seen.

For November games Hench usually spirits me up to the press box where he does radio for the University of Pennsylvania football. That day, rather than cramming into the booth with the guys, I was invited into Cornell’s adjacent VIP lounge. There I laid about as low as an antelope in a lion den until I heard a woman talking about a recipe for pumpkin-pecan pie. With Thanksgiving coming I couldn’t resist. As usual, the recipe did me no good whatsoever–unless you count meeting the prototype for my new alter-ego.

After being cured of an illness that had her in and out of an iron lung for several years, Carol Brentlinger gave sky-diving a go–about forty-three times. She fed sharks underwater, and, as a colonel in the Commemorative Air Force, flew retired WWI bombers for fun. Her bravery awed me. What a fabulous heroine she would be!

Sadly, my then agent disagreed, and sadly she was more right than wrong. Readers ride on a character’s emotional coattails. Since Lauren Version One feared nothing, the tension I was working so hard to inject into CURED went unnoticed. I didn’t have a suspense novel, I had a grocery list.

For longer than I care to admit, I struggled to change Lauren’s personality, nearly reverse it, morph her into more of a wimp like me. For my seven previous novels the main character was me, and that had worked. However, I cannot carry a gun or bring off a swear word convincingly. I’ve seen the faces.

An author’s goal, among other things, is to sound like yourself. Finding my voice the first time took several years; but when I did, it was like receiving a lifetime railway pass. I could climb on the Ginger Barnes Main Line Mystery train and write without concern for the physicality of getting from here to there. Or, put another way, it was like touch-typing. Try changing that. Not easy.

Lauren was now both insecure and strong. She sounded like Carol Brentlinger one minute and Ginger Barnes the next. I stopped, wrote another book, then returned. What was happening to Lauren was also happening to me. We were emerging from difficulties together, feeling vulnerable but able to gather enough confidence to bypass the New York publishers and declare our independence. And yet the verbal merge remained incomplete. My daughter, who happens to teach creative writing, recommended that Lauren and I sit down with a glass of wine.

“Who are you?” I asked over my share of merlot, and finally–finally–Lauren told me.

Donna Huston Murray


  1. I found many aspects of your post here of great interest. On the topic of sounding like yourself, however, I seem to be on the opposite side, though I respect your ideas. My initial novels featured a female psychotherapist, a very integrated nice person, who managed to come across as a well-adjusted person. I knew I was being myself, as I am generally a fairly nice person. A former career consultant and teacher, it was easy to switch professions. But - it never worked. She was swallowed up by the male characters, especially the villains! So, now my protagonist is a man who was a Navy commander, then a CIA agent, now running his own security business. He works! My agent and writing partners think so! Funny thing is, I am a very feminine, ladylike person! Not at all masculine! But I csn get into his psyche and run with it! Well, I figure, when I'm in a good mood, if Baroness James and Dame Agatha can do it, why not little ole moi? Look forward to reading your book. Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  2. What's interesting is how all of us do it differently and that so many find a way that works. I am starting my fourth novel, and I am still quite fearful of analyzing the process, afraid I'll prick the balloon and it will be gone. I do love it when my characters start doing things I didn't know they were going to do. It comforts me to think they are so real to me that they can move on their own. Maybe then readers will take them for real too.

  3. I agree that we writers all have to find our own path, which usually means catching onto our own barriers then learning to work around them. Not always easy, but worth it when you get to the other side.