As I said last month, once I came up with the craft for my cozy mystery series, I had to think about my amateur sleuth. The sleuth in most cozies is usually a woman in her early-to-mid thirties, often newly arrived in town, and still single.
I’m a long way from my thirties, and I had concerns about my ability to convincingly write a character of that age. For one thing, I’m not familiar with cultural things—like favorite television shows, books, music, movies, and food—that someone of that age would enjoy. I’m reminded of that on almost a daily basis when I watch Jeopardy.
For another, mystery readers, like myself, are largely over fifty-five. If they’re like me, they enjoy reading about characters who are somewhat like them, only maybe a little more adventurous or with a more glamorous lifestyle or living in an exotic location.
Of course, an author has to avoid creating a Mary Sue character, which is all too tempting at times. I consciously thought about how Lilliana would not be like me. The most obvious is that she doesn’t think a whole lot about food. She’s one of those people who can forget to eat. I’ve never understood how that’s possible, but I’ve known one or two people like that.
She also enjoys getting up early in the morning to hike before the desert gets too warm. While in my younger days I did force myself to get up early and take a walk before work, these days I shudder at the whole idea of getting out of the house much before ten or eleven.
Being over sixty-five is an advantage to an amateur sleuth—she would have plenty of time to investigate murders. Most of the thirty-somethings own their own businesses, and for some reason are able to leave them in the hands of a capable assistant while they run all over town questioning suspects. My character would be retired, and like most retirees, have too much time on her hands.
With this idea in mind, I started reading senior sleuth mysteries to get an idea of what was popular and what had already been done. One thing that bothered me was the way older women were portrayed—forgetful and almost by dumb luck stumbling on the solution to the crime. They had to be funny and quirky. I blame this on Janet Evanovich for creating Grandma Mazur, a beloved character in her Stephanie Plum series.
I compared those characters to the older women I met at church and at the local meeting of the African Violet Society of America. They were not incompetent buffoons, but women with a lot of life experience, still living active and interesting lives. In Tucson, most of the docents at parks and museums are retired people. They’ve discovered a second occupation learning about something different and sharing that knowledge with visitors. In other words, in the real world, retired people were more like Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher than Grandma Mazur.
That was the kind of sleuth I wanted to create. So I made my character a retired librarian with a life-long interest in reading as well as her new hobby of raising African violets. Instead of not being married yet, she would be a widow with a daughter who had died young. This gave her similarities to those younger sleuths with few or no family ties and the opportunity to have a romantic interest at some point in the series.
But what would her name be?
I went to my go-to source for character names: the Social Security Administration, which has a database of popular names by birth year. Names go in and out of fashion, and I always want to make sure that a name is appropriate for the age of the character. Naming a seventy-year-old something like Brittany would probably jar a reader out of the story. I found Lillian on the list for when my character was born. It wasn’t the most popular name, but it was fairly high on the list. For some reason, I decided to add the ‘a’ on the end.
Lilliana immediately gave me more of her personality. She was probably of English heritage and maybe a little stuffy. Out of the blue, Wentworth came to me and sounded exactly right. (I have since discovered that there’s a Wentworth Road in Tucson which I’m sure I’ve driven by many times, which might be why that name emerged out of my subconscious.)
As I write the mysteries, I find out other little bits and pieces about Lilliana and my other characters. She’ll be talking to someone and mention a fact which is totally new to me. It’s one of the things that makes writing fun.