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Cynthia Baxter | The Importance of Creating a Compelling Main Character

November 6, 2008

What goes into writing a good mystery? While it’s critical to have a compelling plot filled with twists and turns, I’ve always believed that the book’s heroine – and the development of her “real life” – was at least as important.

When I started writing the Reigning Cats & Dogs mystery series, I wanted the focus to be my protagonist, Jessica Popper. Jessie is a veterinarian with a mobile services unit, essentially a clinic on wheels. I chose to make her practice mobile instead of based in a regular office because she needed an excuse to go out into the community every day, talking to suspects and ferreting out clues. But since I love to incorporate humor in all my books, I wanted her to be sassy, independent, and strong-headed, as well as someone who was battling a few demons. The main one is her conflict over commitment, which provides the ups and downs she experiences with her boyfriend Nick. (I tried to model their relationship after the sparkling repartee in those wonderful old Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy flicks – or one of my favorite movies of all times, It Happened One Night.)

The Reigning Cats & Dogs series was already moving along nicely when I came up with an idea for a second series, one that featured a travel writer. I’ve done some travel writing, and it occurred to me that it would be fun to set each book in a different location as my heroine researched a new spot for a magazine article. But as I started to write the Murder Packs a Suitcase mystery series, I wanted to create a heroine who was completely different from Jessie Popper. So I made Mallory Marlowe a little older, as well as less secure in her career and herself. Perhaps even more importantly, I made her central conflict the exact opposite of Jessie’s. While Jessie struggles with her fears of getting into a committed relationship, Mallory is dealing with the loss of hers, the result of her husband’s sudden death. And while the members of Jessie’s family all have four feet (one has wings), Mallory has two almost-adult children. That gives her a support system that Jessie doesn’t have – and isn’t sure she wants.

It’s been a challenge, alternating between the two series and having to go back and forth, getting into the head of each of my two heroines. Writing about two such different women requires a totally different mindset. I “hear” them in my head and I “see” them in various situations – and the experience is strangely different. Thank goodness that in the end, both Jessie and Mallory have the same goal: discovering “whodunnit!”

Cynthia Baxter

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