Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Fearlessly Coloring Outside the Lines by Martha Reed

People wonder why I chose New Orleans as the setting for Love Power, my Crescent City NOLA Mystery. There were a few reasons. One, I had conceived of my Nantucket Mystery series as a trilogy, and No Rest for the Wicked, book 3 was done. As I cast around for a new setting, something eye-catching and fresh, I knew I needed a location where my characters could run into solid problems. Conflict is a great and sustaining plot device.

Originally, I considered using Las Vegas. Then I visited multi-cultural New Orleans with its historic French Quarter setting, superlative food, outrageous Mardi Gras traditions, its voodoo, and its vampires. Here was a place where my characters could get into serious trouble. Beckoning me in, NOLA stole my heart.

Next, with a new series comes the need to develop new characters. In 2014, I attended Bouchercon, the huge annual crime fiction author and fan convention. That year it convened in Long Beach, CA. One of the conference panels really got my goat because as I recall it featured 40 pretty much all White male authors. I recall sitting in my chair thinking, “This ain’t right.” As I walked outside into the plaza, I ran into a friend, and I mentioned how much that obvious lack of diversity bothered me because no women authors were represented. My friend, who is gay, said, “Tell me about it.” Then she paused and issued a challenge: “You write traditional mysteries. How many of your characters are LGBTQ?”

She was right.

On the flight home, I pondered the legitimacy of a CIS writer developing LGBTQ+ characters. Was I appropriating part of a community I didn’t actively belong to? I already wrote male and ethnic characters. Was there a difference? As I de-planed, I decided that I had a duty as a writer to fearlessly explore all aspects of our common humanity as long as I wrote my stories with compassion, insight, understanding, and respect.

Gigi Pascoe, my transgender sleuth was born.

Ramona DeFelice Long, my editor, said if you’re going to do something make sure you do it right. I dug into the new idea with enthusiasm. I researched New Orleans history. I memorized St. Louis cemetery grid maps. I peppered my LGBTQ+ friends with questions to ensure that I fairly and accurately reflected their community. I organized a girl’s trip weekend that mystified my friends (who really should know better) when we explored NOLA neighborhoods instead of sampling the pleasures lining Bourbon Street.

Love Power was published in October 2020. In 2021, it became a Killer Nashville Best Mystery finalist, and it won a Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Best Attending Author award.

The proof is in the pudding. I nervously waited to see what mystery readers thought about my transgender sleuth. Would they accept a diverse LGBTQ+ character so fearlessly drawn outside the traditional detective, PI, or sleuthing character outlines?

I should’ve kept the faith and given the crime fiction community more credit. Critics and readers welcomed Gigi Pascoe with accolades, open arms, and five-star reviews.

Why did I ever doubt it? Historically, PI and sleuth characters are naturally born outsiders. Sherlock Holmes was a loner. Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot as a Belgian refugee. Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah’s private detective, was blind. Nero Wolfe rarely left his townhouse.

The diversity and inclusion questions that interest me now are why are there so few historically disenfranchised or disabled women detectives, private investigators, or sleuths? Was it because being seen as female was already perceived as enough of a disadvantage? And in our modern era, has that perception effectively changed?


  1. I suspect the answer about the lack of disabled women detectives has to do with readers' interests as much as anything. Many readers of mysteries want to escape -- to a life they do not have and that is bigger than their own. And by bigger, readers mostly define it usin societies current standards. When aneorexic models and actresses, Barbie dolls, and such are society's models for women, having a somewhat plump heronine in Murder She Wrote was going out on a limb.

    Large parts of society have become more inclusive and learned a larger view of lives lived bigger than their own (with the inevitable pushback of those who think by giving others equal rights we take away from their "superior" rights). That societal change enlarging peoples' perspectives of lives well lived provides a lot more space for all kinds of characters, heroines and villains.

    I'm so happy for you that your characters have found an audience.

  2. Hi Jim - I agree that including more diverse characters expands the story space, and the need for accurate research, which I love doing anyway.

    I wonder where the lack of diversity enters into the mix. Are writers missing the boat when we construct our crime fiction cast of characters? Are publishers hesitant to take on a manuscript that includes a character drawn outside the standard societal lines?

    I just read "The Twelfth Card" from Jeffery Deaver's best selling Lincoln Rhyme series. Rhyme is a quadriplegic ex-homicide detective, and readers give the series rave reviews. It is puzzling.

  3. Excellent and thoughtful blog, Martha. It's a difficult question to answer, and there is no one answer.

  4. I had - should say have - a concept for a story with a female police detective turned PI who has Multiple Sclerosis. It rattles around in the back of my brain, but deadlines have kept me from really paying it any attention.

    Here's the other thing: I have MS. I live MS every day. When I sit down to write fiction, I don't want to live MS. My characters give me a chance to do things I physically can't do. And I like that.

    On the other hand, I'm sick of fiction that represents people with MS as nearly incapacitated. This isn't the 80s. People with MS are living very full and active lives.

    So yeah, it's a conundrum.

  5. Thanks, Kait. I've been pondering this question for three days and there's still plenty more about it to explore. Do we as writers have a duty to develop these types of characters? I think back to heroines like Jane Eyre who had to overcome societal prejudices. Is this a modern extension of the same thing? Hummm.

  6. Hi Liz - You make some great points. While I would love reading a mystery involving this new possible PI, I also get that fiction lets us explore an alternate world, and it can help us escape the challenges and pressures of the current real one (for a bit). I know you're super busy writing your multiple series, but please let me know if you ever propose this idea and what the response is!

  7. Congratulations on not only recognizing a limitation in current fiction, but taking steps to remedy it.

    We do have to be concerned, however, with the contingent of critics/readers who maintain that an author cannot write convincingly of a character who is different (gender, gender orientation, race, background, etc.) if it is not a reflection of what the author has personally experienced.

    What a sad presentation of new works if authors can't use their imaginations (and research) and have to only write about people like them.

    It'd be pretty boring.

  8. Think of all the great stories that would never have been written if the writers had been constrained from using their unlimited imagination to build a new and dare I say it a better world? How else can we imagine our human future?