A Session with Lynn Voedisch
When I sent out my first independent marketing memo for my fantasy adventure, Dateline: Atlantis, I used the phrase “female Indiana Jones.” Interest came roaring back. A movie company that had done some impressive films even offered a reading of the entire manuscript. Nothing panned out, because even though the book had an energetic, thrill-seeking heroine, the Indiana Jones comparison was a long stretch. The book is a fantasy, not a battle against Nazis.This novel also is about a mythical world. I think many Indiana Jones fans want something closer to reality than a book about a journalist who possibly finds the lost island of Atlantis.
However, when I joined forces with Fiction Studios Books, publisher Lou Aronica was eager to put the novel on the market, and it received plenty of good reviews. That’s because people are craving to see an adventure in which the lead female doesn’t spend all her time on romance, doesn’t rely on her male cohort do all the dangerous investigating, and definitely doesn’t break down and cry when the going gets tough. When I approached writing Dateline: Atlantis, I didn’t plan on structuring the book around an active female heroine, yet I never had one minute of doubt that a female character could carry an adventure this powerful. My character just showed up and off we went.
The book, as the title suggests, is about a reporter who writes a story about what could be the finding of Atlantis. I made sure that Amaryllis Lang, the protagonist, just happens into the mystery of lost Atlantis. She goes down to the Caribbean for a journalists’ junket and ends up moving away from the crowd, driving along the Quintana Roo coastline looking for a better place to dive. What she finds are remains of giant pyramids – pyramids that suddenly showed up after the shifting of sands in a recent hurricane. Now with all the debris cleared from the structures, Amaryllis finds unimaginable buildings. She and her photographer, Garrett Lucas, document the structures. Then there is a political uprising and several breakwaters are blown up, the ocean rolls back, and all she has left are pictures for proof.
When she returns to Los Angeles, where she is based at the fictional Los Angeles Star, her editor, the pushy Noel Wright, goes gangbusters wanting her to return to Mexico, find the pyramids, and win a Pulitzer Prize for the paper. But things aren’t quite so easy. First, her photographer is kidnapped. Then all his digital and film images are missing from his house. Then Amaryllis discovers her images have been taken, too. It’s up to her, and Wright, to find Lucas and then locate those pyramids.
Many people would quail at all the things Amaryllis must accomplish in this adventure. She discovers her parents were killed by the same people who stole the Star’s photos. She dives down to a submerged pyramid and discovers a gemstone in the center of the pyramid that brings on dreams that prove to be prophetic. She has an affair with her Mexican guide that turns into disaster. The agents who are trying to suppress her discovery of the Atlantean ruins initiate a plan to kill her. Ultimately, a man determined to keep Atlantis buried tries to murder her and another female adventurer underwater in a tense diving scene. But before that she also has time for a tension-charged romance with a former childhood friend.
Phew! But how do you make this protagonist a true female action character and not just Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dress?
There are several ways to keep a female heroine from seeming like just a stand-in for a male.
- Make sure she doesn’t resort to violence as her first choice of action or defense. Women are often better at talking themselves out of a situation. In the whole novel, Amaryllis never has a gun.
- Use feminine ways to get out of trouble that a man would never think of. Amaryllis saves herself from being kidnapped in a car by stomping hard with her high heel on the culprit’s instep, then unlatches the car and rolls out on the pavement.
- Get information by leaning on old friends (journalists in this case). Don’t bully or talk down to your informants. Try to make them feel part of the process.
- Don’t be afraid to toss in romance. I wasn’t sure how a story with a cold-case murder mystery and a modern-day murder, a diving discovery, a robbery, and a near-death scene for Amaryllis was going to fit with a romance (especially since you don’t want the boyfriend to do all the fixing). I found that blending in the boyfriend (and the Mexican guide) was easy when I put them to work in service of the plot. I also used the romantic characters to divulge vital information, and Amaryllis doesn’t have to wheedle out of them.
Here, Amaryllis (called Amy at the newspaper), gets a male reporter to help her:
“This case is going nowhere, Amy. They know someone higher up planned this thing.” Hagren had been a private investigator for twelve years before deciding to hang up his gun and try something less life-threatening. But one look at Hagren’s puffy eyes tells the story—there isn’t any “less stress” at the Star. There are behind-the-scenes crime stories people still can’t extract from him. He knows the cops the way Linux buffs know Microsoft—with care and from a cordial distance.
“So are we on a watch list, Garret and I?” She knows plenty of journalists who were deemed threatening enough to be put on the FBI’s list of suspicious persons. She never thought she’d do anything to deserve this dubious honor, but there never is a way of knowing who’s being watched and who they don’t think is worth the trouble.
Hagren shoots a baleful gaze across his overflowing desk and shrugs. “Who knows? The spooks,” he gestures toward downtown. “They don’t like reporters, period. Snooping in other countries? They don’t like that a lot.”
“But what we found would hardly affect foreign policy,” she protests.
“Maybe they don’t know that yet—the Feds, intelligence. But I’ll tell you what,” he pulls her around the desk with one gentle hand. “They don’t make American citizens disappear over stuff like this.” A shot of adrenaline shoots through her nervous system as he continues. “So the missing-person case, that presents a problem for the P.D. They’re supposed to keep a lid on it, but this doesn’t fit the usual criminal pattern. People are asking questions. And Wright’s putting on pressure.”
Amaryllis takes in Hagren’s hangdog eyes and rumpled shirt.
“On you, too?” she murmurs.
“Of course, on me.”
The scene goes on, and she manages to get valuable information from Hagen without tough talk and demanding answers. Instead, she’s sympathetic and even saddened by what her story has done to his work life.
However, I don’t make Amaryllis feminine enough to worry about getting filthy in front of one of her romantic interests. Here, she goes through misfiled death reports in a stifling hot Florida state office. She and Donny, her childhood sweetheart, find the death certificates for Amaryllis’ mother and father, which have shocking details and send Amaryllis into an emotional tailspin. But even in her horrified mood, she still finds a way to relate the tension in her emotional experience to that of her Donny.
She turns to shake off the torpor that has descended. Too many surprises are piling on too soon. She looks up at Donny.
“Your dad. Is he…?”
“Dead?” Donny takes a long breath and sets his mouth the way he used to when the teacher called on him by surprise. Amaryllis can tell this is not a subject he wants to delve into. “Who knows? He was a deadbeat. He took off when I was a baby and never even showed up when my mother filed for divorce. They couldn’t find him to serve the papers.”
“We always called Mrs. Gregorios a widow.”
“Well, it might as well have been true.”
She strokes her brow to remove some of the grime and sweat. Then she finds an item in the coroner’s report that jolts her out of her somber mood. Both victims had sandstone deeply embedding in their fingernails, “as if they were struggling to free themselves from some obstruction.”
And she’s off again, putting together clues. Not once does she stop and think that her shirt is sodden and that her makeup is a mess. She’s completely focused on her work, even with an attractive man right next to her. But notice that she shows interest in his life and struggles even as she’s trying to solve her own mystery.
If you’d like to try creating a female action figure (and I don’t mean a toy!) here are some exercises that can help.
- Write a scene in which a male protagonist tries to get another man to tell him about his youth. He doesn’t like the man but tries to remain cordial. How does he push to get his information? Now rewrite the scene the way a woman would try to get the same information from the closed-mouth interviewee. Hint: use empathy (“my mother was like that…”). Approach the subject by way of something innocuous. Have her smile and even tell a little joke to get the two to bond.
- Imagine a scene in which a man is abducted and is fighting to get away. Don’t use a gun. Now switch the character to female and watch as you start to think of more unconventional ways of avoiding entrapment. Watch yourself become more creative as you imagine a scene play out. Hint: Self-defense techniques work amazingly well.
- Think of your character’s relationship with his boss. If the boss tends to be overbearing, how does the man react to his requests? How often is there a test of macho? Now switch to a female worker and her boss, who is just as pushy. Watch your language get softer as you create a character who is sympathetic as well as intelligent and eager to take on assignments. Women usually are much more inclined to please.
- Create a male character who has been wronged and needs to stand up for himself. Write a little scene. Now change the character to a female, and don’t change a thing! Women can take care of themselves more often than you think. No stammering or muttering of “I’m sorry.” Let your character stand on her own two feet. After all, Amaryllis doesn’t get to the pyramids of a sunken world by being shy.