When I was creating the protagonist for my Alvarez Family Murder Mystery Series, Lee Alvarez, I made some pretty radical decisions. Mainly, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to have someone who was snarky, who didn’t get along with anybody, especially her family, and only had one black skirt tucked away in the back of her closet. I wanted her to be a more outgoing, positive person. Also, I wanted a definite ethnicity. Lee’s mother, a Palo Alto blueblood, fell in love with and married a Mexican immigrant. Thus their children, Lee, and her brother, Richard, are Mexican-American. I am Italian-American. Many of us are a blend. It’s the great American way and I love it.
I particularly wanted to have a central character that was identifiable but different, off-kilter, and likable. Lee Alvarez isn’t your typical protagonist. Yes, she’s in her mid-thirties and once divorced. But she’s now remarried to a handsome, retired Navy SEAL, because I am from the school of thought that believes a woman CAN have it all. At least, in my books. Lee’s smart, talented, and loves dancing, handbags, and a good joke. She knows her own worth but has her moments of self-doubts. They seem to hit her when least expected, often like they hit the rest of us. Every day, as she chases down a suspect, she strives to be a B&BP (bigger and better person), knowing full-well nobody’s perfect. Except maybe her mother, Lila Hamilton-Alvarez, who’s never had a bad hair day in her life. And try living in that designer-clad woman’s shadow.
Lee reads Dashiell Hammett detective stories and watches old black and white movies on TV while searching the web. She loves peanuts and a good, classic martini i.e., gin, vermouth, orange bitters and 3 olives served icy cold, straight up, please. I’ve created a real, today kind of PI, California-honed, who’s educated but has her moments of stupidity. I can absolutely relate to her.
Much to her mother’s horror, Lee likes to shop at consignment stores and wear sweat clothes around the house. She also has a bit of a crush on the late Humphrey Bogart because you may be dead, but you can still be great in Lee’s book. Her character traits are unique, her relationships with her family quirky, but real and, I hope, well-crafted. After all, a murder mystery should be a well-written novel that just happens to have a dead body or two in it done in by an unknown assailant.
Developing the plot is different for me. I have no idea where that will come from. For instance, the second book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, A Wedding to Die For, came about after reading a story – so bazaar I could hardly believe it was true – in National Geographic. Sixty-plus members of an Egyptian Family were arrested for pilfering from a lesser known Egyptian king’s tomb and had been doing so for generations!
This extended family would take one article, sell it on the black market, and spread the wealth among themselves, leading to better education and opportunities. After several decades, many of them came into positions of importance, in museums and customs, thereby ensuring even greater success. They were caught after years of staying below the radar, when one of them got greedy and substituted a fake for a real antiquity in a museum at which he was the assistant curator. It blew the whole thing wide open. I was mesmerized by this story! I transferred this renegade family to Mexico, threw in a wedding gone awry, a falsely accused groom from the States, and was off and away! It was a lot of fun.
But at the heart of all the stories is my protagonist and her familial relationships. They are all in all. And thankfully, most of my readers like to see what’s going on between Lee and her kith and kin. They like the fact that nobody is deliberately mean, that they try to do right by one other, and they genuinely enjoy being in their own company. I like that, too. Let’s face it. Life’s too short for all this harboring of ill will. Even in fiction.