Sunday, January 24, 2010

Please Don't Kill Off Miss Maggie!

Last week, PBS's Independent Lens aired the documentary "Young @ Heart" about a chorus of seniors, average age about 81. The trailer for this film (link below) begins with a solo by a feisty 92 year-old woman. When I saw it I thought of Miss Maggie--that is, Magnolia Shelby, the 91 year-old sidekick character in my series.

My first novel, By Blood Possessed, was originally going to be a stand-alone, that is, I wasn't thinking of a continuing series when I wrote it. Still, when an editor says "We love your book. You're going to do it as a series, aren't you?" answering no isn't an option.

Putting a 91 year-old in a single book is no big deal, but a series is another matter. I considered taking a couple decades off of Miss Maggie before publication. Problem was, much of Pat's early motivation in the book comes from the fact that Miss Maggie is a nonagenarian. And frankly, much of Miss Maggie's character grows from the fact that she experienced so much of the 20th century. But I never dreamt that Magnolia would become such a popular character, and that more fan mail would mention her than Pat, often with the plea "Please don't ever kill off Miss Maggie!"

So I told myself, I'll just make the timeline of the series move rather slowly. That way Miss Maggie won't age quickly. At the same time, of course, I have to balance "Cabot Cove syndrome"--how many murders should one expect in a small village within one year? But hey, folks, this is fiction. If you want entertainment, you have to help the author out by playing along.

In her autobiography, Agatha Christie said that her biggest regret about Hercule Poirot was that she'd made him elderly to begin with. She didn't feel as strongly about Miss Marple, I guess because she was supposed to be old anyway. Think about it, Miss Marple is described as a white-haired woman wearing Victorian garb (black-lace mittens!) in 1925, yet she's still solving crimes nearly fifty years later.

The most difficult aspect I find of writing about the elderly is trying to remember how physically fragile they can be. A simple fall can end up being fatal. In Miss Maggie's own mind, she's still young. In fact, Pat often remarks that living with her is sometimes like minding a precocious tot. But Miss Maggie also takes stairs one tread at a time, her legs get stiff if she sits too long, she's supposed to stick to a heart-healthy diet, and she takes meds. I have to be careful to keep these physical limitations consistent. She obviously isn't going to go running after the bad guy. That's actually what makes her appealing to me. She has to solve problems with brains alone.

So take a look at the "Young@Heart" trailer. If I'm half that alive in 35+ years, I'll be happy.


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