Tuesday, November 14, 2023

A Difficult Girl: Guest Post by Shelley Blanton-Stroud

I’m sorry. 
You’re right. My protagonist, Jane Benjamin, really is a difficult girl.
She behaves badly. She steals. She lies. She acts impetuously. She avoids doing what she ought” to do. Shes cranky. She drinks too much. Lately she’s been sleeping around. She gets other people in trouble. Shes really, annoyingly, ambitious. 
She also cares deeply about vulnerable people and takes risks to protect them. 
Its complicated with Jane. There’s so much trouble in her. Also so much potential for heroism.
Poster Girl is the third in my Jane Benjamin historical mysteries, after Copy Boy and Tomboy. I have reasons for making my protagonist so difficult.
First, I like what Jane Goodall says about difficult women: It actually doesn't take much to be considered a difficult woman. That's why there are so many of us.” A lot of girls and women get labelled difficult when they stray from traditional norms for female behavior. They begin to seem culturally distasteful.
The list of things that make Jane difficult might sound less offensive if it were describing a male character. Plenty of beloved heroes do exactly the kind of selfish and self-sabotaging things that Jane does en route to their heroic acts and we accept it. We like a flawed hero. Too good a boy and we’re bored.
But when Jane’s work obsessions and dreams conflict with the needs of the step-sister she takes care of, that’s especially hard to process. We expect a woman to put a child first. Obviously.
It’s interestingly more difficult, it seems, to accept such selfish behavior in a woman than a man. We hold our female protagonists to a higher standard. That was something I wanted to explore in Jane. It’s partly why she takes on a male identity in Copy Boy—it’s easier for her to be all the things she naturally is, as a boy, who is granted more leeway. Especially in the nineteen thirties and forties.
Also, the tough lessons Jane has learned in childhood make her difficult. She grew up with her parents in a tent alongside an irrigation ditch when her family migrated to California from Texas during the Dust Bowl. She picked tomatoes before and after school. Then she went home to her tent, where there was no electricity. 
Its hard to do your homework when you dont have electricity. So Jane learned how to cut corners, borrow homework, cheat on tests, because she wants the A. But her circumstances arent right for getting it. She’s in survival mode.
Jane’s drive to succeed is in her and it’s hard to control. Like most ambitious people, Jane isn’t always one hundred percent likable. But she also feels remorse about those moments. And she works to change, to care for others’ needs as well as she cares about her own. She’s trying.
I find a flawed character who’s trying to improve so much easier to attach to than one who starts out just practically perfect in every way.
Finally, Jane enters the world of these novels as a seventeen year old in Copy Boy. In Tomboy, she’s nineteen. In Poster Girl, she’s twenty-three. She’s growing up, becoming an adult.
When I began to write Jane Benjamin, I thought a lot about who she would be as a one hundred year old woman in 2020. I pictured her as an iconic, big city gossip columnist (kind of a female Herb Caen). I heard her deploy her Texas accent when it suited her. I saw her feted in the ritziest settings. 
I also thought of her as someone who will secretly pursue justice, sussing out murderers. She doesn’t do that for money or acclaim. She does it because she cares.
I knew that such a woman would have had to experience a lot to become all this in between 1920 and 2020. I asked myself, how would she get there from such rough beginnings? 
It was clear that ambition was the through-line. But also her courage on behalf of people who have been wronged, her belief that she is the one who can fix things.
Maybe you can see how these things might combine to challenge the people around her. She’s sometimes just too much. 
She pushes other people into dangerous situations, asking them to help her ferret out a murderer, or to take care of her domestic life while she’s on the edge, fighting her fight. We can see the effect her difficult, heroic qualities have on the people she loves. It’s hard to live in Jane’s inner circle of friends and family. 
But those who stick with her, will stick with her for life. They buy in. Her difficulty is worth the rest of it. Often enough, difficult women make the right things happen. I believe that will be just as true for Jane at 100 as it is for Jane at 17.

Shelley Blanton-Stroud grew up in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of Dust Bowl immigrants who made good on their ambition to get out of the field. A former professor at Sacramento State University, she is the author of the critically acclaimed Jane Benjamin series, including the novels Copy Boy, Tomboy, and Poster Girl. Her writing has been a finalist in the Sarton Book Awards, IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, the American Fiction Awards, and the National Indie Excellence Awards. She and her husband live in Sacramento, surrounded by photos of their out-of-town sons, their wonderful partners, their very first grandchild, and a lifetime of beloved dogs. For more, visit https://shelleyblantonstroud.com.

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