An award-winning author of nonfiction, Leslie Wheeler writes the Miranda Lewis Living History Mysteries, which debuted with Murder at Plimoth Plantation, and the Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries, which began with Rattlesnake Hill and continue with Shuntoll Road. Learn more about Leslie and her books at her website.
A Tale of Two Heroines
The re-release of my very first mystery, Murder at Plimoth Plantation, as a trade paperback gave me an opportunity to get reacquainted with the heroine of that novel and two that followed: Miranda Lewis. I discovered how much I still enjoyed her company. Perhaps because we’re somewhat alike. Like me, Miranda is a Cambridge-based history book writer, my profession before I turned to mysteries. She even looks a bit like me: tall and slender with curly red hair. Like me, she hails from California and has a bossy older brother, while I have a bossy older sister. Aside from these similarities, what makes her fun to be with is her sense of humor. She has a gift for making witty observations about people, including herself. So, why would I ditch a perfectly good heroine for someone else when I came to write Rattlesnake Hill?
The answer is simple: Miranda made me do it. There’s a crucial scene in Rattlesnake Hill, where the heroine is supposed to kiss a man she’s fallen for, and Miranda refused. I was shocked. Yet when I thought about it, I realized that it was her way of telling me she didn’t belong in the book—that it was someone else’s story. I had to figure out who this other person was.
The result was Kathryn Stinson, who is different from Miranda in several ways that make her a more appropriate heroine for Rattlesnake Hill and the sequel, Shuntoll Road. She’s ten years younger than forty-something Miranda, and therefore more impressionable. Unlike Miranda, who has recently ended a twenty-year marriage, Kathryn has never been married. She tends to keep men at a distance, though she has a boyfriend when the novel begins. She also has a darker and more complicated backstory than Miranda. Kathryn’s parents divorced when she was four, and her father went on to marry several more times, while her mother plunged into a deep depression which rendered her incapable of caring for Kathryn. Instead, Kathryn was raised by her mean-spirited grandmother. The only happy times in her childhood were the summers she spent with her life-and-love-affirming great aunt in Hawaii. Throughout the novel, Kathryn is torn between her grandmother’s negativism and her great aunt’s more positive outlook.
No wisecracker like Miranda, Kathryn is wary of other people. Still, she doesn’t lack empathy and reaches out to another woman upon learning of a tragedy that has occurred in the woman’s life. She’s also capable of falling deeply in love. She does kiss the man in the story that Miranda refuses to kiss, though only after a struggle between the warring influences of her grandmother and great aunt within her. Miranda has had a passionate relationship in the past, not so Kathryn. The man she kisses becomes her first real love.
Yet, for all their differences, Miranda and Kathryn have certain things in common. Both have a keen interest in the past, fueled in part by their jobs. Miranda writes history books, and Kathryn is a curator of prints and photographs at a small private library in Boston. Her desire to solve a family mystery involving the identity of a nameless beauty in an old photograph belonging to an ancestor brings her to the Berkshires in the first place. Also, both women have withdrawn to a certain extent from active participation in life. After the failure of her marriage, Miranda has chosen to live vicariously through her writing until events force her to become more engaged. Kathryn also devotes herself to her work and keeps people at a distance until she, too, is forced to jump into the fray.
Both women show courage and determination in pursuing their goals—Miranda to clear her niece’s name in a murder investigation, and Kathryn to find out the truth in two love triangles where the woman was killed in mysterious circumstances. These qualities are especially important to Kathryn, as she navigates the darker worlds of Rattlesnake Hill and Shuntoll Road. She represents a main character who was created to fit a certain story.
Readers, in your writing, which comes first: the main character or the story?
A Berkshire Hilltown Mystery, Book 2
Boston library curator Kathryn Stinson returns to the Berkshires, hoping to rebuild her romance with Earl Barker, but ends up battling a New York developer, determined to turn the property she’s been renting into an upscale development. The fight pits her against Earl, who has been offered the job of clearing the land. When a fire breaks out in the woods, the burned body of another opponent is discovered. Did he die attempting to escape a fire he set, or was the fire set to cover up his murder? Kathryn’s search for answers leads her to other questions about the developer’s connection to a friend of hers who fled New York years ago for mysterious reasons. The information she uncovers puts her in grave danger.