What’s Age Got to Do with It?

Several times during the month since the release of  The Color of Light, I have fielded age-related questions from readers at book events. Not my age, exactly, but Maggie MacGowen’s.

The first question was about the age progression of series characters. Sue Grafton avoids that problem by keeping her Kinsey Milhone in the same time period, the mid-1980s, a clever device. Mike Connelly, however, sets his Harry Bosch series within the here and now realities of the LAPD, so Harry has to adapt to ever-changing personnel and policies. An important aspect of Mike’s beloved protagonist is his history as a Vietnam War tunnel rat, and that means that Harry, were he other than fictional a cop, would have aged out of his job by now.  One day, Harry could move into the chair of the legendary Jigsaw John St. John, who was a detective in LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division well into his eighties. And that would be fine with loyal readers.

I have fudged the age issue by keeping Maggie from aging in real time.  In 1992, Telling Lies, the first book in the series, was published. Using internal clues, the reader could figure out that Maggie was about thirty-six, though I never divulged her age, except to say that she was in high school during the Vietnam War. Over the next four books in the series, published roughly a year apart, Maggie moved through time but never celebrated a birthday. Her daughter, Casey, aged in real time, from twelve to sixteen.

There was a gap of a dozen years during which I did not write a Maggie MacGowen book. When the series returned in 2009 with In the Guise of Mercy, Casey was only eighteen and Maggie had advanced to forty-three. During the interim, somehow Maggie was only in elementary school when the Vietnam War ended.  Though readers have noticed that Maggie ages more slowly than the rest of us, no one has said that it interferes with their enjoyment of the books. Trust me, readers are not a forgiving bunch. If it was a problem, I would hear all about it.

Several readers have noticed that the tone of my books changed between A Hard Light, first published in 1997, and In the Guise of Mercy twelve years later.   A lot happened during that interim. The circumstances of my life changed, my outlook changed in many ways, I was older. The world moved on, as well. The days of the Rodney King Riots, when the earlier books were set, were gone, and good riddance. I’m not as tough and brash as I used to be, and neither is Maggie. One of the reasons that I killed off Mike Flint when I resurrected the series was that cops of his ilk belong in the past; I didn’t want to write him anymore.

Do readers need their series characters to remain static? I hope not. Overall, comments have been favorable, though I think some miss Maggie slugging her way out of situations the way she once did. When she was younger. I think that age affects the character more than it does the writer. Can you imagine, Miss Marple, Kung Fu expert? Maybe as farce.      

The second question posed was, can a writer, specifically me with my graying hair, continue to write convincingly from the point of view of a character who grows relatively younger over time? To me the answer is obvious: Of course. I received the Edgar for a story told from the point of view of a very young woman, set during the Great Depression long before I was born, set somewhere on the frigid high prairies, where I have never been.   I didn’t need to be there, or be her, to tell the story. My tools were an ear for stories my mother told me, an imagination, a decent vocabulary, a background in history, and The Farmer’s Almanac for information about crops and weather.   Mix those same elements, with or without Mom’s stories, and I can write—and have written—through the mind of a child, a man, an army survivalist, a grouch—which I am not—or a mass murderer. If I couldn’t, I would have to look for another line of endeavor. And I very much do not want to.

To quote the great Tina Turner, “What’s age got to do with it?”

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One Response

  1. Well said, Wendy. Thanks! To me, the only thing that matters is consistency within the story, especially with regard to vocabulary. But that’s our job, no matter what voice or age we choose.

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