An Essay by Linda Barnes
published in Giallo Magazine
It's true. I confess. There are similarities between the protagonist of the Carlotta Carlyle series and her creator. When asked about them in person, I offer a set response. We wear the same size shoes. We share the same grandmother. If a fan persists, I might comment on height or hair color. Carlotta has attained the height to which I aspire. I'm a mere five-eleven; she's six-foot-one. Her hair is true red; mine was red briefly, when I dyed it for a play. The color came off on my pillowcase.
I keep to easy answers, surface details, but the reality is more complex. A character is a creation, but fiction is based in reality. Because I have an acting background, I created Carlotta much as an actor crafts a role, using chunks of my own experience to ground her in reality, then endowing her with characteristics that enable her to accomplish the tasks required by the story.
Born in Detroit, I gave Carlotta the identical birthplace because it works for her, providing a rough, urban backdrop, a setting where self-defense skills come in handy. While I grew up the daughter of professionals, Carlotta grew up the daughter of the cop next door. I left home at an early age and so did Carlotta, because I wanted her to be independent as well as tough. While my parents are still alive, healthy, and happily married, Carlotta's parents fought bitterly, divorced, and died young. She's a survivor, a woman who had to learn to fend for herself.
We share exactly the same musical taste, Carlotta and I. The music I love, old Delta blues, is far from mainstream, and I gave Carlotta her odd musical preference for a reason. She deals with nasty situations in the novels, with grisly deaths and sorrowing survivors. I recall days of depression in my own life when the only thing that seemed to keep me going was the blues. Carlotta plays guitar far better than I do, but I don't hold it against her.
I gave her another skill, volleyball, because, like me, she tends to get angry, overpoweringly, shatteringly angry. For her mental health, I send her out to spike shots on the volleyball court. It keeps her sane. It keeps her from shooting people and winding up in jail. Less physical than Carlotta, I tend to work out my anger by vigorously chopping vegetables with a very sharp knife.
Carlotta and I lead vastly different lives, and quite frankly I prefer my own. She's single; I'm married. She has an adopted Little Sister; I have a wonderful teenage son. My personal life, like most happy personal lives, tends toward the routine and boring. Carlotta's personal life, particularly her chemistry with outlaws, is more intriguing.
Now we come to the tricky part: Violence.
I am both repelled and fascinated by violence. As I've previously confessed, I have a violent temper. In acting, the rule is that an improvisation always ends at the point of violence, but I recall punching a theater-school classmate so hard I knocked him to the floor. Upset at my behavior, I almost quit acting on the spot. Carlotta would have hit harder, and she wouldn't have been horrified. We have different reactions to violence.
When I was a child, a teenager was shot to death on my front lawn. Too young to read accounts of the killing, I made up a story from overheard bits and pieces to fit the few facts I knew. When I was a young adult, a friend committed suicide. I know that when I wrote my first novel, I was trying to understand his death, but I never interviewed the police or spoke to his parents. Confronted by violence, I stand back and absorb. I gather sensation, as an actor does. I store up emotion so I can recall it and use it in my work. I take time to process the sensations, to understand my response.
Carlotta moves quickly and thinks quickly. She has less of a need to understand; she operates on instinct. She is sure of herself, certain that her instinctive action will be the right one.
Sometimes I think of Carlotta as my better half, the woman who never hesitates to jump into a fray on the side of the underdog, the woman who dives into icy water to save a drowning child. She doesn't stop to search for words. She goes to the core, works for a resolution, protects the innocent.
We are both motivated by the desire for justice. When I began writing more than twenty years ago, fictional American detectives were male, and that was no coincidence, but rather a reflection of women's subservient position in society. Women were routinely denied justice, impoverished in divorce courts, disbelieved and humiliated in rape trials. Carlotta and I grew up in the feminist movement of the 60s. She is my
mirror held up to nature, my reflection of a changing society. As a teen, I read mystery novels about stalwart men who lived by a code a justice. As a young adult, I looked at my female friends and saw, not only housewives and moms, but lawyers, doctors, and cops, women who not only desired justice, but demanded it. And that's Carlotta's mission, really, to demand, determine, and occasionally, mete out justice on her own.