Creating Jen, Tommy and Amanda for The San Francisco Mystery Series

by ALEXI VENICE

With respect to my books, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to dooce® (Heather B. Armstrong) for mentioning Bourbon Chase and Amanda’s Dragonfly on her blog. Link to her blog here. She’s awesome, witty and  generous, and I hope she enjoys reading them.

Amanda’s Dragonfly, my second book in the San Francisco Mystery Series, was recently released, so I’ve been reflecting on the genesis of the series, and why I created Dr. Jen Dawson, Detective Tommy Vietti and District Attorney Amanda Hawthorne.

For 20 years, I wanted to write a murder mystery set in San Francisco. The city has tons of magical charisma in its diverse neighborhoods, and I wanted to showcase a few—like North Beach and Sea Cliff. In prep, I would search out and linger in spots, like camping for hours in Caffé Trieste. I observed the surroundings and people, so I could write about Tommy Vietti meeting his father, Cy, there for morning coffee.

I also wanted to feature smart, professional protagonists, male and female, giving each the opportunity to play a starring role (in a series of books).

These desires lingered in the back of my mind, fermenting while I wrote the Pepper McCallan Series. While I love Pepper McCallan, she’s my alter ego, so there are certain barriers and limitations to writing about her. For example, I’m not going to write hot, steamy sex scenes for her, because too many readers associate her with me. Likewise, when I broached the subject of Pepper having an extra-marital affair, my editors and advisors went ballistic, “Not Pepper! We could never forgive her!”

Hence, I was limited by my creativity—at an impasse in my storytelling. I had to invent a female character who wasn’t associated in any way, shape or form with me.

A year ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table—writing the latest Pepper McCallan adventure in Loch Na Pollach—when something happened in the airspace over my left shoulder. A thought bubble formed from all that fermentation, and the plot for Bourbon Chase started populating in my mind like scenes in a movie.

There was a catch. Bourbon Chase would only brew if I didn’t focus directly on it, so I continued typing Loch Na Pollach, trying not to think about Dr. Jen Dawson.

Fascinated by what was happening, I wrote Pepper McCallan’s exploits for several days while Jen Dawson’s unrelated story flooded into my mind! At some point, it was silly to continue the pretense of writing one book while daydreaming another, so I suspended Pepper McCallan. The shackles came off, and I was liberated to create all sorts of mischief for Jen and Amanda that Pepper simply couldn’t engage in.

The plot structure for Bourbon Chase is a classic murder mystery, beginning with a dead body. I carefully plotted out the murder, evidence, suspects and their motives, attempting to keep my friends and colleagues in healthcare guessing. Jen knew the murder victim, but is friends with a male suspect who is a physician colleague. She’s immediately conflicted about the investigation in addition to being Detective Tommy Vietti’s lover. Later, when Amanda Hawthorne cautions Jen to steer clear of the investigation, Jen becomes irate and, well, stuff heats up between them.

Bourbon Chase, The SFO Mystery Series, Book 1

I wanted Jen to be smart and educated, driven both professionally and athletically, and happiest when focusing on monumental goals (ignoring her inner self). She’s insightful about everyone’s behavior but her own. I love that she doesn’t really care about superficial things like hair, makeup or fashion, but is this beautiful jock.

Jen’s character arc became crystal clear to me prior to writing about her. She had to get from here to there, which I can’t describe without spoiling her trajectory. I was curious about why she’s on such a life-changing journey, so I explored her feelings and misgivings along the way.

I needed Jen’s conventional thinking to get in the way of who she wants to be, so she has to fight internal obstacles. For fun, I tapped out a few drops of Cholula on top of her to make her emotionally labile underneath all that smart doctoring. Then, I created an outlet for her to express those deep emotions—through poetry and passion. Heavy on the passion, please.

To this day, writing Jen’s transformative thoughts while she’s swimming in the ocean at China Beach was one of my favorite undertakings. Up to that point, I had written about 500,000 words and five books, but, at China Beach, I felt like I wrote something really creative and compelling—from the heart—during Jen’s silent soliloquy. That chapter was a writing breakthrough for me as well as a turning point in the plot.

To investigate and solve the murder, I needed a detective—and I didn’t want Jen to be a detective—so Tommy Vietti auditioned for that role. I adore Tommy. He’s a hunky Italian from the North Beach neighborhood. Tommy is an astute detective, but his love life is in shambles.  He chooses women who take advantage of him, and he can’t see it coming. I concentrated on his professional side in Bourbon Chase and Amanda’s Dragonfly, but will dig into his personal life (and emotions) in the third book, Stabscotch, which I’m writing this summer.

Male model

As I wrapped up Jen’s character trajectory in Bourbon Chase, I knew there was so much more to explore—not only in terms of action and twists in the prosecution of the killer—but also with Amanda and Tommy’s character arcs, so I kept writing.

To create variety for the reader—and challenge myself—I pivoted from Jen’s point of view in Bourbon Chase to Amanda’s point of view in Amanda’s Dragonfly (Book 2).

Amanda, being Amanda, insisted on expressing herself in her own lead role. I thought that was fair, considering I wanted to highlight the differences between Jen and Amanda anyway.

My initial fear in writing about two women who are so close (Jen, a doctor and Amanda, a lawyer) is that I would make them too much alike. Once I developed Amanda, however, there was no chance of confusing the two.

Amanda presented herself to me as a complex character—demanding that we simultaneously love, respect and hate her while watching her operate in her world. (I’m using the word hate in a theatrical sense, as in— “You look gorgeous in that red dress. I hate you! Can I borrow it?”)

In contrast to Jen, I have fun playing with Amanda’s vamped-up appearance. However, I take care that her attention to fashion, hair and makeup doesn’t detract from her inner strength, determination and calculating nature. She’s dedicated to her job of prosecuting criminals, and to do that, is supremely confident in her abilities as a trial attorney. Respect her.

I delighted in making Amanda a manipulative control freak, both professionally and in her romantic relationships. She pursues her love interests with unparalleled sexual charisma, applying her own brand of tenderness, sprinkled with indifference toward others. Hate her.

On the other hand, I love that Amanda is intensely loyal to the San Francisco Police Department—and her own sense of criminal justice—not hesitating to become vigilante in her methods. Impressed by her.

Amanda is generally rational and analytical, so I had to freak her out by the tidal wave of emotions she experiences when falling in love. She’s scared when her emotional brain overtakes her rational brain, leading her to cross moral and ethical lines to protect her lover. Concerned for her.

Amanda goes through challenging professional and personal scenes in Amanda’s Dragonfly, bringing her to a low point that screams desperation. Watching how she confronts that hot mess is one of the most gripping, morally-troubling parts of the book. Fascinated by her.

Amanda's Dragonfly Book Cover

I’m not exaggerating when I say Amanda’s Dragonfly was one of my favorite books to write!

Each of Jen, Tommy and Amanda’s personalities make for good drama, especially because their lives are intertwined both at work and socially. Exploring their relationship triad yields high emotion, like jealousy, insecurity, unrequited love, power and lust—the dramatic stuff of ages.

I plan to post a few excerpts from Bourbon Chase (Book 1) and Amanda’s Dragonfly (Book 2) over the next few months while I continue writing Stabscotch (Book 3). I hope you enjoy getting to know them as much as I have.

If you want to get started on the series, click here for a free Kindle download of Bourbon Chase. Free downloads to the first 15 people. Hope you’re one of them!

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