Monday, April 4, 2011

Strong Women by Mary Jane Maffini

Lapsed librarian and  former mystery bookseller Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three series: Charlotte Adams is a professional organizer in upstate New York; lawyer Camilla MacPhee snoops around Canada's capital; and Fiona Silk is the most reluctant sleuth in West Quebec.  She’s now collaborating with her daughter on a book collector series from Berkley Prime Crime (2012), writing as Victoria Abbott.  She’s also turned out nearly two dozen short stories, including the Agatha nominated “So Much in Common” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  You can read the entire story on the website at

MJ lives and plots in Ottawa with her long-suffering husband and two princessy dachshunds.  You can also find her at or blogging regularly at, and

She’s really excited that The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder, the fifth Charlotte Adams book will hit the shelves Tuesday, April 5th!


by Mary Jane Maffini

Mystery fiction is populated by strong, determined women. Oh sure, there’s the occasional bubble-head, but really, female protagonists tend to be the kind of women you can count on in a crunch, say if someone you love is staring down the wrong end of the barrel of a gun. I’m talking about women who do what needs to be done to solve a crime, save a life, bring a villain to justice. The whole shebang. Women who remind us readers that we are, as individuals, often much more powerful than we realize.

Where do these fictional women come from? What do we writers draw on when they come up with the somewhat larger than life (but still usually slender) female characters who live in our favorite books?

Sometimes we model characters on our friends, women who are passionate about their jobs and committed to their families, but still always there for us in a crunch. Sometimes, we look to public figures who are worth watching. Recently, there have been a few heroic women who’ve stepped into terrifying situations to whack at mass murderers with their handbags. Now that takes guts. Other times, a courageous protagonist may represent the person we wish we were. But often our heroic characters are based on early influences. I know that’s true in my case.

Our family legend has it that my grandmother, the splendid Louise Ferguson, walked twenty-five miles, mostly uphill, on Sunday to teach in her small school in a mountain village. At the end of the week, she walked down that mountain road and home.  It was 1900 in rural Quebec. Stranger things happened. Was it true? Who knows. It certainly may have been and her grandchildren wanted it to be.

Louise Ferguson loved poetry and telling stories. She was tall and slender and had great dignity. She could rattle off a dozen stanzas of any Tennyson poem faster than a speeding train. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that she was courted by and married the very handsome William Ryan who was doing well with his logging business.  Louise kept her figure despite eleven babies in fourteen years. When William died after a logging accident, Louise was left on her own with nine children under fourteen, including year-old twins and another on the way. She lived with her in-laws in the Ryan homestead.  This was not such a happy situation with William gone. And Louise wasn’t one to let people tell her how to live her life, it seemed. She liked to run her own show. She knew who she was. She had a spine of steel. Soon she was on her own looking for a new place to live.


Louise’s brothers built her a farmhouse on a hill overlooking her beloved Restigouche River and she raised the children on her own. They were a tight knit family, all attractive and not without their dramatic moments. As far as I could tell, they all inherited her sense of humor.

I remember her best in her eighties, with great posture, dignity and a wicked sense of humor. Although she was always busy knitting, writing letters or reading, I never spotted her doing a tap of housework. I planned to emulate that lifestyle when I grew up. Once, when I was moping about some boy, she took me aside and whispered, “Men are like buses. There’s always another one coming along shortly.”   I made sure this made it into my fiction!

I loved her for many reasons, but especially her spellbinding ability to tell stories. In her stories tiny rabbits, sneaky foxes, bewildered woodchucks and larcenous squirrels lived lives full of romantic escapades, dark forest politics and daily dangers. We would hold our breath as small children. Would Daisy Rabbit escape the clutches of Reddy Fox?  Would that chattering squirrel lead to more trouble for the chucks?  Would all the trees be cut down, ruining the habitat? And where was Peter?  Had something happened to him? The suspense practically did us in.

She never ran out of stories or spirit or her sense of mischief.  She valued her friendships all her life. It amused her to suggest to her tall, elegant daughters that she was contemplating a walk to her friend Mina’s house. As Mina Adams lived three miles along the highway, the ensuring dramatics always made good watching, maybe because Louise was eighty-four and the highway was full of hairpin turns and careening logging trucks.  Shortly after, she’d be chauffeured up the road to Mina’s in style. Of course, she could have merely asked any family member to drive her, but where would be the fun in that?

I owe her a debt for humor, loving to read, seeing the healing value of a story and for hitting her eighties with her humor and intelligence as sharp as ever. I am absolutely certain that she would have been level-headed, brave, clever and resourceful if she’d come face to face with a villain with nothing but a handbag, a knitting needle or a volume of poetry.

I know she lives on in the character of several of my characters, including Violet Parnell, from the Camilla MacPhee mysteries, who has just hit her eighties and has no plans to slow down.  But there’s something of Louise Ferguson Ryan in my younger female characters, like Charlotte Adams. Charlotte’s not a quitter either and in every book she must walk up the symbolic mountain in the pursuit of the mystery and then walk down again. Charlotte knows who she is, has a spine of steel and relies on her sense of humor and her friends. She had a great role model.

Thank you, Louise Ferguson Ryan, for everything. May you influence my mysteries for many years to come!



Coco Ihle said...

Mary Jane,
What wonderful reminiscences of your grandmother, Louise Ferguson Ryan. I think my grandmother and she would have been friends. It's interesting how we are so influenced by people we admire and how our emulation shows up in our lives. Thank you for bringing back some fond memories for me.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

What a lovely tribute! She sounds like an amazing lady--you seem a lot like her! That farmhouse looks incredible--did you ever spend time there?

Bobbi Mumm said...

Mary Jane, I love the story of Louise Ferguson Ryan. I was, also, very interested to hear of your new endeavours, writing as Victoria Abbott. Yay! Keep it coming!

Jill said...

Enjoyed reading this post. Love the spirit of Louise. I can see how and why she is a great influence for characters in your writing.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thank you all! I knew that this would be the perfect forum to talk about this. Lots of strong women here for sure and strong readers and writers too. I love being part of this community.

Peg Brantley said...

A terrific post, Mary Jane. I sometimes think our ancestors must wonder how we spend our time, and why we worry about so many silly things.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Mary Jane - Welcome!!!!!

Loved this post. And nice to know where you got that sense of humor of yours. Louise would be proud of you, without a doubt. This is a lovely tribute.

AND oh boy - the new series sounds wonderful!!!!! Can't wait!

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks, Peg. I think you're right. And they had a lot more to worry about in many ways.

And Kaye, thank you. It was fun to be here today. You always make me feel great.

Paying Attention Canadian said...

My paternal great grandmother, Lydia Galway Gates, was a great influence on me. She was very short and witty, obsessed with politics, interested in family and engaged with life until she died at age 106 3/4. And she was never without chocolate!

She didn't have the right to vote until she was in her 30's and she never wasted the chance to exercise it.

jenny milchman said...

I love hearing about women who were strong role models--even before the world/our society said it was "okay" to be. This is a meaningful post, Mary Jane--and a topic I'm always happy to see touched on at M&M...

Vicki Lane said...

A wonderful post! Maybe Louise deserves a series of her own -- she sounds fascinating!