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Strong women in fiction

A few weeks back I interviewed UK author Sara Jayne Townsend (interview here), and I’m delighted to welcome Sara back today, especially as she told me last week how she was “…inspired by a rant in the office on Friday about sexism and how it still exists, and I decided to write my blog post for you about strong minded heroines and how they inspired me to create my amateur sleuth.”

Sounds like my kind of post! Welcome back, Sara Jayne :)


By Sara Jayne Townsend

sara jayne townsend, helena fairfaxAt the beginning of the 1990s, I worked in a book store in central London. I loved the job from the aspect of being surrounded by books, and the fact that we got a staff discount. I didn’t so much like dealing with customers, but that’s a story for another time. Another aspect of the job was the fact we used to get authors coming to us for signing sessions. One such author was Sara Paretsky, who visited the shop as part of her UK tour for her latest release BURN MARKS. At that time, I had never read any of her books – my reading tastes in those days ran largely towards horror. But she visited the store and we chatted, and when I told her I myself was an aspiring writer she was very supportive. So I bought a copy of her book, and she dutifully signed it for me.

I read the book and I loved it so much I went back and found all the back list titles. I utterly adored her main character, Chicago private eye VI Warshawski. This was the first time I had encountered such a kick-ass heroine in a crime book. VI is courageous and strong-minded, and is not afraid of breaking the rules in order to get to the truth. Lovers come and go in her life, but she lives alone and seems to have trouble with commitment. She knows what she wants and goes after it, lets no one tell her what to do and completely ignores advice from everyone (even if it’s good advice). But I admire her strength, her courage and her determination, and ever since then, I have been utterly devoted to strong heroines in novels. After I’d read the rest of Sara Paretsky’s books, I spent the next few years hunting out other crime books with strong female protagonists. I discovered Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, Karen Kijewski, Kathy Reichs and Linda Fairstein. And although I do read some series featuring male protagonists (Lindsey Davies, Jim Butcher, Mike Carey and Robert Crais all take up a lot of space on my book shelves), I still need to have at least one independent-minded woman in a book for me to be able to get through it.

So when I decided I wanted to write a series of mystery novels, I knew my main character had to be a strong-minded independent woman. I wanted to create a character like VI Warshawski, but I felt I didn’t know enough about police procedures to create a private eye or a detective, so I decided to go for an amateur sleuth. I made her an actress, so she’d have the confidence and curiosity to investigate crime, and the passion to want to solve it. I drew on my own background – one parent in Canada and one in England – to create her family history, and I made her a British-born Canadian who comments on the differences between the two cultures. And so Shara Summers was born. In some ways she and I are similar, but we are also very different. She’s a lot braver about poking her nose into place it’s not wanted than I would be. She’s afraid of commitment and sometimes makes poor choices when it comes to lovers, whereas I’ve been with the same man for 24 years.

I love writing about Shara, even her flaws. She lets me be something I’m not. It might sound a tad sadistic, but I enjoy thinking up the jams I can get her into, and how I can get her out of them again. Even writing about the bad decisions she makes can be fun, though I always hope she’ll learn from them.

I do have plans for many more books in the series featuring my intrepid amateur sleuth. So no matter how much trouble she gets into, I’ve always got to figure out how to get her out of it, so I can continue to write about her adventures.


sara jayne townsend, helena fairfax, death sceneDEATH SCENE blurb:

Poking around in family closets produces skeletons…

British-born, Toronto-based, actress Shara Summers turns amateur sleuth when her sister is stricken with a mysterious illness. Summoned back to England to be with her family during a time of crisis, Shara discovers doctors are at a loss as to what’s causing Astrid’s debilitating sickness.

After her aunt is found dead at the bottom of the stairs the death is deemed an accident. Shara suspects otherwise. Her investigation unearths shocking family secrets and a chilling realization that could have far-reaching and tragic consequences that affect not only her own future, but Astrid’s as well.

DEATH SCENE is coming very soon from MuseItUp Publishing


Sara Jayne Townsend is a UK-based writer of crime and horror. She was born in Cheshire in 1969, but spent most of the 1980s living in Canada after her family emigrated there. She now lives in Surrey with two cats and her guitarist husband Chris. She co-founded the T Party Writers’ Group in 1994, and remains Chair Person.

The first two books in her amateur sleuth series about Canadian actress Shara Summers will be released by MuseItUp Publishing in 2014. DEATH SCENE, the first book (and a re-release) will be available in Summer, with the sequel, DEAD COOL, following in Autumn.

You can learn more about Sara and her writing at her website at or her blog at


 Thanks for your post, Sara Jayne. I love VI Warshawksi, too, and Patricia Cornwell. The others on your list are now on my TBR!

If you’ve enjoyed Sara Jayne’s post, please let us know in the comments. And if you have any recommendations for other strong heroines, we’d love to hear from you!

11 thoughts on “Strong women in fiction

  1. I think every writer likes getting their character into jams. I’ve occasionally commented on the fact I inadvertently empowered Drusilla to a great degree and also threw her headfirst into humongous disasters (fight to the death with a superslayer in the Congo and taking on the Taliban in Afghanistan), and it’s a pity that (according to recent comments) far too few TV writers are making multi-layered female characters. There should be more strong women out there.


    1. I so agree, James, that there are too few roles on TV for strong female characters. Strong female characters are loved by all, not just women, and Buffy is a case in point. I love your take on Drusilla. Thanks for a great comment!


  2. Great blog post and I think that most writers spend a great deal of time thinking about how to screw up their character’s lives so that they can figure out how to straighten them out again.


    1. Hi Margaret, yes it’s a lot of fun making things difficult for the characters. I enjoy that bit! Sometimes it’s hard to work out ways to straighten things out. It’s a bit like doing a puzzle, trying to get all the ends tied up in a believable way. These are the parts that make writing fun. Thanks for your comment!


  3. Sara, I’m glad to know you aren’t familiar with police procedure and decided to use an amateur sleuth. Exactly why my heroines are amateurs too. Plus I have fun messing up the investigations. So I believe the amateur heroine makes the genre cozy mystery. I love that term. How can a mystery/murder be cozy? Looking forward to reading your new release. Congratulations!


    1. JQ, the term ‘cozy’ has been bandied about in reference to my novels, but some people who write ‘cozies’ are quite specific about the rules, and it appears to be more than just having an amateur sleuth. There’s no blood, no ‘on page’ violence, no sex, a light-hearted tone, and they are generally historical. Not sure if mine qualify in light of all that!


  4. Wonderful post, Sara Jayne. Thought your description of cozy for JQ was good up to a point. Don’t think the stories are historical. Everyone one I’ve ever read has been current day. So if you’ve read historicals–well, I guess Mrs. Marpole would be historical now. :) they can also be current time setting. They are frequently told in the first person, too, rather than 3rd person. Generally, in genre fiction, I think we’ve moved away from the shrinking violet heroine to one of who stands on her own feet, even if she sometimes needs a bit of help. Who doesn’t? I Tweeted and FBed this.


    1. Hi Marsha, great comment. I’ve read a few “cozy” mysteries now that are set in the present. And the shrinking violet heroine is definitely a thing of the past. Thank goodness! Thanks for the FB and Twitter support! :)


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