How I Chose My Imaginary Best Friend by Carolyn Mulford
When I write my Show Me mysteries, I spend many more hours with my characters than with anyone else. I choose them carefully, for they have to entertain me through a series.
Unlike some writers, I don’t write about people I know. I prefer creating my imaginary friends by combining traits of many individuals who’ve intrigued me over decades.
Developing a real or imaginary friendship takes time. Here’s how my protagonist came into being.
I was looking for an action-oriented woman to anchor a series when the Bush administration outed CIA covert operative Valerie Plame. The illegal outing put her in danger, ended her career, and exposed casual friends to charges of working with the CIA. Plame’s plight resonated with me. While working in Vienna during the Cold War, I accidentally discovered that a friend was living the dangerous double life of a covert operative. I was extremely curious and a little scared.
I contemplated using a covert operative as a protagonist. I couldn’t afford to research settings and CIA operations in Eastern Europe, but the idea of a former operative who applied her tradecraft to crime investigations appealed to me. Besides, I was planning to move from the D.C. area to Missouri, my home state. My main character would return there, too.
Before imagining a specific person, I needed a broad profile. I read former operatives’ autobiographies and attended meetings at which they spoke. I concluded that typical operatives were intelligent verging on brilliant, daring but not foolhardy, energetic and committed enough to do two jobs, and self-confident to the point of arrogance. Not exactly warm and fuzzy. On the plus side, my friend in Vienna had been witty and charming and, seemingly, relaxed.
I began to picture my character: a fit 55-year-old, five foot six so she could pass for a short man, short black wavy hair that easily scrunches under a wig, brown eyes, skin that always looks tanned and allows her to blend in well in many crowds, regular features so no particular one makes her memorable.
Then I sketched a backstory. She grew up in a financially strapped but loving family that stressed personal loyalty and community service. She joined the CIA after her cheating husband shook her assumptions about people. For years she led two lives in Vienna, employed as an expert on Eastern European economies as a cover for her CIA job. Her dual career complicated her relationships. Survival required her to deceive friends, colleagues, and assets. As a covert operative, she dealt with scum and accepted that the ends justify the means. In her post-CIA career, matching venture capitalists with Eastern European start-ups, she made a fortune.
This tough, cynical woman didn’t sound like great company, so I allotted her some saving graces: loyalty to friends, an obsession with fairness, empathy for the innocent and powerless. Drawing on my own experience, I knew that she’s stayed in Vienna because she loves music. An accomplished pianist, she’s used her talent to “become the life of many communist parties.”
All along I’d been considering what to call her. I couldn’t know her well until she had a name. Naming an imaginary friend is as difficult as naming a child. I use a baby book that gives the meanings of names and an online site that lists each year’s top names.
The right name didn’t come to me until I envisioned the incidents that brought her back to her hometown and compelled her to investigate a murder. So what happened? She was severely wounded during a post-retirement freelance mission in Istanbul and sent home to recover off the shooter’s radar. She adapts her tradecraft to help a lifelong friend unearth the truth about her husband’s violent death
I named my imaginary best friend Phoenix Smith. Phoenix symbolizes crashing and rising again from flames. Smith is a good name for a spy because it sounds fake.
Over five books—Show Me the Murder, Show Me the Deadly Deer, Show Me the Gold, Show Me the Ashes, Show Me the Sinister Snowman—I’ve come to know Phoenix well. Her experiences and relationships have softened her a bit, but she remains a force. I enjoy spending time with her. I hope readers feel the same way.
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Carolyn Mulford worked on four continents as a nonfiction writer/editor before turning to fiction. Her award-winning Show Me series features Phoenix Smith, a former CIA covert operative who returns to rural Missouri and adapts her tradecraft to solve crimes with two old friends and a K-9 dropout. In Show Me the Sinister Snowman, the fifth book, a blizzard traps Phoenix in an isolated antebellum mansion with an abusive husband outside and an unknown killer inside. You can read the first chapters of the Show Me mysteries and of two middle grade/YA historical mysteries on her website: http://CarolynMulford.com.