Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Margaret Mizushima

The cover of the “We Dare: No Man’s Land” Anthology from Chris Kennedy Publishing.

Strong Female Protagonists

By Jan S. Gephardt

What’s your first thought, when you see or read the phrase Strong Female Protagonists? What memorable characters come to mind? Do you smile at the idea of finally seeing more strong women in leading roles? Do you grind your teeth a bitt, at the fact that Strong Male Protagonists aren’t pointed out?

You can search for “Strong Female Protagonist” in several genres on Amazon. There are BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) categories for “FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Women Sleuths,” and “FICTION / Women.” But you probably won’t be astonished to learn that no parallel Categories for “FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Men Sleuths,” or “FICTION / Men,” exist. Not unless you want to count “FICTION / Animals,” which I don’t.

And seriously: “Strong Female Protagonist” is doubly redundant. If your protagonist (male or female) is a wimpy pushover all the way through to the end, why would we want to read about her/him/them?

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien, Brie Larson as Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel, and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.
Three strong female protagonists from cinema. (Credits below).

You-Hoo! Half of the Human Population, Here!

I’m reminded of the time when I asked one of my elder family members, “We have Mothers Day and Fathers Day, but when is Childrens Day?”

My relative laughed. “Every day is Childrens Day!”

My child-self found this answer less than satisfying, as you can imagine. And I feel a similar irritation with singling out female protagonists as somehow “unusual,” despite the fact that biologically female persons are only narrowly in the minority among the humans on the planet. (In 2020, there were estimated to be 101.69 male humans for every 100 females in the world. The reverse—more females than males—was the norm until about 1957).

But these categories exist because, as in so many other realms, male protagonists have been a default setting. More than that, really. There was an active mindset among the editors who chose what to publish. They selected for male (cis, white, straight) “heroes.”

This quote from Drew Gilpin Faust says, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard, I’m the president of Harvard.”
Eliminate the excess qualifier. (World Economic Forum).

Strong Female Protagonists

Very early in my writing career I was told “girls will read books with boy protagonists, but boys don’t want to read books about girls.” Therefore, write about boys if you want to sell better, was the bottom line. By that reasoning, girls didn’t have much choice, did they?

I started thinking about strong female protagonists most recently while reading We Dare: No Man’s Land: An Anthology of Strong Female Leads, edited by Jamie Ibson and Chris Kennedy. This is their third “We Dare” title. The others are An Anthology of Augmented Humanity, and An Anthology of the Apocalypse. The focus in all three is the subgenre Military Science Fiction.

On the whole, I enjoyed it. As in any anthology, some stories are stronger than others. Many had good moments. My personal favorites are Leaving Paradise, by Griffin Barber, None Left Behind, by Jonathan P. Brazee, and Ragged Old Golem, by Rachel Aukes.

And the best line I’ve read in months came from The Relentless, by Melissa Olthoff: “If you can’t have fun being a space pirate, what are you even doing with your life?”

The cover of the “We Dare: No Man’s Land” Anthology from Chris Kennedy Publishing.
This anthology inspired this blog post (Chris Kennedy Publishing).

Define “Strong”

Unfortunately, in some of the We Dare: No Man’s Land stories, the strong in “strong female protagonist” got a little twisted. Yes, I know most military science fiction leans toward the dystopic (read more about the appeal of dystopian stories). But in a few stories “strong” seemed more equated with kill ratio, ruthlessness, or “not dealing with trauma in a healthy manner” than it did with what I think of as strength.

Strong, to me, does not mean being so emotionally brittle you can’t have friends or trust anyone. It also doesn’t necessarily mean having the ability and willingness to mow one’s way through legions of enemies. Especially not when other approaches (involving less mayhem but more thinking) might also yield success.

This quote from writer C. Joybell C says, “The strength of a woman is not measured by the impact that all her hardships in life have hand on her; but the strength of a woman is measured by the extent of her refusal to allow those hardships to dictate her and who she becomes.”
Here’s one way to look at female strength (Quotemaster).

Finding the Strength

There’s a reason why less-violent and less-physical characteristics don’t always register immediately as strong, and it has its roots in sexism. If you think of “male” and “female” traits, the gentler, kinder, more peaceable and nurturing traits are all lumped on the “female” side, along with “weak,” “soft,” and “emotional.”

“Strong,” on the other hand, is assumed to be a “male” trait. With that as the subconscious and conscious bias, a strong female protagonist is starting from a disadvantage by appearing to be an oxymoron, right out of the box.

Writers and readers also may mistakenly think she must have traditionally “male” characteristics to be “strong.” As if stuffing your feelings, smashing things, and killing people are any variety of “strong.” Toxic masculinity is also toxic for men.

This quote from writer Ernest Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
Everyone faces challenges, regardless of gender/identity (ItsWorthQuoting on Twitter).

Resiliency as Strength

I think a better way to look for true strength is to ask for a resilient protagonist. Sure, they need to be tough in the face of life’s outrageous fortunes. But to me the most important kind of strength isn’t so much in a person’s muscles as in their mind and their character. Are they strong, as in loyal to their word? Are they strong, as in steady and trustworthy? And are they strong enough to admit they can’t always handle everything without help?

Ursula Po, Gracie Medicine Crow, and Cassius were my favorite strong female protagonists from the third We Dare anthology. Well, Gracie was already a favorite, since I’m a fan of Jonathan Brazee’s Nebula-finalist novella, Weaponized Math (starring Gracie). Also of his Navy of Humankind: Wasp Squadron series, and his character Beth Dalisay.

Book covers for “Weaponized Math,” “Navy of Humankind: Wasp Squadron Book One, Fire Ant,” “Barrayar,” and “The Flowers of Vashnoi.”
Here are the covers of some books mentioned in this post (credits below).

Favorite Strong Female Protagonists

Branching out from military sf (not really my wheelhouse), my first thought is Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan (Shards of Honor, Barrayar, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen). But then I realize that pretty much any woman who is a protagonist in a Lois McMaster Bujold novel. Ista of Chalion (Paladin of Souls) and Ekaterin Vorkosigan (Komarr, A Civil Campaign, The Flowers of Vashnoi) also leap to mind.

A speculative fantasy protagonist in a “warrior woman” vein, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Maggie Hoskie, kicks butt, kills monsters, and hates to admit she has a soft spot for some of her friends and allies. Find her in Roanhorse’s Sixth World books, Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts.

Book covers for “Paladin of Souls,” “Trail of Lightning,” “Storm of Locusts,” and “My Soul to Keep.”
Here are the covers of some books mentioned in this post (credits below).

Beyond “Spec-Fic”

Dystopian fiction does inescapably imply a certain level of trauma. Overcoming it and emerging on the other side is the classic story arc, especially in dystopian fiction. And the subgenre is full of strong female protagonists—including a few who don’t rack up a bunch of kills. An example who leaps to mind is Miranda Clarke, the strong female protagonist of Lynette M. Burrows’ My Soul to Keep. Miranda can defend herself, but she’s not cutting notches in her gun stock.

Leaping to yet another genre I’ve learned to love, I also should mention Margaret Mizushima’s Mattie Cobb (The Timber Creek K-9 mystery series) and Meg Jennings (along with her talented posse) in Sara Driscoll’s FBI K-9 mysteries. And just about any of Diane Kelly’s protagonists, although many of them would question that “strong” characterization at the start of the story.

I could go on and on, but I’ll offer just one more: Ms. Eddy Weekes, proprietor of Deep Ellum Pawn (and so much more) in G. S. Norwood’s Deep Ellum Series. Perhaps in a future post G. will offer her own thoughts on Strong Female Protagonists. Who are some of yours? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section!

Book covers for “Killing Trail” (Timber Creek K-9), “Lone Wolf” (FBI K-9), “Paw Enforcement,” and “Deep Ellum Pawn.”
Here are the covers of some books mentioned in this post (credits below).

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to IndieWire for the photo of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien. We’re grateful to The Guardian for the photo of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. And we thank Marvel Cinematic Database for the photo of Brie Larson as Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel.

We deeply appreciate the World Economic Forum for the quote from Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University. Humble gratitude to Quotemaster for the C. Joybell C quote, And we thank ItsWorthQuoting on Twitter for the Ernest Hemingway quote. The We Dare: No Man’s Land cover is courtesy of Chris Kennedy Publishing.

Many thanks to Jonathan Brazee’s website for the cover images for Weaponized Math and Fire Ant. We have Barnes & Noble to thank for the Barrayar cover. We’re grateful to Amazon for the covers for The Flowers of Vashnoi, Paladin of Souls, and Paw Enforcement. Lynette M. Burrows’ website provided the cover image for My Soul to Keep.

Our thanks go out to Simon and Schuster for the covers of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts. Margaret Mizushima’s website provided the cover for Killing Trail, first in the Timber Creek K-9 series. The Lone Wolf cover (first of the FBI K-9 series) is from the website of Jen J. Danna and Sarah Driscoll. And Weird Sisters Publishing provided the cover art (© 2019 by Chaz Kemp) for Deep Ellum Pawn.

The authors featured in this post are Jen J. Dana, Kylie Logan, Margaret Mizushima, Jodi Burnett, Diane Kelly with dog Junior, and Ann Vanderlaan with dog R. Kane.

K9 Mysteries

“K9 Mysteries” is a category that doesn’t currently exist. Well, it doesn’t, if you ask Amazon or the BISAC categories. But I want to wrap up our Women’s History Month series (a day late; sorry!) on women writers of mysteries, romance, and science fiction with some brilliant practitioners of this officially-nonexistent art form.

The mystery genre is chock-full of subcategories: cozies, thrillers, police procedurals, noir, and on and on. And many of those categories have subcategories: paranormal thrillers, for example. Or cat, dog, or animal cozies. But there’s no official niche for K9 mysteries. This is how sometimes-bizarre mismatches happen in listings such as Amazon’s Top 100 Lists.

But I’m here to plead the case for a separate “K9 Mysteries” subcategory. These are often closer in focus and tone to a police procedural detective mystery than an “animal cozy.”

Why a separate “K9 Mysteries category?

K9 Mysteries center on a human handler and his or her working K9. The detective is usually a professionally trained dog handler: an FBI agent, police K-9 handler, or search and rescue specialist (sometimes more than one of those). Like many in law enforcement, many also have a military background. You’ll meet a few of these folks and their K9s below. The professional status of the detective alone should distinguish this class of stories from animal cozies, because by definition a cozy centers on an amateur sleuth.

Also, a well-trained working K9 (real or fictional) is usually a German shepherd, Labrador retriever, Bloodhound, or other such breed. Their nature and work has relatively little in common with typical cozy mystery companion animals such as cats, Yorkies, or Dachshunds (lovable and perceptive though they might be).

The XK9 Pack consists of ten fictitious, sapient police dogs.
A gallery of “Pack Portraits” showing each of the ten members of the XK9 “Orangeboro Pack.” Top L-R: Razor, Elle, Crystal, Petunia, and Cinnamon. Bottom L-R: Scout, Victor, Tuxedo, Shady, and Rex. Artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

And yes, I fully admit that I have a Pack of ten dogs in this hunt. My XK9s would fit into yet an additional niche subcategory, Science Fiction K9 Mystery. Yeah, I’m not holding my breath for them to establish that one. Meanwhile, let’s talk about five female masters of the genre, who really know how to handle their K9 mysteries.

Diane Kelly

Among the first K9 mysteries I encountered was Diane Kelly’sPaw Enforcement” series. These books follow the adventures of Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz and her K-9, Brigit, with regular appearances by Megan’s primary romantic interest, firefighter Seth Rutledge and his explosives detection dog Blast.

A former state assistant attorney general and graduate of the Citizens Police Academy in Mansfield, Texas, Kelly’s research has resulted in a realistic portrayal of a patrol officer’s daily life and the kinds of mundane—and not-so-mundane—situations first responders deal with. She writes about Fort Worth with an authentic understanding of the local geography and climate that I appreciate.

Kelly’s tone throughout the books is more lighthearted than some of the series featured in this post. There’s also a romance element that (mostly) takes a back seat to the police work and each book’s mystery plot line. As a reader, I enjoy seeing the relationship between Megan and Seth evolve slowly over the course of multiple books.

Here’s Diane Kelly with her dog Junior and the 9 covers of her “Paw Enforcement” Series.
Author Diane Kelly (shown here with dog Junior) writes the “Paw Enforcement” K9 mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Jodi Burnett

Indie writer Jodi Burnett’s website calls her writing “suspense with a hint of romance,” and there are plenty of both in her Amazon-identified bestseller Avenging Adam (now also available as an audiobook). The first of her F.B.I. K-9 series, of which there currently are four books. Burnett publishes exclusively via Amazon.

I’ve only read the first in the series so far, but I found it to be a compulsive page-turner. The K9 work came across as authentic (the intra-office romance was less so, for me). It certainly was entertaining enough that I anticipate reading the rest of them. Note that the series’ protagonists change with each book, moving among a group of agents who know each other and are associates. Example: the romance of the second novel is set up in the first. We also meet the third protagonist in the first novel.

Burnett lives on a ranch southeast of Denver, Colorado in the Rocky Mountain region about which she writes. The F.B.I. agents of the K9 series work out of the Denver office. This offers an interesting variety of locations for the action, from urban to remote wilderness. She also has written the “Flint River” suspense trilogy, set in Montana, and recently a new K9 mystery, Renegade, first in a new series set in the Black Hills of Wyoming.

Jodi Burnett wrote the four books of the F.B.I. K-9 Series.
Author Jodi Burnett writes the “F.B.I. K-9” mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Kylie Logan

The amazing Constance Laux has deep roots in Cleveland, Ohio and is the daughter of a Cleveland Police detective. She writes prolifically under (at least) ten pen names (!), including Kylie Logan.

She was an established romance and mystery writer before she turned her hand to K9 mysteries. Indeed, she has written many cozies, Including the “League of Literary Ladies” series, which includes cats (and also is set in Cleveland). But she made this list because of her current and growing “Jazz Ramsey Mysteries” series, featuring a protagonist who trains cadaver dogs.

Laux/Logan has written stories set in a variety of places, but the fictional Jazz Ramsey lives in familiar territory—Cleveland. Based on an interview by local author Charles Cassaday, it seems she was inspired to write about cadaver dogs after a presentation to a dog club she belongs to. An Urban Exploration tour of the Tremont neighborhood gave her the ideal setting. As part of her research, she observed cadaver dog training, which she described as “incredible.”

Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan, wrote the three books of the Jazz Ramsey K9 Mysteries Series.
Author Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan, writes the “Jazz Ramsey” mysteries. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Margaret Mizushima

We return to Colorado with Margaret Mizushima, who lives on a small ranch in the northern part of the state with her veterinarian husband. They have two daughters. The unmistakable parallels with Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries main characters that include a veterinarian with two daughters, living in essentially the same part of the world, explain some of the authentic “feel.”

The stories center on Sheriff’s Deputy Mattie Cobb and her K-9, Robo in the fictional town of Timber Creek, Colorado (there isn’t a town, but there is a campground by that name in Rocky Mountain National Park). The series begins when Mattie, a seven-year department veteran receives her first call as a K-9 officer. There’s a slow-burning, evolving relationship between Mattie and the local veterinarian, Cole Walker, a divorced father of two daughters with workaholic tendencies. Mattie, with a history in foster care, has her own personal issues to sort out, along with the perplexing murder cases that come her way.

Mizushima started writing after she sold a rehabilitation agency she’d started during her earlier career speech pathology. (See? It’s never too late!) Since then, she has won a variety of awards and become active in the writing community in the American West. She’s six books into the Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries series. As a fan, I hope she continues it for a good long time.

The 6 books of the “Timber Creek K-9” Series with author Margaret Mizushima.
Author Margaret Mizushima writes the “Timber Creek K-9” Series. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Sara Driscoll

Author Sara Driscoll, creator of the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series, is actually two people: she’s a collaboration between Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan. Confusingly, Fantastic Fiction uses Danna’s photo on the Ann Vanderlaan listing.

There’s a photo of The Real Ann Vanderlaan on her Amazon author page, and I also found it by way of her rescued dogs. (She’s sharing the photo with R. Kane, her rescued American Bully). So many aspects of the series and especially of protagonist Meg Jennings’ twin sister Cara (a dog trainers who owns two rescued dogs) suddenly made new sense, once I learned this.

The supporting cast in this series is one of my favorite aspects. Not only is Meg’s clever twin sister an ongoing part of her posse, but the women also have parents who run an animal rescue operation (and are quite a resource, themselves). And then there are their gentleman friends, Todd Webb (firefighter/paramedic) and Clay McCord (investigative reporter and avid local history buff). Together or separately, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Add to this combination a series of fascinating puzzles, new terrain and a new, fiendishly clever murderer in each book. It all adds up to a fascinating series in which I keep wondering how they can possibly top the last one—and then they do.

Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan write the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series under the pen name Sara Driscoll.
The “two sides” of Sara Driscoll, collaborating authors Jen J. Danna (at left) and Ann Vanderlaan (at right with R. Kane), who write the “F.B.I. K-9 Novel” Series. (See IMAGE CREDITS below).

Comments Welcome

I know I’ve barely begun to survey all the outstanding K9 Mysteries writers out there. I also haven’t even mentioned excellent male writers such as Steven Henry or Robert Crais, to mention only a couple. If you’d like to suggest others my readers and I should check into, please leave us a comment and tell me who I missed.

I also welcome other comments (keep them positive and relevant, please!) about this post if you have them. Perhaps you’ve met some of these writers, or have other thoughts. That’s why I’ve tried to make it as easy to leave comments as possible.

IMAGE CREDITS:

All montages in this post were sized and assembled by Jan S. Gephardt. Many thanks also to the talented Lucy A. Synk, who painted the ten “Pack Portraits” (©2020) showing the characters in Jan S. Gephardt’s XK9 books.

I’m grateful to Diane Kelly and her website for most of the cover images for her “Paw Enforcement” series (scroll down to it on the “books” page and click on individual titles for buying options), as well as her author photo. Thanks also to Barnes & Noble for the cover of the first book, Paw Enforcement.

Many thanks to Jodi Burnett and Amazon for the author photo of Burnett and the book covers for the F.B.I. K-9 Series.

I had to be something of a sleuth, myself, to dig down through the pseudonyms and find a decent photo of Connie Laux, AKA Kylie Logan. I am grateful to ScripType Publishing and photographer J. Kananian for the photo of Laux/Logan (holding The Scent of Murder, no less!). Many thanks to the Mystery Book Series website’s Kylie Logan page, for the book covers of the Jazz Ramsey books.

Many thanks to Margaret Mizushima’s website for both her author photo and the cover images of the “Timber Creek K-9 Mystery” series books. Click on the listings for book descriptions and varied buying options.

And finally, I want to extend my deepest appreciation to Jen J. Danna/Sara Driscoll’s website for the “F.B.I. K9 Novel” series covers, to the “Wording Well” blog, for the photo of Jen J. Danna, and to the “Coffee with a Canine” blog for the photo of The Real Ann Vanderlaan.

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