Kari Bovée is author of three historical fiction books that feature Annie Oakley, including Peccadillo at the Palace (SparkPress, May 7).
People often ask me how I came up with the idea for using Annie Oakley in a mystery series. Although everyone has heard of Annie Oakley—she was one of the most famous women of the nineteenth century—she’s kind of become a forgotten heroine in the history of America, and in the world.
I myself didn’t have much interest in her, to be honest. But, my late father, with whom I shared a love of history, suggested I watch a PBS American Experience special on Annie Oakley. He had seen the special and was impressed with her story and thought I should attempt a biography. A biography? Hats off to those who write them, but I told my father I’d rather stick a pen in my eye. I wanted to write fiction, mysteries to be exact—to lose myself in a fictive puzzle of murder and mayhem, and make order out of chaos.
But, reluctantly, I agreed to watch the special and to my surprise, found myself completely engrossed. This was not the cartoonish, goody two-shoes persona who had been portrayed one-dimensionally in old movies and the Broadway play. This was a woman who overcame tragedy, poverty, and abuse to become one of the most famous women of all time. A woman who worked in a man’s profession, in a man’s world, and bested them all. A woman who never apologized for who she was or where she came from. A woman who didn’t let her celebrity change her or alter her values. And, a woman who fought for justice and her own good name, when William Randolf Hearst published a false story about her that circulated in dozens of his newspapers throughout the United States.
This was a woman I could—and do—admire. And, to my mind, she had all the ingredients to make an interesting sleuth. Equally important, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, with all of its colorful and famed performers, thousands of fans, and numerous travels across the U.S. and abroad, served as a perfect backdrop for nefarious crimes. For me, there was no other option than to write a series using historical events as a natural timeline.
The challenges come with creating Annie’s character arc within each book, and then over the span of the series. In classic mysteries, the sleuth or detective does not always go through a metamorphosis of character. They often do not change over the course of a story, or even over the course of a series. These stories and series are mainly plot-driven. Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. But it seems the modern trend in mystery is to have the character presented with life challenges—either family issues, physical or mental health issues, relationship issues, etc. The story is driven by both the plot and the character arc of the main character and/or secondary characters.
Given that Annie Oakley was so young at the beginning of the series—in the prequel novella Shoot like a Girl she is twelve—and knowing the history of her life, I felt that as a fictional character, she absolutely deserved to have a character arc.
Annie’s overall major character objective throughout the series is to provide for and protect those she loves. She discovers this in the prequel novella when she meets Buck, a horse who belongs to the McCrimmons, a couple whom Annie is farmed out to in order to help her mother make ends meet. Like Annie, Buck suffers from abuse and neglect from the couple whom Annie comes to refer to as “the wolves.” While she can endure the hardships of the life they subject her to, she cannot abide by the same horrible treatment of Buck.
This sets the stage for Annie to fight for someone who is unable to fight, to protect and serve. It sets her on the path to seek justice, learn the truth, and create order in her world and in the world of those she loves.
In the first full-length book in the series, Girl with a Gun, Annie’s family is faced with the foreclosure and loss of their home. Annie’s mother is worn out by life and caring for her children alone. Instead of facing another situation like the one she endured with the McCrimmons, Annie turns to shooting to help put food on the table. She strives to secure an income, although somewhat meager, for her family. When she wows the crowd and Buffalo Bill Cody at a shooting contest, he offers her a job to go on the road. She is torn because she doesn’t want to leave her family, but she knows that she could never make the kind of money Cody is offering her if she stays at home. This catapults her into the new world of travel, fame, and celebrity that she must learn to navigate—but also provides her with the ability to continue caring for her family.
During the course of the story, she must not only solve the crimes, but she also has to contend with a new set of trials when she falls in love. This is another phase of her life that forces her to grow. Through the trials of the plot and her new relationship, she realizes she must always circle back to her main objective: the benefit and well-being of her family.
In the second full-length book in the series, Peccadillo at the Palace, the Wild West Show travels to England. The stakes are raised when Annie is tested with events and situations that prove even more critical to her personally—all while trying to circumvent a possible assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. In this novel, I put Annie through her paces as she faces the life-threatening illness of her husband, the managing of her willful younger sister, and a situation that challenges her beliefs in her own value as a woman.
In the third book in the series, Folly at the Fair, to be released in 2020, Annie is faced with more personal trials that test her belief in her own relationships. She is careening toward certain calamity, and per the usual objective in a murder mystery, she must put everything she has into solving the crime and seeking justice. She is older and wiser, but has also endured hardships she never imagined, so her view of things is different. She’s become a bit more cynical, yet more righteous in her perception of right and wrong.
I look at a character’s arc in a series as fluid within confines. The main character in a series, and perhaps secondary characters, are always growing, peaking, and then settling into a new perception of reality—and that reality changes with every book. But there is always one overarching theme to the series, and that is the character’s desire, compulsion, and actual need to meet their true inner desire and come home to who they really are at their core.