“Underestimated” (by Joseph Wallace)

Joseph Wallace’s short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies, including Baltimore Noir, Hardboiled Brooklyn, and Bronx Noir, as well as in EQMM. His work is notable for unusual themes and settings, as well as for clever plotting. In this post, he lets readers in on one of his secrets.  The author also writes novels and in his latest, the thriller Invasive Species (Berkley), he crosses genres to include elements of science fiction.—Janet Hutchings

“Diamond Ruby,” the first of my stories published in EQMM, is set in 1930s Brooklyn and concerns baseball and the Great Depression. “Jaguar,” my second—coming out in next month’s issue—takes place largely in the rainforests of present-day Belize and focuses largely on human trafficking . . . and yes, on jaguars, too.

At first glance, the two stories seem to have almost nothing in common. After all, one’s a noir story set in Brooklyn and featuring Babe Ruth, while the other takes place largely in Belize and includes a cameo by a large jungle animal. But two crucial things tie them together: The protagonist of each is a teenage girl, and both of these tough, strong young women were created by a fifty-plus-year-old man.

My two stories for EQMM are far from the only examples of this direction in my writing. The short story “Diamond Ruby” became a novel—my first—a big historical seen entirely through the eyes of Ruby Thomas, an eighteen-year-old girl. Other stories of mine have also relied on female narrators, probably most notably “Custom Sets,” which first appeared in the Mystery Writers of America’s 2009 anthology The Prosecution Rests and later in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010.

So obviously writing from the POV of women has worked for me. The question is: Why do I do it? And why do I continue returning to it, as I have in “Jaguar”?

Having suggested writing about this topic for this blog, I figured I’d better come up with an answer. (Merely saying, “Because I like to!” wouldn’t be enough.) And then, just like that, I figured it out, or at least where it all began.

It all began with Dick Francis.

Wait, what? The Dick Francis who wrote about horseracing, often from a jockey’s point of view? The Dick Francis who never wrote a single of his forty or so novels from a woman’s perspective? The Dick Francis who always wrote in the first person, when my stories and novels are always third-person?

Yes. That Dick Francis.

I can explain. I began reading Dick Francis as a teenager (back in the early 1970s) and—even though his books nearly all follow the same formula, and even though I’m a fickle reader—I continued to read them for decades. I’ve finally figured out why: I find one essential part of the formula irresistible.

Not the part about horses, though that can be fascinating. Nor the part where each novel provides a different “information bonus” (photography, wine, survivalism, what it’s like to live with a ruined hand).

What kept me coming back to these novels for decades, when my tastes in fiction otherwise changed substantially, was a simple, consistent theme: Everyone always underestimates Francis’s heroes.

That’s the link to my own work, and the inspiration for me. In every Dick Francis novel, the protagonist is a quiet, thoughtful young man, always with little power: jockey (or ex-jockey), stable boy, freelance writer, painter, photographer. Invariably he comes up against villains in positions of far greater influence (horse owners, racetrack stewards, newspaper magnates). Just as invariably, the villains see only each protagonist’s youth, unflashy demeanor, and social status, and miss entirely his intelligence, bravery, and will to win.

And thus, by underestimating their opponent, the villains ensure their own doom.

Dick Francis was far from the first to employ this formula, but he did it better than most. When I started writing fiction, I found myself drawn to similar scenarios . . . but with one crucial twist: If quiet young men in non-influential positions are so easily underestimated, what about quiet young women in similar roles?

I’m the father of an extraordinary daughter now in her twenties, the uncle of a brave and intrepid teenage niece, and a writing mentor to a couple of dozen high-school students (mostly female) over the years. Without exception, these young women are smart, tough, funny, and resourceful. Yet many adults look at them and see only their clothes, their piercings, their smartphones, and, most of all, their gender.

Witnessing such shallow, judgmental reactions again and again in real life, I knew I could employ them in my fiction. In fact, I could exploit such knee-jerk responses in two equally effective ways. The first, of course, was the same way Dick Francis did: By creating likeable underdogs and pitting them against hateable, arrogant, powerful foes, he guaranteed that we’d have a rooting interest in the story’s conclusion.

My own variation on that, however, was to double down: Gauging reader reaction to “Liminal,” my early story featuring Tania, an unworldly Orthodox Jewish girl, I discovered that just as the villainous, controlling photographer in the story underestimated her, so did many readers.

Early on, we know that Dick Francis’s heroes are far stronger and smarter than the villains expect; much of the pleasure comes in seeing the bad guys’ realization set in too late. But my readers tell me that they never see my plot twists coming, because on some level (they confess) they’ve bought into the same expectations that the villains have. They’re surprised because they didn’t think that Tania, Ruby, Ana in “Jaguar,” and the rest of my female protagonists had it in them.

Simply put: This middle-aged man creates a teenage girl or young woman who appears vulnerable, and right away readers accept the characterization without question. And that makes pulling the rug out, defying expectations, both satisfying and fun for me—while simultaneously making the story more surprising and powerful for those same unsuspecting readers.

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2 Responses to “Underestimated” (by Joseph Wallace)

  1. Pingback: Male Writer, Female Protagonists » Marmaduke Writing FactoryMarmaduke Writing Factory

  2. I loved “Jaguar.” I am actually writing about it today at Little Big Crimes and will mention it this Wednesday at SleuthSayers. I once made a list of the reasons for which Francis’s characters were understimated. I came up with: short, jockey, ex-jockey, illegitimate, aristocrat, actor, got job from his father, one-armed, bespectacled… I am sure I am missing some.

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