~ Hazel Harps On

Different Sides of Strong

A lovely thing happened last week. How The Penguins Saved Veronica (the USA edition of Away With The Penguins) was chosen as a finalist in the prestigious 'Audies' audiobook awards. I am thrilled and completely indebted to the talented narrators: Helen Lloyd, Andrew Fallaize and Mandy Williams. Foremost of these is Helen Lloyd who has put across Veronica McCreedy so powerfully - and exactly as I imagined her myself.

I will confess now that I am blown away by the affection readers have shown for my cantankerous eighty-six-year-old heroine. Some have even told me they wish Veronica McCreedy was their granny! This has made me think about the importance of strong women in fiction. Some that spring to mind are Jane Austen’s Emma, Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Miss Marple, Jane Eyre and the heroine of Rebecca. Each of these are memorable individuals, each of them is flawed but has a passion that drives them onwards.

I think my Veronica has her own unique brand of strength which is why she has struck a chord with so many people. She is colourful, brazen and stubborn. She wears bright red, brandishes a handbag like a weapon and absolutely will not take no for an answer. At the start of the novel she is harsh and judgemental about everyone. She has never allowed herself to cry because she sees this as a sign of weakness. Because she has been through wartime tragedy she has developed a very tough hide. Only over the course of the novel do we discover that she also has a very big heart.

But there’s another kind of strength too, which I believe is just as admirable. This is the ‘strength in vulnerability’ that I gave to the heroine of my first novel, Ellie And The Harp Maker. At the start of the story Ellie Jacobs suffers from a chronic lack of self-confidence. This is not because she is the ‘limpet’ she jokingly calls herself, but because all her decisions have been undermined throughout her entire life. She has suffered this cruel and (sometimes) subtle form of psychological abuse first from her mother and then from her husband. Unlike Veronica, Ellie is determined to see the good in everyone. She may have blind spots but she is no wimp. Katharine McEwan, who brilliantly reads Ellie’s voice in the audiobook, describes her as ‘so strong’. What would be easy for a Veronica is a hundred times more difficult for an Ellie, and it takes immense strength for her to push forward and break her chains. What’s more, Ellie is persistently kind to everyone.

A writer, like an actor, must strive to understand what it’s like to be somebody else. And when we create a character, it must always be someone who is strong enough and passionate enough to drive the plot. Thankfully, within this, we have endless choices. There are many, many different sides of strong.

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