Tough Women

Lisa Unger knows a thing or two about strong women, In her new book, THE RED HUNTER, these women are fighters, warriors, and survivors. They’ve been knocked down and pick themselves up again and persevere. So in honor of Women’s History Month this March, Lisa discusses below how these charters came to be and how everyday women influence her characters.

My friend Ace Atkins is an extremely talented, bestselling writer of crime fiction.  Whether he’s writing about the former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson or ex-football player Nick Travers, or Robert Parker’s iconic Spenser, he explores a slew of very tough characters – from the depraved to the heroic.  So, it was with some trepidation that I sent my new hardcover THE RED HUNTER. Would it be up his alley?

I was thrilled when he had kind words for the book, but it was our email exchange about the characters within that really made my day.  He wrote, “Most men try to be tough – very self-consciously.  But (these characters) are actually tough people.  They’ve been to hell and back.”

It got me thinking about toughness, what it means to be truly strong.  In crime fiction especially there’s this idea of the detective or cop, racing after bad guys, carrying guns, and throwing punches.  There’s an expectation of non-stop action and conflict – fights and chases.  It’s very exciting for the reader – and the writer. But I’m not sure it’s how willing we are to throw a punch or pull a gun that makes us tough.

It might be that true grit comes from surviving pain and growing from it, rather than collapsing under its weight.  Toughness dwells in the moment not when you’ve delivered a blow, but when you’ve taken one and you’re on the ground, bleeding.  Do you get up or stay down?  It’s what we do in that dark moment that is the measure of our strength.

Women might know this better than men. Certainly no one knows this better than psychic Eloise Montgomery, a tiny, somewhat frail, older woman who is probably the strongest of all my characters.  Her fortitude, and her willingness to walk into the fray, is a kind of power that is often overlooked.  Jones Cooper, her very “tough” partner observes: “She was small-boned and skittish but with a curious mettle.  As she climbed the steps without invitation and stood at the door, he thought about how, with enough time and patience a blade of grass could push its way through concrete.”

March is Women’s History Month, a time when we honor the grit and strength of women who endeavored to and often succeeded in changing the world.  From suffragettes to soldiers, from teachers to doctors, from laborers to protestors, we honor the women who refused to sit back and be told what they could and couldn’t do.  In the face of often violent opposition, these women took blows, and stood back up.

But beyond iconic figures in history, in the day-to-day of my own life, the strongest people I know are women – artists, writers, politicians, business leaders, teachers.  And, of course, mothers – the most powerful women of all.  Because to be a mother takes endless patience, the ability to subordinate needs and wants in the interest of our children.  It’s a twenty-four-seven enterprise that often leaves us frazzled and sleep deprived.  There are endless blows – to the heart (it hurts to love so much), to the ego (You don’t work?), to sanity (Mom! I can’t sleep!) – but good moms get up every time.  And let’s not even talk about childbirth.  That’s where we really separate the women from the boys.

When I write about tough women, and I do, they aren’t necessarily carrying guns or getting into fights – though they do all that, too. The women who populate my novels – young, old, writers, psychics, cops, wives, mothers, doctors – are all very different from each other.  Some are powerful, some traumatized.  Some have unexplained gifts.  Some are bent on revenge; some seek peace after pain.  But they all know what it means to take a hard blow, get up bleeding, and start swinging.  They refuse to stay down.  They fight back.  They move on.  They live the Japanese proverb: Knock down seven, stand up eight.

Like all truly tough women in history and fiction, they’re survivors.

Who are your favorite tough women – in life or in novels? How have they inspired you?

*Originally appeared in the March issue of XOXO After Dark