Serafina, the main character of my mystery series, lives in Sicily in the nineteenth century. She’s a widow. She’s a midwife. She raises seven children. And she’s a sleuth with the mind of a wizard.
Her first mystery begins in 1866, and I chose to start her stories that year because Serafina was at a point of no return in her life.
In 1865 the year before DEATH OF A SERPENT begins, she loses her mother, her aunts and uncles, her sisters, her cousins, in a devastating epidemic of cholera that swept her town killing half the population in a day. Two months later, her husband dies suddenly. (While Serafina’s town is fictitious, it reflects Sicily in the nineteenth century and there were several waves of cholera in the 1860s.)
She says of her state of mind then, “I entered that flat, dead landscape we call grief.”
After her pain lifts somewhat, she has a choice—she can either sit back or fight. And in the end, she chooses to fight.
It’s her hallmark—she never gives up. She remains committed to supporting her children, committed to her quest for justice.
That doesn’t mean she’s perfect, not by a long chalk. She doesn’t want me to use the word ‘faults,’ says it’s too judgmental. But she does have her peccadillos and unique mannerisms. For instance,
- she eats olives and cookies at the same time, stuffing her mouth with them
- and her curls frizz the moment there’s a hint of rain.
- Her toes are usually cold, even in a climate that’s hot enough to fry snakes on the streets.
- As far as peccadillos go, many times her first response during the conversation around the table is to try to control, especially if she doesn’t like or understand the general drift of the tide, but that’s because she’s afraid of being left behind.
- And she’s got a healthy jealous streak, although most of the time she doesn’t admit it. At one point she calls Inspector Colonna, “a no nothing lout.”
Life wasn’t easy for Serafina. In Sicily, the times were horrendous.
- Ordinary people like me and you and Serafina endured hunger, war, bandits, paid exorbitant taxes, paid protection money to the mafia which was just beginning to get its start on the island.
- Meanwhile, the economy was a collapsing sink hole. Crops failed. Banks failed. Most people were hungry most of the time.
So, in DEATH OF A SERPENT in addition to dealing with the mystery of who killed three women, Serafina deals with a lot of external conflict going on around her.
But in addition to all this external conflict, Serafina has a gnawing inner conflict. It’s her core conflict—she’s got that gender thingy going on. Is a woman more than a wife and mother? Does a woman deserve to enjoy the fullness of humanity the same as a man? In the end, this internal to-ing and fro-ing informs all of her decisions and revisions and accounts for much of the tumult in her head.
One of these days I’m going to do a talking head on the subject of Serafina, if I can ever get my eyes to look straight into the camera and remain still while my mouth moves, but this will have to do for now.
Photo: Dawn on Isola Bella. Credit: gnuckx (Flickr), Creative Commons.