This Woman's Work

Edge of Black Sam #2.jpg

I was indulging in an age-old female tradition the other day—getting my nails done—when I overheard two older women strike up a conversation at the dryer. I listened with fascination as they circled each other, looking for that commonality that would allow them to have a meaningful exchange. One had children, the other didn’t. Strike one. One went to First Baptist, the other attended First Presbyterian. Strike two. They’d both discovered the nail salon about a month ago, and agreed it was one of the best they’d been to. And then came the home run: “Well, what did you do for work?”

The woman who asked was small and dapper, had a high voice and gray hair tucked behind her ears, like a little sparrow. She had young grandmother written all over her. The other woman was taller, louder, her hair short and nicely colored. Much more a raven.

The raven answered, “I used to be sheriff.”

I nearly fell out of my chair trying to scooch closer to hear better.

Sheriff isn’t a typically female job. And the gasp that came from the sparrow clearly showed her surprise.

It’s always interesting to me to see how people react when you put a woman in a “man’s” job.

I come from an aerospace family. And I worked in aerospace for my father’s company after I left politics. It is a man’s world. I always felt like I had to be twice as good as my male peers—and then a bit better again to overcome sharing my father’s name. The men got paid more. They got better assignments. Hell, they got better parking, and more leeway when they ran late. And it’s always hacked me off.

When I set out to write my novels, I never even thought through the idea of a strong woman in a man’s job. It was simply the only way to write Taylor Jackson, a homicide lieutenant, and Samantha Owens, a medical examiner. Best friends tied together in two of the most difficult male-oriented professions on the planet.

But like the sparrow and the raven from the salon, Taylor and Sam are very different women. Without a doubt, Taylor is the raven, brash and forward and no-nonsense, and Sam has the quiet strength of the sparrow.

I listened as the sheriff explained that she’d left office after an administration change and went on to run a state correctional institution. That’s right, the state prison, run by a chick. She’d recently retired and it seemed to me was a little lost in the regular world. She asked with great interest what her new acquaintance did.

The grandmotherly sparrow ducked her head. Her voice dropped, her words spoken with such humility, almost embarrassment. She said, “Oh, I didn’t have a glamorous career like you did. I was just a mom.”

She said she was military—that is to say, her husband was military. They’d lived all over the world, and while she volunteered at her children’s schools off and on, her “job” was to be a wife, a mother, a homemaker. If you’re familiar at all with military life, you know what a huge job that is—uprooting your family every couple of years, moving all over the country, all over the world. Soothing scared children in new environments, making it a game, fun and exciting, rather than the usual terror a new school and peer group can be. Add in the worry and concern that your spouse might not make it home each night, and I’ll be damned if I think that her career as a mother is any less important or glamorous as being sheriff.

Samantha, my fictional sparrow, wants nothing more than an uneventful life, with a husband to love and children to nurture. But that was not meant to be, as we saw in A Deeper Darkness. Her family is stripped from her, and she’s left alone.

Her story continues in Edge of Black. No longer a mother, or even a medical examiner, Sam is seeking a new path, and has taken a position teaching forensic pathology at Georgetown University in D.C. She has a very new love interest in Xander Whitfield, an ex-army Ranger, and a good friend who’d like to be something more in Detective Darren Fletcher.

Where Taylor is never at a loss for the next step, is impetuous and reckless, Sam has to think things through. She likes to plan, to seek. And when she finds herself in the middle of an apparent terrorist attack, she falls back on her nature—to care for people. As a matter of fact, wanting to help nearly gets her killed.

Edge of Black is a story for all the sparrows out there. The women who labor silently, who don’t have flashy careers and lots of power. For the women whose strength comes from within, from their own convictions and desire to nurture. For the women—and men, of course—who understand you don’t have to be rough and tough to be incredibly strong.

(This blog first appeared on the HQN Mira site November 20, 2012)