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What I Learned From Creating Cate Harlow

03/12/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

March is Women's History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of women who have made our lives better. It's also a good time to remember the strong women in fiction who have inspired us and made an impact in our real lives. Female characters from Jane Eyre to Jean Louise "Scout" Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird to V.I. Warshawski, , to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, all are written as females of strength and savvy. They get the job done and are a tremendous asset to those in their lives. I should also mention Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, strong woman who knew how to survive and "take care of business."

You can learn a lot from women in fiction, and you can learn a lot from writing your own strong female character. By creating a strong woman in the Cate Harlow Private Investigation series, I found myself becoming stronger.

When I began to write For I Have Sinned, I had a very definite idea of who my lead character would be and how she would act. Many writers will tell readers that they base their characters on themselves and, in a sense, this is true. However, in many ways, Cate Harlow was as different from me as a hummingbird is from a hawk. Except for some physical characteristics, a passion for tennis, and being pet-friendly, I made Cate Harlow into someone I admired and aspired to be. She would be savvy, strong and very independent in all aspects of her life. Literally, she would take no crap from anyone.

I did give my character some human vulnerability; she has an aversion to dead bodies and death itself. In her business she is very well aware that she's sure to come across death and a corpse or two but she still has an unremitting fear of it. As she says in For I Have Sinned:

Personally, I never get over seeing a dead body. You would think that after a while in my profession you'd become immune to it but that's not true in my case. There's always the very brief startle factor for me. No matter how badly damaged the body may be, it still seems as if it will come back to life again, like some modern Frankenstein. Stupid I know, but that's always my momentary reaction. After that I get down to business and look for evidence.

I also injected humor and compassion into my character to even out the often seedy, dirty parts of her life as a private investigator and gave her a healthy sex life as well. More on that later.

The differences and similarities between Cate and me are interesting. A psychiatrist might have a field day analyzing them. Cate is a woman who walked away from a nice, steady paycheck as a law interpreter to open her own business as a private investigator. I was a high school teacher who began writing every spare second I had while I was still teaching, terrified of not being able to depend on that secure paycheck every two weeks. Unlike Cate Harlow, I needed job security. She handles a gun when needed, I'm terrified of them.

Cate doesn't cook, depending on take-out, microwaveable foods, and a great restaurant named Enzo's, to sustain her. Although I'm not a gourmet chef by any means I do cook almost every day. As far as drinking goes, she does enjoy a good bottle of Merlot which is something Cate Harlow shares with her creator, although she drinks more wine in a week than I do.

Cate is fit, I need to be. Cate juggles two men in her life, I am married to my college love. Cate loves food, and I am always dieting. The more I wrote about Cate Harlow, the more I wanted to be like her. Maybe I was writing the "me I was meant to be." Whatever it was, I began learning some good life lessons from my fictional character, Cate Harlow, Private Investigator.

I began to think like Cate Harlow, analyzing situations completely and thoroughly before making decisions. And I began to play tennis again, a game I loved but had always felt I was "too busy" to play. If Cate can manage to do it with her crazy schedule, so could I. I stopped dieting; I didn't splurge and go food crazy, but I began to do the Cate thing and to enjoy the food I was eating, rather than obsessing about gaining weight.

One very important "Cate change" was taking action against injustice. Like Cate Harlow, I saw the social problems around me, but where she was an active fighter, I was more of a pacifist who avoided conflict. As I began to write more about Cate Harlow and her need to bring those who harm others to justice, I began to see that conflict isn't always bad; it can produce healthy change.

I found myself changing and becoming an advocate for specific causes, such as supporting Shelters with Heart, a place where victims of domestic abuse and their family pets can go to be safe and start new lives. Many women won't leave an abusive relationship because they fear their abuser will harm or kill their dog, cat or other family pet. To support the shelters I donate five percent of sales from all my books to them and willingly speak at fundraisers.

I wrote Cate Harlow as a woman who knows what she wants in all aspects of her life, including sex. She is the one in charge of when, where and who -- a very ready, willing, sensual and equal partner to her man. Let's say that she, like her author, enjoys her erotic encounters as much as she enjoys that excellent bottle of Merlot.

Writing the Cate Harlow Private Investigations series has changed my outlook on being strong and capable. I no longer fear changing careers, I have a healthy attitude for making the most of living, and I use my strong voice and actions to benefit those in need. And, as with my character Cate, my sense of humor has gotten me through some tough times.

Perhaps writers project more of themselves onto their characters than anyone knows. Or maybe writing the character allows the author to become someone she has long wanted to be. Either way, strong fictional female characters can inspire us to be our best even if we're the ones creating them.