Finding Your Character(s)


By Louise Ure and Sylvia Marino

Hi Ratis. Most of you have seen the notes from “Sylvia” in our comments section, but many of you don’t know the Sylvia behind the keyboard. She’s Sylvia Marino, a SYSOP wizard, wife, mother of three, and part time mystery writer who was in my writers’ group back in 2003 when I was stabbing out my first novel. I was awed by her charm, wit, gumption and great good heart at that time, and nothing has changed since. Back then, because just trying to write your first novel was not challenge enough, Sylvia also learned how to swim for the first time. And the protagonist she wrote about was a woman swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco through the Bay’s choppy, chilly waters.

Last week she successfully swam the English Channel with a five-woman relay team.

Now you know why I think she’s such a wonder.


–   Louise Ure



Finding Your Character(s)

By Sylvia Marino




When Louise asked if I would share my write-up on Murderati, my immediate response was, “But there aren’t any dead bodies, will it count?”   She assured me that it would and in the short week that has since passed I realized that whether you’re a writer or one who is perpetually on the first chapter, we all think about and are inspired by finding and developing characters.  No matter where I am, my favorite characters stay with me.

Sometimes, right in the middle of the English Channel.

In the line – “stranger than fiction” the character and characters found on this trek couldn’t be more apt and any one of them could be the lead character in a developing story.



We had been sitting in Folkestone for four days waiting to get the call that the weather had cleared and we were a go for our English Channel attempt. Five women sitting around obsessing about wind conditions and checking multiple times a day and walking to the lookout over the Channel to check the water can drive anyone crazy.  We knew no teams had gone out that week due to weather and the first possible day would be Sunday or Monday. After that our one-week window would close as unfavorable tides and weather would take over until the next window opened later in July.  Many people train for years and make the trip to swim on their scheduled date only to sit and be turned away due to poor weather and tides.  With swims booked years in advance, most cannot uphold the level of training to wait again for another chance to swim.  Our call finally came on Saturday evening to report to Dover Marina the next morning at 5:30am.

Wearing the allowed attire of one regular swimsuit a silicone cap and pair of goggles, our first swimmer started off Shakespeare Beach in Dover at 6:12am on Sunday, July 10 – Britain’s Memorial Day.  Every 60 minutes thereafter a new swimmer in our fixed rotation would go in.  Depending on where you were in the order, we had assigned jobs – watching the swimmer in the water to not lose them to swells, one person warming up the swimmer coming out of the water, one getting ready to swim and a swimmer getting warm from being in the water.  We ran pretty much like clockwork.  When you have a team of women ages 41-53, what else can you expect?  Compared to juggling full-time jobs and families, having only one job to do at a time was a luxury.

The official observer on board was lovely giving us all the rules and regulations from the Channel Swimming Association ( including one of his own. “You may not use the word ‘awesome‘ at any time.  It’s a terrible word and used quite too much.  Really, how can a burger be awesome?  It’s just a bloody burger!”  With this the mood was lightened.  We were concerned about transitioning between swimmers as one false move can halt and disqualify the entire swim.  He made sure our transitions were flawless. 

The pilots of The Viking Princess – a 60 ton fishing boat – were two brothers named Reg and Ray who have been piloting swimmers all their lives.  Their father Reg Sr. had piloted swimmers before them.   Two men of the sea with matching anchor earrings and who, when urged, could tell stories of past Channel attempts.

We all had a little “boat envy” earlier in the day when other swimmers were meeting their boats at the Dover Marina. We saw some nice boats with padded benches and kitchen galleys.  The Viking Princess turned the corner and it was like expecting a limousine and seeing a weathered tow truck instead.  On board there was really no place to sit except on the metal floor outside the wheelhouse.  All of our gear was in plastic tubs on the deck where the fishing gear (or fish?) were usually kept.  What we soon came to appreciate was our shield against the swells.  As our Observer pointed out – many swims have been lost due to the boat not being large enough to protect the swimmer on their crossing.

The day before we went swimming in Dover Harbor and met Freda Streeter, mother of Alison Streeter “Queen of the Channel” with 43 English Channel crossings, including a few doubles.  Freda was running her Saturday swim clinics for Channel swimmers and chatted with us. “You ladies are from the South End.  I’m not worried about you lot.”  Jane Murphy, wife of Kevin Murphy “King of the Channel” with 34 crossings including a few doubles and an attempted triple crossing (halted at 52 hours due to weather) was equally encouraging explaining that the men whine and whimper while the women just put their heads down and carry-on.  

The conditions throughout the day were Force 3-4 meaning we were in winds up to 17+mph and waves, whitecaps and swells regularly in the 3-6 foot range with sometimes smoother water and in gusts, sometimes a bit rougher. The water temperature was steady at 58-59 degrees, warmer than the San Francisco Bay.  

Over the course of the day, we saw and came close to dozens of cargo ships and large ferries.   We learned about the various lanes, the separation zone between the lanes and found small celebrations in crossing the lanes, crossing into French waters, over the Channel Tunnel (I had the pleasure of swimming across this) and watching Dover disappear and seeing no coastlines to seeing France begin to appear on the horizon.  Our Observer had us charmed with stories of his 23 year-old cat Jessica and rolling with laughter with tales of past swims.




I can say that from my first rotation to my last, each felt natural finding a rhythm in the sea immediately.   The rise and fall of the swells, learning quickly how to swim with the boat on your right (watching it rock towards you can be daunting).  On my second rotation in the water, the water itself was stunning with jellyfish floating below and plankton that glowed making it look like you were staring into a galaxy.  At times I had to remind myself to turn my head to breathe and look to make sure I wasn’t too close to the boat because I just wanted to keep my head down and watch what was happening below.  Keeping the song “My Way” in my head helped keep a good rhythm, even when I saw an empty crisps bag floating a few meters below me and hoping the hand of its consumer wasn’t attached to it.

As we went into our third rotation, we began to calculate how far we were from landing.  The tide had turned and we were going away from Cap Gris Nez and towards Calais.  Soon we could see a truck on a road above the cliffs outside of Calais.  With passing strokes I could see the sun setting behind me under my right arm and when sighting forward, the moon rising over the white cliffs.  I could then start to count the windows on the houses along the beach.  My hour was up, having broken across the tidal line.  



Finding ourselves at the top of the swim order, our first swimmer went in and made quick work of the last remaining trek of our nearly 31 miles and in 24 minutes with the moon above we could see her stand on the beach in Sangatte and raise her arms.  The horn blew and we were now English Channel relay swimmers.  Above the beach a lone silver firework went off.  Perhaps a backyard party, perhaps planning for Bastille Day, we will never know.  At the moment we simply stared in awe and took it to be for ourselves.

The ride in The Viking Princess back across the Channel lasted three hours and in that time we texted and called family and friends, hooted, hollered, high-fived and then collapsed in exhaustion.  Making it back to our hotel rooms by 2am we popped the champagne and toasted our loved ones and an old soul by the name of Trudy DeLorenzo, a German immigrant who had died a few weeks prior.  Trudy was one of the original women in the 1970’s who took the South End Rowing Club to court so that women would be allowed to join and train in open water swimming in San Francisco.  In an even stranger twist of fate, as we were landing on the beaches of France, the first all-female team from the South End Rowing Club, Trudy’s memorial service was being held in San Francisco.

As is tradition, those who successfully cross the Channel can sign their names on the wall at the White Horse Bar in Dover.  The walls are covered in the “who’s who” of open water swimming.  We found names of people we knew and finally found a place in a corner where in at least one small place of the world, we have been immortalized.  

So ‘Ratis, which character(s) would you choose to develop and hear tales from?  The swimmers?  Observer?  Pilots? Or the Channel itself?

(P.S. from Louise: Or how about from that one particular swimmer; a woman who dared to put both her foot in the water and her butt in the mystery writing chair?)


18 thoughts on “Finding Your Character(s)

  1. Alafair Burke

    I agree with the PS from Louise. Thank you, Sylvia, for sharing this amazing experience with us and also for being a part of our group here regularly in the comments. I recently took swimming lessons in the hopes of becoming a stronger swimmer, but the idea of swimming in open water still terrifies me.

  2. JD Rhoades

    "…even when I saw an empty crisps bag floating a few meters below me and hoping the hand of its consumer wasn’t attached to it."

    You sure you're not a mystery writer?

  3. Sylvia

    Alafair – if it makes you feel any better, I don't do well in the pool. I can't flip turn and in fact forget that I have to turn. On more than one occasion I've gone head-first into the wall.

    JD – if I could get it from more than one line then we'd be talking!

  4. Allison Brennan

    What an exciting day and story! Truly amazing, as Alafair said. I also find inspiration when I'm out doing something that is totally unrelated to writing. 🙂

  5. Allison Davis

    Well, we all know she can write…I was rivited to the story and wanted more. Raised so many questions, how did you feel in that water, what keeps you going? How do you keep your breathing steady? Most of all, I loved the connections you made to the past, the tributes to those who went before (not just Trudy but Reg Sr.) and your guide who probably wouldn't let you say "Dude" anymore than "awesome." Rich, vibrant, interesting…keep swimming and keep writing.

  6. Judy Wirzberger

    Sylvia, Awesome (sorry, couldn't resist) Goosebumps. Why only have one pov or one main character. Imagine the story of the group, what brought each one of them to the edge of the Channel? How their lives, so separate, intertwine. And who is the captain on the boat and how and why is he transporting swimmers, what happened to his wife, or his daughter, so that he loves and hates the swimmers and what they stand for.

    Wow! Do you have a story.

    And actually, as for Louise’s friend, amazing woman that she is…I admire you
    I do believe you should write at least a magazine article about your experience and what brought you to dip your toe into foriegn water.
    And, thanks, Louise, for introducing Sylvia.

  7. Sylvia

    You are all too kind and amazing. I've been reading the books of the Murderati crew since I started reading this site. I'm always riveted by your books and think "where and how did the author weave this together?" Where do your ideas come from? In reading many of your posts here I've now learned from each of you about what strikes your inspiration for a character, plot or setting. And of course I'm biased to Louise who starts with a title first. You just have to love that.

    AD – Great questions and thank you for the compliments! I can honestly say that in the English Channel it was as natural as rolling out of bed. I loved the long, deep swells as it matched my style of stroke which tends to be, err, slow. I'm by no means fast in turnover or overall speed. The water temp was wonderful and with the velocity of the water there were times I was darting out in front of the boat as if we were in a race. It was simply glorious and breathing becomes, well, quite natural. I'm like the kid getting off the roller coaster and running to get back in line. I'd go again in a heartbeat.

    I wish I could say I was a hardcore disciplinarian who things of nothing but their stroke while swimming – pull, hand position, rotation, kick… but I figure at that point I'm not going to become Michael Phelps nor is the Stroke Fairy coming to visit so my mind wanders to what's on the grocery list, did I remembered to pay my credit card bill, what's everyone on the boat talking about as I can see them standing there yacking away, what would I do if my next hand in the water hit something (or someone)…

    What kept all of us going was not wanting to quit, fail or somehow come up short of France. We'd already made the decision weeks before when hearing that other teams had stopped at 13-14 hours that we would not quit, even if it meant 30 hours. I recall one email stating "I have at least 6 hours in me – that's 5 rotations so 30 hours." We all agreed that if at 30 hours we weren't there, only then could we start having discussions.

    I also had a special pull as my father (much older than my mother as he was 67 when I was born) was a surgeon in WWII and crossed the Channel on D-Day to land on Omaha Beach. There were many, many thoughts about what the old SOB might be saying about his youngest daughter's mode of England to France. In his mind, women simply weren't capable of things like this.

  8. Louise Ure

    Oh, man, Sylvia. I didn't know about your father's connection to the Channel and D-Day. That makes it even more important and remarkable.

  9. Sylvia

    Louise – the plot thickens!

    Judy – good point. I always did have trouble with anything other than first-person POV but you are right. I admit, the pilots (Reg and Ray) and the observer can tell stories for hours. The observer even keeps a youtube channel (

    As for the swimmers – it isn't easy training for months with spouses and kids. Not to mention having to put on weight intentionally. OK, mine wasn't intentional but I can say that my fat finally found its Channel!

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sylvia, I'm so glad to have you here to share your AWESOME story!!!

    (Sorry – Valley girl, you know…)

    I hate pool swimming but swimming the English Channel is something I could seriously get into. It's got to be an altered state, that kind of physical exertion coupled with the out-of-bodyness that being in water is. For sure (sorry) I would tell it from the POV of the swimmer and I would milk that altered state, having the whole story take place in the hallucinatoric flashbacks and insights that come together during a swim like that.

  11. Louise Ure

    Alex, that reminds me of the Burt Lancaster movie, The Swimmer, from the 1960's where the story of his life was told as he swam from pool to pool.

  12. Sylvia

    I like the idea of hallucinating. I've heard from soloists that they have heard voices of dead people.

    I'm going to look for The Swimmer.

  13. Reine

    Sylvia, I'd really enjoy reading more from you. When I lived in Marblehead and Salem I was very much into long-distance swimming. The first time I sank in therapy pool was a shock. Can no longer do. But I totally love that you do!

  14. Sylvia

    Reine – Marblehead and Salem are divine and you were very lucky to enjoy the waters there.

    As for writing, we'll see. 🙂 I am in awe of the authors here and feel quite like the tween invited to sit at the grown-ups table for Thanksgiving dinner.

  15. Reine

    Hah! Sylvia, you are so modest. Lovely.

    I learned how to swim at Forest River Park's salt water pool in Salem. Although my first run in the water was at the little beach at Salem Willows when I was just a year and a half old. Apparently I scared everyone at the Read Family Picnic. I later perfected my run, jump nd scare-the-adults technique at a little beach just below the fort in Marblehead Harbor.

  16. Sylvia

    I'm liking this "run, jump and scare-the-adults" technique. I'm more of a crouching tiger, hidden walrus myself.

  17. Reine

    Haha! Hanh, my Buddhist monk buddy from seminary, once observed, "Uh. . . you're not into harmony, are you? Maybe you'd like to watch Sister Act tonight?"

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