I love the part of being a writer that enables me to create characters, but after reading Stephen King’s Misery, after learning that Arthur Conon Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Homes and the fans wouldn’t let him, after seeing what happened to J K Rowling’s first non-Harry Potter book (albeit her fans eventually came through) or Sarah Paretsky’s only book without Chicago Detective V I Warshawski, all of whose fans wanted more and more of the same, I decided to create new characters each book. Most of mine tend to be women who get involved in the mystery accidently. My characters also tend to be the opposite of the young, slim, blond, athletic lesbians that dominate our literature. Only 6% of women weigh the same or less than the average woman on TV. Most of them are 19 years old. Story worthy things happen to women who belong to the other 96%. Life doesn’t end at twenty-five.
Bertha Brannon was the protagonist of my first mystery, Nine Nights on the Windy Tree. I deliberately created her the opposite of the traditional lesbian heroine. She was a 6-foot-tall, 200-pound, black, forty something, attorney and newly-recovering drug addict who was just out of treatment and trying to put together a legal practice. Older than the average lesbian heroine, she has some ex-lover baggage, she sweats too much, and often she gets deeper into trouble by trusting someone she shouldn’t. Moreover, she always needs money because she is a sap, often giving her services away to women in trouble. In other words she’s just like me—except my skin isn’t black and my degree is not in law, but in English.
In the first chapter, I put Bertha down in a scene straight out of The Maltese Falcon and China Town. Bertha needs to pay the rent but doesn’t have the money. It’s a hot Friday afternoon and she is looking forward to getting out of her court “get up” and going home. A woman comes into her office and tries to engage Bertha’s services because a psychic has told her she was going to be arrested for murdering her husband. She hasn’t done it yet, but why wait till the last minute? Bertha doesn’t want the case. But the woman, Sally Morescki, takes cash out of her purse and Bertha needs the to pay the rent. As one thing leads to another, Bertha learns that the woman isn’t Sally Morescki. By then she’s up to her ears in trouble.
While I patterned the first chapter after those old noirish mysteries, I promise you that I created Bertha’s grandma to be much like my own—full of spirit, stubborn and likely to do about anything. Of course, Bertha’s grandma was black, mine wasn’t. The book was with the publisher in some stage of editing when I read the first Stephanie Plum mystery. Stephanie has a grandma who lives with her parents and is a lot like Bertha’s grandma. This was frustrating. One critic, Joan Drury, reviewing the book, said, “Bertha’s grandmother is worth the price [of the book] alone.”
I also gave Bertha something that I wanted but didn’t get. Bertha was raised by her grandma. I remember my grandma telling me how she was taught to use her walker on the stairs. As a little girl, I remember her backyard, full of fruit trees and flowers and a tomato patch. Grandma would point to a flower and say “see how well my azaleas are doing.” It was several years after she was gone that I realized she was teaching me the names of all those plants. I wish I had listened more carefully. Bertha’s grandma lived in my grandma’s house and on the corner was Latch’s grocery store, which was also a big part of the book.
While my partner and I were driving to Niagara Falls celebrating our Civil Union, as well as twenty years together, I brought Nine Nights’ along and read it in the car. I realized how much I missed Bertha and I decided to try a sequel. I wrote the first book fifteen years ago. So I aged Bertha, and I made her a judge. Now she’s 210 pounds and 5 feet 11 inches—shorter and a bit heavier. I had Bertha’s partner, Toni Matulis, a beat cop, and Toni’s mixed-race, daughter Doree who’s now a teenager living with Bertha. I didn’t think Grandma could possibly still be alive. Then as I talked about the project, people told me they loved Grandma and looked forward to catching up on her too. So I finally blew some life into her and put her in a nursing home where she loves horror movies and meets a younger white man on the Internet.
After finishing Widow—after the book was with the editor, I went to St. Louis to see Sue Grafton; she was promoting her new book W is for Wasted. I got the book free with the price of my ticket. When I got home and read it, I was unpleasantly surprised to find an ornery cat in the book. Widow has a psychotic cat the Bertha renames Norman Bates. I was pleased to find that Grafton didn’t do much with her cat. Norman Bates introduces new conflict for Bertha, as the day she brings him home, he crawls into the ductwork beneath the house.
I tell writing students that there are only 37 plots. (Recently I found them listed on the Internet.) Writers keep marching out new and interesting characters and putting them through those plots. My point was beauty is relative—in the eye of the beholder.
So Widow has a funny grandma and a psychotic cat and a beautiful 210 pound heroine in her mid-fifties who suddenly finds herself alone.