By Martha Miller

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 TreeNine 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 WidowWidow  300 DPI—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.

8 Responses to “Characters”

  1. 1 S. Renée Bess November 18, 2014 at 9:01 AM

    Thank you for creating Bertha and her grandmother. I always enjoy reading stories that are populated with women who, in some ways, look like me. I appreciate the hesitation some authors experience when they write about characters who represent “the other,” ethnicity, size, age, socio-economic background. How have your Bertha-centered books been received by your readership?


    • 2 Martha Miller November 22, 2014 at 7:49 PM

      My first Bertha book was “Nine Nights on the Windy Tree,” and it was only my second book published, so the readers who found it liked the characters a lot. BSB was good enough to bring out “Nine Nights….” in ebook form for readers who are interested in the prequel.


  2. 3 S.A. November 18, 2014 at 1:38 PM

    Fun blog! I was chuckling throughout – I’m definitely going to scope out your books to see if this humor is so pervasive through them as well. 🙂 And kudos to you for presenting lead characters outside the general norm (young, skinny, athletic). I’m aging out of that group myself, so it’s always refreshing to find stories focused on older, less perfect characters.


  3. 4 francimcmahon November 18, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    I will second this. So boring to have the tanned toned firm gorgeous bodies, when you know the reality, our reality is to be lusciously soft in the middle, fans of wrinkles from our eyes and our past encounters with women who have taught us the infinite variety of loving women.


  4. 6 Sheri Campbell November 18, 2014 at 5:02 PM

    Enjoyed this blog so much I must check out Widow asap. Already fell in love with your characters. Really like the way you think. Do you ever get to Dallas? We have a wonderful Jewel book club.Hint, Hint.


  5. 7 Sheri Campbell November 18, 2014 at 5:04 PM

    I did enjoy Retirement Plan….Widow will be full of fun and laughs too.


  6. 8 Patricia Ann Hartsfield Martin November 25, 2014 at 5:32 PM

    Very interesting, Martha. You’re the real thing—a published author. I want your newest book. I have the others. I’ll try to make it on Saturday.


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