I invited Lisa Brunette to come over and chat about quirky characters and her new book Bound to the Truth. So what makes a character quirky? And just how many quirks does it take to belong in the quirky category? Read on!
Bound to the Truth
By Lisa Brunette
Genre: Cozy Mystery
What if you could ‘slip’ into the dreams of a killer?
This family of PIs can. They use their psychic dream ability to solve crimes, and that isn’t easy. Especially when your client thinks she knows who the killer is, but you don’t believe her. Did Nina Howell really fall under the spell of a domineering, conservative talk show host–as her wife claims?
Crafting the Quirky Character
Readers often say they appreciate the character development in my Dreamslippers Series, which centers on a family of private investigators with the unique ability to slip into a person’s dreams. This ability, which has its limitations, isn’t their only quirk. The matriarch is a 77-year-old yogi with flamboyant manners and a self-styled New Age belief system that proves to be a challenge for her granddaughter, who grew up in the Midwest with conservative Catholic parents.
Along with the dreamslipping ability, unconventional names run in this family. That septuagenarian PI legally changed her name to “Amazing Grace,” and her granddaughter was named “Cathedral,” in honor of her mother’s devotion to the faith. The girl herself prefers the shortened form, “Cat.”
To complicate matters, the ability to dreamslip has skipped a generation. That’s why Cat must travel to Seattle to apprentice with Amazing Grace as the series opens in Cat in the Flock. She needs to learn from her grandmother how to hone the skill, as well as how to make use of it as a private investigator, which has been her grandmother’s vocation for many years. As you can imagine, three strong women with varying religious and political bents and a psychic ability thrown into the mix makes for natural-born conflict. When Cat’s mother comes to Seattle to visit in Bound to the Truth, the cookie most certainly crumbles:
Cat awoke early the next morning to the sound of someone banging pots and pans around in the kitchen.
She pulled on her robe and stumbled down the hallway to the Terra-Cotta Cocina, where she found her grandmother, who appeared to be baking cookies.
“What. Are. You. Doing?”
“Giving my daughter what she’s always wanted.”
Cat rubbed her eyes as she noticed that her grandmother was out of her usual stylish clothes and had dressed herself like, well, like a schoolmarm. Her hair was up in a tight bun, her blouse was buttoned up to her chin, with a ribbon tied at her neck, and her long skirt brushed the top of—Cat gasped when she saw them—orthopedic shoes.
“Oh, Granny Grace,” Cat said. “Is this really necessary?”
“Yes,” she said, sliding a tray of cookies onto the kitchen island to cool.
“And now, for the pancakes.”
The aroma of fresh-baked cookies made Cat’s mouth water and her stomach rumble. She reached to filch a cookie, and her grandmother smacked her with a wooden spoon. “You’ll spoil your breakfast!”
“You can wait. The pancakes will be done in no time.” She cracked a few eggs into a bowl and used the wooden spoon to stir the mixture, balancing herself on her walker as she cooked.
“Should you be doing so much so soon?”
Her grandmother shrugged. “I’m recovering faster than you all think. For example, that ridiculous bed in the Pink Parlor—I don’t need it!”
Mercy walked in. “What don’t you need, Mother?”
“Good morning, dear!” beamed Granny Grace.
Mercy walked over to the counter and picked up a cookie. She smelled it. And set it back down.
“So, what exactly are we doing here?” she asked, her hands on her hips.
Cat tried her best to appear invisible, but it didn’t work. Why couldn’t she have inherited a superpower like that?
Granny Grace took her time flipping over the four pancakes in her skillet. “What we are doing here,” she said, licking batter off her finger, “is giving you the image of motherhood you always craved. Because I certainly never fit the bill.”
“Oh, Mother. Must you always be so dramatic?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s time you had a chance to contrast what you had against what you think you should have had. So here I am. Your milk-and-cookies version.”
“What’s this?” asked a voice at the doorway. Cat turned to see her father. “Pot for dinner and cookies for breakfast—wow, you Seattleites really know how to live.”
“We’re having pancakes for breakfast,” Granny Grace corrected. “The cookies are for later.” She deftly shifted the flapjacks from the skillet to a plate, and soon the stack was pretty high. “Why don’t you all set the table?”
“Mother, you didn’t need to do this,” said Mercy. “I mean, what is this supposed to prove? You want me to say that I’m glad you had more fashion sense than the average mom? That I was better off learning the various uses of Tibetan prayer flags than I would have been making mud pies?”
“I was always in favor of mud pies,” her grandmother said.
“Are we really doing this right now?” whined Cat. “Because my stomach and those pancakes both suggest we table this discussion.”
“Well, in order to make mud pies, you’d need a backyard…” said Mercy, banging a plate down onto the table.
“Okay, so I guess we’re doing this,” said Cat.
“It’s breakfast and a show,” said her father, who busied himself setting out silverware.
“…Not some walk-up tenement, or a gypsy caravan bus, or an ashram,” continued Mercy.
“There was plenty of mud to be had at that ashram,” said Granny Grace.
“Oh, sure, but there weren’t any other kids to play with. Because no one else was selfish enough to drag their children there!”
The kitchen became still after that comment. Cat was afraid to breathe. Next to her at the table, her father swallowed hard, and sighed.
Granny Grace set the enormous stack of pancakes down with a clatter. “I gave you a childhood of diversity, of unique experience. You were loved. You were taught more than most people learn in a lifetime. I’m just sorry you think of the whole thing as my colossal failure. But I refuse to buy into your story, Mercy. It isn’t mine. And it shouldn’t be yours, either. It’s not serving you in any way.”
At that, she limped out of the room.
I’ve always loved characters in fiction who seem outside the norm, who flout societal convention or go against the grain. In my early years, I was a huge fan of every odd character the comedian Jerry Lewis played, such as Cinderfella or an orderly involved in madcap adventures. Next came Carol Burnett’s memorable character sketches. Even a small walk-on character such as Hee Haw‘s Minnie Pearl would thrill me to no end with a single eccentricity: the price tag left dangling from her oversized hats. Give me someone’s crazy Aunt Wilma or eccentric cousin Larry, and I’m instantly entertained. As soon as these characters walk into a scene, they have everyone’s attention; the story in fact begins to turn on their larger-than-life actions.
Later in my infatuation with le strange came some truly out-of-this-world types, like Mork from Ork, the Greatest American Hero, and Max Headroom. These quirkmeisters teach us about ourselves by revealing how arbitrary our social conventions truly are, how dependent they are on everyone agreeing on X. They pose excellent–not to mention hilarious–questions: What are the effects of taking in a steady stream of advertising? What if we could suddenly fly? What if we all sat on our heads instead of our butts?
Even during my academic training in literature, I gravitated toward the quirky end of the canon. Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Morrison’s Sethe, the many characters peopling Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction… My favorite females were made indomitably strong by the challenges they’d faced, and if that forge wrought them into a shape that didn’t fit any mold, we were all the better for it. During my eight-year stint as a college teacher, I again preferred the quirkmeisters, opting to teach Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for the witty repartee, and introducing my students to Jonathan Swift’s biting poetic parody instead of relying on his more well-known works.
Part of the reason I’m drawn to read, view, and write these characters is because they’re so familiar to me. While Cat, Mercy, and Granny Grace are all fictitious characters, they were informed by a lifetime growing up in a large, rambunctious, mostly working class family of pranksters, sarcastic jokesters, and storytellers. They’re all with me when I write.
Praise for the series…
For readers who enjoy strong female leads, quirky, well-developed characters, and a dash of dating drama with their mystery. Fans of J.A. Jance, Mary Daheim, and Jayne Ann Krentz will love Cat and “Amazing” Grace!
About the Author
Lisa was born in Santa Rosa, California, but that was only home for a year. A so-called “military brat,” she lived in nine different houses and attended nine different schools by the time she was 14. Through all of the moves, her one constant was books. She read everything, from the entire Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mystery series to her mother’s books by Daphne du Maurier and Taylor Caldwell. A widely published author, game writer, and journalist, Lisa has interviewed homeless women, the designer of the Batmobile, and a sex expert, to name just a few colorful characters. This experience, not to mention her own large, quirky family, led her to create some truly memorable characters in her Dreamslippers Series and other works, whether books or games. Always a vivid dreamer, not to mention a wannabe psychic, Lisa feels perfectly at home slipping into suspects’ dreams, at least in her imagination. Her husband isn’t so sure she can’t pick up his dreams in real life, though. With a hefty list of awards and publications to her name, Lisa now lives in a small town in Washington State, but who knows how long that will last…
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Thanks so much, Lisa, for sharing quirky character traits! Come back soon!