Monday, April 15, 2013

Characters at Breakfast: George and Karla - contemporary characterization

Last time for the Characters at Breakfast post, we talked about food in historical settings with my young gunslingers Mick and Casey McKee's breakfast habits

This time we're talking about a contemporary story.  And of all the stories I'll talk about, the cozy mystery series about George Starling and Karla Marquette is the one where food is the most revealing of character.

And that makes sense: With a contemporary story you the most leeway for your characters to like just about anything.  These days, even in a small, isolated town -- such as Potewa -- the residents will get The Food Channel on cable TV, and they can order pretty much anything through the internet.  And many formerly exotic foods are routinely distributed to remote locations.

Food plays a very important role in this series.  First, the local culture of Potewa County is hospitality oriented: it's a northern lower Michigan beach town.  While it's not a "destination" attraction, most of the economy is based on people coming to visit -- whether it's a hotel or resort stay, or more likely a cabin in the woods.  And when they come to that cabin, they are probably there to acquire food: hunting, fishing, mushrooming, or coming for a cherry festival.

But beyond that, food is key to showing how the characters think:

In the very first chapter, we meet George's girlfriend Gwen, who suffers from anxiety disorders (and PTSD) and who eats only childish comfort foods -- particularly cheese burgers (no pickles).  And while George has come to despise cheeseburgers, he still hovers and loyally supplies all the burgers she could possibly want.  Furthermore, when Karla first meets George, and believes him to be a secret agent, she sneeks a peek into his briefcase, and her very first concern is that he hadn't packed a lunch -- which she believes one should do if one is going to stalk and spy on others.

As you'll notice, both George and Karla see food as nurturing as well as nutriment.  Although they are very different characters with very different tastes, they are immediately on the same wavelength with food.  That's why much of the scene where they first start working together is choreographed around the making of a snack.

Karla Marquette and George Starling

Character Name: Karla Marquette.
Series Title, Book Title: Starling and Marquette Mysteries: The Man Who Did Too Much
Location: Modern Day Michigan, rural/tourism area.

Karla is a middle-aged, small town spinster, who lives a hand-to-mouth lifestyle -- she gardens and barters and does odd jobs.  But she enjoys cooking and feeds herself well.

Usual breakfast: Karla, given her druthers, would mostly skip breakfast.  She might have some cold cereal, or some leftovers, or just a glass of milk.  Or a brownie.  She'd rather just start in on lunch after she wakes up.  (We see her nuke herself some hot chocolate in Chapter 19.)

What she'd prepare for herself:
As mentioned above, she generally skips breakfast.  However, if she feels she has to have breakfast -- like she's going to have a busy day, or might have to skip lunch -- she would make waffles or maybe hot cereal. Or she'd make lunch and just eat it early.

Fancy or special breakfast, restaurant breakfast:  Buttermilk pancakes with extra bacon and orange juice.  (Which is what she orders in Chapter 13, when her uncle, Sheriff Rosie, takes her out to breakfast so he can question her.  Rosie himself has "mostly everything on the menu.")

If she were out of town at an event, and needed to load up calories, she'd probably add scrambled eggs, but not because she likes them.

Breakfast on the run: Donut.  Chocolate frosting, no sprinkles. But only if you could get them someplace that makes real homemade cake donuts, fresh.


Character Name: George Starling
Series Title, Book Title: Starling and Marquette Mysteries: The Man Who Did Too Much
Location: Modern Day Michigan, rural/tourism area.

George is a wealthy globe-trotter who lives everywhere in the world, but we only see him when he's in Michigan.  Though George is an action hero, he is also somewhat neurotic. (He has a compulsive need to rescue people, which is mostly under control.)  He was raised in Asia and tends to have a preference for Asian foods.

Usual breakfast: Whatever you're having.

No, seriously.  George is a social chameleon.  Aside from being a sophisticated traveler who adapts to local customs, he's always seeking to blend in and please people.

So normally, if he's with somebody, he'll eat approximately as they do.  However, he is also a closet gourmet and secretly fussy as hell, so he'd probably adjust his order subtly to upgrade it.  He is also happy to be a "food guide" to anyone who is unfamiliar with a cuisine.

What he'd make for himself: Left to his own devices, he'd make himself a bowl of Juk (rice gruel) or noodles, Asian style.

Fancy or special breakfast, restaurant breakfast: His mother was an anglophile, and so he considers a "proper" breakfast to be an English breakfast.  He would never make it himself, but that's what he'd order in a hotel restaurant -- but it isn't his idea of a fancy meal out. (A fancy meal is not something you have at breakfast.)

Breakfast on the run: He would prefer whatever the local equivalent is to jian bing -- which is a Chinese version of a breakfast burrito. He likes street food, but he'd rather go hungry than eat packaged fast food.

As you'll note: breakfast isn't really a favored meal of either of these characters, but as I said above they both enjoy food.  It's a form of self-expression for both of them.  But food is kind of a symbol of life -- and George really doesn't know how to enjoy his life -- except in the area of food, and even there he is a little inhibited.  Karla, on the other hand, knows exactly how to enjoy life, and she becomes George's "Happiness Coach."  George is happy to return the favor by mentoring her appreciation of exotic fare.

Next time we'll talk about four characters from the summer serial her on the blog - last year's The Case of the Misplaced Hero, and the upcoming The Case of the Misplaced Baroness. Alex, Professor Thorny, Captain Rozinshura, and introducing Lady Pauline, the young Baroness of Beethingham -- around whom the overall series revolves. (The series title, I fear, will be called The Perils of Lady Pauline, or perhaps just The Perils of Plink, as that is her nickname.)

That series takes place in an alternate universe -- but one based on a fictional version of this universe.  That allows a blend of fantasy world-building (and food can be the most fun part of that!) and historical and modern diet.

Meanwhile, you can check out the first Starling and Marquette Mystery, The Man Who Did Too Much, at:, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Deisel, Apple iBookstore, Sony eReader, or get it in all formats without DRM at Smashwords.

(There is also a very short flash story featuring George and Karla in the collection Pink Snowbunnies In Hell.  It's called "Revenge of the Peeps" and it's available from most of the  above vendors.)

Buying books not only encourages me to write more of them, but it also supports the blog.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You're giving me food for thought, Camille! :) I haven't thought a lot about what food choices can tell us about a character, but I will now.

The Daring Novelist said...

Food is a big thing in cozy mysteries -- I mean aside from characterization. It's very often the first attraction of the reader to the seires! (As with your BBQ mysteries.)

Kyra said...

here's my next entry in the Breakfast Challenge:

I don't know if I could write contemporary real-world fiction if I had to - the only "contemporary" fiction I've written is, this is true, Sailor Moon fanfic. I do have a kind of crazy little idea for a fantasy/baseball story, which would involve great big healthy (or maybe not) athlete's breakfasts.

The breakfast options available in the modern world do allow for a lot more individual variety, so you can really show character by the food the character chooses and not just by how they eat it.

The Daring Novelist said...

Your second post here really hits on some important aspects of food in fantasy: you really think about the _reasons_ behind a cuisine.

As for contemporary: it's funny what our imaginations hand us. Yours clearly likes to go far afield!