by Lucy Burdette
With twelve cozy culinary mysteries down the hatch (sorry, couldn’t help myself), I realize I am very accustomed to understanding my characters through what and how they eat. The main character in my Key West foodie mysteries, Hayley Snow, is a food critic. Her mother, Janet, is a caterer. Both women are excellent cooks who love to entertain. As Hayley Snow said in Killer Takeout: “Food is a major deal in my family—life-sustaining, of course. But it also provides clues to the cook’s inner life, like a psychologist’s inkblot test. According to my mother, and her mother before her, the menu that the hostess selects always, always sends a message to the guests.” Along with the psychological insights food offers, many suspects and clues are dissected over a meal at one of their kitchen tables. They both marvel over how it might be possible that a person doesn’t care what they eat. And more than once, food has been the delivery method for the murder. (Poisoned key lime pie, anyone?)
Writing my first suspense book, Unsafe Haven, has been a different story. For my main characters, sixteen-year-old new mother Addy and newly jilted bride Elizabeth, whose lives intersect in an abrupt way, food is the last thing on their minds. No one is musing over recipes in this book. No one is lingering over a meal because they are running for their lives.
Did I use any food in this book, I wondered? Maybe a little. Addy scarfs down stale packaged chocolate donuts in a rest stop because she’s ravenous and that’s what she can afford. When Elizabeth’s wedding is called off by her fiancé two days before the festivities, food for two hundred is delivered to her mother’s home, though only the immediate family is there. Her mother muses about what’s for supper:
‘Let’s think about dinner. How does lemon chicken sound? With wild rice?’
Leftover wedding food.
‘Grotesque,’ said Elizabeth, ‘that’s how it sounds. Grotesque, grim, and utterly pathetic.’
‘Let’s put the rest of that in the freezer,’ suggested Aunt Susan, ‘or maybe the trash, where it belongs.’ They all three burst into laughter. ‘I’ll cook something. What are you craving?’
‘Macaroni and cheese,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Comfort food.’
Not too long after that conversation, Addy, the desperate teenager, shows up at their suburban home. She is invited to shower while they make her some lunch.
By the time she got to the kitchen, the three women were seated at the table, with mugs of tea steaming in front of them. At her place, set with a red placemat and a pretty white dish with holly around the rim and a napkin decorated with dancing reindeer, she found a perfectly grilled cheese sandwich, a heap of fruit, and a glass of milk.
?‘Don’t be shy,’ said Elizabeth’s mother. ‘Dig in. And please, call me Videen.’
?‘And me Susan,’ said the aunt. ‘And we’ve got tons of cookies and the hot chocolate I promised when you’re done with all that.’ She pointed to a plate in the middle of the table, mounded with homemade sugar cookies shaped like bells and candy canes, and gingerbread men, and some round ones covered in powdered sugar that she’d never seen before. When they had Christmas cookies at her mother’s house, they came from the local supermarket. The women sipped their tea and chatted about little things to pretend they weren’t watching Addy eat.
Whether I had consciously intended to show the drama of that moment through food or not, I was pleased to see that the tension crackled. Addy’s life is nothing like Elizabeth’s, and in this scene she painfully recognizes the difference. That realization adds to her despair and informs her next move.
Writing a new kind of book feels a bit like trying a new recipe for dinner guests—I hope you will give Unsafe Haven a try. Let me know how you like it!
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