Defining Auntie Beth

(Originally published July 4, 2007).

My husband is my brainstorming partner and my first line critique buddy. I doubt I would have finished, or for that matter, even started my first book without his help.

Last week, I gave him Chapter 5 of FUR BALL FEVER to read — the chapter where I introduce my heroine’s quirky Auntie Beth, her more-or-less-permanent houseguest. Auntie Beth is an aging hippie, a rebel who says all the things we would all love to say but don’t, who allows her dog do his business on her enemy’s lawn, and isn’t above telling the occasional lie if that makes her life easier. For example, she has convinced her niece she doesn’t know how to cook, and for over a year, Grace believed her — until she returned home unexpectedly to find her renegade aunt baking a batch of brownies for her card-shark buddies, the Canasta Crones. Here is an excerpt.

Auntie Beth’s intruder detection radar must have been working overtime, because she whipped her head around hard enough to cause whiplash. She made a quick recovery, and chirped, “My, that was an awfully fast visit, dear. I thought you’d be out of the house at least a couple of hours.”

“I bet you did.” All the more annoyed at her own gullibility, mainly because lying about her lack of cooking skills was a stunt she might have pulled herself, Grace gestured at the pan of brownies. “You lied to me about never learning to cook.”

Auntie Beth skirted Grace’s accusation with the crafty ease that only comes with years of steady practice. “Have you solved the case yet?” she asked, as she started spreading the glop.

“Not yet,” Grace snapped, thinking of all the meals she’d prepared, her aunt sprawled in her favorite recliner, glued to soap operas, talk shows, and sitcoms. Unwilling to let the old fraud off the hook, Grace stuck two fingers into the bowl and swirled them in the creamy mixture, scooping up as much as possible.

Auntie Beth had the nerve to bat Grace’s hand away and give her niece a pained look. “Hey, hey. Don’t touch the goodies. I slaved all morning over these things.”

I adore Auntie Beth.

My husband, not so much. At least, not in the first draft. “She’s too one-dimensional,” he announced tactfully. “The bratty child act is funny at first, but gets tiring by the end of the chapter.”

“But that’s how she’s supposed to be,” I whined. “She’s supposed to be a renegade.”

He shrugged. “It’s too much like a parent-child relationship — with Auntie Beth as the child. Make the reader believe there is a reason she is Grace’s favourite relative.”

And so, as I re-read Chapter 5 with my husband’s comments in the back of my mind, I discovered he was right, as usual. Consequently, I added the following few paragraphs.

More and more, Grace felt like a parent confronting a delinquent teenager. She brandished the fistful of cutlery. “We need to have a serious talk.”

Auntie Beth slanted Grace a sly glance. “Did Nick agree to help you find Miss Coco?”

Not in this lifetime. Grace decided there was no reason to worry her aunt by mentioning Nick’s veto of her involvement in a potentially dangerous investigation. Not yet, anyway. Choosing her words carefully, she said, “After a fashion. The macho hot-shot insisted on taking over the case. Said something about how he couldn’t bend the rules to let me watch the surveillance video, so he would work the case himself.”

A worried wrinkle appeared between Auntie Beth’s eyebrows and she stopped polishing. “Can he stop you from investigating?”

“No. But he can withhold critical information.” Like, I’d know what to do with critical information if it jumped up and bit me on the butt.

Auntie Beth slapped down the rest of the cutlery and turned to face Grace, her hands fisted on her hips. “I want you, not some misguided male chauvinist, to find Miss Coco.”

A truckload of self doubt overwhelmed Grace. What had she ever done to earn Auntie Beth’s unswerving confidence? “Maybe we should leave the case with Nick if you want your dog back safe and sound. He has more experience. I’ll probably just screw up again.”

Auntie Beth placed her hands on Grace’s shoulders. “No, you won’t. Haven’t I told you a zillion times that you’re brilliant? Ingenious? Capable?”

“Yes.” That was precisely why Grace thought the sun rose and set on her aunt.

“If I told you once, I told you a hundred times, you got all the brains in my brother’s family. I hate to admit it, but your father, God love him, is an idiot. Your three macho brothers are almost as bad. They don’t know what to do with a firecracker like you.”

Tears prickled behind Grace’s eyelids. “Can’t argue with that assessment.”

Her aunt pushed a lock of hair away from Grace’s face. “All you need to do is focus. God gave you the ability to do anything, if only you put your mind to it.”

Unable to speak, Grace bent her head and nodded.

“If anyone can find Miss Coco, you can.”

In the face of such touching belief in her abilities, how could she wimp out and hand her case over to Nick without an argument? She gazed at her aunt. “I won’t disappoint you.”

Auntie Beth’s eyes crinkled. “You could never disappoint me, dear.” She picked up the dish cloth again and dried the baking bowl.

 When my husband’s right, he’s right. Now, Auntie Beth is not only funny and rebellious, but she also has a heart of gold and more depth of character.