10 April 2017

Do Pets Enhance Your Stories?

I live in a small town, that in reality could just be called a community. Except we have a City Hall, a City Council, a volunteer fire department  and a Police Department. We now have four sit-down restaurants, a marina, a Subway sandwich shop and a Sports Bar and Grill, where you can order great hamburgers or Wings and there is a sit-down dining area if that's your thing. We have an auto-motive shop,a gas station, a Hill Country Community Playhouse for live theater productions and a Dollar General Store. Just a mile from my house is Lake Marble Falls, which was formed by damming off the Lower Colorado River. And part of the chain of seven Highland Lakes in the Texas Hill Country. So we have a mixed community, high-end houses with a lake views or lakefront properties and a small section of single-wide or double wide trailers.

 Most of the area where I'm located is what I would call a middle class neighborhood. We also have a fairly large number of vacant lots which are wooded and because of that and the proximity to the lake we have a large population of deer. It's not unusual to walk out of my house in the afternoon or evening and find six or eight deer grazing on the lawn or even bedded down for the night in my yard. I enjoy seeing the deer. Especially this time of year when the does have produced babies and I get to see little fawns as they learn to use their little legs to hurry across the street and get out of the way of cars or trucks. The speed limit is 35 MPH but you know how that goes. Everyone seems to be in a hurry and sometimes they hit a deer.

My love of nature and watching the animals and the fact that my feline companion, Nora just turned twenty years old on March 30th, got me to thinking about animals in our stories and books. How many people have pets in their books? Not a specific Cat or Dog series just your main character's personal pet. I think it adds an extra dimension to the characterization. I love both cats and dogs but have have more cats myself for the past twenty-two years. Had a wonderful little dog up until a couple of years before I got Nick and Nora. Nick was with me for 17.5 years and Nora still is with me They were eight weeks old when they came to live with me and my husband.I laughingly tell people she's been with me longer than any of my kids, because the kids went off to college or got married.

For a number of years I wrote short stories for many of the Cat Crime books, And there were different fictionalized cats in each story. Some of their names were, Willie, Snowflake, Sam Spade and Domino. Snowflake was a black kitten with a white star-shaped design on the top of her head that looked like a snowflake had landed there. Domino was a white kitten with two black dots on her face above her eyes that looked like the dots on a domino. Willie and Spade were just cats that sorta helped the story along, Don't remember if I described them too much.

Then I wrote a story about White House Pet Detectives and discovered that Abe Lincoln had a cat named Tabby and they had goats and several other animals. I wrote a story with Tabby. I also visited the White House Pet Museum in Virginia. I was in the area for a mystery con and it seemed like I should definitely make a visit so I went.

Nick and Nora appeared in a story in an anthology titled Midnight Louie's Pet Detectives, edited by Carole Nelson Douglas's Midnight Louie. Nick and Nora were still little tykes who could type...well, Nora was able to read and write and type but she had not learn how to make capital letters. They both told the story and since they were black cats and lived in Texas where Midnight Louis lived they claimed a kinship to "Uncle Louie."  But they also claimed to have experienced a bit of detective training from Uncle Louie and used that knowledge to solve a case. Don't know if that was cat telepathy or Paws Express mail service.

In my first Zoe Barrow, police woman book, she had a couple of cats, named Melody and Lyric. Those were the cat names of two cats that at one time belonged to my daughter. They did nothing to help with the mystery, just gave Zoe a couple of pets to mention as animals to round her character out a bit. Characters can talk to the pets about the case, using them as a sounding board. Or they are useful to show how the writer can slow the action just before building up an scene of tension or unwinding after a scene of tension.

Cats and dogs both can be very accurate in their reactions to people. More so than the character themselves at times.  Animals often sense the good or bad or fear in people. They also can feel the true feelings of liking or love for them. That can be very useful to the character in certain situations.
I have a feeling that birds or fish or horses or alligators or snakes help to show a character's demeanor or even to help readers like or dislike a character.

Do any of you use pets at all and what do you think about it for your writing?  


  1. We, my wife and I, have had cats and dogs pretty much forever. And I have used pets in stories. I also killed one off one time...and did I hear about that. I think it worked plot-wise but it really didn't sit well with people. And he was based on one of the dogs my family had as a kid. Luckily the real guy lived a long, happy life.

  2. I have three cats and have had cats for most of my life. I use pets in stories and books now and then, too, and I loved writing for the Cat Crimes series.

    1. Bill, I loved the Cat crime anthologies too, I've been rereading them and am reading FELINE AND FAMOUS now. What fun stories these were. OK some were a bit scary but the idea was so fun.

  3. Both my wife and I have had dogs or cats for most of our lives, and we currently have two rescue cats. The women in both my PI series have cats, too. Woody Guthrie's companion Megan Traine has two rescues, a big tuxedo cat she named Clyde(sdale) because he has double front paws, and a smaller calico named Bonnie. An early draft of a story with those two that will probably never be written had Clyde attacking a man who wanted to hurt Meg.

    Beth Shepard, who now shares a house with Zach Barnes, has a gray tiger named Rufus. I've never developed that cat much because I thought the original book would be a standalone.

    Not only do animals react accurately to people, but you can show a lot about a character by how he or she treats animals and children. Remember the scene in the Clint Eastwood film (is it Tightrope? Something from the 80s) where the dog ends up in the clothes dryer? You know how awful the villain is then...especially since he was going after Eastwood's children.

  4. Well, let's see: my Laskin reporter, Bob, has a high-strung Irish setter named Elsie (based on a friend's dog), Matt Stark has a dog that goes EVERYWHERE with her named Whisper. Other than that, I don't do much with animals. Yet. Have to think about that.

  5. Jan, the main character in my cozyesque series, Callie Parrish, has a Great Dane she received as a puppy. Big Boy has been with her through seventh books, and he's kidnapped in the eighth, which is scheduled for release in September.

    1. I remember Callie's Great Dane. Fantastic idea for a big dog that's not the usual Poodle or German Shepherd.

  6. Cats listen so intently. My mother had a beautiful but very mean Siamese cat who growled when I imitated someone else's voice! Later, someone gave us a cat named Katrina, but my daughter had a friend named Tina & whenever her name was mentioned, the cat spoke up. So we started calling the friend Tito. I admit I teased the cat sometimes by calling her Catalina, Concertina, etc. & she always answered.

  7. I've had many pets in real life--starting when my husband and I took in a feral cat when we were newlyweds--but I've seldom used them in stories. I should do it more often: The one time I put a cat in a story for AHMM, it made the cover. When our dog died, I wrote a story about him as a tribute, telling it from his POV and having him play an important role in solving a crime. That story didn't sell, but I had it on my website for many years.

  8. Jan, I've had two stories published in which I had pets, one a dog and one a cat. Neither was based on any particular animal I've known. They were there because they helped move the plot along. I have a story with cows in it that's due to come out next year in an animal crime anthology (Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies). The cows also play an important role in the story.

    Since my first dog, Scout, died four years ago, I've used animals a lot more. I guess they've been on my mind. Indeed three of the four new stories I have out for submission have an animal in them that plays a key plot role. (Scout was the model for the dog in one of those stories. I wrote the first draft soon after he died, and a friend who read it told me that I clearly didn't need therapy, because I was working things out on the page.)

    And Bonnie, I read the dog story you had on your website. I'm sorry it didn't sell. It was a good, touching read.

  9. Thanks all for your comments about your personal pets. And your fictional ones. As I write this Nora is sitting on my lap. And if you haven' t met Bill Crider's VBKs you need to check his FB page.

  10. Haven't had pets of my own for a while but my Mom & Dad's cat inspired (and shows up in) a story I've just written! Wonderful column, Jan!


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