Jen Blood here, delving into a post about my favorite people on the planet: animals. When I was first in grad school in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, I had the stellar novelist/playwright Michael Kimball as a workshop leader. I handed in the opening pages of an early draft of All the Blue-Eyed Angels for critique that week. Mike was generous with his praise on most aspects of the story: plot, setting, character, prose, he said, were all good. Which was very nice of him, considering what I see when I look at those pages now. He did, however, have one big suggestion:
Ditch the dog.
For those who haven’t read my Erin Solomon mysteries, Erin is a thirty-something reporter working to solve the mystery of an alleged cult suicide that’s haunted her since childhood. Einstein, described in the first book as “part Muppet, part terrier,” is Erin’s faithful companion.
Mike’s reasoning was sound: You don’t have dogs in books any more than you have kids in books, because it can limit your character’s movements and means everyone always has to worry about where the dog (or kid) is. He added something that has become a touchstone for me ever since (because I, of course, refused to get rid of the dog): “If you’re going to keep the damn dog, your reader better know where he is at all times.”
From that point on, it became a mission of mine when writing. Where is the dog? If it’s ninety degrees out and Erin’s driving somewhere, what does she do with him while she’s inside? Obviously, she can’t leave him in the car. It’s a pet peeve of mine when I see other writers do this – introduce a beloved family pet in one chapter, and then only mention him again when it’s convenient to the plot.
With five Erin Solomon/Einstein mysteries under my belt (and one prequel that pre-dates Stein), I’m now starting a new series. This one revolves around search and rescue dog handler Jamie Flint. Instead of just one dog, there’s a whole cadre of them. As I’m fleshing out the canine characters and writing the first draft, I’m revisiting a few of the tricks I learned with that first go-round. Here, in no particular order, are my tips for effectively incorporating four-leggeds in your fiction.
- Give your pooch (or favorite feline, chameleon, or wayward pachyderm) personality. Anyone who has pets knows, the fuzziest members of society have serious charisma. Delve beyond stereotypes of the breed (the noble German shepherd, the finicky feline, the loyal retriever), and really get to know these characters as…well, characters. In fact, it’s great fun to play around with those stereotypes. A cat who fetches; a pit bull too lazy to play; a spider with a heart of gold (I believe that last one may have been done before, however).
- Keep tabs. As I mentioned before, it’s critical to know where your fictional pets are at all times. If you’re not an animal lover, it might not make much difference to you whether your pup is alone in the kitchen with a freshly basted turkey or your kitten is playing by a busy highway. I guarantee, though, that there will be readers who are tracking your pet’s every move. I’ve gotten a lot of email from readers who express fervent appreciation for the fact that Einstein is always either present or accounted for.
- Know your endgame.
Particularly if you’re writing a long-running series, it’s good to keep in mind the future of your beloved. More often than not, our human characters age as we write them… It’s an unfortunate fact of life that animals age even faster. If you’re writing a series that spans several years, that gawky Great Dane pup you started out with is inevitably not going to be so spry over time. Are you prepared to handle that? And, perhaps more importantly, are your readers? True, it’s a device diabolically abused among writers the world over, but it’s bound to have repercussions. There’s even a Goodreads page called The Dog Dies… A Cautionary List!
- Use your non-human characters to flesh out your humans. One of the major reasons I was so invested in keeping Einstein in the Erin Solomon series is because, particularly at the beginning of the series, Erin is often… well, kind of a pain in the ass. She’s caustic, stubborn, and, frankly, often selfish and a little unlovable. A lot of that is surface stuff and you get to know her better and she mellows considerably over the course of the first few novels. In order to give readers a glimpse of what lies beneath before that, however, I needed something that would humanize her and show her softer side. Einstein became the perfect vehicle to do that. He is, in essence, her heart.
- Genre dictates the role animals play in the proceedings. These days, as most everyone visiting this website probably knows, there are whole genres devoted to crime-solving cats and dogs. There are horse cozies, pet-sitting cozies, and cozies for the bird watchers among us. (For a great list, visit Mystery-Cozy.com). Even if your central sleuth is of the human persuasion, though, there’s no reason you can’t use the resident finned, furred, or four-legged friend to help the story unfold. A pet in danger amps up tension dramatically, and there are innumerable stories out there where the dolphin, snow leopard, or Scottie (Kaitlyn Dunnett, I’m looking at you) comes to the aid of their human companion in her hour of need. Naturally, though, you need to understand the boundaries of your genre or sub-genre. Lovers of the supernatural cozy might not think twice about having a psychic cat solve the mystery; fans of police procedurals, however, will expect their K-9 cops to be a little more by the book.
The bottom line in all this is that my old friend and mentor Mike Kimball was right: just as it’s no small matter to give your seven-year-old a puppy, you should give equal weight to deciding whether or not your main character — and you — are ready for that kind of responsibility. What about you? Do you have a favorite book or series featuring pets, or do you prefer your human sleuths to keep to their kind?
Jen Blood is a freelance writer, editor, and author of the bestselling Erin Solomon mysteries. To learn more about her and the Erin Solomon mysteries, visit http://jenblood.com.