How to Write Animals in the Modern Mystery

Young Einstein -- aka Riley, a golden-doodle who won the Erin Solomon Cover Model Contest in 2012.

Young Einstein — aka Riley, a golden-doodle who won the Einstein Cover Model Contest in 2012.

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.

    • Debbie-Reynolds-Charlottes-WebGive 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.
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      The death of the much-beloved Brian in the animated series Family Guy spawned an entire Twitter campaign — with miraculous results.

      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. 51pRqPIolzL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_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

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15 Responses to How to Write Animals in the Modern Mystery

  1. dragons3 says:

    I love books, especially mysteries, that incorporate animals. Lilian Jackson Braun’s KoKo and YumYum; Rita Mae Brown’s assortment of talking cats, dogs, horses, snake, owl, opossum, etc.; Carol Nelson Douglas’s Midnight Louie; Fran Stewart’s Marmalade; Kaitlyn’s Scotty; Virginia Lanier’s bloodhounds — most any mystery with animals. Bring on the fetching cats (I’ve had several who loved to play fetch), the lazy pit bull — but you can keep the spider, even if it does have a heart of gold.

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    • Jen Blood says:

      You know, I’m actually woefully behind on the animal cozies out there — I tend to lean toward more crime fiction-y novels, so really until writing this I had only a vague idea of just how huge the sub-genre is. Seems my to-be-read pile just expanded exponentially! I do love the fetching cats, though — I’ve known a few of those myself. Animals make our lives so much richer, it really only makes sense that we’d want them around for our fiction, as well.

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  2. I confess I was surprised at how well my readers responded to the frog-chasing bird dog in my cozy, Framed. He’s a goofball but he does help solve the mystery, and readers love him. Next time out, he gets a by-the-book young buddy for contrast.

    I grew up on Black Beauty and Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, so you can tell where my heart lies. I don’t like the animals pushed in my face, however. They have to act like animals, unless it’s fantasy, and their relationship to their humans has to be believable. So I loved Jack London’s Call of the Wild, but mysteries that depend heavily on the animals leave me cold. If you haven’t read Courageous Cain by DJ Davis. You’re in for a treat.

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    • Jen Blood says:

      I’ll confess I’m in the same camp, Nikki — I love the K9 police procedurals, and Call of the Wild, Black Beauty, and the Black Stallion were all favorites of mine, as well. I was a big fan of the James Herriott series when I was growing up, too, but don’t tend to read a lot of the animal cozies these days.

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  4. Lea Wait says:

    Great post, Jen! At the very first mystery conference I attended, centuries ago, the panel I remember most vividly was about animals and children …and how, if your protagonist had such creatures, how hard the mysteries became to write. One woman had taken a pause in her books and let her detective have a baby — and spent the next two books figuring out how she could breast feed and still solve crimes.
    The things authors have to worry about! And, yes — my next needlepoint mystery, Dangling By a Thread, includes THREE kittens ….. plus a cat. Woe is my next plot!

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    • Jen Blood says:

      Yeah, I don’t know how fictional detectives with kids do it, Lea. Pets seem a little more manageable, but a cat with a full brood will definitely keep you on your toes. Readers, however, will no doubt be delighted. The only thing better than a kitten in your lap is one in your book, I always say. Actually, I’ve never said it, but it sounds like something I would say. And certainly holds true. I look forward to reading it, either way!

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  5. Kate Cone says:

    Thanks for this, Jen!

    In MY Stonecoast experience, I handed in a ms for workshopping that had a dog cavorting around a beach in Ireland. For about a minute I give him a point of view, not talking to himself, but via a 3d person narrator. Everyone went crazy. Enter all the cozy mystery writers who are doing dogs and cats (and a skeleton!) with POV’s, as well as the very successful Spencer Quinn series where the mysteries are narrated by, drumroll, the dog. My WIP has a dog and I’m keeping him, dammit.

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    • Jen Blood says:

      I’m sure the Stonecoast-ers had a field day with your dog narration via 3rd- person POV… They can be a little judge-y at times. I think you should absolutely keep the dog in your WIP (that’s almost always my recommendation, anyway) — I have no doubt you’ll be a responsible caretaker and keep track of him while he’s roaming your pages!

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  6. Thanks for the plug, Jen. I can’t seem to write a book without a cat in it. The Scotties were the result of a reader asking me if I’d ever thought about including one.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn

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    • Jen Blood says:

      I’ve written a few cats in my time, but dogs seem to be the mainstay. The latest was completely canine-free, and frankly I still feel there was something missing; it may well have been the presence of a four-legged, in some carnation or other. At any rate, your Liss MacCrimmon mysteries are at the top of my to-be-read pile right now — something I’m very much looking forward to!

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  7. Barb Ross says:

    I never intended to have a cat in the Maine Clambake Mysteries, but then I went to the Cabbage Island Clambake and realized it was THE life for a cat, living on a predator-free, car-free island where 600 pounds of sea food is served a day.

    Of course, now taking care of the cat has become a major thing. I do keep track of where he is but he is usually in the wrong place at the wrong time. I just realized in my work-in-progress, Julia has been out of town for several days. Her mom is supposed to be caring for the cat, but now her mom has gone off to her sister’s house. WHO IS TAKING CARE OF THE $%%^ CAT?

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    • Jen Blood says:

      WHO IS TAKING CARE OF THE $%%^ CAT, indeed — see, that’s how they get you! It’s all roses and purring, sun-drenched fur, until the moment you realize these little buggers still must be cared for, one way or the other. The beauty of fiction, of course, is that there’s always a willing neighbor more than happy to pop in and mind the cat while your sleuths do their thing.

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  8. Jen – Very cool post. I would like to speak up for critters other than cats, dogs, birds, and other warm blooded ones, though (you do mention snakes). In my debut book (coming out May 10th!), Maine’s iconic invertebrate – a lobster – plays a key role as confidante for the protagonist (an oceanographer). I quickly realized how useful he (Homer) could be.

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  9. Pingback: Unsolicited Advice for Those Who Write Cozy Mysteries | Maine Crime Writers

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