Thursday, May 17, 2018

Of Canaries and Cats… Pets in the Victorian Era

When I was researching for my latest Silver Rush book, A DYING NOTE, I used an 1886 “business directory map” to work out what businesses were in the neighborhood of my fictional D & S Music Store in San Francisco. That is where I bumped up against “A. C. Robison, Importer and Dealer in Birds and cages, etc.”

My mind began churning.

Birds, eh? What kinds of birds did people keep as pets in the late 19th century?

Birds were popular pets in the late 19th century. By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Well, I couldn’t let a question like that go unanswered.

I turned to the internet, and down the rabbit hole I went….

According to the article “Our American Birds,” by Michael K. Boyer, which appeared in Godey’s Magazine, September 1889, songbirds were popular.

There is the canary, of course, but also a variety of finches: the goldfinch, the indigo finch, and the Nonpareil are mentioned. Other birds include the bobolink and the blue jay, as well as the mockingbird.

The mockingbird??

We have these chatty fellows in the trees in our backyard, and I swear, in the late spring/early summer they NEVER stop calling. I can’t imagine having them going on indoors. I’d go nuts.

Boyer spends a fair bit of space on varieties of parrots: the yellow-headed Mexican (which “stands first” as a talker), the grey African (a prime choice for a whistler), and the Cuban (which cannot be relied upon as a talker… but is inexpensive, so has the largest sales).

And, if you have a pet bird that has been exposed to drafts and contracted asthma, Boyer even gave some suggestions for hastening your feathered companion's recovery:
… keep the bird extra warm, and feed a paste made of a piece of white bread, about the size of a walnut, made by boiling it in four tablespoonfuls of milk, stirred with a wooden spoon until it becomes an even pulp; a few grains of cayenne pepper can be added.  Feed fresh for several days.  A little lettuce or water-cress will also be found beneficial.
Now, if you’re more interested in the feline’s position as a pet in the Victorian household, you can read a Good Housekeeping article (1889) titled "A Plea for Pussy and Her Possibilities As a Pet."  (From the title, I'm guessing cats did not enjoy the popularity that they do now.)

Here again, birds arise in the conversation:
"How can you keep a cat when you have birds?" friends often ask.  My cat has been taught that the birds are not for him, and I am almost confident he would not venture to take one of my birds if I offered it to him from my hand.
Cat vs Parrot: Think a truce can be arranged? By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I can’t imagine the Diva Miss Mia (who “rules the roost” in my home) could be convinced to tolerate a two-footed twittering companion. Good thing that I'm not about to try!

Are we having chicken for dinner??


Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for editor/writer). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit AnnParker.net for more information.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Give Them A Reason

When considering whether to put an animal in a story, it is probably wise to decide what role the animal is going to play. Is it just to be there because you happen to like dogs, or cats, or rabbits, or birds? Or because you are trying to attract all the dog and cat lovers to buy your book?

The books in the popular K9 series mentioned on May 8 by Patricia Stolty are good examples of animals being an integral part of the plot and characters in their own right. Not just a ploy to increase sales.

Being a firm believer that all elements of a story need to be organic to the story, not just plopped in there, that is what I thought of when my co-author, Margaret Sutton, wanted to put a cat in Doubletake. I asked her why. "Because we both love cats," she said, as three cats wandered across her desk and bookcases in her office.

My instinct was that that was not reason enough, but had a hard time articulating that to her at the time. It was later, after reading enough books that had animal companions that serve a definite purpose in the story, that the reasoning crystallized in my brain.

The purpose doesn't have to be as integral as in the K9 series books where the dog plays a large role. It can be more subtle, like the Sean Duffy series by Adrian McKinty that started with The Cold Cold Ground.  In two of the more recent books, Sean has acquired a cat named Jet. At first I wondered why the cat is there. It's owner had been killed and there was nobody there to take care of it, so somebody had to take it. But why Sean? Then, as the story progressed, I realized that Sean uses Jet as a sounding board, talking through aspects of the case or telling the cat things that Sean would not tell his mates or his girlfriend.

Currently, I'm reading A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow that features Kate Shugak as an investigator in Alaska. Kate has a canine companion, Mutt, who is part sounding board and part protector. Kate talks to Mutt, much like Jesse Stone does to his dog in the popular series by Robert B. Parker. Mutt also saves Kate by knocking her down when they are being shot at.


Being a sounding board is not a huge role in the stories of Kate and of Jesse, but the animal companions do serve a purpose that didn't leave me wondering why they were there after I read the books.

After reading most of the books about Jesse Stone, I watched the movies, and I'm a big fan. Jesse has a drinking problem that he barely controls, and the dog is like his controller. I enjoyed the scenes where the dog would just give him a look and Jesse would put the glass of whiskey down before silently walking out of the room.

In thinking about all this today, it makes a certain kind of sense that people who live alone in books, as well as people who live alone in the real world, have some kind of living thing they can talk to. Or not talk to. I talk to my cats, or not, and I'll admit I like finding these animal characters in a story, and the exchanges between owner and pet can often bring a smile.

Which brings me back to Doubletake and the cat. Barbara Hopkins, a homicide detective, lives alone, so I agreed with Margaret that maybe we should include a companion for her, but I still wanted the cat to be more than just a mention here or there in the story just so a reader would not wonder what happened to the cat. So we tentatively added a white cat named Charlotte to the cast of characters.

Margaret and I are not plotters. We wrote Doubletake with the barest of outlines, and it wasn't until in a chapter about a third of the way into the story that the cat served her purpose. She was cringing under the bed when Barbara came home from work one evening, alerting Barbara that something was terribly wrong. Charlotte did not like strangers, or even friends, to come over, so Barbara knew by the cat's behavior that someone had been in the apartment. Later in the story it is revealed that the intruder had been the killer.

If we had not had that plot complication come up, I'm afraid Charlotte would have had to go home with one of us, unless we could have pawned her off on Sean Duffy.

Writers, do you like to include an animal in your stories? How do they serve a purpose? Do you think you have to be an animal lover to like reading stories with pets?
Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. She won her first writing award at age twelve with a short story in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and continues to garner recognition for her short stories, books, and screenplays. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page  * read her  Blog  and follow her on Facebook and Twitter. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Shadow's Legacy


Shadow came to my home when she was about two months old. Approximately ninety percent timber wolf, she had definite ideas about who would be the alpha in our relationship, and she wasn't shy about showing her qualifications for that position. I, of course, disagreed. While it can be cute to watch a young wolf cub assert her dominance, it's far less cute to deal with an adult wolf living in a domestic environment do the same.

My love for wolves began some years earlier when I became associated with a loosely aligned group of wolf owners. Most of the wolves were high-percent hybrids, but a few were pure wolf. (The state I lived in did allow people to keep hybrids; the purebreds may have been another matter.)

My first encounter with an adult wolf came when while I was visiting a lady who belonged to the group. She was "wolf-sitting" for another member who was out of town, and she offered to let me in the pen with the animal to "get acquainted." It sounded a bit scary, but also it offered a huge opportunity to test my affinity for the species. Giving her invitation more careful thought might have been wise, but I didn't. She opened the door to the covered pen, let me inside, locked the door behind me, and proceeded to go back in the house. The animal took one look at me and began to pace back and forth between me and the door. Then I began to reason on the fact that she was in a strange environment, with people who were not part of her pack, and she was not a hybrid. There I sat, locked in a cage with a pure wolf. Talking to her in a soft voice, I assured her I meant her no harm. At no time did I reach my hand out to her because I did not know how she would perceive that action. The fifteen or so minutes I spent there, alone with a wolf who had the power to end my life in a matter of seconds, sealed my love and respect for these beautiful animals.

My first hybrid, Nina, was pure white, seventy-five percent wolf, and a sweetheart. Her personality was much more docile and dog-like, and she was frightened of loud noises. Fourth of July fireworks terrified her. When we left the state for several months, a young man asked if he could keep her because the state to which we were going did not allow hybrids to be kept as pets. When I checked with him some months after we left, he told me how she loved to run beside him when he rode his bike in the country. Again, the dog seemed dominant. I was relieved that she had a good home.

Shadow, on the other hand, exhibited predominantly wolf traits. I don't recall seeing any evidence of the small percentage of dog in her genetic line. When she was four months old, after recovering from a bout of distemper, she challenged me big-time. As directed by the people who raised and bred the hybrids, I rolled her over on her back, placed one hand around her throat, got down in her face, and growled. That sounds abusive, but it isn't—at least not the way I did it. I didn't grip her throat hard enough to impede her breathing, and I didn't hurt her in any way. She got the point. I was alpha.


She grew up to be incredibly beautiful. She was also incredibly strong. Walking her on a leash quickly proved beyond my capability because she could easily have gotten away from me if she wanted to. Her predatory instincts asserted themselves when she got out of the fenced yard and brought home a chicken from a neighbor's coop. Needless to say, this did not make us popular in the neighborhood.

When my living circumstances changed, I was forced into finding her a home because I couldn't take her with me. A man who worked with my grandson had always wanted a wolf hybrid, and he jumped at the chance to take her. When I visited her several months later, she immediately recognized me and rolled over on her back, exposing her belly to show submission. A second visit a year later broke my heart. The man who had been so excited to take Shadow home had had a spat with his girlfriend and moved out, leaving the wolf behind. The girlfriend "got rid of her" when she killed the family cat. Her daughter wouldn't tell me how she "got rid of her," but I suspect she put her down.

This was a very hard lesson. Much as I love the wolves and the high-percentage hybrids, I must leave them in an environment where they are safe. The changes in my life may well have caused the death of my Shadow, and I still regret that I did not make enough effort to get her into a refuge where she would have been protected.

Wolves are wild creatures and should be free to roam and hunt, as is their habit, and to live in packs according to their custom. Shadow didn't roam free, but she hunted when given the opportunity—or when she took it. She also bonded with me, making me part of her human pack. She adapted—up to a point. Never did she lose the dignity of her species. Never did she lose the inherent traits of her untamed ancestors. Never will she lose her place in my heart. She will be immortalized in an upcoming novel that explores the dangers faced by these magnificent creatures in our increasingly intolerant world.




Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her at websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Dogs in Fiction: From Lassie to Robo, Boy’s Best Friend to Woman’s K-9 Partner

I’ve loved dog books since I was a kid. Lassie Come Home (1940) by Eric Knight.  Old Yeller (1956) by Fred Gipson.  White Fang (1906) and Call of the Wild (1903) by Jack London. 

It wasn’t until I read Virginia Lanier’s bloodhound books that I became hooked on mystery series featuring working dogs. Lanier’s series featured Jo Beth Siddon who raised and trained her bloodhounds as trackers. Siddon worked with Georgia and federal authorities on cases that ranged from a missing child to an escaped killer. I loved that Lanier did not get her first book published until she was 65. Sadly, she passed away at age 72, but still had managed to get six of those amazing novels finished.

Siberian Huskies starred in Joanne Sundell's Watch Eyes Trilogy. Sandi Ault features a wolf in her Wild series.

More recently, I’ve discovered K-9 dogs, trained in specialized skills ranging from search and rescue of humans to drug searches to bomb sniffing.

Sara Driscoll is the pseudonym of writing team Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan. From Driscoll’s website:

“FBI handler Meg Jennings and her black Lab Hawk are part of the FBI’s elite Human Scent Evidence Team, part of the Forensic Canine Unit. Their job―find the missing, lost, escaped, or dead. The team as a whole can be deployed at a moment’s notice around the nation to search for missing children, escaped convicts, or to find the victims of natural disasters.”

Margaret Mizushima’s Robo is handled by sheriff’s deputy, Mattie Cobb. With a husband who’s a veterinarian, it’s not surprising Margaret chose a vet to be Mattie’s best friend, helper, and maybe more as time goes by. .

"This series is set in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, and it features K-9 Deputy Mattie, her dog Robo, and veterinarian Cole Walker. Together they solve crimes that affect their peaceful mountain community.

The Timber Creek K-9 books are police procedurals with heart. Each adventure contains a combination of K-9 cop action, veterinary work, and family relationships as well as a murder case to investigate and solve."

My newest discovery is Barbara Nickless. Her railroad police special agent Sydney Rose Parnell partners with K-9 Clyde. Both are Iraq war vets with grief and trauma issues to overcome while they try to work in a civilian police job where danger threatens their ability to cope. 

When I think of an author doing research for K-9 mysteries, I think of writers doing interviews with the experts, perhaps going along on a search and rescue assignment. There’s one Colorado writer I know, however, who’s gathering a world of first-hand experience through her Sherlock Hounds Detection Canines business.

Kathleen Donnelly Mayger is working on her first novel featuring a female K-9 handler for the National Forest Service.

So, have you noticed the similarities among all these newer series? Female authors from Colorado. Female protagonists. Do men write dog books anymore? Do you have any dog or K-9 series to add to this list? What about cozies featuring dogs…or is that a cats only world?  How about more dog series set in other states?



Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Worldbuilding: Imaginary Creatures

Fantasy and Supernatural stories are full of angels, demons, dwarves, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, gremlins, halflings, hobgoblins, orcs, ogres, trolls, vampires, witches, and warlocks.

Cave-dwelling Gollum is a favorite of mine from J. R. R. Tolkein's The Hobbit.

Alice in Wonderland had the hookah-smoking Chesire Cat and perpetually rushed White Rabbit.

In Frank Herbert's Science Fiction novel Dune, there were giant sandworms that gave me nightmares.

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has too many to list fascinating creatures: thestrals, Hippogriffs, dementors, and ridgeback dragons. Hagrid had a menagerie including boarhounds, giant spiders, Fluffy the three-headed dog, and blast-ended skrewts. The offshoot movies Magical Creatures and Where to Find Them are populated with the niffler, obscurus, bowtruckles, and doxies, to name but a few of the enormous list of magical creatures.

In my realism-based series, Mythikas Island, I kept the threats my girls faced within the realm of possibility. But I did have fun giving my spin on one "legendary" creature, the griffin. During the journey, the girls have been telling campfire tales to unnerve each other.

Excerpt from Book Three Aphrodite:

Athena turned on her heel, reaching for her spear. “I’m going to shut those birds up permanently.” The male pheasant fanned his tail, sensed danger, and folded it away. The caw came again: louder, longer, closer.

A bird with a wingspan of two people placed end to end landed above the overhang then pivoted until he faced us. Diana backed into me. “That isn’t a pheasant.”

The bird’s legs were as thick as a man’s forearm, the claws massive enough to encircle my neck. The feathers were black and eyes blacker. A sprout of pale feathers fanned back from its crown like a horse’s mane. Its beak was broader and sharper than a normal bird’s. Athena held her hand out to Diana for her spear.

“I think it’s your griffin,” I said to Persephone.

The bird fluffed his wings. A single feather floated down, larger than the pheasant’s tail. The pheasants scampered amid a flurry of alarm. Diana sent the spear spiraling in the direction of the griffin. It landed shy in the streaming waterfall and bobbed to the surface in the pool.

Athena shrieked. “You missed!”

“Sorry,” Diana said.

 The griffin shifted on his perch, emitting its unnerving squall. Persephone issued a harsh, brittle trill. “The stories got it wrong. A griffin only has two legs.”

Creating imaginary beings for your story can make it stand out from the rest. Your descriptions should bring them to life. The creatures can be cute or deadly, interesting or outrageous, based on others that exist or completely new. You are the artist and animator and the only limits are your imagination.

What are your favorite fictional beings? Have you created a unique creature for your story world? Tell us about it in the comments.

For more tips on world building check out the newly released Story Building Blocks: Build A World Workbook.

To read more:

How To Create Own Magical Creature

3 Steps for Creating Realistic Fantasy Races and Creatures

How to Describe A Fantasy Creature

Tips for Writing Mythical Creatures

Greek Mythology Bestiary


Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.



Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Sense of Place


I knew an architect years ago who designed stunning homes. One day, looking at some of his blueprints, I noticed some scribbles and the words Growy Stuff.

"Growy stuff?" I asked him.

"Yeah, you know... trees and flowers, that stuff. Around the house."

I cracked up. Clearly the house meant more to him than what surrounded it.

But in literature, what surrounds your characters is as much a character in itself as they are. A good writer creates a sense of "place" by giving a book a setting imbued with lots of personality. That often includes the stuff of nature.


My current story is set in Colorado, tucked somewhere between the wide open plains and the Rocky Mountains. Look east and you'll see flat plains with yucca and sagebrush, cedar windbreaks, and deciduous trees planted by early settlers; look west and the land starts to roll, with stands of Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine, the towering front range in the distance. It's wild and barren and a little bit lonesome. The wind constantly blows. All this has become a part of my characters' lives. It's not just a stage setting to hang a plot on - the setting becomes part of the fabric of the characters.


Our blog theme for the month of May shifts from flora to fauna, and the animals in my book are as much a part of the story as the setting. My hero is a cowboy with a large horse breeding ranch, so horses come with the territory. Their interaction with the humans helps inform the personalities. The gentleness of the horse trainer with a skittish filly, for example, might carry over to the way he handles a new love interest who's a little shy and reluctant about love.


My heroine has a cat. She talks to her cat. She takes advice from her cat, especially when it comes to her love life. Don't we all have a non-human creature in our lives that offers an emotional attachment another human can't quite fill? Well, maybe not everyone, but it's a common thing, and a natural inclusion to our writing if we want our characters to seem real to the reader.

What animals do you use in your writing? Are any based on real pets? Or are they imaginary? Perhaps flying dragons? How do you use them to define your characters? Leave us a comment!

Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.





Thursday, April 26, 2018

Flora, Rose, Violet: Researching popular flower names for “olden times”

When I heard Flora was the topic for April, I didn’t think of my backyard. Instead, I thought of era-appropriate names for the women characters who populate the setting I write about—the late 1800s U.S.

Flora sounds so “old-fashioned.” Surely there was a blooming of Floras, Florences, Roses, Violets, Daisys, and all those floral-type names during this era? Faced with that question, I did what I usually do when musing on the unknown: I went a-researching and geeked out a bit…

My first stop was the Social Security Administration, which has a great site for researching popular baby names for any decade going back to 1880. I pulled up the ranking of names for babies born in the 1880s in the U.S. here.

And then, I made a little chart of all the flower names I could identify, plus the ranking for "Inez," the name of my Silver Rush series protagonist:


 Most popular name for baby girls? Mary. Out of 1,399,571 female births, 91,668 little ones were Marys. (Ida came in at 7th most popular, Bertha came in at 8th place.)

Now, because I was curious (and falling into the rabbit-hole of research), I went looking for other "popular name" lists. Here are the top flower names for female babies born in 1880 in England and Wales, culled from this web post on the British Baby Names site:


Many, many more flower names here! But no Inez. Oh well.

Most popular female name in 1880? Get ready… Mary. (Bertha rolls in at 41st.)

Now, I started pondering. My Inez would have been born 1860. Maybe I should step back a bit and explore what flower names were popular when she was born.

The U.S. census didn’t have a compilation, so I ended up at the Given Name Frequency Project website, which looks at popular names through the decades, starting in 1801 in the U.S. Here's what I found for flower-related names (and my protagonist's name) on the page listing the most popular women's names for 1861–1870:


And here you have the floral results for England and Wales in 1860:


Again, flower names are much more common across the Atlantic.
Additionally, here are some fascinating popular non-flower names that caught my eye: Thirza (100), Kezia (110), Dorcas (140), Tryphena (174), Drusilla (191).

For even more appropriate-character-naming fun, you can go to Baby Name Voyager, enter any name, and see how its frequency rises and falls over time from 1880 to 2016. I took snapshots of the graphs for “Flora” and “Inez,” because... well, why not??



If nothing else, all this might give you a different perspective on character names such as Flora (or Thirza or Bertha!).

 When naming characters, it’s always nice to know if a moniker will cause others to blink (“Well, that’s unusual!”) or if it won’t raise an eyebrow. For instance, “Tiffany” is very common today, but doesn’t even register on Baby Voyager before 1950.

So, what about you? Do you have names you long to give to a character but just haven’t found the “right” time (or place) yet?

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for ìeditor/writerî). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit AnnParker.net for more information.

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