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. 


  1. Great post, Maryann. I'm thinking about the stories I have started, and a couple of them include (or will include) animals. One of the two novels I've finished has a Malamute that, while not in many scenes, plays an important role in the outworking of the story.

  2. Must add these books to my reading list. One of my pet peeves in movies or TV is when they give someone a dog (or even a cat) and they are never home. You have to reassure us that someone is taking care of that pet or we will hate you. LOL.

  3. I love animals in stories, especially if they're buddies that perform a friendship role. I have a cat and a dog, so I know how good they are at listening and learning. I doubt there are too many folks who don't like at least one breed of furry critter, but I suppose a dog lover would not be as inclined to pick up a cozy mystery with a cat on the cover as she would one with a dog. It's fun though to find a mystery with a male protagonist who has a cat buddy. David Freed's series is an example.

    1. I do like to find a tough, male character who has a soft side and perhaps a cat. That adds another dimension to the character.

  4. Glad you found the post helpful, Linda. I look forward to seeing how the dogs fit in your stories.

  5. LOL, you're right, Diana. Sometimes I find myself saying, "What about the cat? Are you going to feed the cat?"


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook