Writing–Dogs vs. Cats

I killed a dog once.  In a story.  It was back when I was still writing mysteries.  And I got some pretty strong reactions from editors.  “How could you kill a cute, little dog?”  Now, mind you, I’d killed a few people in this novel, but that was par for the course.  Kill a dog, and I heard about it.  But more than a few editors responded with notes that said, “Killing a dog in a mystery is risky, but NEVER kill a cat.”  I guess that an inordinate amount of mystery lovers are cat lovers–so just like in Egyptian times, kill a cat & the gods might smite you.

I wrote some short stories for a Barnes & Noble anthology once, Crafty Cat Crimes–got lucky and had two accepted–but the trick was to have the cat solve or help solve the crime.  I know that a lot of my friends are fans of Lilian Jackson Braun and some of the new “cat” mysteries, but I had never, ever written a mystery where an animal brought justice to the villain.  I have to admit, that slowed me down for a minute.

I learned from experience, though, that I got strong, passionate feedback when I included animals in stories.   I wrote a novella where I had the hero race his horse home, hand him to a groom, and tell the groom to give him an extra treat–that he’d earned it…and got feedback about how the horse should be wiped down and walked to cool off, etc. BEFORE he went to the stables and was fed.  Which was great, because the reader obviously loved horses.  And I obviously should have mentioned that the horse was well tended.

I’ve used children in stories, and I think they add a nice, not-adult view of happenings that give a different take on plot points.  And people seem to like kids in fiction, but I don’t get nearly the strong feedback on a kid as on a beast of some sort.  In my Babet/Prosper novellas, I had a wise, poisonous boa constrictor (magic makes her poisonous) that chooses to be Babet’s familiar, and a few people actually squirmed at my writers’ group when I read about Morgana slithering onto Babet’s shoulders and wrapping her coils around Babet’s arm.

All that I’m saying, I guess, is that people aren’t the only characters that can make an impact in a story.  Weres and shifters aren’t quite as effective.  In readers’ minds, they’re still humans–just with a few animal instincts thrown into the mix.  But toss in a dog, a cat, or a parrot–and you’d better treat them right.  Readers will forgive grisly murders, betrayals, and mass destruction–but kill a dog..or a cat.. or a bird.. and you’re in a LOT of trouble:)



Writers and Stray Cats

My husband (bless him) buried one of my stray cats this morning.  A neighbor called last night and said she saw one on the side of the road.  We scooped him into a trash bag and dug his grave this morning.  He wasn’t really mine.  I tried to woo him with tuna and milk, but he’d eat, and then leave.  Mostly wild, but wonderful. There used to be nine of them.  Now I’m down to five.

I’d like to think Midnight found a home.  He was the most affectionate, loved to zip into the house when the door was open and wanted petted under his chin.  Our chihuahua annoyed him.  Maybe he found a home with no dog.  The kitten with the cutest face left next.  He, too, loved kitchens, so maybe someone served him salmon instead of canned tuna and lured him to be theirs.  Glados, their mother, would glare at me as she begged for food.  I had to admire her prickly independence, but I can’t believe anyone could make her a pet.

It’s odd, but the strays made me think of fellow writers I know.  And maybe myself.  The strays come to me when I call, will wind around my ankles, but bolt if I try to touch them.  They value their independence more than they value a warm room and soft cushion.  Not many writers can claim that they’re putting words on paper to be rich.  They might start out thinking that, but that fantasy evaporates pretty quickly.  But we still write.  When we lose money, we write.  Just like the cats, we’re skittish about success.  We want it, but we want to do things our own way.

Experts give advice on how to use a formula to sell books.  Most writers aren’t interested.  We read books on how to plot, how to pace, even how to market.  We cozy up to the experts, but insist on doing it our way.  We purr about following the rules, but break the ones we decide not to follow.  For good reason.  Each writer needs to be fresh, to bring something unique to the market, and to have an individual voice.  We don’t want to play it too safe.

Just like everything else in writing, balance is the key.  There are rules that define the basics of good writing, but there are exceptions that make each story our own.  And who knows?  Maybe some day, my novels or novellas will find a big audience, and I can stretch out on a velvet sofa, secure in my sells numbers.  But in the meantime, I have to beg for scraps of attention, twittering “read me, read me,” and sauntering through the perils of no publisher, no home.   A stray.