“Love me, love my dog—and my cat, horse, rabbit, parrot…”
For a writers’ conference some years ago, an award-winning author, Kate James, and I proposed a workshop on the role of animals in fiction. It was turned down as “too niche.” Really?
Had the decision-makers taken a look at the number of novels—of all types and all categories—that feature animals? Dogs, cats, horses, farm animals, wildlife…
In fact, here’s a quote from a review in The New Yorker (April 30, 2018). The piece concerns the quantity of non-fiction titles about Hitler—“hundreds” of new titles every year. Reviewer Alex Ross says: “An adage in publishing is that you can never go wrong with books about Lincoln, Hitler and dogs; an alternative version names golfing, Nazis and cats.” Humorous enough--and true!
However, we’re not going to discuss books about Hitler (shudder), although of course the need to understand how Nazi Germany came about will never cease.
Is it too daring to say that the role played by animals in the majority of books, and not exclusively current books, is positive? And frankly, that’s the kind of approach many of us—writers, editors, readers—tend to take. How often have we said we can only watch a movie or read a book that features animals if they’re not hurt, not killed. And if they are hurt by human cruelty or stupidity, lessons are learned and/or punishment is meted out. (See Ann DeFee’s comment later in this blog!)
Some might call that an “emotional” attitude. Frankly, I don’t care. What’s wrong with emotion? Ultimately, doesn’t living a good life, a satisfied and satisfactory life, come down to emotion? And doesn’t most fiction depend on emotion--in the telling of story, the what and why of character, the reaction of the reader? The particular emotions reflected in the story are, of course, determined by you, the author.
Our human connection with animals
For our purposes here, the human-animal interactions we’re discussing (in both life and fiction) tend to be with animals who share our lives, who are typically a long-term part of our lives, who interact with us and often engage in activities with us.
At its most basic, the appeal of these stories has to do with the connection between people and animals. A connection based on mutual love (yes, love) and support—physical, emotional, practical. And depending on the nature of the story, animals can play any number of roles in the revelation of character and the development of plot.
For example, a dog can serve as a therapy animal in any kind of story—mainstream fiction, genre or cross-genre (e.g., romance, mystery, romantic suspense, even paranormal and science fiction, and so on). Dogs can act in K-9 roles, military and police roles, as guide dogs, guard dogs, herding dogs on farms and ranches, and so on. And, of course and perhaps most frequently, as pets. (Granted, some find that a condescending term these days…)
All the roles they take in life, they can take in fiction, too.
Most of us will agree that the animals in our books need to be conveyed with their own personalities—individual and not just via the species of animal they are or their breeds. (You’ll see that I prefer to use personal pronouns for animals—he/she/they. And I’m not the only one!)
Animals are beings with emotions. Scientists and specialists no longer question that. In fact, there’s been a lot of writing and scientific research on the emotional lives of animals, especially in the last number of years (although Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was published in 1872). Among the many recent books are The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow and Empathy by Marc Bekoff with a foreword by Jane Goodall; Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions by Frans de Waal; Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina. Plus the internet provides a great deal in the way of essays, research and advice on this subject.
Animals in fiction can be characters and they can reveal characters (and often do both). Among their story roles: they can instigate or advance the plot, add to conflict and resolution, provide drama and comedy, joy and grief. You can show heroism by animals and toward them.
Classic animal stories
There are many classic stories featuring animals in a key role, among them titles by Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog), Franz Kafka (the short story, Investigations of a Dog), Jack London (The Call of the Wild, White Fang), Virginia Woolf (“Flush,” her first published essay). Not to mention books usually considered children’s classics. Most of us grew up reading Black Beauty (Anna Sewall), Beautiful Joe (Marshall Saunders), The Black Stallion (Walter Farley), Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories—and many, many more.
Then there’s Mark Twain’s short story, “A Dog’s Tale,” first published in 1903.
Twain’s story is still a highly effective one, with its impact on the reader’s emotions, its humor and its anti-vivisectionist slant. I suggest reading it, and not simply for literary-historical reasons. Of course, Twain left behind various well-known quotes, contrasting the loyalty and goodness of dogs with the apathy and cruelty of humans, as he does in this story. (One of those quotes: “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”)
The animal-story trend continues. There are a great many popular and best-selling novels such as The Hidden Life of Humans by Erika Ritter—which uses the dog’s point of view, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Marley and Me by John Grogan (it’s actually a memoir, but reads like a novel), A Dog’s Purpose (W. Bruce Cameron)—and many more! These last three have been made into successful movies, as well.
What a huge subject this is—worthy of a book in itself!
Authors and their animal stories
I’ve invited a number of authors to comment on the roles animals play in their books. And as you’ll see, each writer has a deep and personal connection with animals.
LINDA LAEL MILLER
Paula: Linda, I know the people-and-animal relationship is an important theme of yours. I’d like to begin by quoting from one of your blogs, focused on a recent contemporary title, Country Strong:
My family, my friends and I all consider ourselves—and call ourselves—“animal people.” I know
how true this is for my readers, too. We love the animals in our lives, value them and take care of
them, and they do so much for us. Our pets love us without reservation; they bring us joy.
And they’re fascinating! Endlessly. You’ll find that Cord, the hero/male protagonist of Country
Strong is utterly fascinated by his horses and an expert in working with them. Then there are
Cord’s dogs, plus Holly the adorable rescue Beagle, and J.P.’s service dog, Trooper (a dog with a
job!). All of these animals contribute to the comfort and happiness of their people’s lives.
I’d venture to add that they also play a role in the creation and support of community. One
example: the pet support group started by teenager Carly, with the assistance of a large number
of fellow students and other community members. Pet support is a growing trend, with volunteer
groups rising up all across North America; it’s a way of helping seniors, disabled people, people
undergoing hospital treatments, to keep their pets—and keep them healthy and well. (Carly’s
group is called MPS for Montana Pet Support; she jokes that MPS is “better than PMS.” And
that became a popular joke, among the girls anyway. Sometimes she wondered if the guys even
Paula: I think this effectively describes the varied roles animals play in your latest contemporary romance series—and previous ones, too. You’re also known for your historical novels, most recently The Yankee Widow, set during the Civil War. Can you say something about the role of animals in that war and in that story?
Linda: When the Civil War occurred, of course, horses and mules played vital roles, serving as mounts and hauling wagonloads of food and other supplies, heavy ones. Many, many animals perished during the conflict, and not a few dogs served as mascots for troops, going so far as to guard their wounded and dead. My heart goes out to all these creatures, forced into horrendous battles; animals have no voices and, I believe, we must speak for them.
In my story, I featured a dog named Sweet Girl; she had been left behind when her soldier went to war, and as that soldier was dying, he despaired of her fate. Rogan McBride, one of the main characters in The Yankee Widow, later retrieves the little dog and she finds a happy home with Caroline Hammond, the heroine, and her young daughter, Rachel.
Animals appear in all my stories because they are always in my heart and on my mind.
Paula: Are the animals in your books, and your characters’ relationships with them, influenced by the animals in your own life?
Linda: Absolutely! I have always had animals in my life, and my two little rescue dogs, Mowgli and Tule (pronounced Toolie), are my constant companions. They are my small comedians, my muses, my teachers—they are masters of unconditional love and utter devotion.
My beloved cat, Wiki, is a treasure of the heart as well. He is adopted, and I’m not sure of his age, or
his history. He is a lovely gray tabby, very handsome and dignified, and he is also one of the most affectionate animals I have ever been owned by. Linda’s rescue dogs, Mowgli and Tule He purrs so loudly that I tease him about running his motor, and if I hadn’t kept his adoptive name, I would probably have called him Evinrude. He suffers from renal issues and had seizures until we found the right medication.
I’m so grateful that all three of my “boys” are in my life.
Naturally, these guys influence my writing in major ways. Mainly, I want to celebrate the gift God’s creatures represent to all of us, since the folks who read my books tend to be animal-lovers in the first place, but I’m certainly a strong advocate for humane treatment of every living being. I abhor any type of cruelty, especially when it’s inflicted on the helpless.
Linda’s beliefs about our responsibility toward animals and our (ideally) loving connection with them are reflected in her many best-selling novels.
Her research into the Civil War made her exceptionally aware of the cruel realities of life and death for both soldiers and animals, especially horses, mules and dogs. Linda’s commitment to historical accuracy ensures that these descriptions are never overstated or sentimentalized, and the emotion is true in every sense. When it comes to historical fiction that involves animals, her books provide good advice by example!
Paula: Sheila, could you describe the roles animals have played in your books?
Sheila: I like to include animals in many of my stories, mainly because, for many of us, animals are a part of our lives and our families. Animals not only add to the reality of a story, but they help reveal more about a character. For example, a tough guy with a soft spot for his cat shows he has heart. In my novel, The Summer Retreat, my heroine, Celeste, adopts a stray dog. The animal is a happy, untrained youngster, and Celeste’s reaction to him, as well as those of the two men who are interested in her, tells a lot about them and who is really a fit with whom.
Paula: In The Nine Lives of Christmas, you used the cat’s point of view. Could you explain why you chose to do that and how you approached it?
Sheila: I simply thought it would be fun to have an animal’s viewpoint. Ambrose the cat was the equivalent of George Bailey on the bridge in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George was wanting to live again. Ambrose was wanting to hang onto his 9th life. I had so much fun with Ambrose, and he’s one of my favorite characters. That book was made into a movie for Hallmark. Sadly, none of the movie story got told from Ambrose’s point of view.
Paula: What part does Ambrose the cat play in the revelation of character, the development of plot, the progress of relationships, including romance—and how does he fit into the particular story you wrote?
Sheila: Ambrose wound up being a bit of a matchmaker, which worked well as this is a romance. He actually took on the role of rescuer for the man he adopted, who was in need of the right woman, saving both the hero and heroine.
Paula: Do cats or other animals appear in any of your other books?
Sheila: Many of my books have animals in them. I really loved Tiny the Saint Bernard, who appeared in some of the books in my Icicle Falls series. And in my Moonlight Harbor series, one of my favorite characters is Jolly Roger the parrot. The people in a writer’s stories, like people in real life, don’t exist in a void. Those people need others to interact with.
Paula: Are there animals in your own life that influenced the animals and your characters’ relationships with them in your books?
Sheila: We’ve had some wonderful animals in our family over the years. I think of Hund, our very first dog, who was my baby. So loyal! And Chi-Chi the cat, whom we inherited from my daughter’s fifth-grade math teacher. She was the friendliest, sweetest animal ever and the kids weren’t the only ones who mourned her when she died. We wound up burying her in the back yard next to Basil, my daughter’s pet rat (cat and rat--enemies in life, friends in death). My daughter visited the grave regularly even after she was grown and had moved out of the house.
Of course, like people, not all animals are kind. I was once cornered by a vicious pit bull when I was taking a walk. Someone came along in a car and distracted the dog long enough that I could get away. It was terrifying. That experience found its way into a book and I found myself having to explain to a few angry readers that the scene was based on something that actually happened and I wasn’t out to vilify their dog. (The same as with people, dogs don’t start out bad!) With that exception, though, my interaction with animals has been positive and satisfying. And I think for readers, meeting a beloved pet in a novel is equally satisfying.
A fascinating aspect of Sheila’s commentary is the way it highlights the comedic role of the cat in The Nine Lives of Christmas. Ambrose has charm, and he’s a charmer. Jolly Roger (I’ve met him—in the story, of course—and I’d say he’s “a real character”!) charms characters and readers, too, but—importantly—not in a way that diminishes his birdness. Sheila also shows us that the animals in her stories play a significant part in the development of each romance.
She makes a valid point about the fact that animals are occasionally unkind, even dangerous, and emphasizes that this is not their fault but can and should be attributed to the irresponsibility of humans. It’s not news that pit bulls have received a lot of bad press, been banned from some cities, etc. This results from factors like “backyard breeding,” attack training and dog-fighting rings.
It all proves again that protecting people and animals comes down to responsibility. And love.
Paula: Geri, tell me about the role animals have played in your books. You’re knowledgeable about and interested in the important part played by therapy animals, particularly dogs. Also dogs in military situations. How did you acquire this knowledge?
Geri: I’ve always been a dog-lover, and I was fortunate to see therapy dogs in action while our family was stationed overseas. One instance in particular comes to mind. I had occasion to be at Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany, the first stop for many casualties of combat zones in the Middle East. I watched as a woman with her therapy dog—a beautiful, sweet Golden Retriever—stood in the center of the main thoroughfare. Dozens of patients, many of them recent amputees, stopped to get snuggles from the therapy dog. It stayed with me and became the inspiration for a therapy dog in one of my books (Navy Rules, Whidbey Island Series).
Paula: How do the animals fit into the stories you write?
Geri: It’s my view that a dog or cat or parrot or any beloved pet has a place in most stories. And much as a child can serve as a catalyst for an adult relationship (think of the romance genre’s popular secret baby plot), so can an animal.
Geri’s Shepherds, Archer and Misha
Paula: Have you written (or read and liked) any books using an animal point of view?
Geri: I haven’t, and I can’t think of a book with an animal POV that resonated with me except for The Master and Margarita, which wasn’t so much animal POV as omniscient. One exception was written as a bookstore fundraiser for my local indie bookstore, Cupboard Maker Books in Enola, PA. Several authors contributed novellas written in the bookstore cat’s POV. The books are a great success and the stories are wonderful.
Paula: Have the animals in your own life influenced the animals and your characters’ relationships with them in your books?
Geri: In our marriage to date, we’ve been blessed with three dogs and one parrot. Two of the dogs are with us now—a nine-and-a-half year old German Shepherd mix that we rescued while stationed in Moscow, Russia, and an eleven-month-old Shiloh Shepherd. Our parrot has been with us for the last 32 years, since he was a chick. They each influence my writing, because they force me to slow down and enjoy life, which hopefully translates Geri’s parrot, Ripley to my stories. I did include a parrot in another one of my Whidbey Island books, Navy Rescue, and our bird served as my parrot muse.
Geri’s personal experience and observations, as active military and as a military spouse, have helped define the role of dogs in her books. Her description of meeting the therapy dog in Germany is a good example of how your own experience can provide not only story ideas but the information you need in order to express them. And as she also says, animals can have a place in almost any book.
Another valuable and practical point Geri raises is the fact that the animals in her family “force her to slow down and enjoy life.” Worth remembering! As she suggests, that can have an impact on your writing in a number of ways.
Paula: Elizabeth, what roles have animals played in your books?
Elizabeth: I’m currently in the middle of a K-9: Alaska series of romantic suspense books, so as the series name suggests, animals play a big part in the stories! In the first book of the series, K-9 Defense, Malinois-German Shepherd Rebel is a former Combat Tracker Dog – that’s a dog who works for the military and can actually track back from the site of an explosion to the person who set it! Retired when both she and her handler, Colter, were injured, she now lives in a remote town in Alaska where my series is set. In the second book, K-9 Rescue (coming early 2021), St. Bernard Chance is a rescue dog who became a therapy dog for a non-profit group that helps victims of trauma. When his owner brings him to Alaska, he discovers a natural talent for avalanche rescue. In the third book, K-9 Cold Case (coming mid 2021), Labrador Retriever Patches works with a Victim Specialist as part of the FBI’s initiative Elizabeth and Buddy to help victims and families at the scene of a crime and during the aftermath.
And in the fourth book, K-9 Protection (coming late 2021), Alaskan Malamute Sitka is a former shelter dog who became a police K-9.
Because the dogs are as unique as their owners (the heroes or heroines), I wanted each of them to be different breeds, have different jobs and, of course, have different personalities.
Paula: In your K-9 series, you’re describing what I call Dogs with Jobs. What kind of research did you do on K-9 dogs, their training, their role and their handlers to prepare for these stories?
Elizabeth: Research is one of my favorite parts of the book creation process! Besides adding realism, it also informs my plotlines and characters. To write K-9 stories, I really wanted to focus on a broad range of K-9 roles and to show the dogs in jobs not normally seen in fiction. It all started with K-9 Defense and discovering that Marine MPs had begun using Combat Tracker dogs. Because I already knew my story took place in Alaska, I couldn’t make Rebel or her handler active military, but that also allowed me to explore what happens when handlers or their dogs are injured, including military discharge and PTSD. For that book, after doing a lot of reading up on Combat Tracker dogs, I reached out to soldiers to talk about their experiences with K-9s in war zones.
It also helped that I’d already done research on forensic K-9s for my Profiler series. I’d had the opportunity to talk to handlers and meet Search and Rescue dogs, as well as detection dogs in various roles. There’s a huge array of K-9 jobs out there and each one is pretty specialized. They may use different breeds, they have different training, and there are different policies and expectations when it comes to how the dogs are managed outside working time and when they’re ready to retire. It was a lot of fun to use all this research to bring various K-9 roles to life!
Paula: How would you describe the dogs’ roles in these stories—and their relationships with the people they’re working with?
Elizabeth: I consider the dogs in my stories to be characters as important as the heroes, heroines and villains. I create backstories for them, and develop their strengths, fears and motivations the same way I do with the human characters. For my K-9 Alaska series, either the hero or heroine works directly with the dog. The dogs are a crucial part of the plot and the human characters’ arcs in the story.
In K-9 Defense, my hero is an injured former Marine who came to the remote town of Desparre, Alaska with his retired Combat Tracker dog, Rebel, to hide out from the world. The ambush that ended Colter Hayes’s military career killed the rest of his team and he’s been hiding out with his survivor’s guilt ever since. When Kensie Morgan comes to town, searching for her long-lost sister, she’s certain that Colter and Rebel are the key to finally finding her. Colter thinks a new mission is the last thing he needs, but Rebel connects instantly with Kensie.
Not only does Rebel help Colter and Kensie during some particularly dangerous points in the plot, but she also helps both of them learn how to heal and move forward in their lives--both individually and as a couple. When Colter first woke in the hospital after the ambush and learned the fate of his team, Rebel kept him going. Since Colter and Rebel moved to Alaska, Rebel has learned how to identify signs of Colter’s PTSD and she knows how to break him free of flashbacks. In turn, he’s helped her go from military dog to a beloved pet, and when her war injury flares up, he takes care of her, too.
Paula: Have the animals in your own life influenced the animals and your characters’ relationships with them in your books?
Elizabeth: Absolutely! I grew up with a menagerie – dogs (St. Bernards, Newfoundlands), cats (Persians, tabby), birds (parrot, lovebirds, cockatiel, parakeets, ducks), lizards (iguana, bearded dragon), bunnies, chinchillas and a ferret. Now, my parrot (whom I’ve had since I was a kid) “supervises” my writing every day. Like most people who’ve had pets, I see them as part of the family. That’s how my characters see them, too--and even if they didn’t start out as pets, they very quickly find their way into my hero and heroines’ hearts.
Maybe because they have to communicate with us non-verbally (or at least, find a way to breach language barriers), so many animals are very good at reading people’s intentions, intuiting their mood and understanding their needs. In my K-9 Alaska series, the way the dogs can tell what their humans need is a big part of the stories. And it’s the dogs who ultimately help my heroes and heroines figure out what they’re capable of and how they can grow.
Elizabeth’s comments on research, and her examples, offer a clear delineation of its importance—adding realism and informing plot and character. The extent and depth of her research enables her to create complex suspense novels focusing equally on plot and characterization. Animals, particularly dogs, are a major component of both. Her fascinating, accurate information on the specific jobs these dogs do is a key aspect of the way her animal and human characters are depicted. And that background offers insight into their interactions, how their lives are entwined.
ANNE MARIE DUQUETTE
Paula: Anne Marie, you’re knowledgeable about and interested in the important roles played by therapy dogs of various kinds. How did you acquire this knowledge?
Anne Marie: First of all, I think the United States definition of “helper dogs” is needed, based on the updated 2020 ADA—the Americans with Disabilities Act
1) In the U.S., a “service animal” is one specifically trained to assist just one person in a physical capacity, and by law is allowed public access with no certification, including in no-pet housing. This is for dogs or miniature horses only. Capuchin monkeys no longer fit this category.
2) An “emotional support animal” (ESA) has the primary function of assisting one person with emotional support through companionship, and by law has limits on public access. This animal must have medical proof of its function but is allowed in no-pet housing.
3) A “therapy dog” usually provides comfort to multiple people, such as those in hospitals, nursing Anne Marie and Therapy Dog, Sheba homes or disaster areas. The dog must have
certification, by law has limits on public access, and no exception is made for no-pet housing.
4) However, despite the ADA definitions, the public usually treats “emotional support animals” and “therapy dogs” as “service dogs,” who have public access. But legal exceptions are present and can be exercised at any time, especially to weed out “fake” ESAs (personal pets), an offense punishable by law.
To answer the personal part of this question, helper dogs have been in my life for years. I was partnered with (as opposed to “owned”) two trained German Shepherd service dogs who helped me with physical mobility issues due to a permanently injured leg suffered while in the Navy. I learned first-hand the bond dog and partner create. With first Striker and then Sheba, we were a single unit who learned to intimately read and trust each other for the good of “the team.”
But my mobility service animals unexpectedly became ESAs as well. As the wife of a career military man with children, I was stressed by our frequent moves, and was often without my husband’s presence and parenting help when he was working long hours, nights, or far away.
My service dog doubled as an ESA and gave me companionship, family protection and peace of mind. My children’s individual pet dogs provided them with “fur therapy” as well. Wherever my husband’s duty stations took us, the dogs always came with us.
There is a strong bond between “helper dogs” and their partners, regardless of the dog’s size. Whether trained “service dogs,” like my German Shepherds, or certified ESAs, or “just a pet” fur therapy dogs, they become an important part of family life. I would also like to add that rescued dogs who are trained to help humans can form bonds just as strong, if not stronger, out of gratitude to their rescuers.
Paula: I know that the book you’re currently working on features a therapy dog. What kind of preparation does that involve for you, the writer?
Anne Marie: Writing about fictional dogs, regardless of the legal definition—service dogs, therapy dogs, pets—starts with establishing a full canine profile. Because I believe firmly in this, I’m a member of DWAA – Dog Writers’ Association of America. (Website: https://dogwriters.org) Their mission is to “encompass all aspects of the world of dogs–showing, performance, behavior, training, health, and the human-animal bond.” This bond is integral to a real-life partnership. Writing well about a fictional bond is crucial, especially for readers who have never owned a dog or experienced this special partnership in their lives. And readers who do have canine partners in real life will want to see this bond accurately portrayed.
Dogs must be well-rounded characters with a background history, and their interaction with people must be firmly established. An extensive knowledge of how this dog will react to people in both stressful and non-stressful situations is crucial to dog character development. I don’t want to use a fictional dog as a “prop.”
Especially in the case of helper dogs, important decisions/compromises must be made while not interfering with the dog’s function.
Paula: Have you written any books using an animal point of view? Are there any you’ve particularly liked?
Anne Marie: My first thought is the classic Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. But as a very young child, I was not mature enough to “enjoy” it due to the animal abuse, despite a happy ending. When I was older, I discovered and loved all the stories in the “Lad: A Dog” series by Albert Payson Terhune, although they had darker elements as well.
I did write a short story entirely from an animal’s point of view, but it was specifically written for my animal stories website [minigems.scriptmania.com].
Paula: Have the animals in your own life influenced the animals and your characters’ relationships with them in your books?
Anne Marie: My goodness, yes! I’ve put my dogs (and horses, too) in my books in one form or another. I wrote on one book’s flyleaf, “The characters in this story are, of course, fictional. But any resemblance to my own dog is purely intentional!” Dogs have enriched me emotionally and assisted me physically, and I respect and admire them greatly.
“Love me, love my dog!” is one of my favorite sayings. In fiction or in real life, canines are magical. I’m grateful for all the dogs who have blessed my life. Thank you for letting me share my love of them with you.
Anne Marie has provided some very useful information regarding the different kinds of “helper dogs” in the U.S. And she’s been generous in sharing her personal experience, which expands constructively and movingly on that information.
Her approach to creating animal characters requires the same level of background and personality detail as human characters—especially when the animals determine a significant aspect (or aspects) of plot and characterization.
As Anne Marie says, and all the authors point out, the animals in their lives influence their lives in a variety of ways.
Paula: Please tell me about the role an animal plays in your novel, Pink Sneakers.
Dolores: The dog, Skipper, extended the initial meeting of the two main characters. I wanted him also to be a means of bringing out his master's compassionate traits with his deep concern for his injured pet. While Eric and Eileen waited for his treatment, Skipper became the subject of their conversation and they discovered a common interest.
Paula: Is comedy another part of what the dog in this story contributes?
Dolores: To some degree, when he uses the pink sneaker as a new toy to play with. And to show off his ball-retrieving trick for Eileen, his new admirer.
Paula: What part does the dog play in the revelation of character, development of plot, the progress of relationships, including romance? How does he fit into the story you wrote?
Dolores: Eileen's concern about Skipper's injury and her commitment to his healing dispelled any reluctance she might otherwise have felt in approaching a stranger and conversing with him. The dog’s name, Skipper, was given to him because he loved his boat rides, but you could say he actually does play a skipper’s role in the development of this romance! Like the captain of a ship on stormy sea…
Paula: Are there animals (specifically dogs) in your own life that influenced the animal and your characters' relationship with him in your book?
Dolores: I had many dogs who were very dear to me. Once my children were all married, I had more time to spend with my last dog and this endeared her so much to me, that it broke my heart to have to put her down because of old age. In my story, I could relate to the sorrow that the characters felt when Skipper was injured by someone's careless disposal of a broken bottle. Also, my last dog knew many tricks that I had taught her, so I knew how happy dogs are when they can please their people by performing a trick.
Dolores has come up with an interesting way for her story’s dog, Skipper, to influence—and in a sense, guide—the characters’ relationship. He’s the reason they even begin a relationship!
The next two contributions are commentaries rather than interviews, but address the same questions, each author writing in her own, very individual style, just as the interview responses reflect the different authors’ approaches and beliefs.
Since my first novel, The Third Christmas, which included a dolphin failed by the U.S. Navy who subsequently befriended the heroine, animals have wandered through my stories. Dogs, horses, snakes and arachnids have shown something of their own natures while doing even more to reveal the natures of those around them.
Margo and Eldar
In romance, animals can prove a useful testing ground for the worth of a partner. Anyone arguing that it’s wise to enter a life partnership with someone who abuses animals is going to have an uphill fight. In fiction as in life, people who love animals and show them respect often gain our love and respect because of it.
I really enjoy David Rosenfelt’s books about wise-cracking and dog-loving attorney Andy Carpenter. My favorites among his books tend to rank according to which dog character--or situation--I liked best. It must be the macabre in me that loved the dog that dug up the human head. (Carpenter noted that they took it away in an ambulance though he was pretty sure it was too late to save it; he certainly wasn’t going to give it CPR.)
The language in popular science surrounding animals has become riddled with clichés based on truth. Listening to animals, learning from animals, talking with animals--the modern understanding of animal behavior draws a lot from these concepts. But people who have spent a lot of time with dogs and horses understand the bone-and-flesh truths beneath the words. Something happens to us when a young and exuberant dog has devoured a valued possession or turns every neighborhood walk into a tug-of-war. At some point, there is a total frustration and a kind of surrender--generally to doing things differently because Plan A isn’t working.
I have an inner belief that most animal owners, if they are honest, can admit to shameful mistakes with their pets. (Or maybe that belief is my way of living with mistakes I’ve made.) From benevolent neglect to over-indulgence to euthanizing a pet too soon or too late, we’re usually just doing our best.
I recently cared for a friend’s dog for a few days, during which a two-minute fireworks display occurred. My home shakes a lot under fireworks. I thought the dog and I might sit on the back porch and he could get treats and it would be less traumatic than inside. Wrong. So we went back inside, he holed up in the bathroom and as we sat together I heard myself say to him, “I’m so sorry. I’m only human.”
That could be the anthem of our species’ relationship with animals. Perhaps for that reason, my love of David Rosenfelt’s books aside, my preference is for characters who make mistakes with animals and realize their mistakes. There are inevitable challenges to understanding species other than our own--not to mention what they must think of us. The erring owner leads us back into what William Faulkner calls “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
I live in a very small town where the enforcement of leash laws is lax. The population is divided between people who keep their dogs behind fences and walk them on leashes (or at least are with them when they’re walked) and people who behave as though the street is an extension of their yard, believing dogs need to be free. Having fostered a puppy whose leg was broken when she was hit by a car on our 15 mph street, I have trouble speaking civilly to my neighbor who is in the free-dog camp; because his dog is young and particularly adorable, friendly and at risk from cars, I sometimes consider the owner a sort of sociopath. Or is this my way of feeling better while, as I write, two of my three my snakes need their terrariums cleaned?
A friend who liked to spoil my German shepherds told me he wanted to be a saint to dogs. As the person training my shepherds, I said, "I think I'd prefer to be their benevolent deity." Without missing a beat, he said, "Like the bitch goddess you are?" Of course, I thanked him.
Margot’s humorous animal-loving and story-loving comments make so much sense. I think it’s fair to say that most of us would find it impossible to maintain a relationship, certainly a romantic one, with someone who abuses animals.
I enjoy Rosenfelt’s books, too, and appreciate being introduced to them by Margot.
Her point about how the “language surrounding animals in popular science has become riddled with clichés based on truth” is interesting (and, of course, virtually all clichés have their origins in a common truth); as she indicates, these truths are the basic underpinning of the contemporary human-animal relationship. But let me add that clichés referring to animals are usually about people and their behavior. Obvious examples (among hundreds!) include: letting the cat out of the bag, being a one-trick pony, barking up the wrong tree…
Margot’s remark about mistakes we make with animals is something most of us, as pet people, have experienced. But doesn’t it have great potential in a story?
I grew up in a menagerie—my mother couldn’t say no to any warm-blooded being that could walk, crawl or fly to our back door. We had multiple dogs and cats, but on the more
exotic side we also had parakeets, a turtle, geese and a couple of chickens. It seems that my children and I inherited that Dr. Doolittle characteristic. A story that I sometimes tell is about moving a Black Lab, three cats and two horses two-thousand miles across the country. What a move that one was! This walk down memory lane is in prelude to discussing the animals in our stories.
A word of warning—when I’m reading a book that has a dog or a cat in it, I’ll go to the last chapter to make sure Fido or Tabby is still hanging around. If not, the book goes to the donation pile.
Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent series features a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who inherits a Chihuahua named Betty. When he’s not chasing bad guys, he likes to jog, carrying d book of my Port Serenity series, C.J. Baker, a former drug cop and now the Sheriff of Aransas County, inherits a toy poodle from his third-grade teacher. C.J. names his new fur baby Fang, and Fang loves to go on patrol. I think the relationship between the big, tough lawman and the frou-frou dog adds to the depth of the character.
In A Texas State of Mind, Chief of Police Lolly LaTullipe is a single mom with two kids, a calico cat and a big shaggy dog named Harvey. Add in the white picket fence surrounding her house, and Christian Delacroix’s fantasy life is fulfilled. He can well imagine ditching the life of an undercover cop and embracing the American dream.
When the Magnolia Blooms is a ghost story set on the Rappahannock River in Virginia. Our heroine, Fi, is renovating an antebellum mansion that her mom has inherited. Much to her surprise, her roomie is Rhys, a charismatic spirit from the Civil War. Enter Fred, a Golden Retriever and Ginger a Chihuahua—yep, Astaire and Rogers. The pups can see the ghost and they’re frequently found staring at a blank wall. Not only are they companions, Fred and Ginger play an important part in the quirky, and unexpected, end of the story.
Animals add a delightful lagniappe to a book. Have fun!
Paula: The relationship between “big, tough lawman” and small “frou-frou dog” (in Karin Slaughter’s series and in Ann’s) is a fascinating one; it shows the reader something important about this man, this lawman—and about his dog. In her book, Ann also shows how this relationship allows comic observations.
When the Magnolia Blooms is a contemporary novel with historical and supernatural/fantasy elements. And it underscores yet another attribute of dogs: their ability to sense the deeper, inner truths and invisible realities—possibly even ghosts!
As Ann says, Have fun. And fun is one of the operative words in people-animal endeavors!
Time to conclude. Dog needs a walk! Cat needs her food! Books need to be read!
The number of novels that fit our wide definition of “animal stories” is probably impossible to count. Animals figure in every kind of fiction and play many story-related roles.
I’m going to give the last word to author Kate James.
Especially during these unprecedented times, we need animals more than ever. Animals of our own, animals around us. Animals in the wild—although with everyone in self-isolation, animals are now encroaching on our habitats. There are images of this happening all over the world.
But during—and probably after the COVID pandemic—animals need us more than ever. For care, rescue, protection. For love and respect.
Kate and her “pups”
I have never written a book that hasn’t featured an animal in a prominent role. Not only because animals help define the characters and reveal their true natures, as this blog points out. But also because they’re fascinating in their own right… They aren’t just extensions or reflections of people. They are themselves.
These comments are obviously true of our household pets, dogs and cats, rabbits or birds. And studies have shown how animals can calm and heal us—an invaluable benefit in these recent months. Herd and farm animals have their own distinct social organization and manner of communicating, too. And that’s even more true of animals in the wild.
My own close relationships with animals, especially dogs, brings so much to my life. Companionship, humor, comfort, connections with other people… Yes, I feel immense grief when one of them dies. But to me that’s never been a reason not to welcome another one into my home.
I can’t imagine my life without them.
Ann DeFee: Ann DeFee is an award-winning author who infuses humor into her stories of romance, relationships and quirky characters. She’s written eleven novels and one novella under various Harlequin imprints. Her debut book, A Texas State of Mind (2005) was a double finalist in the national Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA contest and a Romantic Times nominee for Best First Series Book. In addition, Summer After Summer (2007) won the national Book Buyers’ Best Long Contemporary award.
She is currently writing Southern Fiction and Magical Realism. Believe in the Magic won the Reader’s Favorite Gold Medal for Magic and Wizardry and the Chanticleer Somerset award for Women's Fiction. The second book in the Irish Enchantment series, When the Magnolia Blooms won the NYC Big Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist in the Book Excellence Award.
Ann loves all things that glitter and is addicted to hot chocolate, regardless of the season. Ann’s website is anndefee.com
Anne Marie Duquette: The granddaughter of two coal miners, Anne Marie Duquette was raised all over the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, with a healthy appreciation for the richness of the land, its wildlife, and its beauty. Her love of her country’s bounty grew during her many travels as the daughter of a career U.S. Air Force pilot and Air Force nurse, as a Navy veteran herself, and as the wife of a now-retired career Navy Chief Petty Officer Hospital Corpsman.
Different landscapes and people sparked her interest in both writing and photography to keep track of her many adventures as a “military brat.”
She’s published 25 books, 20 of them with Harlequin, and sold one treatment to Paramount Studios. Anne Marie’s real-life romance began when an unknown Navy corpsman put a cast on her broken leg for their “first date.” They have two grown children and three grandchildren, all residing in Southern California. She's also married to her Disneyland annual pass and, dog lover that she is, PLUTO is her favorite character! (Website: paperbackgems.com)
Margot Early: Margot Early is an author of mass market fiction and has sold more than 3,500,000 books; her work has been translated into nine languages and sold in sixteen countries. She lives in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, where she writes, reads and writes, enjoys the outdoors, and helps dogs whose people have gone on vacation without them to be better behaved and as happy as possible.
Elizabeth Heiter: Publishers Weekly bestselling author Elizabeth Heiter likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists and a little (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range. Her novels have been published in more than a dozen countries and translated into eight languages; they’ve also been shortlisted for the HOLT Medallion, the Daphne Du Maurier award, the National Readers’ Choice award and the Booksellers’ Best award and won the RT Reviewers’ Choice award. Her website is elizabethheiter.com.
Kate James: Kate spent much of her childhood abroad before attending university in Canada. She built a successful business career, but her passion has always been literature. As a result, Kate turned her energy to her love of the written word. Her goal is to entertain her readers with engaging stories featuring strong, likable characters. Kate has been honored with numerous awards for her writing.
She and her partner, Martin, enjoy traveling and the outdoors, with their beloved Labrador Retrievers, Harley and Logan, and Bernese Mountain Dogs, Moose and Masi. Connect with her at kate-james.com.
Geri Krotow: Geri Krotow is the bestselling author of over 25 novels including the Silver Valley, PD series for Harlequin Romantic Suspense. You can sign up for her newsletter and find out more about Geri at her website https://gerikrotow.com/
Linda Lael Miller: New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller lives in Spokane, Washington, with a small menagerie, two feisty terriers and an ancient kitty, all of whom are rescues. She enjoys painting, gardening, reading and, of course, writing. Linda is currently working on two series—one western contemporary (the first book, Country Strong, is now out) and one historical (The Yankee Widow, the first in that trilogy, is available in hardcover and paperback). For more information, check out her website, lindalaelmiller.com.
Sheila Roberts: USA Today and Publishers Weekly best-selling author Sheila Roberts has written over fifty books under various names, ranging from romance to self-improvement. Her humor and heart have won her a legion of fans and her novels have been turned into movies for both the Lifetime and Hallmark channels. When she’s not out dancing with her husband or hanging out with her girlfriends, she can be found writing about those things near and dear to women’s hearts: family, friends and chocolate. Connect with Sheila on her website, sheilasplace.com.
Dolores Yergeau: Author Dolores Yergeau has gone from having her short story published in The Book Of Knowledge at the age of fifteen, to having her first novel published as a great-grandmother of ten. She has written and illustrated booklets for her great-grandkids where they were the central characters. Dolores hopes to pass on her love of storytelling.
About the Author
PAULA EYKELHOF is a former (retired) Executive Editor at Harlequin Books (now a division of Harper Collins). She was with the company for more than 30 years.
Paula worked with a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors. She was responsible for various series programs (including Romance, Superromance, American Romance and Everlasting), as well as working on single-title imprints, principally MIRA and HQN.
She gave many workshops and speeches through the years and has also written a number of blogs on writing-related issues, most recently for Bellastoria Press. She has also advised many aspiring authors.
Paula is now working as a freelance editor and writer.