Friday, August 30, 2013

Ask My Dog, He'll Tell You

On Monday, Thomas wrote about the "dog days" of summer. His post hit home with me – not just because I'm a weather junkie (who knows exactly what time the rain is due to move in) – but because I've been debating the dog versus cat issue. I'm a "dog person". I'm thinking of getting a cat. Even considering this has given me sleepless nights – well, at least a sleepless half hour before I drifted off. The problem is not that I dislike cats. I once volunteered – accidentally, I thought they also had dogs, too – to be a feeder/cleaner at a cat shelter. I came to appreciate cats as a species. But when I imagine the animal that I would enjoy sharing my house, I think "dog".

Perhaps this is a matter of early exposure. When I was growing up, my family had only one cat – an outdoor cat who came and went. The dogs were much more connected to humans – a Dalmatian, a mutt, a black Lab, my father's various hound dogs for hunting. Those dogs I knew. Those dogs I would sit and have long, serious conversations with about the trials and tribulations of being a child and then a teenager. I said conversations, because dogs listen. Maybe cats do as well, but I don't know. Maybe if I get a cat, he or she will sniff and walk away just as I'm baring my soul and asking for sympathy.

But, still, I'm considering a cat because they are beautiful, intelligent animals with individual personalities and it's all a matter of finding the right cat for me (or, so "cat people" tell me). And a cat will be much more forgiving if I'm late getting home -- got litter box, no problem. I think I could adjust to having an animal who might be sitting on my dining room table while I'm away. The thing is getting a cat would require me to re-define who I am. I would be a dog person who has a cat. I would probably have to adopt a dog just to restore my equilibrium. And then I would be a hybrid person with a dog and a cat who I would have to hope would either like or ignore each other.

Why am I writing about my "companion animal" dilemma here? Because thinking about the dog versus cat issue has gotten me thinking about animals in crime fiction. My books tend to have a dog. In my Lizzie Stuart series, John Quinn, the tough ex-MP, ex-homicide cop, has a yellow Lab mix. Lizzie goes to his house – after receiving a threatening note – and meets his dog named "George". She is amused when Quinn is defensive about the dog's name and confesses that he didn't intend to keep the dog he found on the highway, but his time was up at the pound. George, the lively dog, reveals a side of Quinn that she hasn't seen before. In my new series, my police detective's former partner is involved with a Great Dane rescue group. But there is also a cat – a Maine Coon cat because when I was writing the book I was thinking about a Maine Coon cat as a cat I might enjoy living with (still considering). My Maine Coon cat turns out to play much more of a role in the story than I anticipated. His presence and his name reinforces what one learns later about the billionaire with whom he shares a mansion.

We can all think of the many animals in crime fiction. They are there to give us another perspective on a character. They are there as sounding boards who provide the character with an opportunity to share his or her thoughts – the listener who can occasionally bark or meow and keep the scene from becoming static. An animal can even be a reason for a character to take action – as when a beloved animal has been injured by the bad guy. Of course, here, the writer must tread carefully. Readers do not like to see animals – particularly series regulars – hurt or injured. Beware the "cat taboo".

But it also occurs to me that both in fiction and in real life, animals can be used as a "prop". The serial killer who uses the adorable pup he is playing with in the park to lure his victims. It's true, isn't it, that when we see a person with a  happy dog, we assume – unless the owner is dragging the dog along and scolding it for trying to make new friends – we assume the owner must be a nice person. If we're allowed to pat the dog, we don't hesitate to strike up a conversation with the dog's companion. This  – like cute human toddlers – is the exception to the don't talk to strangers rule. In fact, one of the reasons often given for having a dog in your life is that a dog will increase your interactions with other humans – assuming your dog is a friendly pooch rather than a dog that other people cross the street to avoid (while also quickly planning you in the category of potentially dangerous stranger).

Cats could also be used for misdirection or deception in a story. The stereotype of elderly women with multiple cats. What if a woman – not elderly – needs to hide out . . . wait, forget I said that. I'm going to use that one in a short story.

I also have a character in The Red Queen Dies who has lizards and once owned snakes. I'm not sure how to categorize "reptile people". I'm sure they must be somewhat different personality types from dog or cat people. The character in my book is elusive, hard to pin down.

And what about people who are simply "animal lovers." Who have a houseful of cats, dogs, snakes, ferrets, turtles, and other animals who all happily co-exist. Maybe these are the people who in real life and books should be sent out to solve the tough problem of "world peace." In a book, this person might be a part of a busy, happy family. Or, he or she could be an animal hoarder, who lives alone in squalor, and would probably have an interesting backstory.

Always good when thinking about life's little dilemma's – dog or cat – leads to new story ideas.

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