Please welcome author Amy Shojai to the
WRITING like Cats & Dogs: How and Why to Include Pets In Fiction
Thank you, Kevin, for allowing me to share about my latest book, and how (and why) to include pets in fiction. In another life, I’m a certified animal behavior consultant, and the author of a couple dozen prescriptive nonfiction pet books. In my case, writing thrillers that includes pet-centric plots and characters brought my existing readers along for fiction fun. I call my stories “Thrillers With Bite!” because they all include heroic pets and their human partners.
My latest thriller HIT AND RUN (September & Shadow #5) released in October. The story features several animal character heroes, including the “pet viewpoint” of a service dog and trained cat. And now, the animals don’t talk. Read on for details.
Many authors include cats and dogs in mysteries or other genres, often quite successfully. The best of these follow a few unwritten rules. Just as law enforcement professionals object to outlandish depictions of guns, police procedures, and assorted mayhem, pet lovers and professionals also may get “hissed off” with poorly written pet-specific plots or characters.
WHY INCLUDE PETS?
Fiction authors often plot stories that begin in the “normal world” before kicking off the mystery, thrill-ride, or romance. So let’s get real about pets: 85 million U.S. households (67 percent) have pets, according to the 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). Readers who love pets often gravitate to stories that include cats and dogs, giving the pet-centric author a furry foot in the door for new readers.
In other words, chances are your reader may enjoy the book while a dog or cat snoozes alongside them. The pet-loving reader immediately identifies with the cat or dog (“I have a Golden Retriever who does that same thing,” she thinks). A pet normalizes the story world.
Pets add another dimension to fiction in terms of relationships. A protagonist that loves a special pet shows empathy, while an antagonist (especially a bad guy) who adores his Chihuahua or fears cats, adds a unique layer to character.
In each of my five thrillers, I’ve hosted a “Name That Cat/Dog” contest for readers to nominate, and then vote, on pet characters for me to include. The winners get a paw-tographed print copy of the book, acknowledgements in the backmatter, and bragging rights that their own personal dog or cat (in one case a horse!) stars as a hero in the thriller. That’s created a new way to generate advance interest, and these winners share and market the book once published. For the most recent HIT AND RUN story winners, readers nominated 158 cat and 172 dog names, with totals of 7369 cat votes and 3304 dog votes.
HOW TO HISS OFF READERS
· Kill the pet—just don’t! Cat and dog lovers who identify with an animal character feel shocked, hurt, betrayed, and angry when writers kill off pets. They may accept and never blink at murder and mayhem of humans, but a cat or dog mayhem or death puts the author on the NEVER READ list. While my animal characters at times take risks, they always survive and only humans become victims.
· Use pets as props. If the cat or dog appears in the opening, and the protagonist leaves for days/weeks/months chasing bad guys, ensure that SOMETHING addresses the animal’s needs while away. A homecoming after a week’s adventure away results in pee and poop, chewed up items, or worse (dead pet…see item above!).
· Give wrong medicine. Know what’s acceptable and safe for cats and dogs before “treating” your injured SAR dog character with a human prescription that could be toxic. Know pet ER and what’s a safe Rx.
· Choose the wrong breed. Each animal type acts and reacts in species-appropriate ways. If your pet character must swim and survive a flood, don’t choose an English Bulldog that sinks like a rock, for instance.
· Choose the wrong behavior. Understand the basics of cat and/or dog behavior, or figure out ways to justify aberrations. Dos your cat character need to swim? Then perhaps a Turkish Van (the swimming cat) would be a better chose than Siamese. Will your pet characters “talk” to human characters, or just to each other, or not at all? Do you know how cats and dogs speak to each other with fur, ears, tail, scent, and posture? Find out!
· Age out the pet. Dogs and cats live foreshortened lifespans, so a recurring pet character over a series could risk the animal growing too old too quickly. My series books follow each other only a few months apart specifically so my pet characters remain vital and engaged.
· Include trigger topics. Yes, pet people have triggers, including such topics as dog fighting, breed bans, TNR, neuter/intact, and more. Only include such subjects once you understand the arguments; that can actually improve the story for savvy readers.
SHADOW and MACY in HIT AND RUN
My recurring pet characters are Shadow the German Shepherd, and Macy the Maine Coon cat. They do NOT talk except in species-appropriate ways, with the wag of a tail, lift of whiskers, body positions, and scent cues. Like his human partner September, for each book Shadow also has his own story goal and character arc.
Pets perceive their world through scent, sound, and more, and so my animal characters act/react as a normal dog and cat would. Shadow not only helps his person, September, ward off panic attacks, he’s been trained to track down missing pets.
Macy-cat, not to be outdone, has also learned tracking skills (yes, there ARE real-life pet-finding felines). In the story, you’ll learn some other amazing, true pet skills that may surprise you. This time around, answering reader requests, Macy also has a few chapters that show his part of the story through a cat’s purr-ceptions.
WHAT’S HIT AND RUN ABOUT?
The story HIT AND RUN stands alone, so even if you’ve not read the others in the series, fans of pet-centric thrillers should enjoy the book. I suspect you may want to go back and read the others: LOST AND FOUND, HIDE AND SEEK, SHOW AND TELL, and FIGHT OR FLIGHT. Here’s the set up for HIT AND RUN:
A message from the grave. An assassin on her tail. Sniffing out the truth could get them all killed.
September Day is ready for a new start with her detective boyfriend. Believing she’s finally put her husband’s death behind her, her life upends when his mother sends her a safety deposit box key that could unlock the truth. But before she can examine the cryptic contents, she’s brutally attacked, the files are stolen, and her former in-law is murdered.
Determined to uncover the harrowing facts, September and her dog Shadow battle to stay one step ahead of the merciless killer. But when they stumble upon shady business at a cattery, she must expose the mastermind before she too ends up in the ground.
Will Macy-Cat sniff out the key to unmask a decades-old horror? Can September and Shadow confront the past and live to tell the tale?
Here’s a YouTube video TRAILER for the book (with a cameo of my Magical-Dawg *sniff*):
The book HIT AND RUN is available on all Ebook platforms, in paperback, and audiobook.
Thanks again, Kevin, for the opportunity to talk about my fiction and HIT AND RUN. I hope readers will “adopt” the book and enjoy the read—maybe with a cat on your lap! When the next book gets ready, purr-haps one of your furry wonders will win a hero-cat (or dog) mention in the book, too.
Oh, and folks are interested in more tips on including animals in fiction, check out this on-demand webinar I presented to Sisters In Crime/North Texas: https://event.webinarjam.com/channel/Writing-Pet-Fiction
Amy Shojai (https://www.SHOJAI.com) is the award-winning author of 35+ nonfiction pet care and behavior books, and the September & Shadow thrillers. She lives in North Texas with Bravo-Dawg, Karma-Kat, Shadow-Pup, and the enduring memory of Magical-Dawg and Seren-Kitty. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or on BookBub to stay up to date with new books.