by Sheila Webster Boneham
If you have read any of my Animals in Focus mysteries, you know that dogs and cats and other critters are vital characters. After all, the series isn't called Animals in Focus for nothing. In fact, each book in the series spotlights a different "animal activity" and each mystery hinges on a serious real-world issue. Just as they do in real life, serious issues can create major problems for writers.
In, Drop Dead on Recall, we meet 50-something animal photographer Janet MacPhail and her Australian Shepherd, Jay, at an obedience trial, where Janet watches as a top-level competitior keels over in the open obedience class. Soon Janet, Jay, and their very important feline family member, Leo, find themselves embroiled in a series of murders that seem to be linked to breeder ethics (or lack thereof) and cut-throat competitiveness.
In The Money Bird (2013), Janet has her lens focused on retrievers training for AKC retrieving tests, especially the handsome Drake and his almost-as-handsome person, anthropologist Tom Saunders. Drake, too, is inspired by the three Labs I've owned and and the many I've rescued over the years, especially my first Lab, Raja, a big chocolate field-bred goofball. Here he is with my beautiful Malcolm, who was one of the real-life models for Leo.
In Catwalk (coming fall 2014), Janet spends time competing in both canine and feline agility. Yes, it's true -- competitive sports are not just for dogs anymore! (Cats are often lured through agility courses, but in Catwalk, Janet clicker trains Leo just as she does Jay. Here's a video of clicker-trained agility cats - I LOVE this kid and his cats!) The very politically and emotionally charged issue in the book is feral cat colonies and the Trap-Neuter-Release approach to managing them.
A number of challenges presented themselves as soon as I began writing the series. First, I decided early on that I wanted to stay away from graphic or gratuitous violence and sex. Sure, people are killed, and Janet and Tom are fully engaged romantically, but I prefer to let readers use their imaginations rather than spell everything out. And since I am turned off by violence or sex that serve shock value rather than the story, I assume many other readers are as well.
The second major challenge was to find ways to introduce serious issues without shouting from one of my soap-boxes. Those, I knew, needed to be tucked under my desk, not splashed all over my books.
Setting these limits on myself is helpful in some ways, restrictive in others. After all, I'm writing about creatures and issues that stir intense feelings in me as well as in my readers, and it isn't always easy to stifle myself. Many authors face this problem in fiction, where characters and story (plot, if you prefer) are the real focus. So how do we strike a balance? Not all of us do - I'm sure we've all read books in which the author's passion for some cause overshadowed everything else. If you're like me, you may have quit reading. I don't like to be bludgeoned when I'm reading mostly to be entertained.
On the other hand, I do like to learn new things, and I have often read fiction that teased me into looking for more information about something.
I hope I'm striking that balance in my own fiction. In The Money Bird, wildlife trafficking is the larger issue woven into the plot. It's an ugly business, and I've tried to present it in a way that will encourage people to learn more without overdoing it. Judging by reader response, I think I've managed to open some eyes and inspire some research without detracting from the story itself. At least I hope so!
Catwalk is in production for its release this coming fall, and I'm working now on the next book in the series. Activity and issue, you ask? Livestock handling (i.e., herding), and rustling. Yes, we still have cattle and horse rustlers in our midst. But more on that later....
For more information about the Animals in Focus mysteries, and the series, please visit my website Mysteries Page, and for immediate news join me on Facebook or Twitter.
Autographed copies of Drop Dead on Recall, The Money Bird, and my nonfiction books, including Rescue Matters, from Pomegranate Books.
Also available from your favorite bookseller (think Indie!) and online: Paperback and Kindle editions HERE
Audible editions HERE
Sheila Webster Boneham writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She started this blog as a way to bring readers and authors together over all sorts of writing that involves animals in some way. Learn more at Sheila's Website.