...for readers who love animals, and animal lovers who read!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writing Serious Issues in Entertaining Mysteries

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....
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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






10 comments:

  1. We attended a Pet Expo that was supposed to have Cat Agility. Unfortunately, their ring was next to the room where they were doing fly ball (so much barking that they handed out ear plugs for spectators). Not one cat would even attempt the agility course.

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    1. Wow, that's bad planning! And who could blame the cats? I love dogs, and I can only take so much flyball because of the racket. If you get a chance to attend a trial or demo at a cat show, Barb, that should work a bit better!

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  2. Good post! I recently read a blog by a friend, Madeleine Robins, called "If You Want to Send a Message, Call Western Union." Too many writers don't trust their audiences. We see this in film all the time, where the message is hammered home just in case we don't get it. But for me, when a book gets too preachy, I quit reading. (Unless, of course, the author is someone like Barbara Kingsolver, who sometimes gets a little didactic for my taste, but whose writing is so wonderful that it doesn't matter.)

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    1. True, Susan, and even when the writing is stunning, preachiness can get in the way, especially if the author seems unaware of his/her own shortcomings.

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  3. I agree with your approach, Sheila. I've addressed different issues involving pet rescues in my Pet Rescue Mysteries but tried to make those points interesting and part of the story without hitting readers over the head with them. I hadn't heard of agility cats before, so that's another good reason to look forward to your next book. I've enjoyed the first two in this series!

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    1. Thanks, Linda. With emotional issue, including rescue, there's a very fine line - I've walked it in nonfiction as well.

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  4. Weave the issue into the plot, yes -- so your characters can have at it. In an essay you're pretty much limited to one point of view. In a story, each character has a different approach, different priorities, different experiences. Yes, all the characters spring from the writer's imagination, but if the writer understands the complexity of an issue, her characters will reflect that.

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  5. Sheila, each of your stories were discrete and done well with presenting issues without pushing your point. It was a light tapping on the conscience...

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    1. Sheri, thank you for that. I may have to quote you!

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  6. Nancy Gadzuk--a/k/a Natasha AlexanderMarch 27, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    I love that the characters (both two-legged and four-legged) are drawn so well -- and that the animals don't 'talk' in pseudo-human voices. While I'm definitely an animal lover, I knew nothing about agility training before reading your books. So I've gotten an education on that as well as an awareness of the other issues you raise in your books.

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