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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Striking a Balance - Serious Issues in Entertaining Books

by Sheila Webster Boneham

If you have read my Animals in Focus mysteries published by Midnight Ink, 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 an animal-related issue. Just as they do in real life, serious issues can create major problems for writers.
In the first book, Drop Dead on Recall (2012), we meet 50-something animal photographer Janet MacPhail and her Australian Shepherd Jay at an obedience trial, where a top-level competitor keels over. 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. That infant puppy is my real-life Jay at one week old.

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, Tom Saunders. Drake, too, is inspired by the Labs I've owned and 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. 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. 

In Catwalk (2014), Janet enters her first feline agility (yes! you read that correctly) competition with her orange tabby, Leo. She also competes with Jay in dog agility, and becomes embroiled in the politics of feral cat community care and TNR) trap, neuter, release) programs. Leo, Janet's brilliant little cat, is modeled after a number of cats who have shared my life, especially Malcolm, Leo, George, Kitty, and Mary. And yes, feline agility is a real sport - but Leo runs like a dog!

A number of challenges presented themselves as soon as I began writing. First, this series falls under the "cozy" umbrella, meaning that readers expect a few things:
  1. Murder and sex are fine; graphic details are not.
  2. Adult humans may be killed; children and animals may be threatened, but shouldn't be harmed. 
  3. Serious issues may be presented, but soap-boxes should be kept mostly tucked under the writer's desk, not plunked down on the page.
Knowing these "rules" 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.Happily, I have heard from readers who say they went on to do more research because they learned "just enough" in my books. I'm currently wrapping up Shepherd's Crook (scheduled for release fall 2015). Janet and Jay will be herding sheep, fending off anti-pet extremists, managing matters of the heart, and -- oh, yes! -- looking for a killer!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~



Sheila Webster Boneham is an award-winning writer who writes across genres and interacts across species. She is the author of the best-selling Animals in Focus mystery series from Midnight Ink and of seventeen nonfiction books, including Rescue Matters: How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine Publications, 2009, updated 2013). Sheila also writes creative nonfiction, literary fiction, and poems, and she teaches writing classes and offers individual mentoring for aspiring writers. Find her online at www.sheilaboneham.com, on Facebook, or by e-mail. Sheila runs the Writers & Other Animals blog and the companion Facebook group








.

15 comments:

  1. Sounds exciting! How do you write sooo fast? I'm so involved in marketing and doing school visits, I'm constantly juggling writing vs promoting. This is the first time I've written a story knowing it is going to be published. I'm more focused, but suffer from anxiety over self doubt. I'm two-thirds finished with the first draft!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sheri, I write at different rates at different times, and don't consider myself particularly fast most of the time. And every writer I know experiences self doubt! As for balancing marketing v. writing, that can be a problem and I don't have a good answer. Do what seems to work for you - I think it's different for every writer and every book. Good luck - and thanks for popping in!

      Delete
  2. Very well said.
    I agree - do not HURT the animals or children.
    It is interesting discovering new activities to share with outr friends, whether furred or webbed or weathered

    ReplyDelete
  3. You do a great job of "teasing" us with information that makes me think without the bludgeon. And absolutely, never kill off an animal!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Billie. My first drafts sometimes drift into preachy or sarcasm, but I try to clean them up in revision. Preaching or lecturing certainly turn me off, so I try to give just enough to encourage people to learn more. Thanks for coming!

      Delete
  4. Good post! I'm pretty allergic to soapboxes and when an author (or film) starts to preach, I'm usually gone. But, I prefer books that explore or open up serious issues. As you say, it's a balancing act.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Susan. I think the only way to effectively use a soapbox is to give one to a character an use it sparingly!

      Delete
  5. Love your books and always look forward to the next one. You do a great job of balancing issues in the story

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post, Sheila. I too try to educate while entertaining, about psychological issues, but one does have to not get too heavy with it. As a reader I hate it when an author jumps on their soapbox. I like your short checklist and will keep it in mind as I launch a new cozy mystery series.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Excellent post, Sheila. My daughter has a rescue Chiweenie who was being used in a puppy mill. There are so many stories behind these animals. I'm glad you're entertaining and informing readers. Thank you!
    Marja McGraw

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Marja. It's always disturbing to hear about mixed-breeds being used for breeding, and any animal in a mill. I actually discourage the use of "cute" made-up names for mixes because they support the notion that mixes = breeds just because someone says so. I'm glad you daughter's dog found a good home.

      Delete