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08 September 2008

Pets in Novels

I returned from Burning Man last week to discover that my ancient Staffordshire Terrier was gravely ill and had to be put down. Needless to say, this put me a bit off my game . . . I spent the weekend on the couch with a box of tissues and a pile of books that contain all my favorite literary dogs. This means I re-read a lot of Georgette Heyer and Rita Mae Brown (and a couple of Jennifer Crusie books). These authors write dogs that are memorable and funny and engaging.

When I write, my characters always seem to have pets (usually dogs). I assume this is simply an outgrowth of my own sensibilities: No house is a home without a dog. But I also try and have the dog serve a purpose, otherwise I’m quite ruthless with myself and the scenes with the doggy have to go! Cats and tame farm animals are the purview of dotty aunts (someday I WILL write about a dowager with a pet hen that lives in the drawing room).

So today I’m simply asking how you all feel about pets in novels? Do they need to serve a plot purpose? Is comic relief enough? Is the fact that they show us something about their owner reason enough to include them? Ulysses in Heyer’s Arabella serves to show that the hero really will do anything for the heroine, but he is also an immensely rich and loveable secondary character. The Balchistan hound in Frederica serves no purpose beyond comic relief, but I still love him. The wheezing pug in Friday’s Child serves no real purpose at all, but I still remember him.

Is a pet like a gun? If you show it in scene one, must you employ it by the story’s close?

22 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Oh Kahlen, sorry to hear about your dog! That had to be so hard, especially coming back from vacation.

As for pets in books, I love them, and I think that they are a great way to highlight one's characters. Although I would like to see a book where the villain didn't hate pets! I think, however, they have to be used judiciously, but nothing bugs me more than a pet who appears and then disappears never to be seen again.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Lezlie said...

I'm sorry to hear about your dog. It's always so sad, no matter how old they are or ready for it you think you are.

I get nervous when authors introduce animals/pets into stories. I always assume it's going to meet a bad end to prove how bad the bad guy is and distracts me endlessly. I *hate* that! But a pet in a story that gets to make it all the way to the end is always, always welcome, whatever its purpose! And I don't think if a pet is introduced it absolutely has to be involved in the entire plot. Cameos are fun, too.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The pets in my books will never met sticky ends. Never. They're far more likely to deal them out (as the mastiff does in my debut novel).

I'm really missing my sweet girl, but I'm back in the saddle and looking for a new dog (it helps stave off the misery).

10:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

So sorry about your dog, Kalen -- the decision to put a pet down and save her unnecessary pain is a necessary and agonizing one.

I love the idea of a villain that doesn't hate pets, Elizabeth. I don't know if they're exactly like guns in plots, though. I did enjoy having Kit and Mary's little dog, Snug, survive in The Slightest Provocation, but I draw the line at fictional children and treacly visions of doggie heaven.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Maya Rodale said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your dog! I get weepy just thinking about the day when I won't have mine around...

I definitely don't mind pets in novels. But I'm always wondering when the fictional dog is getting fed or walked while the hero and heroine are so very distracted with each other.

And Elizabeth--definitely intriguing to have a villain who didn't hate pets! What kind would a villain have, I wonder?

12:33 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm not sure Maya, I think it would depend on the villain or villainess. I just get tired of the heroine's dog sensing the villain is evil and growling. Who says that you can't be evil and love animals? Even Dr. Evil in Austin Powers had a cat!

12:40 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, Kalen, I'm so, so sorry about your dog! Pets are so wonderful and losing them is so hard. I've lost two cats in the last two years--it leaves such a hole on one's life.

I love pets in books. For me, they don't necessarily have to serve a particular purpose. They can simply be part of the characters' lives. Charles and Melanie have a cat who so far hasn't played a major role in the books, though various characters talk to him at various times and express things they wouldn't verablize to other people. That's actually a very good way for animals to plya a role in the story. I talk to my pets all the time.

I love Georgette Heyer's dogs. I acutally think the Baluchistan Hound does serve a purpose--he shows how unstuff Alverstoke can, and how he is willing to accommodate Frederica's family, animal as well as human.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, you have my deepest sympathies. I've actually never had a pet, and I do want to get a dog someday, but I have strong feelings about dogs of any size (except teacup) in NYC apartments (which are small compared to the rest of the country).

I think dogs say a tremedous amount about character, and agree that they should be used judiciously. Lady Betram's pugs (all named Pug, it seems) in "Mansfield Park," Odysseus's dog in "The Odyssey" who recognizes his master's scent even when Penelope remains clueless as to the "stranger's" identity, and Rochester's dog (and his horse) in "Jane Eyre" all add a nice layer of texture.

And what sort of pet a character owns, or what breed of dog or cat, also speaks volumes about them.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Amanda, big dogs do very well in small apartments, so long as you're willing to walk them, LOL! They're bred to be kenneled and then run, so they take to the couch in an apartment like a duck to water. I’m specifically looking for a HUGE dog this time around for this very reason. The dog I fell in love with on Petfinders is gone (so much for “big black dog” syndrome). Now I’m stalking Craig’s List . . . I may end up going though Gentle Giants Rescue down in Southern California (they specialize in giant breeds). Something will work out, and if it takes a few weeks or months that’s fine too; just gives me more time to prepare (must install XL dog door).

3:22 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Oh, and I'm all for giving villains pets that they love, but that does add another string to keep track of and resolve (can't leave the poor thing SOL and hanging just cause the owner has to pay for his/her misdeeds). In fact, I already know that the antagonist (I can’t really call him a villain) of my WIP has a dog that he adores.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Bernese Mountain Dogs are BIG and a favorite of mine in case you are looking for votes. After your response to an email about Staffordshire Terriers I will have a forever picture of your dog nestled at your feet while you write.

For the first time I am including a dog in my book -- I do have cats in my upcoming book TRAITORS KISS, but this is the first time I have welcomed a dog so I am reading these comments carefully.

As a reader, I think they add depth to the story and to the characters much as others have observed.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Hey Mary, I love Bernese, but I'm looking for something a little less fluffy. Having spent years with Newfies, I'm pretty much over anything with that kind of hair. *grin* Though, as always, the right dog can make a person reconsider . . .

7:27 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Sympathies for the loss of your dog, Kalen. Know that she had a great life with you!

I have pet-characters in both my books so far, and in both, they figure prominantly in the story.

As for a pet loving villian, I have one of those in DARK RIDER. ;-)

The poor bad guy understands "how it feels to be the last dog at the table, waiting for the heroes scraps..." ;-)

9:23 PM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

Well, I'm putting in a vote for birds. I want more bird stories, so I wrote some. In one story, a goose is the engine of events, bringing the hero and heroine together. Another has an ornithologist as the hero. A third has the heroine's jealous pet goose continually biting the hero. And they're all comedies, so everyone, including the birds, has an HEA.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Linda, Emily Hendrikson has a great Regency with a goose: The Roguish Miss Penn. The goose even makes the cover!

Wish me luck on the dog hunt. So far the supposedly insidious "Big Black Dog" syndrome has not proved true at all. I've contacted rescues and shelters on upwards of 20 such dogs and they've all been adopted already! Missed out on a mastiff/bulldog cross today that just about broke my heart (glad to know he’s in a good home though, even if it’s not mine *sigh*).

2:44 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

My deepest sympathies on the loss of your dear dog, Kalen. They really are the best friend one can have and a great source of foot warmth when one is writing! I have small dogs in the house now - chihuahua and dachshund, but my last large dog was a deaf Great Dane named Glory. I had her for nine years before bone cancer took her from me. She was absolutely one of the best dogs I have ever owned in my life. And yes, Danes do very well in apartments and small places. They are basically couch potatoes!

You might take a peek at the dogs Pasado's Safe Haven helped to evacuate from New Orleans during Gustav. They have a number of pictures of those dogs on their website - real heartbreakers as they are now being taken back from the rescue farm to the shelters in St. Bernard Parrish and downtown New Orleans. Best Friends out of Utah is another great place to look. My basset/beagle cross, Boudreaux, came to me from New Orleans - a Hurricane Katrina rescue. He is a doll and just happy to be alive.

I love pets in romance novels. There are so many ways they can be utilized to show things about characters that can't be shown otherwise.

In my book The Raven's Heart, the hero's daughter has a pet hedgehog, and a three-legged one at that.

In Lost in Love, Marcus has two Scottish deerhounds with whom he has a couple of heart to hearts about his troubles with his 18 year old hoyden bride

3:35 PM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Kalen. I have to find that book.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Linda, Robert Hale released it recently in hardback in England. It's pricy, but worth it. You can get it on Amazon, or at a slight discount directly from the publisher's website.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I got a new puppy.

Though I swore I was going to wait, *big surprise* (yes, that’s sarcasm) after 48 hours of a quiet, dog-free house I just couldn’t take it anymore . . . so, after days of calling rescue orgs, SPCAs and listings on Craigslist, I gave up on "rescuing" as dog and just went out and got a puppy (I swear every dog I called about was already gone, so much for “big, black dog syndrome”!).
So here he is:

http://tinyurl.com/5bch9b

He’s half Neapolitan mastiff and half Bullmastiff. Yes, he’ll be HUGE (which is kind of the point). Haven’t named him yet. I’m leaning towards something English and either historical or literary. Have to see what his personality is like first . . .

7:25 AM  
Blogger Lezlie said...

Congratulations!!! He's soooo cute!

Lezlie
Books 'N Border Collies

7:29 AM  
Blogger Eigon said...

Rosemary Sutcliff is very good at dogs, too. My favourites are in Brother Dusty Feet and Warrior Scarlet (where the hero volunteers for a knife fight to save his dog).

And there was a wonderful scene in one of LM Montgomery's books where a small dog trashes the parlour, and neither the young lady nor the young man present do anything to stop it, because they each think it belongs to the other person.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Congratulations, Kalen. His is gorgeous! What a great combination! If gas prices keep going up you can use him as transportation.

He has such an expressive face and eyes!

Definitely needs something English and historical. Let us know what name you choose!

6:03 PM  

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