How I Came to Write This Story (or, The Dog Did It)
“The dog did it.”
Well, that is what the cat would say, isn’t it? And even if that doesn’t eventually prove to be the case – and I’m not telling – that basic sense of a species, and its prejudices, is at the heart of Dogs Don’t Lie, the first of my new pet noir series.
I’m not saying cats are mean spirited. Far from it. As a lifelong cat person, I know how social, how warm, how interactive these wonderful creatures are. But when looking to create fully fleshed characters, I have to envision their dark sides, too.
And so, along with a healthy sense of self esteem – something all cats possess – I’ve come to believe that they may just have to hold some prejudices about their rival house pets. After all, don’t we all think we’re just a little more smarter than … the other guy?
But if writing cats is easy for me, writing dogs isn’t. And when I came up with the idea for Dogs Don’t Lie, I realized that I needed to get away from just cats. The spark for Pru Marlowe, my bad-girl animal psychic, came from the hard-boiled babes and broads of true noir, and I just couldn’t see one of them only communicating with kitty cats. In fact, when I started the full-length version of this book (it began with a short story), I realized I needed a good, bloody murder to kick it off – and a loyal, loving, but perhaps not particularly articulate animal to take the blame. I needed a dog.
Lily, a white pitbull, became my animal “dumb blonde.” The not-so-bright fall-gal who loved too much, and is set up for murder. It just seemed right that a pit, and a rescue dog at that, would be an obvious suspect when her person is found, dead, with his throat ripped open. I’d spoken to enough people to know about pit’s fearsome reputation – but also to learn about the fierce loyalty they can show to their owners. I did enough research to know about their breed weaknesses (a certain lack of reticence, which would make a dog more suspect) as well as their strengths.
I’ve long believe that if I were going to write animal characters, they had to be characters first – full-bodied depictions – and they would have to be true to type. Yes, I anthropomorphize. You can’t write talking animals and not give them human traits. But I believe that if I give them a full range of human traits – a little vanity, some jealousy, maybe even some ugly prejudices of their own – I can create animal characters that are true to their species, entertaining to readers, and, in some strange way, real feeling. (Or, as real as any fiction can be – given the usual suspension of disbelief.) So while I’m obviously taking some liberties, I’ve sought to create characters that animal lovers will recognize.
This has been work for me. I’ve had to stretch to understand the dogs (and one ferret) who populate my series debut, but it’s been worth it – and in addition to spending time with animals themselves, I’ve spoken with dog- and ferret-lovers, to rescue professionals, and vets, who can tell me about each species quirks and charms. I consider this the most fun type of research, and key to making my animal characters realistic, as opposed to cutesy.
As I work on the next book in the series, Cats Can’t Shoot, I’m exploring their individual personalities a little more. When I came up with Lucy, a toy poodle, for example, I realized that to survive as a toy in a tough dog’s world, she’d have to have some tricks. Suddenly I was writing a teacup-sized character who knew more about feminine wiles than my heroine, Pru Marlowe, did. Wil Pru learn from her? Some of my readers have noted how tough Pru is. I like to think of her as the kind of character we can all relate to – who we’d all like to be, at least sometimes. I worry more about that than if people like her. But I want this series to show her, well, not exactly softening. But maybe getting to know the world of humans as well as the world of animals. It’s all about character for me, whether two- or four-footed. And, yeah, maybe the dog did do it.
Clea Simon is the author of 11 books, most recently Dogs Don’t Lie (Poisoned Pen Press) and Grey Zone (Severn House), the third in the Dulcie Schwartz mystery series. A former journalist, she lives in Somerville, Mass., with her husband and their non-homicidal cat. She can be reached at http://www.cleasimon.com and on Twitter at @Clea_Simon .