Behold! (The Power of Observation when Crafting a Mystery)

Today we have a guest post from Joanna Campbell Slan on the challenges of incorporating an animal character in a mystery novel. I hope all our TKZers will join me in welcoming Joanna and chiming in with your experiences (if any) on crafting an animal as a character in your mystery or thriller. Also all purchases of Summer Snoops go to a great cause – raising money for dogs in need!

Behold! (The Power of Observation when Crafting a Mystery)

By Joanna Campbell Slan

Writing an animal character is tricky. You don’t want to get too sappy, you don’t want to turn off non-pet people, and you shouldn’t rely on the animal to be a deus ex machina, a mystery that’s literally solved by God’s intervention. As one author in a box set with 14 authors, I wanted my puzzle to involve the dog in a realistic way, but I always wanted to use the animal’s limitations to exploit tension in my story. I didn’t want to take the easy way out and let the dog in my story be a simple sidekick. That would feel like a cop out.

The break came when a friend visited with her Golden Retriever, Mally. The big yellow dog carries around a stuffed toy in her mouth all the time. In fact, she’ll only turn loose of her toy to eat or drink. Wherever Mally goes, the toy goes, too.

So how could I use that synergy to best advantage in my story?

I considered the very nature of a dog toy. Okay, that sounds silly, but it’s not. Only by thinking carefully about our subjects can we be authentic. Details. It’s all about details. Those tiny bits of minutia encourage our readers to trust us and to give themselves over to a satisfying reading experience. So what was there to observe carefully about a dog’s toy?

Well, firstly, there’s the nature of the toy itself. In Mally’s case, it’s always a stuffed toy with fake fur. She isn’t interested in balls or sticks.

Secondly, there’s the challenge of confiscating a toy that’s been in a dog’s mouth. Some dogs are “toy aggressive.” They get all humpy when another creature tries to take their toy. In fact, at Paws 4 Play, the local doggy day care, they’ve found that the only safe toy for a group of dogs is a tennis ball. Anything else, and the dogs are liable to fight over their plaything.

Third, dog toys are usually gross. Really gross. In fact, one study by the National Safety Foundation revealed that pet toys are one of the ten germiest spots in the house. Toys are known to be a source of coliform bacteria (including Staph bacteria), yeast, and mold. Only a committed (or soon to be committed) dog lover would handle a yucky, soggy, stuffed toy.

And fourth, a dog toy is destined to be destroyed. My dog Jax loves to rip up his toys. He’ll growl menacingly as he shakes his toys in mock play. Then he’ll grab a stuffed arm, leg, neck or tail and toss the hapless stuffed creature around. As a result, I’m often left with odd parts. (One morning I woke up to a bed strewn with stuffed monkey parts. It was…creepy.) Being the thrifty person I am, I sew these stray parts back together to make Franken-toys. At the very least, I sew up the open seams that dribble stuffing all around the house.

Taken all together, those observations gave me a lot of good ideas. What if someone used a pet toy as a place to hide something of value? What if the toy as a sort of ersatz safe deposit box? That was the break-through idea that became the nucleus of my story.

Here are a couple of links for the book:

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This entry was posted in Writing by Clare Langley-Hawthorne. Bookmark the permalink.

About Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Her first novel, Consequences of Sin, featuring the Oxford graduate, heiress, and militant suffragette Ursula Marlow, was published in 2007. This was followed by two more books in the series, The Serpent and The Scorpion (2008) and Unlikely Traitors (2014). Consequences of Sin was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller and a Macavity Award nominee for best historical mystery.

31 thoughts on “Behold! (The Power of Observation when Crafting a Mystery)

  1. Thanks for the post, Joanna. I had to chuckle because just the other night my wife and I were at a birthday party at a friend’s home. She has a dog who likes to chase a rubber ball. He came over and dropped the ball on the chair next to me. So I grabbed it and threw it. He ran for it and came back to me with the ball. When I tried to take it from his mouth directly, he became the jaws of death. I think he enjoyed defeating me in the tug of war. As soon as I let go and started talking to people, he dropped the ball near me again.

    • Hi, James–I remember reading somewhere that a dog must think, “Why did this silly human turn loose of the ball in the first place?” And yeah, I guess that makes sense. I have to bribe my dog to drop his ball. In fact, my bribes work so well that he brings me any old thing. A rock, a piece of plastic, a sock. Sigh. Maybe my dog is just a better housekeeper than I am!

        • Did you see the article about dogs’ eyebrows? Wolves don’t have muscles over their eyes, but dogs do, allowing them the expressiveness that’s so captured our hearts.

  2. My dog is the world’s biggest wuss when it comes to playing tug – if you pull too hard he drops the toy and gives you this wounded look like you hurt his feelings for being so rough. To be fair, he is the gentlest dog I know, but it’s funny how he wants to play tug but only if you don’t tug very hard! At 8 he’s a big baby Lassie. I often think he’d make a great character in a children’s book.

  3. Good post, Joanna, and welcome to TKZ. “Hiding in plain sight” is a useful tool, but I never thought of pet toys — and I have a collection under my couch. Do you know cat nip smells a lot of like marijuana? Just a thought . . .

  4. This was a fun post and hiding something in a dog’s toy is a great idea (if the item is waterproof). I used a dog as a character in my thriller A DARK LOVE and had the dog give away the true identity of a character in disguise by running to him for a treat. Writing animals into the story is challenging and fun.

  5. Hi Joanna,

    Great idea about the dog toy! I added a dog to my story so that the main character would have somebody to talk to on her training runs. The dog plays a small part in the overall story, but you just gave me an idea to get him involved in a larger role in the next book. Thanks!

  6. This led me straight back to “Oh Heavenly Dog”, with Chevy Chase reincarnated in Benji and needing to solve his own murder. I like the movie. OK, it has Jane Seymuor in a bath tub, so there is that.

    My dog owner friends buy multi packs of the dogs stuffy. It allows for washing and quick replacement. Nothing worse than a mopey standard poodle who is looking for his stuffie that he chewed apart earlier in the day.

  7. The idea leads to so many choices. I can’t wait. When we had a lab, we kept a town handy for any playtime.

  8. Hi Everyone, I think one of the most important parts of constructing a mystery is having characters that our readers can relate to in real life. I like to have a visual representation of the character in my mind so I cam imagine his/her behavior in the novel. I like for them to possess one or two idiosyncrasies that readers will remember.

  9. Timing…today the owners of a dog I have been fostering are picking up the pooch who stole my heart. Reading Joanne’s post lifted my spirits. A little, anyway, very interesting indeed. Thanks.

  10. Love this post, Joanna!

    In my series, the pet is a tiny horse named See-Saw. See-Saw isn’t too involved in solving mysteries. He’s mostly a ‘confidant’ for the main character. Horses are good listeners like that.

    But I want to incorporate a more active pet in future series, and this article is so helpful for that!

    • Thank you, Chelsea. Animals do make very good confidants, don’t they? A recent article about how owners say their pets mirror their personalities is yet another idea for us authors to use. We can think through how the pets in our work mirror or refute characteristics of the characters, right?

  11. My little Meaux, a Schnauzer who I has gone to Doggie Heaven, used to love to play with the biggest toys he could find. He carried them around growling the whole time. I bought the biggest stuffed toys I could find for him. He had a 3 foot fleet bone, a 2.5 foot long dog with “I Love You This Much” on it, and several giant stuffed animals I would find at Wal-Mart. Nothing was too big. He did not drag them, he carried them.
    He never destroyed them or ripped them up like other pets have done to get to the squeak inside.

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