Thursday, 14 May 2015

Welcome to Camp Cat !

Whenever I chat with other writers on facebook or twitter, there’s one topic - apart from writing itself - that seems to crop up more than any other, and that’s our pets.
Pixie and Dixie: my babies

We all seem to know which of us are cat people and which are dog people (I am most definitely in Camp Cat), who has got themselves a new puppy or kitten, and what their names are. We hear about our animals’ latest antics, their illnesses and, sadly, their deaths. We share photos of them lying across our desks, our laps, our printers, even our work in progress. We even share photos and videos of random pets we’ve come across on the internet – ones we don’t know at all but are just too cute to ignore! Pets, it would seem, are a vital part of many writers’ daily lives. They make us laugh and cry, entertain us, help to keep us calm, and provide the much-needed companionship (and exercise) we so often need after spending hours on end with our bottoms glued to our chairs, staring at a screen.

Our pets don’t keep interrupting us with phone calls, the way our friends do. They don’t keep knocking on the study door and asking when dinner’s going to be ready or for help with homework, the way our kids do. They don’t point at the clock and suggest it’s time we close the computer down and come to bed, the way our partners do. Yes, of course, our furry companions need our attention too. They like to have their tummies tickled and their ears rubbed, a couple of meals a day and a run around outside every now and then, but somehow we don’t seem to mind that at all. They can be just as demanding as the humans in our lives but they do it in a different way – wordlessly, with a look or a lick, a pad or a purr - and we’re suckers for all of that. At least, I know I am.

That must be why I include so many pets in my stories. Looking back, I’ve had stories published about a vet who brings animals into a classroom with lasting effects on some of the kids, couples who meet while walking their dogs, a family who take in stray animals and fall in love with a very special cat, a lonely widower who takes an interest in goldfish, and even a mynah bird in a cage that helps a young couple get to know each other on an Italian holiday.
People's Friend Special 106

Take my latest published story – Under the Apple Tree – in The People’s Friend Special No. 106, in the shops this week. This one starts with the moment every pet-owner dreads – having to have an old and sick dog put to sleep, and burying her in the family garden. Too sad a topic for The People’s Friend, with its nice cosy image? You’d think so, but no. We all know you can never replace an animal you’ve loved and lost, but life moves on and there will be other dogs, and people, to love, as proved in my story when the hunky new vet and his pregnant dog come onto the scene, sweeping young Josie and her widowed mum off their feet! Happy endings always help to heal the hurt, and this one certainly does. It’s that warm uplifting feeling and an air of positivity that readers love, especially the readers of that particular magazine.

A story I have just finished writing is about two married couples (one young, one elderly) who live next door to each other and share not only a blossoming friendship but also a sad secret – their childlessness. Enter Max, a lovable puppy who brings the sunshine back into all their lives and, in his own special way, helps to make everything all right. I haven’t yet sold this story, but I have high hopes for it!

They say you should write about what you know. And we writers do know our pets! So, go on. Give a pet a home – in your fiction! After all, you can’t go far wrong writing about animals, can you? Oh, hang on a minute - yes, you can. Whatever you choose to write about, your story still needs to be original, fresh, interesting, surprising, exciting, emotional, or any combination of these - all the things editors are looking for to please their readers. So here’s a tip: Never, never, never, write your story from the pet’s point of view, or commit the even worse crime of writing a ‘surprise’ ending where your character turns out to have been a dog all along. Believe me, it’s NOT a surprise, it’s been done to death, and your story will slide across that editor’s desk and right off the other side in five seconds flat.

Treat your fictional animals the same way you treat your real-life ones. When you put them on the page, give them a purpose that makes them integral to the story. Give them plotlines that reflect all the fun and laughter, worry and pain that a real pet brings. Make them the heroes and heroines, the lifesavers, the sleuths, the comforters and the heartbreakers they are in real life, and together you will deliver all the conflict, warmth and emotion that readers crave.

Now, you will have to excuse me. One of my kittens is scratching at the outside of my study door desperately trying to get in and confront the goldfish, and the other is busy wrecking a house plant. If one of my human family was doing that, there’d be big trouble. But kittens… well, you just have to love them, don’t you?