January 17, 2018

Creature Comforts—Bringing Animals into Your Fiction

By Cathy Cruise

Love animals?
Well, who doesn’t? When I’m writing, I’m surrounded by them. My dog’s bed is squeezed beneath my desk so I can rub him with my feet. My parakeet likes to walk on my keyboard and peck at letters. And if I sit down without tossing a carrot into their cage first, my guinea pigs “wheek” at me while I’m working.
But somehow, animals never made the jump from my real life to my fiction—until I wrote my first book. Once I decided to include a dog in A Hundred Weddings, everything changed. Not only did it just make me happy to play with this little guy on the pages, it also gave me comfort, helped me dream more, and let me breathe life into my narrative. If you’re thinking of including an animal in your story, I offer you a big fist-bump. Because animals offer:
Novels are big, lonely worlds. Even if you’ve populated yours with all the people you can dream up, you’re still generally at the top of that world, making all the grand decisions. And, as they say, it’s lonely at the top. I think I conjured a little dog to curl up with in A Hundred Weddings to keep me confident while I crafted my story and lived inside it. It’s like having your pet go with you to check out that weird noise in the basement. Once you see him happily trotting downstairs and making his way through the dark, you can relax and follow, and flip on the light.
Vincent in A Hundred Weddings is based on my dog, Scamp. But Vincent is decidedly more devious. He chews, bites, steals, and runs away. And he’s delectably fun to write about. Animals let you cut loose in ways human characters can’t. And their antics can reflect the emotion of a scene, mirror or offset a character’s personality, or just break up tension with a bit of needed humor. When I got stuck writing a scene in my book, I brought the dog in. Instantly, he made everything more authentic and alive. Strangely enough, I didn’t always plan his entrance. Just like in real life, he’d wander in, leap onto someone’s lap, and knock over a lamp. Ahh. The scene was picking up already.
All the Feels
Animals pack a powerful nurturing response that invests readers in a story like little else can. Take Hedwig in the Harry Potter books—patient, watchful, reassuring. A pretty minor player overall, yet she helped Harry through some of his darkest moments. And oh, was there ever a more heartbreaking scene than her last one? Maybe in Black Beauty? Old Yeller?
Sniff. I can’t even go there.
So if you’re looking to liven up your writing, consider adding an animal to the mix. As for me, I’m hard at work on novel number two. And even though I’m only 50 pages in, two dogs have already appeared, and I sense a cat lurking in the corner. While I dig my toes a little deeper into Scamp’s coat and bang away at my keyboard, I’m getting to know these furry friends and am eager to explore this brand new world with them.
But first, a carrot for the guinea pigs.
Cathy Cruise’s first novel, A Hundred Weddings, was published in December 2016. Her fiction has appeared in journals such as American FictionBlue Mesa ReviewNew Virginia Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Awards include a New Rivers Press 2015 American Fiction prize, for which she received a Pushcart nomination; honorable mention in Glimmer Train's 2017 Very Short Fiction and 2014 Family Matters contests; and a 2001 Washington Independent Writers Award for Short Fiction. She works as an editor in Virginia where she lives with her husband and two children. She’s also co-author of the blog Write DespitePlease visit her website at

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