Monday, April 15, 2013

Tough Calls - Handling Gritty Issues in Cozy Fiction

If you have read Drop Dead on Recall, my first Animals in Focus mystery, you know that dogs and cats and other critters are vital characters. After all, the series isn't called Animals in Focus for nothing. In fact, each book in the series spotlights a different "animal activity" and each mystery hinges on an animal-related issue. Just as they do in real life, serious issues can create major problems for writers.
In the first book, Drop Dead on Recall, we meet animal photographer Janet MacPhail and her Australian Shepherd Jay at an obedience trial, where a top-level competitior keels over. Soon Janet, Jay, and their very important feline family member Leo find themselves embroiled in a series of murders that seem to be linked to breeder ethics (or lack thereof) and cut-throat competitiveness. That infant puppy is my real-life Jay at one week old.
In The Money Bird, coming in September, Janet has her lens focused on retrievers training for AKC retrieving tests, especially the handsome Drake and his almost-as-handsome person, Tom Saunders. Drake, too, is inspired by the Labs I've owned and rescued over the years, especially my first Lab, Raja, a big chocolate field-bred goofball. Here he is with my beautiful Malcolm, who was one of the real-life models for Leo.
A number of challenges presented themselves as soon as I began writing. First, this series falls under the "cozy" umbrella, meaning that readers expect a few things:
  1. Murder and sex are fine; graphic details are not.
  2. Adult humans may be killed; children and animals may be threatened, but shouldn't be harmed.
  3. Serious issues may be presented, but soap-boxes should be kept mostly tucked under the writer's desk, not plunked down on the page.
Knowing these "rules" is helpful in some ways, restrictive in others. After all, I'm writing about creatures and issues that stir intense feelings in me as well as in my readers, and it isn't always easy to stifle myself. Many authors face this problem in fiction, where characters and story (plot, if you prefer) are the real focus. So how do we strike a balance? Not all of us do - I'm sure we've all read books in which the author's passion for some cause overshadowed everything else. If you're like me, you may have quit reading. I don't like to be bludgeoned when I'm reading mostly to be entertained.
On the other hand, I do like to learn new things, and I have often read fiction that teased me into looking for more information about something.
I hope I'm striking that balance in my own fiction. In The Money Bird, wildlife trafficking is the larger issue woven into the plot. It's an ugly business, and I've tried to present it in a way that will encourage people to learn more without overdoing it. While I wait to find out whether readers think I've succeeded, I'm working on the next book in the series. Activity and issue, you ask? For now, they will remain a mystery.
The Money Bird is available now for pre-order. Autographed copies of Drop Dead on Recall, Rescue Matters, and The Money Bird are available from Pomegranate Books.


  1. Thanks, Sheila! In my fantasy WIP (not a cozy but not gritty urban fantasy either) my main character is a vet who specializes in wildlife rehabilitation. She struggles with the issue of treating wild animals that will never be able to be released again - is it better to euthanize or to keep them in captivity the rest of their lives? Especially if they are not endangered and zoos or other educational/breeding facilities aren't willing to take them? It's a difficult and controversial topic and sometimes I'm afraid readers will put the book down if they disagree with the character's ideas on the subject.

  2. Excellent example, Elizabeth. I decided long ago that we just can't please everyone. I've been attacked in connection with my nonfiction writing for suggesting that there is middle ground between responsible breeders and responsible rescuers (note the R word!), and in fiction, I take the same position. We've become a society of slogans and sounds bites that too often substitute for thinking things through. As writers, I think there is a point at which we have to stop worrying about extreme responses and be true to ourselves and our characters. Thanks for commenting! How about a link to your books?

  3. I don't have any books published YET, Sheila! I'll let you know when it's available, probably by the end of the year.

    1. I would love to read your book when it comes out too!

    2. I would also love to read your books Elizabeth!

  4. Your writing is so good, I know you will find a way to engage the reader in bigger issues, and encourage them to do something. Love the blog makeover!