Sunday, June 29, 2014

Note To Self - It's The Dog, Stupid

Back in 2008, I was asked to write an article for Mystery Readers Journal. I just came upon it and thought I'd reprint it here. Enjoy!

It's The Dog...

“You can kill off any of your human characters, but don’t you dare let any harm ever come to Spot,” the woman said.
Spot's look-alike cousin
She’d been waiting patiently at one of my recent signings, then stepped up to my table and delivered this stern-sounding statement as if I were a recalcitrant schoolboy who couldn’t be trusted not to break important rules. Which, on reflection, I had been, forty years ago.
“I don’t think I ever let Spot get...” I stopped, realizing that the case I was about to make was weak at best.
“Yes, you did hurt Spot,” she said. “In the fourth book. That was terrible. Promise me you’ll never do that again.”
We discussed it some, and I explained that I had to put Spot into occasional danger just as I had to put my detective and his human friends in occasional danger. But I promised her that at the end of each book, just as in the fourth book, Spot would turn out okay.
Only at that point did she say that she wanted me to sign my newest release for her.
I’d known early on that I had a fairly important character in Spot, a 170-pound Harlequin Great Dane who is the sidekick to Detective Owen McKenna, a former Homicide Inspector on the San Francisco Police Department, now turned private investigator in Tahoe. But I’d always thought of Spot as Owen’s sidekick. Although Spot is out-sized physically and occasionally helps Owen in pursuit of the villain, he’s not a Wonder Dog like Lassie. He’s just a friendly dog who thinks all of life is a game. My books also have several other recurring characters who, being human, were, I thought, more important than the dog. Owen’s soulmate/girlfriend Street Casey is prominent. With a Ph.D. from Berkeley, she’s a forensic entomologist and consults on many of Owen’s cases. Equally prominent is Owen’s best friend Diamond Martinez, a recent Mexican immigrant who is a sergeant with the county Sheriff’s Office. As the smartest character in all of the books, Diamond provides a critical component in most of Owen’s cases.
But even if I hadn’t realized the importance of the dog, the reviewers told me as much soon after the books started coming out. “A simply terrific dog,” Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen wrote. “A charming Great Dane who likes microwaved treats,” wrote Booklist. “Spot is a great dog,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News.
And so grew one of the unwritten agreements between my readers and me. In my case, these covenants allow me to drop my human characters off the nearest Tahoe mountain at will, but I must be ever gentle with the dog.
It is interesting to note that these rules don’t apply outside of genre fiction. In fact, in the world of so-called literary fiction, the opposite is often true. “Kill your darlings,” is a cliché in literary circles. Among other things, it sometimes refers to eliminating story components that are nice, comforting, and sentimental. A “literary” author’s cred is frequently linked to how their fiction reveals the realities and truths of modern life.
Which, natch, means a world where life is often unfair, human motivations, even among good people, are often dark, where the future may be bleak, and endings are always messy. Those darlings, metaphorical and otherwise, that get killed in service to this ideal are numerous and may even come with four legs and a wet tongue. In the serious world of serious fiction, we dare not let a dog (for metaphor, read, ‘a symbol morally pure and big of heart’) wander long before it succumbs to a real-world end, squashed on the dark, poetic, literary highway. Of course, I know there are many exceptions where man’s best friend survives the literary writer’s axe, but in those cases usually there are other, equally sanguine substitutes that fall instead.
This perception may even lead to a useful definition of just what genre fiction is, after all, whether a mystery or otherwise. In addition to the reader’s usual desires regarding fascinating characters and an exciting plot, genre fiction usually depicts an “unreal” world where the denouement serves up a healthy dose of justice and fairness. Let’s face it. Many of us, maybe even most of us, like stories where the bad guy gets caught in the end, and the good guy lives on to engage in another adventure.
Perhaps this goes back to before the written word, when all stories came down through an oral tradition. We may even be hard-wired for genre stories. One could make the case that the children listening to campfire tales probably had a better chance of learning to find food, evade predators, and get along with other people if the stories they heard had characters who, while triumphing over bad guys, did just that. And if the stories had endings that worked out well, so much the better for encouraging kids to shoot for good endings of their own. Had those early humans been brought up on stories where the endings were realistically bleak – where the dogs often met an equally bad end – those kids probably would not have succeeded as well at life.
So it gets back to not killing your darlings. Unrealistic? Perhaps. But we write genre fiction. We don’t have to be realistic.
A woman from Seattle emailed me some time back. “I’m partway into your first book. I like it so much, I’ve ordered all of your others. But now I’ve had a horrible thought. Can you promise me that no real harm ever comes to Spot? If not, I’m not reading any further.”
Message received. Note To Self: It’s The Dog, Stupid.

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