My latest novel The Lost Sister is dedicated to a very special someone: Archie, my old Jack Russell, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. Combined with the fact one of the main characters in The Lost Sister is a vet, in its own way, the novel is a shout out to the importance of animals in my life… especially my writing.
First, from the point of view of writing characters. I feel the way a character interacts with animals gives a real insight into their personalities.
As a vet, Becky in The Lost Sister is clearly someone who adores animals. Her three dogs - her ‘skinnies’ as she calls them - are like children to her. Becky’s the kind of person I can totally imagine being friends with, strolling along the beach with our dogs. Like me, she judges people by how they treat other living things. One character in The Lost Sister kicks a dog out of the way, an instant black mark against her name in my view.
I also use the way animals treats humans to give an indication of character. For example Becky’s mother Selma is selfish on the surface, running away from her family to write in a cave. Sarcastic and vain, often cold and careless with her words, at first glance, she’s pretty unlikable.
But there are parts of her that are at odds with this: the way she sticks up for a friend and the way she’s able to see people’s vulnerabilities and help them with those vulnerabilities. And though Selma isn’t a fan of animals like her daughter is, they seem drawn to her: she reluctantly lets a dog tag along with her when she’s living in the cave.
I think animals are so very perceptive. They sense parts of us we don’t even know ourselves. The dog in the cave, for example, senses Selma’s innate vulnerabilities and the fact she won’t hurt anyone… not wittingly, anyway.
And what about the influence animals have on writers as we work?
When my dog Archie passed away, I told myself I would leave it a year before getting another dog. There’s no denying dogs, especially puppies, can be a challenge and a lot of hard work. People just don’t get that a lot of the time, hence why you’ll hear of so many abandoned puppies. So I knew with deadlines looming, it was best to wait to get another dog.
But the fact is, I simply couldn’t write without an animal companion beside me. The house felt different. My office, once my sanctuary, began to feel like a dark cavern of nothingness. I walked around the house literally calling Archie’s name out, seeking him in those places he might retreat to sometimes. I knew he wasn't there, couldn’t be there, but all-the-same, I searched for him. My whole being ached with his absence.
Of course, that was grief. Real raw grief. This dog had seen me through thick and thin, and had become my daily constant companion when I gave up work to write full-time.
But now he was gone.
I missed him because I loved him, but I also missed his quiet soft-breath (or snore!) which brought a rhythm to my writing. The knowledge that during moments of plot hell, I could grab a lead and take him out for a walk, each step untangling knotted stories. The way his furry face would peer up at me when I muttered an expletive at not being able to get the bloody printer to work. A raised eyebrow, a sigh, then back to sleep. Then the way he jumped around my legs when he sensed any excitement, like when I got my books delivered or discovered My Sister’s Secret had hit the number one spot on Amazon UK. And yep, the way he somehow understood when I was going through a tough time, furry chin on leg, big brown eyes staring up with sympathy.
I missed all that, and I learnt a valuable lesson: any author who has grown used to writing with an animal companion can never do without one again.
Three months after Archie passed away, I brought home a beautiful little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Bronte (well, it had to be Bronte, didn’t it?).
Of course, I will never ever forget Archie and he lives in in my novels and my memories. But as I feel Bronte snuggling up to me right now (and, to be honest, completely taking over my chaise longue, meaning I’m balancing my laptop on a nearby chair), I’m so pleased to have the one asset every good author needs: a furry-faced companion.