Cats can teach actors to focus, and they help me now that I write because they give me a sense of proportion. Dogs may pretend they like a chapter because they want you to feed them. Cats, by and large, don’t care. If you won’t feed them, they’ll go out and kill something. Or tear up the couch and stare at you so you understand it was your own fault.
Some of my best villains have been based on cats because their narcissism plays into the criminal mind so well. But pets can help you depict character quickly and easily in other ways, too. What does it tell you if a person doesn’t like animals—or, better yet, if animals don’t like him? I don’t remember the name of the mid-80s film, but Clint Eastwood portrayed a cop with two children in New Orleans, and one scene showed the family dog stuffed into the dryer. That told us all we needed to know about how evil the bad guy was.
Robert Crais gives PI Elvis Cole a feral cat as a pet. The cat has been injured and will bite on a whim, but Cole feeds him and puts up with the attacks, which shows us w
hat he is like. So does his naming the cat “Cat.” Linda Barnes gives Carlotta Carlyle a cat, too.
In one of my stories, ex-musician (another itinerant profession, like actors) Megan Traine has two cats. One has double front paws, so she named him “Clydesdale,” or Clyde for short. Naturally, his sister is named Bonnie. She can gauge whether a man has boyfriend potential by how he and the cats react to each other. In my novel, Who Wrote T
he Book of Death?, protagonist Beth Shepard misses her cat, but she’s sharing living quarters with a man who is allergic to cats.
A year and a half ago, my wife and I ended the year of mourning for Persephone, who died at age twenty. It’s the only time in our twenty-six years together that we haven’t had at least one cat, and my daughter remarked that the place felt strange and empty without one. We searched PetFinder and discovered two cats that a shelter said were to be taken as a couple, and saw they were already declawed. We wouldn’t declaw a cat ourselves, but hey, we had new living room furniture so this was a plus. So were the pictures posted on the site, even though Jewel was hiding under the cage so all we saw was a fuzzy gray mass. It turns out to be a pretty good likeness.
Ernie, a strawberry blond Maine Coon, has the temperament of a miniature golden retriever. He greets everyone who comes to the house, plays with anything he can lift, a
nd even fetches his toy mouse if we throw it. Within three days of moving in with us, he decided he liked to nap below my monitor and, since he’s a total guy, he urges me to write more car chases and gunfights. We call him The Wonder Cat.
Jewel the Heart Breaker, on the other hand, is so shy that only my daughter has ever seen her—running for the basement when that strange woman walked in the front door. She’s the first Himalayan we’ve ever had, and she loves to sleep with us. She also has a vocabulary of at least 35 distinct sounds, including chirps, barks, burbles, and squeaks. Both cats have that sense of irony that made people suspect they were witches in the Middle Ages, and they will groom each other or hang near us for hours. When I’m just staring at the monitor or talking to myself, Jewel will throw a cross-body block into my leg and launch a monologue. Then she’ll jump on the desk and insist that we both look out the window, which seems to give me the distance to figure out how to fix whatever the problem was that had me stumped.
Ernie’s personality has become that of a sidekick in my WIP, and Jewel is definitely helping me with the women’s dialogue. If Ernie is a guy’s guy, Jewel is the girlie-girl of the cat kingdom. They’re definitely a couple, and I know they will show up in one guise or another in many more stories I have yet to write.
In Who Wrote The Book of Death?, someone wants to finish off the writer instead of the book. When PI Greg Nines agrees to protect a woman from death threats, he assumes that her name isn’t really Taliesyn Holroyd. Unfortunately, he also assumes that she’s really writing a novel. She assumes he’s stopped drinking after his own wife’s murder. What else they don’t know could bury them both along with the book. Visit Steve Liskow’s website.