Guest post by Clea Simon
“Dogs,” said Wallis, her voice dripping scorn. “Dogs have fleas. Dogs lie.” And with that, a character was born.
Now, some people may question the veracity of the above, and perhaps these people have reason. Wallis is, after all, a cat – the irascible tabby companion of Pru Marlowe, the human protagonist of my “pet noir” mysteries, the most recent of which, Parrots Prove Deadly, was published this week by Poisoned Pen Press. And while Pru has the dubious gift of being able to hear, in her way, what animals are thinking, most of us, myself included, do not. And yet, I swear to you, this is what Wallis said. And this is how Wallis came into the world.
It is a truism of fiction that sometimes characters determine their own stories. We’ve all heard authors say that, and I suspect we have all rolled our eyes. After all, writing – especially the 80,000 words or so that are necessary for a book – takes effort, planning, and discipline. But that doesn’t make the statement any less true, and the more realistic, less glamorous way of putting it is that a good character, the kind who makes a series, has a voice, or a style, or some ineffable characteristic, that sets her or himself apart. That makes that character immediately recognizable, at least to the author. And that uniqueness not only helps the author decide what that character’s role is, it also can help map out plots and storylines for all the other characters in a book, too.
Wallis is like that, at least for me: self-assured, disdainful, and yet also engaged with her human’s life. She may not approve of Pru’s involvement with a dog, but she will not let it go without her input, either. And let’s not get started on what she thinks of Randolph, the parrot in the new book. She is, after all, a cat.
Of course, when I say that Wallis sprang forth fully formed in the first Pru book, Dogs Don’t Lie, I’m skipping over a lot of groundwork. Since the age of eight or nine, I’ve lived with cats. I love them, and I know them intimately. So, for me, hearing Wallis act like this is automatic. But looking at my current feline companion, Musetta, I can see where she came from.
Take, for example, the hairball treats. Musetta is a medium-haired tuxedo, with a coat as thick and soft as a bunny’s. Luckily, she likes one particular treat that is filled with hairball medication, a laxative that’s supposed to help those nasty clumps of felt pass. It has become a nightly ritual that I pour out a few in my hand for her to enjoy. And she does, leaving my palm wet from her rough tongue. But no matter how many I pour out – and I’ve given her as many as 10 and as few as three – she almost always leaves one over. She stops eating and turns away, and when I offer it to her, putting it up in front of her nose, she recoils further.
“Get that thing away from me,” her actions say, as clearly as if she had pronounced the words. “Someone has licked that. It’s all wet. It’s disgusting.”
The treat goes on top of her dry food, I wash my hands, and it’s time for bed. Where another ritual kicks in.
When she was younger, Musetta used to love to sleep with us. Just as I’d be falling asleep, I’d feel the “thud” of her landing at the foot of the bed. Sometimes, I still do. But more often these days, Musetta likes to take herself up to the third floor, where she drags around the belt of an old terrycloth robe and howls. And sometimes I go after her, admire her labors, and then take her to bed. When I do that, she often settles in, curling up at our feet. But never without what can only be described as a disdainful look and a few muttered mews. Clearly, my praise has been insufficiently fulsome, or my handling of her plump body lacking in respect. She stays on sufferance, as it were. Tolerating us despite our flaws.
And yet I know she loves us because she shows her affection – or at least her interest – daily in many small ways. I’ll be hard at work at my desk when I’ll feel the soft pressure of her body against my leg. She doesn’t want food or need anything, just to be with me for a while. Or she’ll come sit beside me, on the sofa, in companionable silence, when the workday is over, and we’re watching her favorite shows. Sometimes she wants to be petted, sometimes not. She’s generous with the purrs, too, which lets us know when she’s content, when we have done our jobs.
All these little things make up for her harsh words, especially when I consider that those harsh words may just be mostly in my head. And that maybe they helped make up Wallis, too. I could ask her – Musetta, that is – but I’m sure she’d give me a look that means, “Clea? Do I really have to explain it all for you?” As for Wallis? Well, she’s planning her next adventure. And, honestly, she can’t be bothered with such trivial concerns.
Clea Simon is the author of 12 mysteries and three non-fiction books, including The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Cats and Their Women as well as several other nonfiction books. For more information about Clea, please visit her website or her blog.
Photo of Musetta ©Clea Simon, used with permission