by Patricia Fry
Every hopeful author and freelance writer has heard this important credo: write about what you know. For years, I wrote nonfiction. Still do. But five years ago, I added fiction to my repertoire—cat fiction. It didn’t take me long to realize that even fiction must ring true. Your readers won’t trust and respect your work if there isn’t an element of truth in your stories. That’s why I often turn to my cats for assistance. They give me just the reality check I need to make sure the cats in my stories run true to form.
While some cozy mysteries with cats feature talking cats, mine do not. The cats in my stories are ordinary cats with a few extraordinary habits and, of course, many unusual (but realistic) opportunities to get into mischief. How do my own household cats help in this respect? Simply by being cats.
If I want to accurately describe a cat’s reaction to a fearful situation, define how a curious cat might look, show how a friendly cat would greet a stranger or another animal, or illustrate the way a cat moves, I go to the experts. Cats! My cats, neighborhood cats, friends’ cats, and, of course, cats in the Internet.
Most friendly cats, for example, do a lot of head-butting. A trusting cat will often rub against your legs, then roll over and invite a tummy rub. When a cat awakens, she generally stands up, stretching her entire body in the process, and yawns. If she’s startled awake, however, she might dive for cover before you can blink an eye.
Sometimes I set up obstacles or situations for my cats in order to get a better idea of how a cat might react. If I want to describe an apprehensive or fearful cat, for example, I might introduce a mechanical toy to Sophie and Lily and make note of their body language, the way they move or pose, the action of their ears and tail.
Certainly, I won’t go into a lot of detail in my story—I’ll use what I learn from the cats to create a simple word picture: “Buffy peered cautiously from her cat bed as the toddler rounded the corner towing a clickity-clack pull-toy behind her. The buff-and-brown cat sat motionless, watching with wide eyes, until the toy was suddenly abandoned right in front of her. Now, focusing intently on the toy, Buffy moved one furry paw forward, then the other. Before she could stretch far enough to sniff the strange noisemaker, Rags appeared. Without hesitation, he pounced on the toy and Buffy retreated into the depths of her pink canopy bed, her sky-blue eyes the only part of her that was still visible.”
It’s my opinion that you can’t write fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) without using your observational skills. Humans actually propel my Klepto Cat Mystery stories, so I also observe people. For one of my stories, I describe a scuffle between two men—sort of a brief blow-by-blow account. In order to make it realistic, I got down on the floor in various positions to make sure that what I was describing was physically possible and reasonable.
Novelists can certainly take liberties in their writing. But, in order to be taken seriously, even in the world of fiction, you must maintain that element of truth, and one way to do it is to be ever observant.
Patricia Fry is the author of the Klepto Cat Mystery series. She just published Book 20 last month. These books are available in print and for Kindle.