Thursday, September 12, 2019

Fictional Furry Friends

This week I’d intended to write a post about Gill Paul’s new novel, The Lost Daughter—which, although not exactly a sequel to the same author’s The Secret Wife, addresses a similar theme. But the plan is to coordinate my post with Jennifer Eremeeva’s interview with the author, and that’s not yet live on the New Books Network. So check back next week for a look at Romanov grand duchesses and their (maybe) fates.

As I was racking my brains for an alternative topic, serendipity intervened in the form of an unexpected but highly entertaining conversation about dogs and their potential place in my current work in progress, Song of the Sisters (Songs of Steppe & Forest 3). I didn’t initially plan for the inclusion of a dog, but the more I think of it, the more I love the idea. Here’s a brief background as to why.

After months of holding off on sharing my opening of Sisters with my writers’ group, I decided this month that I’d done as much as I could without input. The value of giving half-baked chapters to trusted writer friends is that they hold up a mirror, revealing where I’ve supplied too much information and where not enough, the places where the energy flows and where it stalls. Especially because I have spent so long roaming the wild forest that is Muscovite history, I have a tendency to demand too much background knowledge from my readers. I need people who can say “huh?” without worrying that by doing so they will hurt my feelings.

I haven’t received specific responses yet, but I did get enough feedback that I can see (or imagine, since this particular comment has not been made) a story problem that I have yet to solve. Songs 3, unlike its predecessors, is intended as a kind of Muscovite comedy of manners à la Georgette Heyer. There are a few political hijinks—I’d bore myself to tears otherwise—but mostly it’s a contest among cousins for control of a household and their own futures. I’ve worked on the female leads, and at least one important character received a thorough treatment (and makeover, in response to criticism from that same writers’ group) in Song of the Shaman. But Igor, the antagonist, is new—and, as I’m coming to realize, undeveloped. Cue the dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that Igor’s going to need more than a dog to make him a believable human being, even as an antagonist. But a writer can do so much with a dog. It expresses the hidden feelings of everyone present, reveals likes and dislikes, separates the sensitive souls from the distinctly insensitive ones. And unlike cats, which lived on the sidelines of medieval life thanks to the bizarre association that the Christian Church made between them and the Devil, dogs played an important role in Muscovite Russia just as they did throughout Europe and many other places in the world.

Most of them were working dogs, of course: scent hounds and sight hounds, guard dogs and coursers. The fancy breeds we think of today didn’t exist then, but dogs are dogs and people are people, and there’s nothing like a dog to open up a character who, for one reason or another, hides any hint of uncertainty behind an over-confident mask.

So meet Laika, a Polish hunting dog of a type attested from the thirteenth century. She looks like what would happen if you crossed a Doberman with a Labrador retriever, and if anyone can reach Igor’s stubborn heart, she can. 

Although you never know, she just might take a shine to my heroine Darya instead. After all, who has the good treats?

Images: Polish Hunting Dog CC BY 2.5, A. Balcerzak and Lukas3, via Wikimedia Commons.

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