Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Writing Outside the Comfort Zone by Sandra Parshall

Sandra Parshall writes mysteries featuring Virginia veterinarian Rachel Goddard and Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger. Her debut book, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. The latest entry in the series, Under the Dog Star, was praised by Kirkus Reviews for "spine-chilling tension from cover to cover." Sandy is active in Sisters in Crime and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two cats.


Writing Outside the Comfort Zone
by Sandra Parshall

Mystery writers know the drill: You may maim, mutilate, and murder the people in your stories, but if you want to keep your readers you'd better not hurt a child or an animal.

I've witnessed the nasty fallout that greets authors who disregard this "rule,"  reading the comments about Nevada Barr's Burn on Amazon might make any author vow never to write about abused children, so I had plenty of misgivings when I embarked on Under the Dog Star. The plot features a family in which the children endure emotional neglect, but not physical or sexual abuse, so I thought I was more or less safe there. The dogs in the book are a different matter.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am passionate about animal welfare. I don't want to use my books to preach,  they're mystery/suspense novels, and their main purpose is to entertain,  but I made Rachel Goddard, my protagonist, a veterinarian so I could include animal issues in the stories. In the first book, The Heat of the Moon, Rachel rehabs and releases a hawk and confiscates a red bat from a man who has the crazy notion of keeping it as a pet. Animals also have roles in the next two novels, and in Under the Dog Star the issues of abandoned dogs and illegal dogfighting move to center stage.

I almost gave up many times while I was writing the book. I told myself I should write something that would be less stressful for me as well as safer in terms of reader reaction. After all, I don't have the buffer of bestsellerdom to ensure that offended readers will come back for the next book if they don't like this one. But I couldn't stop thinking about the plight of pets whose owners, after losing their jobs and homes, have dumped the animals in the countryside to fend for themselves. Rachel lives in the kind of place where people would take their pets to turn them loose and the abandoned dogs form feral packs. She would be as horrified as I am,  and she'd do something about it. I would have to pretend the real world doesn't exist at all if I allowed Rachel to ignore this effect of the economic slump.

The Michael Vick scandal reminded me that Rachel also lives in an area where illegal dogfighting is a fact of life. I grew up in the south, and I've always been aware of dogfighting (as well as cockfighting). I knew that Vick's arrest and the rescue and rehabilitation of 51 dogs from his operation wouldn't be the end of illegal dogfighting in Virginia or anywhere else. It's still going on. It will go on as long as its proponents can get away with it. But in my fictional world, where I'm in control, I can have the satisfaction of shutting it down in one community.

The book has no extended graphic scenes of abuse or dogfighting, for the simple reason that I couldn't bear to write them. I tried to be honest without overwhelming readers with sad images. I kept in mind that this was, first and foremost, a murder mystery, and it had to be entertaining and action-filled, not preachy.

It's a fine line to walk, and I know some readers will feel I went too far in one direction or the other. I'm braced for their reactions. All I can hope for is that most readers will be caught up in the story, cheering Rachel's efforts to save the dogs and absorbed in Deputy Tom Bridger's investigation of the murder. And maybe, after turning the last page, they'll consider making a donation to an organization that's working to help animals that have suffered at human hands.


Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Sandra, and I can't wait to read the book!

Sandra Parshall said...

Kaye, thanks for inviting me to your wonderful blog.

Vicki Lane said...

Good for you. Sandy! Some stories truly need to be told.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hi, Everyone! Thanks for stopping by. Sandy - Thank you for being here - it is always a pleasure!!

Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Sandra. I can't imagine too many readers would reject a book that privileged animal welfare; how great of you to bring up this important topic and make people think of it in a new way.

Pat R. said...

I recently finished reading this book and would highly recommend it. I love animals and wondered how I would feel when I read the book. A touchy subject that was very well handled.

Brenda Buchanan said...

I commend you for working past your fear of negative reader reaction and writing about a difficult topic.

No matter how much we might want it to be, life isn't all sweetness and light. A deftly written novel is such an effective way to raise awareness about animal abuse and neglect.

I've put your book on my TBR list.


Sandra Parshall said...

Pat, I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I think the mystery is strong, and I became swept up in the lives of the Hall family as I wrote the story. I'm not quite sure where they all came from, but they moved into my head and wouldn't go away.

Coco Ihle said...

Good for you, Sandra. I find it unconscionable that some people can be so cruel. Education is a key to stopping this behavoir, in my opinion, and creating a story about this subject is a perfect way to do that. Can't wait to read Under the Dog Star.