Guest Post by Susan Wittig Albert
Okay, I confess. I didn’t set out to write a mystery series with talking animals.
With apologies to Rita Mae Brown, Carole Nelson Douglas, and others, I’ve never been a fan of talking animals in mysteries. So why am I writing an eight-book series (The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter) that features even more talking animals than Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book? The answer to that question is a tale in itself: the tale of the talking animals.
If you know anything about Beatrix Potter’s life, you know it was full of animals, both real and imaginary. You can’t write about her without a mischief of mice underfoot, or a basket of bunnies in the corner. But while her animals talk in a pleasantly amusing way, I didn’t intend to allow them to say a word while they were putting in their obligatory appearances in my books. As I said, I wasn’t a big fan of talking animals in mysteries.
But while writers may have the best of intentions, things don’t always work out the way they plan. In this case, it was Mrs. Tiggywinkle who started the whole thing. In real life, Mrs. T was Beatrix’s favorite hedgehog, as well as the model for the character of Mrs. Tiggywinkle in The Tale of Mrs. Tiggywinkle. In 1905, when Beatrix went to the village of Near Sawrey to take possession of Hill Top Farm, she took her animals with her: Mrs. T, Mopsy and Josie Bunny, and Tom Thumb the Mouse. So I included these creatures in The Tale of Hill Top Farm, to further characterize Beatrix as an artist (they were her models) and as a woman who dearly loved all sorts of little animals.
However, when I reached the third chapter (this is where Beatrix is lying in bed in her rented room with her animals in their cages in the corners), I was in for a surprise. Mrs. T spoke up—at length. She was offended, it turns out, that Miss Potter made her a common washerwoman in The Tale of Mrs. Tiggywinkle. She preferred to be pictured as a duchess.
Now, I have been aware for many years that I am only partially in control of my characters. Sure—I can give them a history, equip them with a personality, and confront them with a set of circumstances (commonly known as the “plot”). But once created, characters have their own minds and don’t always take directions. In the China Bayles mysteries, for instance, I’m always learning new things about China. (Who knew she had a brother? I didn’t!) And in The Tale of Hill Top Farm, Mrs. T surprised me by having her own story to tell, as did Tom Thumb the mouse. It turns out that he is a recent widower, since Hunca Munca, his wife, had fallen from a chandelier and broken her neck. (This is a true story, according to one of Beatrix’s letters.) And Tom is also on the lookout for romance, which could lead to all kinds of interesting plot twists.
What can I say? I’m an opportunist. When a character pops up and wants to take over, I’m disposed to let that happen. The animals wanted to talk? Well, fine. I’d listen and take notes.
And so I did, happily. In fact, I enjoyed the results so much that I invited a few animals of my own to join the gang—hence Bosworth Badger, Professor Galileo Newton Owl, Crumpet (a village cat), and Rascal (a village dog). Not wanting to just sit around and be decorative, these industrious characters got busy and developed their own plots. How’s that for easy? It turns out that my big task in these books is integrating the animal plots with the people plots, which sometimes gets a little complicated.
I learned a few things about animals in this process. Like people, they have their own behavioral characteristics, preferences, and habits. They also have their own dialects and linguistic idiosyncrasies.
Tibbie, the gossipy Herdwick sheep, bleats: “Nobody ever baathers to listen to a sheeeep.”
Professor Owl hoots: “I am perfectly aware of whooo youoo are.”
Jemima Puddleduck (not the brightest bird in the barnyard), quacks: “My eggs are not QUACK spoilt! They are the very finest of duCK eGGs!”
Animals are incredibly useful as point-of-view characters because they go everywhere and know things people don’t. In the village, the animals go from garden to garden, eavesdropping and carrying tales. Professor Owl keeps an eye on events from high in the sky. And the mice behind the cupboard often know more about what’s going on than Beatrix Potter does. This allows me (as the author) to play some interesting games of who-knows-what.
Some of these animals, however, gave me a different challenge, since they aren’t mine. They belong to Beatrix Potter—or rather, to Frederick Warne, her publisher and the owner of her copyrights. I felt I didn’t need to ask permission to use Mrs. T and her friends as props in a stage-setting. But when these animals started to talk and fashion their own plots, I knew I’d have to get permission to use them. Not as easily done as said, but the details of the licensing agreement were finally worked out. My manuscripts go to England, where they are vetted by a Frederick Warne editor (to make sure I haven’t blasphemed Miss Potter’s literary creations) before they go into production here in the U.S.
I’m glad Mrs. Tiggywinkle cured me of my prejudice against talking animals. It seems to me that they animals give the series a unique whimsicality, and that the multiple plots (people plots, animal plots) make the books more agreeably entertaining, surprising, and enjoyably complex. And the readership is broadened, too. Kids enjoy the animals, making the books perfect for family read-alouds.
All in all, I think Miss Potter would be pleased. I know I am.
About the drawing:
If you would like to enter the drawing for a copy of The Tale of Hawthorn House, go here. We’ll be giving away three copies of this book. You may also be eligible for the grand prize drawing, which will be held at the end of Susan’s blog tour. But you’d better hurry. This drawing for Poe’s Deadly Daughters will close at noon on November 8!