Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How Mr. Piggles Rewrote My Book

Sandra Parshall

I thought donating naming rights for animals in one of my novels would be an easy way to contribute to charity auctions at mystery conventions and wouldn’t have any effect on the book. Because my protagonist, Rachel Goddard, is a veterinarian, I’ll always have animals in my books and will always be in need of names for them. I’ll just stick in the “purchased” names without changing anything, right?

To my surprise, those animal names led to some major revisions in Broken Places–all of which strengthened the story.

I first sold naming rights at Bouchercon in Baltimore in 2008. I offered to let someone name a dog. Bidding was going well enough, but it could have been better, so I spoke up and offered to throw in a cat too. This, predictably, led auctioneer Chris Grabenstein to comment on the perils of throwing a cat, but it also inspired Meg Born to raise her hand and say that if I added a guinea pig, she would pay handsomely. Sold! I did, and Meg did.

Then I thought, “Guinea pig? I don’t even have a guinea pig in the story!”

Back at home, I had to do some research about guinea pigs because I've never kept one. Unless you're a guinea pig aficionado, you would not believe how many books about these animals are in print. You would think every home in the nation harbored the cute little rodents. Anyway, after I learned a bit about the species, I realized I had
a perfect place for Mr. Piggles, Meg’s guinea pig. My hero Tom Bridger has a seven-year-old nephew, Simon, who plays a role in Broken Places. Giving Mr. Piggles to Simon allowed me to write a short scene where I could show the bond between Simon and my heroine, Rachel, as well as cast suspicion on another character. To bring Mr. Piggles to life, I used what Meg had told me about his habit of soliciting treats by lifting a tiny, empty bowl in his teeth and squeaking.

As it turned out, Meg didn’t have a cat’s name in mind, so she named two dogs instead. Again, I added animal characters I hadn’t planned for. A crusty old geezer who lives next door to two murder victims comes off as completely unsympathetic, not to mention suspicious, when he’s introduced in a scene with Tom Bridger. I didn’t want readers to make up their minds about him immediately, though. He acquired Maggie and Lisa, the dogs named by Meg. His late wife had doted on the dogs, and since her death he has pampered them out of love for her. Who could hate a guy like that?

Still working on Broken Places, I offered animal naming rights at the Malice Domestic charity auction in spring of 2009. When Marisa Young bought this auction “item” neither of us knew that she would help me make a breakthrough in a vital section of the book. The dog name Marisa donated was Cricket. I don’t want to give away too much by revealing how Cricket changed my story, but
when I was looking for a place to put her, I realized what was missing from a certain part of the book and how I could fix it. Thank you, Marisa and Cricket!

Of course, not all the animals in Broken Places were named by other people. Rachel’s African gray parrot, Cicero, and her cat Frank (who has one and a half ears) carried over from the previous book, Disturbing the Dead. Cicero was inspired by our veterinarian’s green parrot and shares a bad habit with him–a habit that saves Rachel’s life. Frank is a replica of a cat we adopted many years ago when he was a starving, beat-up stray.

Rachel’s friend Ben Hern—a murder suspect in Broken Places—is a popular cartoonist who uses his cat Hamilton and his dachshund Sebastian in his comic strip, Furballs. Hamilton is named for the handsome cat (pictured) who lived in Lelia Taylor’s Creatures ‘n’ Crooks Bookshoppe. (Hamilton is now retired from bookselling and leads a life of feline leisure.) Sebastian has a name that I just happen to like.

I may be finished with naming my own animal characters, though. The names that came to me through auctions worked minor miracles on the manuscript of Broken Places. Maybe the names I auctioned at Bouchercon in Indianapolis will work the same magic on my current project. If I’m still in need of inspiration, the next Malice Domestic auction is coming right up.


Joni said...

I try every year to get one of my menagerie members in a book at the Malice auction, but the bidding always goes too high! Of course, since I have a house full of critters, it might be too hard to choose which one anyway.

Barb Goffman said...

Sandy, this is fascinating. I love how inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. And I also love that guinea pigs picture you posted. Very cute!

Chris Grabenstein said...

What a great story! Glad I had a hand in it. : ) I think that was one of the highest, if not the highest, items at the auction in Baltimore!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Sandy, every time I use an auction name, something magic happens. I completely agree. It's kind of fascinating.
And Chris is right--your name item was a hot seller! SO--wonderful on all levels!
See you all soon...

Sandra Parshall said...

Chris, Meg bowled me over with her bid. I walked around feeling like A Very Important Author afterward. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

How interesting--the link between outside influences and revision.

I love the cat picture!

Meredith Cole said...

What a great story, Sandy! Your story last year inspired me to offer up a cat name at Malice for my next book. I hope it works the same kind of magic for me...

cncbooks said...

Sandy, I love that Hamilton's life in the book world will go on forever thanks to you and your book. And I had no idea you'd gotten such a good picture of him.

Hamilton says "hi" and "thank you very much"!


June Shaw said...

Sandy,this is so interesting. I love the way you were inspired by ideas others gave you. Now I want guinea pigs and to especially read that book!