Saturday, April 13, 2013

Breaking the Taboo

by Kate George

 There is somewhat of an unwritten law in writing about kids and animals. It goes something like "No Harm Shall Come to Children or Pets."

I’ve heard a number of variations of that rule through the years, and I pretty much stuck to it. That is, until I went to a writing seminar with writer/agent Donald Maass. 

Donald spent some time researching best-selling novels and discovered that one of the things they had in common was a high level of emotion. I learned a lot from Donald Maass but the most surprising thing was that bestsellers didn’t necessarily follow the rule about kids and animals.

Forgive me for messing up this quote, Don, but here’s what I heard: “Don’t just kill the kitten, make the kitten save the child’s life and then have it die.” In other words, elevate the pet to the level of a hero and then when the reader is as attached as she can be, kill the sucker flat. 

Yikes. “Really?” I asked. “Even in books with a lot of humor?”

Yes, even when books are meant to be funny.

I wasn’t sure I subscribed to that theory. The “no harm” rule had been hammered into me pretty firmly. I’m not really brave enough to break big taboos. And yet I did.

I got to the point in Crazy Little Thing Called Dead where something drastic had to happen. Something that would push my protagonist into acting against her own nature. She had to be reduced to a flaming ball of murderous rage. Actually Bree was more like a frozen ball of icy rage, but you get the drift. Something had to happen that was horrific. I suppose I could have had the antagonist kill one of her brothers, or her parents. But Bree’s family is not on the page much. Her fur-babies, however, are on the page quite often. They are her children, her companions, her joy in life. Her cat and three of her dogs die in a fire. Her beagle attempts to save her tabby before she dies.

Good lord, it’s awful. How could I have written that?

I knew there would be some fallout. Readers were bound to be upset. But I trusted Donald Maass when he said that the emotion would improve my books. I was not prepared for the level of hatred in the letters I received. I was called a murderer. I was told I should be blackballed. No one should let me comment on their blog. One woman who was particularly distraught told me that I am God in my stories and I could have saved the animals. They didn’t have to die. But that’s not how it seems to me. Stories unfold. They come to me. I don’t create them, at least not in a conscious way. I avoided the fire as long as I could, but it needed to be there.

Did you see Romancing the Stone? Do you remember how Laura Wilder cries while she’s writing her books, tissues everywhere? That was me. It didn’t help that we had recently lost a dog to cancer. I was a weeping mess.

The negative un-fan mail has been fairly intense; however, I am also getting a lot more positive comments. More readers telling me they like my books. Asking when the next Bree MacGowan mystery is coming out. I’m getting more “yes” mail than I’m getting “hell no” mail.

So what have I learned? Well, for one, Donald Maass was right when he said readers would become more invested. The readers that don’t like my books really don’t like them. Some would like to see me incarcerated for crimes committed. I haven’t pointed out to them that incarceration would give me more time to write. That might be insensitive. And frankly, I don’t want to give anyone any further reason to come looking for me. It’s scary how much some people hate me.

On the other hand the opposite is also true. It’s wonderful how much some fans like me. I get messages everyday telling me how much they like Bree.

Have my sales increased? Yes, but that may have happened anyway. The more you write, the more you sell. It’s kind of a rule. So the jury is out on the numbers.

Would I do it again? Kill pets? I don’t know. I do know I will push my characters out of their comfort zone. I will create situations that push them into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Because that’s the stuff that compelling stories are made of. I’m not making any promises. I will write what I need to write for the stories. Whatever I write, not everyone will be happy, and that’s okay. My readers will be happy, and they’re the only people I have to please.

Do I recommend breaking the “no harm” rule? I can’t tell you what to write, but I can advise you to grow some pretty thick skin before you try it.

Kate George is the author of the popular Bree MacGowan mystery series. She lives in an old farmhouse in the backwoods of Vermont with her husband, four kids, and three rescue dogs. Visit her at, or contact her at


Kaye George said...

You're a brave, brave woman, Kate! Thanks so much for posting this and letting us know the story behind the story. Fascinating stuff! I'll be watching you. Not in the *Sting* sense, but to see if you go there again.

Kate George/Bodacious Betty said...

Thanks for hosting me Sandra, I'm honored to be on Poe;s Deadly Daughters today.

Kaye, who knows where I'll go next, but hopefully, wherever it is it won't be boring!

BPL Ref said...

As with most things, the crux of the matter is the execution-- no pun intended. I'm in the "don't kill a cat" camp, but would never take an author to task for it. I confess I DID write to an author to ask if she was going to kill off a cat every book, because I'd read two of hers back to back and there was a dead cat in both. I told her I understood but I was very reluctant to read any more of her books because of that aspect and that the problem is certainly MINE. At that point, I just couldn't pick up that third book in the series unless I knew she wasn't going to kill off another cat.

Which it is. I've thought about it and I think one reason that animal people may react more strongly is that it's more real to us. Few people may have had a friend or family member murdered by a serial killer (Thank You, God!!) but most of us have seen abused or abandoned animals. It's easier to conjure up an immediate picture and reaction.

There is a series I very much like and continue to read in which a kitten is maimed and then murdered. The kitten is already dead when found, we don't know the kitten, and yet the sad thing is that whenever I think of that series, that's the thing I think of. Can't help it. Can't wipe it from my mind. The problem is that my imagination supplied the details. As I said, I still read the series-- but I no longer quite trust the author. I read the books with more detachment.

On the other hand, there IS a series that I did stop reading, mostly because of an animal death. However, in this series a puppy was introduced, made endearing to readers, and then slaughtered. I understood exactly why the author did it-- to prove the brutality of the killer and to show our heroes could be next-- but I also resented what I perceived as blatant manipulation of the reader. The author went to some lengths to make the puppy adorable, clumsy, sweet, loving, etc. just so the shock would be greater. In that case it was the manipulation that turned me off from the book. That's where I would question a bit the advice given: yes, you want readers to be emotionally invested in a book but be careful how you do it. Don't let the readers see the author behind the curtain,pulling at our heartstrings like a puppeteer. That can cause an opposite reaction.

Another caveat: a mystery author once commented about a dog she killed off in a book by saying that she needed to do it to show how serious the threat was, to escalate the tension. That's fine. Certainly serial killers are said to start with animals and then up the ante, so to speak. Again, it comes back to how the author handles it. In some books, I've seen it as sheer laziness, a shorthand to say, "Yeah, this is a bad bad person." A reader can sometimes see it coming, which says to me that the author couldn't be bothered to think of a more subtle way or more innovative way to show us the badness of this villain.

It's a complex problem. I strongly believe in the right of the author to take the story where it needs to go, and I condemn readers who would berate or harass an author. That's despicable. But I have also been taken to task by an author for not wanting to read her book because of that: get over it, it wasn't a real animal that died. My response is, "You want me to believe in your characters and your plot but when you get upset when I do? How confused is that?"

Sometimes it's hard when reading a post like this to read tone. I hope, Kate, and any other who read this, that you read it in a level tone, not angry or condemning. I see it as a problem on both sides, and I don't see an easy, one size fits all rule that will cover it. As you can tell from the length of this, I've given it a lot of thought.

Sheila Connolly said...

Welcome, Kate! I heard Maass speak last year and it was indeed a wake-up call (I think he used the same "kill the kitten" line, or maybe it was a puppy). The bottom line was that he felt we needed to up the intensity--raise the stakes--in our stories, which isn't always easy in a cozy. The result for me was a completely unexpected scene in which my cozy protagonist shoots someone, and I hadn't even known she knew how to use a gun. We'll see how that goes over with readers.

There are readers who will never read anything where an animal is deliberately harmed, and I can respect that. I think the key for us writers is to make it integral to the story, not just a slap of gratuitous violence, used for effect.

Maybe we react so strongly to animal killings because animals are at the mercy of humans, and they trust us.

BPL Ref said...

I think that's a part of it, Sheila, that animals are at the mercy of humans. There's often the implication of trust between animal and human, or between human and human.

After all, we have special provisions in the law for humans in positions of trust who violate those positions (inappropriate contact between teachers and students, impersonating a police officer, etc.)

I think it's a fascinating topic, as you can tell!

Julia Buckley said...

This is a good post, and the reality is that animals are treated cruelly every day. Sometimes fiction can bring that reality to light more than a news story can, and in that respect, perhaps it can be helpful.

Having said that, I am a pretty wimpy person who leans toward happy endings and contented pets, so I am often reluctant to pick up books which I know will make me cry. :)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Kate, that's really a sobering thought. An unpleasant review is one thing, but crazy hate mail can be downright terrifying.

Katreader said...

I generally read to escape and enjoy. That being said, intensity is fine, as is emotional involvement. This may sound horrible, but I don't care what you, as an author, do to a child or human. However, if you have an animal, especially a beloved pet, hurt or killed-even if it makes a good plot point, I may not even finish the book...and if I do, I may not read another. There are too many books on my TBR pile as it is, I won't bother with ones that upset me.

BPL Ref said...

That's me too, Julia. I have to be in a certain mood to tackle a book I think will leave me in tears. And the older I get and the more I have to deal with, there are fewer occasions that I feel the need for another source of sadness. There are enough real life reasons to cry. I wonder if age is a factor? As a teen, I loved to weep over all the classic tear-jerker books; as an adult I like them only because of the role they played in my youth. Most aren't anything I'd pick up on to read.

BPL Ref said...

"Most aren't things I'd pick up to read NOW." Sheesh. I wish my fingers were better connected to my brain.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

After allowing a dog to die of old age in A Place of Forgetting, I agonized over killing 7 dogs in Through a Yellow Wood. I remembered how I was never able to get through the endings of The Yearling and Old Yeller. But, to make the dog that survived more vital to the story and to make the climax more meaningful, I had to do away with those dogs. I compromised with myself by killing them before the book gets underway. And I gave them heroic back stories. But it still hurt.

Skye said...

I figured it was something like that when you talked around it on your blog and others. And I can understand needing to push Bree to go beyond what was usual for her, to get her to do something out of character. I imagine it was a very hard decision because the pets were characters in the books, not just off-stage references. It was a courageous and risky move. Sorry that you are getting hate mail as a consequence. But glad the others are telling you they are looking forward to the next Bree book!

Waverly said...

Your blog came at a perfect time for me as my writing partner, Curt Colbert, and I are contemplating a plot for our fourth novel (written under the name of Waverly Curtis) in which the villain attempts to harm some pampered pets who have inherited a fortune.

Obviously we need something to happen to the dogs in our story, otherwise there's no jeopardy or tension. I think we're going to solve it by having the mystery revolve around whether the old woman who died was crazy. Surely someone who would leave her fortune to her dogs would have to be! the antagonists will maintain. But readers will know better.

Actually anyone who would leave all her money to her dogs was probably pretty angry at her human family members so there's some interesting tension to explore there.

I'm so glad you were brave enough to do this, Kate, and we'll be following you to see what happens next. I'm not ready for hate mail. Still having a hard time dealing with negative reviews from readers who are unhappy because our books feature a Chihuahua who talks.

London Mabel said...

I've never heard that rule. For me, it's just about the tone set by the author. Billy Mernit talks about setting up your promises right in the first scene or chapter--in his context, it was which kind of humor you're going to use. It's not advised to start with dry wit, then half-way through the book turn to Marx Brothers zaniness.

Eg. When Elizabeth George killed off a major and beloved character, it was a surprise, but it still felt "in tone." Cause her books are very serious. But I've rented movies that are pitched as silly comedies and they suddenly insert child molestation or wife beating and it's like WTF??!!

Anyway. SO sorry you've received terribly mail like that. What is wrong with people?? :-S