I’ve been tagged and charged with telling you all a story – or at least a piece of one.
Technically, the tag requests a piece of my work-in-progress, but since I’m under contract not to free that particular literary cat from its burlap palace until the appointed time, I’ll share a story about the work-in-progress instead.
We’ll call it “A Tale of Two Kitties.”
When I started writing the Shinobi mysteries, I decided my detective needed a pet. Historically accurate ninjas aren’t the most sympathetic protagonists, after all. My detective, Hiro Hattori, was a successful assassin before he was charged with protecting the life of a Jesuit priest – and although I know him as brilliant, ironic and honorable (within his worldview, anyway) an assassin isn’t exactly the warm-fuzzy sort.
My challenge was persuading a reader to like a ninja assassin – and doing so in less than two pages’ time. I needed a quick device to make Hiro both likeable and worth liking. A pet was the obvious choice. People like animals, and most of us also know that animals have a special sense of which people to trust. If animals like a person, most other people are willing to trust their judgment. (Note to the writing wise: This is more true of “cute fuzzy” animals than slithery, scaly types. The average reader will trust a puppy, but might want a second opinion if your character’s loved by a snake.)
If my ninja was liked by an animal, and showed at least some gentleness toward the animal in return, the reader would understand that Hiro is more than a cold-blooded killer. He’s interesting. He’s complicated. The reader stays tuned to learn more.
Enter the kitten.
The choice of a kitten raised eyebrows among my peer editors (not all of whom like – or even tolerate – cats) but from an author’s perspective the choice was perfect. In medieval Japan dogs were working animals – seldom pets – and they’re really too noticeable for a ninja to favor. The last thing a shinobi wants is to walk down the street with a big, barking dog on his heels.
On the other hand, cats are stealthy. They sneak. They hunt in the shadows and pounce without warning.
They’re also almost unbearably cute when they’re small.
A kitten it is.
But a character has to bring more than just “cute” to the party. A good novel requires tension on every page, which means the kitten you pat in Chapter 1 must cause some kind of mayhem before Act 3. (This is the lesser-known “Kitten Corollary” to Chekhov’s Gun.) Fortunately, I had just the kitten in mind. My own cat, Oobie, would be the perfect model – and when you read the first Shinobi novel, Claws of the Cat (which isn’t named for Hiro’s kitten…but you’ll have to read the book to find out what kind of claws it’s really named for) keep this in mind:
Kitten-mayhem is great, but less is more when it comes to animals in mystery, so I knew I could only feature the kitten in 2-3 scenes at most. That’s not much “screen time” (though trust me, the kitten makes the most of her brief appearances) and I wondered how to squeeze more tension from this little piece of plot.
I’ve got it.
Let’s make Hiro’s Jesuit friend allergic to cats.
And with that stroke, a character was born. A mayhem-causing, allergy-inducing, ninja-softening kitten – whose name remained a mystery to me until the final page of the manuscript. She’s based on the all-too-real Oobie, who shares her personality quirks. Best of all, though the kitten appears only rarely in the story I’ve been told by at least two readers that the kitten is one of their favorite parts of the story.
One of them was the very beta reader who doesn’t like cats.
A happy addition indeed.