We continue our series of animal posts. Today’s contributor is Miko Johnston

I grew up in New York City, where outdoor wildlife was limited, particularly in winter. Pigeons, sparrows and the occasional squirrel coexisted with alley cats and leashed dogs until the robins and blue jays returned in spring.

The reverse was true in Los Angeles, where many bird species wintered in my backyard, at the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains. Some birds left by March, but not all. Red tailed hawks circled the hills, crows commandeered the scrub oaks, blue jays screeched from fences, and the largest hummingbirds I’d ever seen buzzed from yard to yard in search of nectar.

Other critters visited our neighborhood. The ever-present lizards scrambled across walkways and along fences, or lazed in the sun, doing push-ups to attract a mate. Squirrels, chipmunks, and skunks vied with deer for their share of fruit from garden trees. Less welcome were rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats, and the occasional mountain lion or bear.

I now live on an island in Washington, by an inland sound teeming with wildlife. Cormorants love to perch on the buoys, their wings outstretched to dry. Herons stand patiently on the beach at low tide, searching for fish. The sight of the birds hunched on tree branches reminds me of Gru from “Despicable Me”, and when they fly their prehistoric ancestry is evident. Seagulls and crows use our driveway to crack open mussels and cockleshells. As fall winds down, white-crown sparrows, golden nuthatches, robins and finches go into a feeding frenzy, devouring every blackberry left on the vines and then, as a last resort, the tiny red berries of our hawthorn tree. (Yuck. They taste like petroleum jelly.) In winter, when daytime tides are high, packs of mallards and scoters peacefully cohabit in the calm water near the shore.

I’ve watched deer eat the fallen apples from our trees and had the rare privilege of seeing a stark white fawn. I’ve observed families of river otters sprinting along the beach, and seals hunting in the eelgrass a hundred yards away. Rabbits nibble on our lawn (and tomatoes). In spring, when our hawthorn tree erupts in white flowers, it attracts so many bees it hums louder than a generator.

Several bald eagles nest in nearby trees. One of my great pleasures is watching them soar effortlessly across the sky, circling overhead and diving into the water as they hunt, hearing their distinctive twitter. It takes a few years for the birds to grow into their good looks. Eaglets, with their mottled feathers and ungraceful stance, remind me of awkward teenagers with acne. That was reinforced when I saw one youngster standing on the beach in front of my house, his parents observing from farther away. Crows began to pester him and he finally flew to his parent’s side as if to say, ‘Mom, they won’t leave me alone!’ Later, mom caught a fish and dropped it back in the water for Junior. He went for it, but couldn’t lift it out, so he extended his wings and swam back to shore. I once observed two cormorants fighting over a fish too large for either to swallow whole, when an eagle swooped down and stole it from their mouths. Priceless.

Don’t you agree that animals give an instant sense of place, time and mood? It’s a great technique for setting a scene, which can go beyond the visual:

By midnight, fog had rolled in from the coast, blurring visibility outside and misting the windshields of cars parked on the street. Around three a.m., a howling pack of coyotes in the foothills set off a chain reaction of yelps and barking from a chorus of neighborhood dogs, gradually settling down to a few whimpers as a dark car cruised slowly past the houses on Stargazer Circle.

Animals also make great similes: slippery as an eel, gentle as a lamb. And metaphors: black sheep, lone wolf. In my short story, “By Anonymous”, animals symbolize the disparity between my protagonist and his wealthy client. She lives in a luxury gated and guarded SoCal enclave carved out of coyote wilderness. He, an auto body mechanic working in a downscale industrial zone a few miles away, observes:

Here the gates are chain link topped with barbwire; the guards have four legs and the coyotes, two.

Birds make instant scene setters because they’re both universal and unique to their place – penguins and Polar regions, macaws and rainforests. I used avian references to show a different time and mood in one novel. The first time my protagonist walks through the forest, she hears songbirds and calls it, “God’s music”. Later, after a horrific incident, she’s back in the forest, but she experiences it differently:

Shrill cries pierced the sky and she jumped, sending her ball of laundry tumbling out of her hands. A hawk circled above the treetops, hunting for prey.

She maintains her fear of the forest for years. As an adult, she once again steps back into the woods and finds it peaceful:

Her feet sank into the mulch as she treaded deeper into the forest, her senses alert to danger. Birds rooting for food rustled the dead leaves, intruding on the silence. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye; turning, she watched a hare scoot away.

It’s no exaggeration to say animals are all around us. Many of us enjoy their companionship. Historically we’ve depended on them for food and labor. They provide adventure and entertainment, whether it’s hiking in the woods or going on safari. For some that means hunting, though I prefer to shoot them with cameras instead of guns.

When animals appear on the page, we see them as recognizable characters whether they’re there to comfort, amuse, or terrify us. Without their presence, the real world would be diminished. So would the worlds created on the page.


Pet News by Jacqueline Vick

Since animals have broken loose on the Writers in Residence blog, I thought I would post a part of a newsletter I wrote to introduce the real life pets behind the characters in my novels. I give you, Chauncey. Enjoy!


577d861cd3822ba86c96e42c63007a61“A solid, ginger mutt glanced up from his position on the couch, but he didn’t move his eighty pounds to greet me. I’d rescued Chauncey from a local shelter three months ago. Rescued animals usually brought baggage with them, but Chauncey had an entire set of luggage.”  

Frankie Chandler’s rescued mutt, Chauncy, is the star of her home. He enjoys laying on the furniture, passing wind, and eating. The real-life model for his character is Buster, also known as Buster Brown and Busterlicious.

Buster was rescued from the Castaic Animal Shelter by author Jacqueline Vick, and she was his last shot at a forever home. He’d been adopted and returned twice, which meant three different homes in less than seven months!

His troubled puppyhood, which his current vet believes included abuse, caused him many neuroses, including a fear of loud noises, a fear of riding in the car (sometimes), a fear of walking near the street (which thankfully passed) and an inability to greet other dogs face-to-face (which makes his pet parents want to murder people who let their dogs off leash, free to rush Buster.)

Soon after his arrival at his forever home, Buster entered doggie day care for a few hours each week in order to develop his social skills. He loved playing with every dog, but his favorites were a pair of boxer siblings and a standard poodle named Rocky. He also took an agility class at a local park, but when the trainer parked a jeep nearby in which she had recently transported a mountain lion, he caught a wiff of the scent and that put an end to his classes. His boycott of that particular park is still in force.cone of shame 005

He was 55 pounds at 7 months old, and to his family’s surprise, grew to 82 pounds! They also discovered that Buster had colitis. He’s on a diet that consists mainly of homemade dogfood, and he’s doing just fine! His large size doesn’t make him any less active, and he’s suffered a few minor injuries, which have forced him into the cone-of-shame!

Buster is the proud recipient of the Canine Good Citizenship award, and he hopes to train as a therapy dog when he finally calms down. His other talents include barking at cars and sleepiheadshot and buster 015ng in his appointed chair, but his absolute favorite activity is eating, which caused one trainer to nickname him Bear.

Buster takes his new celebrity status in stride.


I haven’t met a dog I didn’t like, even the guard dog[i] varieties in Jackie Houchin’s wonderful post last week about dogs in Malawi. But when it comes to writing, from the very first, I wanted to make a point of not writing about animals (many of my fellow authors already do that soooooo well!) So I haven’tat least that’s what I’ve told myself for many a year before gathering my thoughts to write my Writer in Residence animal-series-post here.

Blogs are better with pictures, I’m told and think is true, so going back since starting to use a digital camera, I looked on my computer for pictures of pets we’ve known and lovedthinking an animal collage would be good to include in my post. So, I copied and pasted into PowerPoint all the pictures I could find, (some I didn’t have digital pictures of) all the while saying things to myself like, “Oh yeah, I did use Dobie in Mojave-Stone,” and “Jasmine was Della’s buddy in the Ravens books…” as I made my collage. Well, I finally realized how delusional/clueless I was about animals in my writing. A few examples are:

Mugs Nightshade–a character’s name inspired by Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion’s sidekick Lugg, and my dog Mugsin my latest Rhodes book

Dobie – playing herself in two Rhodes books

Tempefaithful friend to Elizabeth-May in latest Rhodes book

Silky and Samara (a friends cats)playing themselves in two Rhodes books

JoeysJoey was honored by having Hugh Champion’s mini-mart “Joey’s” named after him

Jasmine—Della’s faithful companion in two Hugh Champion books

Dogue—Camille’s faithful companion in Lies of Convenience

Tasha—Jada’s companion in Death of a Perfect Man

Naja and Buster—as themselves in my first novel Uncle Si’s Secret (with POV scenes of their own no less!)

I also forgot about the Ravens, itinerant residents here with us in the Mojave. Inspiration for Reticence of Reticence and Counsel of Ravens.

And then, I took a step even farther backthe first story I ever had published was in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine many-many-moons ago—title, Duck Soup. with characters, Dogue (my German Shepherd at the time) and some ducks. And the second story they published, The Case of the Lost Collie (their title, not mine. But there indeed was a Collie involved.)

So how could I not think I write about animals? The honest-to-goodness truth is I didn’t think I did.

My writing point here—clearly my subconscious author-mind has been writing about my lifelong “friends” all along. Even if they aren’t the main characters, or crucial to the plot line. They are there. And the further I thought, the less surprised I was. Clueless as I was about my animal friends, I’ve written about what’s inside mewhat I’ve experienced, liked, and disliked. From animals, through locations, character traits, situations, and more. In the past I’ve gone on-and-on about locations, settings, sensory experiences, even lyricism—and how these items can make our writing better. Clearly, my dear animal friends have been “singing” to my writing-mind all along, and are embedded in who I am, and what I write.

From now on, I’m going to embrace on a conscious level any richness their presence in my life can provide to my writing. And my other take-away from putting together this post—is the question of what else is out there that needs conscious thought on my part?

My final thought, maybe advice? from this whole exercise is “Write what you know—even if you don’t know you’re doing it.” (Smile)

One little closing note: My characters are often talking to their animals. Why? Because I do. All the time. Hmmm…

[i] As a child we had a big black Belgium Sheppard named Champ

Big Black Dogs, a Writing Inspiration

The Dogs of Africa, by Jackie Houchin

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Lilongwe, Malawi. Two things I’ve noticed in the four times I have been there is that many American families (teachers, missionaries, administrators) live in “compounds.” Many well-to-do Malawians do too.

These are large houses – really, amazingly so – inside large, high walled yards. Some of these enclosing brick walls sport coiled barbed wire or broken glass on top. All have solid metal sliding gates that are opened only by guards who work in shifts and only for residents and acknowledged visitors. And…. only after the DOGS are chained.

The transition from red-dusty, pot-holed roads to the lush garden interiors of these compounds is quite astonishing. So is the first sight of the…. huge, barking, slavering, jumping against chains, black guard dogs.

Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa,” and there has never been a war there. So why the over-the-top security? Poverty and hunger.  Malawi is now officially the poorest country in the world.

But thank God, this year there was sufficient rain, The maize crop – their main food source – did well. Harvesting had begun in earnest while we were there.

But for the last number of years, many, many people in the villages went hungry.  They see (or imagine) the things inside these fortresses as a means to feed themselves and their families. They steal to sell to buy food. Occasionally someone gets hurt if the residents are unexpectedly at home. The intruders’ greatest fear is not the guards, but the dogs. Big dogs. Black dogs.  The color is important; they see them as especially evil and powerful.

IMG_3221 - CopyThe first home our visiting short term missions team stayed at had Simba and Samson – father and son Great Dane/Rhodesian Ridgeback mix dogs. Their shoulders are at hip joint level. Their massive heads taller. Their shining fur, black as night.

Once inside the gate and approved by the owners, the dogs are really quite friendly to visitors and buffet each other to get the most petting. They run loose in the compound, and can be seen lazing about on the thick grass under flowering trees or Hibiscus bushes.  But let a car toot at the gate, and they pound into action. The guard chains them to the wall near his shack at the gate before rolling it open.

My second Missionary Kids’ Story, titled Big Black Dogs, was inspired by these two beasts, with my made-up names of Gideon and Goliath. You can read the story here, (https://jackiehouchin.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/kids-stories-of-missionary-life-in-africa-2-big-black-dogs/ ) and marvel at their instinct for protection and their cunning ways.

This last trip, we stayed at another home (the family I patterned my MK Stories after).  They have been in Malawi only since last summer, but one of the first things they did was to purchase two Great Dane-Shepherd mix pups; black, of course, and big.

FullSizeRender (21)Their young children – fans of the Lord of the Rings series – named them Samwise and Frodo. They are only eleven months old and have some puppy ways, but let a horn sound at the gate and they are transformed into something like the Hound of the Baskervilles.

There is one other Big Black Dog that I have met in Malawi.  He belongs to a family with three children, who hang on him and throw toys for him to fetch. Grown men who frequent the house are, however, quite fearful of him. I think it’s the eyes, because once a car enters the compound, he is quite silent. He watches, his tail never waging. A silent menace.

The family has a large Kondie – screened patio – at the back of the house where they entertain guests. It’s a great place (free of those pesky, dangerous mosquitoes) to talk while the chicken and beef sizzle on the grill.

Their Big Black Dog will appear silently as you relax and gab, and stare at you through the screen. You think that if you approach him all friendly-like and let him sniff your hand, all will be well. He’ll see you are no threat.

FullSizeRender (18)But as you rise and move toward him, a flimsy screen the only barrier separating you, and your eyes meet… he stands and growls deep in his throat and lifts a lip to show long canine teeth. His stiff-legged stance and erect tail warn of horrors to come should you venture closer.

You back away slowly and he stops. Eventually, as you sit down, he turns and resumes his guard duty around the house and other buildings. You notice sweat at your temples and armpits although it’s a fairly cool evening. Eventually your heart beat slows.

When it’s time to leave, the gate guard whistles for the Big Black Dog and secures him to the sturdy chain.  Safe inside your car you drive slowly through the gate. “Killer” – as you have dubbed him – barks viciously and lunges against the chain as you pass.  When you turn into the street and the metal gate rattles along the rail and bangs shut, the barking ends.

As the car moves away, you hear the young daughter of the family call the monster for a game of fetch. “Get it!” she shouts, and you hear nails scrape on cement. “Good boy, Sniff.”




Lions, Tigers, and Bears. Oh, My!

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Friends usually have things in common. Writer friends might have even more in common because we incorporate things we have learned, researched, or stumbled across into our writing and we read each other’s work. (Books teach!) Being Facebook friends, too, brings many of those experiences into focus because we can see what each of us is doing… Sort of like a spy camera watching our every move if we happen to post parts of our lives and experiences on Facebook.

Recently, The Writers-in-Residence bunch happened to discover that we all had a strong affinity for pets… cats, dogs, birds, you name it. And something else we noticed. Those pets turn up in our pages. Even if we don’t currently have a furry or feathery face gracing our home, we have had one at one time or another that made a difference in our lives. And often we write about those experiences.

Over the next few weeks we are going to share with our readers some of these encounters. We hope you enjoy our memories and our pets and see how we incorporated them into our work.

99be9-gayle51closeupAs for me, since I have always had a pet in my house, as a kid and as an adult, I never thought it odd to put a cat or dog in a story. My Ginger Caulfield private detective character has two dogs, Sherlock and Foxtrot. In reality, my husband and I got our two Italian Greyhounds, coincidentally named Sherlock and Foxtrot, from the Los Angeles pound. The two canines don’t solve mysteries in Gin Caulfield novels… yet. Though you never know. But I will tell you one thing… no dead dogs will EVER turn up in my stories.

bookcoverpreviewcroppedThe three books in my Christmas series are full of animals even though Santa doesn’t consider them pets. After all, Bearnard, the Polar bear from Bearnard’s Christmas, works in the castle and even helps solve a mystery in the third book, Every Castle Needs a Dragon, coming out at Thanksgiving. Even the dragon, Orville by name, plays a rather large part in the story. (He reads as well as talks!) Every Castle Needs a Dragon cover trial 2 cropped

But at the North Pole many things are just a tad different from anywhere else. One of our cats, Sylvester, actually makes a guest appearance at the North Pole in Bearnard’s Christmas. Angel, Sylvester, Winston and Cookie also drop into the story.

Bearnard & SylvesterAngel0002

Sukoshi Painting 2My spy novels reference Sukoshi, the Beagle I had as a kid and up until I was working as a private detective at the age of 21. She is mentioned because the books are loosely based on my dad’s career in the Air Force and Sukoshi went to France with us when my father was stationed there. When we were visiting West Berlin, she had a very long leash that allowed her to wander under the barricade into the no-man’s land that separated West and East Berlin, so she actually got closer to the commie-side than I did.

CAVERNS is crawling with animals, mostly rats because the little dears are carving out caverns under the high-rises in Chicago. The story was actually based on something I heard from a co-worker who read about a 105 pound rat being found along the wharf area while she was living in New York City. Her story and the fact I had a case in Chicago while being a P.I. brought those two pieces together.

Most recently, I finished my latest book called SECOND CHANCE which has a rather “coincidental” tie-in to the subject of pets. Chance McCoy just got the opportunity of a lifetime. That’s the title page blurb.

Chance McCoy is a private detective killed during a routine case, but he is given a second chance to make good. But with his track record as a P.I., he just might blow this chance, too. That’s the book summary. So far, no pets… but

All through the book, Chance views people he encounters as some kind of pooch. Droopy Bloodhound eyes on one guy. A teenage girl’s bodyguards are viewed as Bulldogs. Another set of hired muscle are called Rottweilers. Chance even enlists the services of a cadaver dog named Maurice to see if a body is buried in someone’s backyard.

Fred Closeup cropped 2It really wasn’t a coincidence on my part to make these comparisons because, you see, I dedicated the book to Freddy J. Feathers, our beloved parakeet who recently passed away. I found Fred wandering in the backyard about six years ago and he got a “second chance” with us. That fact fit perfectly with this particular book. And the short piece at the end of the book ties my love of pets up with a big ribbon. (You’ll have to read that part for yourself.)

But pets, or members of the family as we call them in our house, have been a large part of my life and they seem to have played a big part in my writing as well. I guess we do leave bits of our heart in everything we write. So if you have room in your heart and your house, adopt a pet or get one from a reputable kennel. It’s one of the kindest things you can do for a furry or feathery friend in need.Valentines 2014 (13)

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