5 Tricks Animal Writers Should Know

We only have to walk around the neighborhood, watch TV commercials, or open our e-mail inbox to see that animals continue to fascinate people. Writing about animals can be as fun as playing with them. Here are some things to keep in mind when telling animal stories.

(How many markets should you send your novel out to?)




Guest column by Patti Sherlock, who has published six books:
three nonfiction for the general market and three award-winning
young adult/middle grade novels. Her latest book, A Dog for All Seasons
(St. Martin’s April 2010), is a memoir of a Border collie, Duncan, who
helped Sherlock run an Idaho sheep farm. See Patti’s website here.


1. Respect what animals mean to your audience.  

The love people feel for animal friends can grip their hearts for decades. Many years ago, I volunteered to help clean up after a flood. A psychologist leading a grief session began by asking flood victims to describe a painful loss they remembered. Almost everyone in the room tearfully recalled a pet they’d lost, even if the animal had died fifty years before. Often, we can love animals in a pure way, free of the complications human relationships pose. When we write about animals, we might want to take off our shoes because we’re on sacred ground.

(Do you need multiple literary agents if you write different genres?)

2. Present your animal with pride.

In literary circles, some might condescend to the animal writer. Oh well.

At a multi-author signing, I was autographing a novel about a teen who sent his dog to the army during the Vietnam war. The author next to me asked, “Do animals in your book talk?” I said my book was for young adults, so when animals spoke they used profanity. Okay, that was snide, but the writer made an irritating assumption—that a book with animal characters would be aimed at small children.

The evidence points to something else. Because money impresses us, consider this. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, about a boy who befriends a circus elephant, became a movie, and Gruen was offered $5 million for her next two books. Marley and Me topped best seller lists month after month and was made into a movie. Shreve Stockton turned her experience of raising an orphan coyote in Wyoming into a successful blog and later a book, The Daily Coyote.

At a writer’s conference a couple of years ago, I stood within spitting distance of an author who had  snagged a half million dollar advance for his next dog book. I curbed my envy, and did not spit at him.

Speaking of money makers, since 1940, Lassie Come Home has been printed in 172 editions.

3. Make animal characters real.

In a group session at a writer’s conference, I listened skeptically as a participant read pages about a blind dog who acted relentlessly chipper. When the woman finished reading, the editor in charge asked, “Have you ever had a dog?” The woman said, “No, but I visited this very dog at an animal shelter.”

How different it is to observe a dog than to live with one day-after-day. My Border collie, Duncan, the subject of A Dog for All Seasons, had wonderful manners, an incredible vocabulary, and many human admirers because he readily empathized with people. Yet, when he felt sick, he would walk past the concrete-floored utility room, past the bathroom, and throw up on new, expensive carpet.

4. Use animal characters to develop human characters.

Watching people interact with animals, in fiction or nonfiction, tells us worlds about their character. Is the person insecure and flash-tempered, or compassionate and patient? In Saddled, bestselling author Susan Richards tells how love for a horse, Georgia, helped her find sobriety because she wanted to provide a good home for the mare. In the enduringly popular kid’s book, Where the Red Fern Grows, readers admire the protagonist’s determination. Ten-year-old Billy braves hardship and danger to get the pair of hunting dogs he wants. And in Marley and Me, John Grogan narrates the ups and downs of a new marriage and starting a family, and Marley’s place in all that.

(Read tips on writing a query letter.)

5. Edit out the schmaltz.

Recalling Rule 3, comb the manuscript before sending it, looking for places where the animal wears a halo. We harm the credibility of a piece when we make an animal flawless. Like us, animals in a single day can be loyal and sulky, generous and manipulative, intelligent or wholly instinctive. Dogs, horses, goats, owls, elephants, badgers, and honeybees have behaviors and abilities we can applaud, but to keep our stories truthful we must not portray animals as spiritual masters who habitually act outside of self-interest.

In our high-tech culture, people long to plug into nature. Providing readers with a good animal story gives them that opportunity.

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17 thoughts on “5 Tricks Animal Writers Should Know

  1. Dog Lady

    I also loved the line “When we write about animals, we might want to take off our shoes because we’re on sacred ground.” Having lost my beloved dog a few months ago I can testify to the insensitivity of those who just don’t get the animal-human bond.

    Sadly I missed a chance at the free copy of your book but I don’t live in US/Canada so I would have been out of the running any way. 🙂 I will look for it on Amazon.

  2. KC Frantzen

    Thanks for this!
    Our furbabies sure leave pawprints on our hearts, don’t they?!

    We have a different situation in that our imaginative Schnauzer, May, is the author of our book: May on the Way: How I Become a K9 Spy (Since she has no thumbs, I typed it up for her!) It is for animal lovers 8 and up, written in first dog. It helps that I’m fluent in critter, since my Dad is a veterinarian! 🙂

    May at maythek9spy dot com

    Thank you again. Good tips for us all!!!

  3. garretwriter

    This is timely advice. Horses are important to my book, but I haven’t had much to do with them other than riding one as a child and being scared to death when one galloped away with me! Realism is important to me, so I’m going to heed this advice: this could be a great excuse to visit my cousin in Missouri and get to know her horses up close and personal (and overcome a fear at the same time). Thank you for this article!

  4. bookworm1527

    Thank you for the wonderful advice. Intelligence in animals is always fascinating. I have an Australian Shepherd who, like a Border Collie, is extremely intelligent. She has always listened better than my two sons! I wanted a daughter and ended up with the perfect one. :0) Reading about animals will always be a favorite to children and adults alike; I highly doubt the topic will ever die out. There will constantly be an audience for a well written animal story. Happy writing to all!


  5. Mindtalk

    Thank you for this!
    I’ve just started a dog blog, so this comes at the perfect time. It’s from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl, and I hope this will give me the freedom to make more innocent, unsophisticated observations and interpretations than I would feel the need for if I used my own voice. We’ll see…


  6. jodimqhill

    Thanks for the post. I’ve blogged a bit about our now deceased basset hound and found these post to be some of the more memorable and entertaining posts. You peak my interest in this genre and give some helpful tips. Animals deserve literary respect, may I never forget.


  7. Jamie

    This was a very inspiring and helpful post. I’m in the planning stage of a story (maybe a trilogy) about a horse. (I won’t go into details, as they are unnecessary.) Since my story is for middle school-age children, I do have some unrealistic aspects, and the underlying moral is about attitude. That being said, I do want to make the horse’s character as true to life as the story allows.

    I was a vet tech for five years and a volunteer at The Baltimore Zoo from the age of 12 until I went away to college at 18. Every animal has a story, and Ms. Sherlock makes very good points about telling those stories. I enjoyed reading.


  8. courtneyrborchert

    I find it interesting that you point out how others interact with animals. I too have a Border Collie who is just like a toddler so I am constantly watching how people respond to her. I do not find stories with animal characters of any less worth, it is all about execution.

  9. JoeBear

    Valuable insight into writing about the other animals on the planet, especially #3. I’ve been honored to have two ask for my help. One, a domestic short-haired cat who uncharacteristically defecated and urinated around the house for several days until we took him to the vet and found that he had developed diabetes. During three years of twice-daily insulin shots, he never again left ‘presents’ around the house. The second was a wild, female field sparrow who was standing on the step when I arrived home and allowed me to pick her up. I found an engorged tick between her beak and left eye and, after I removed it, she flew to a nearby branch, said something in her own language that I have yet to understand, and flew off. We can learn so much from them by watching and listening. Thanks.

  10. beccalyn

    What a beautiful post. I’m infinitely aware of the profound effects owning an animal can have on a person. I’ve been through the ringer with loving and losing pets and I appreciate this post for so many reasons. Realistic, applicable, emphasis on feelings and editing, what’s not to love! Thank you, and I would most definitely love a copy of “A Dog for All Seasons.”

    Thanks again,

  11. NiceLadywithDog

    I recently read “I Thought You Were Dead” by Pete Nelson and was relieved and delighted at the dignity given Stella. I feared a talking dog story would be trite. Each of those five tricks are important, but especially the last one, to edit out the schmaltz. I love animal stories, but end up getting cavities and a sugar-buzz from many of them.
    I look forward to reading Patti’s book, A Dog for All Seasons.

  12. fasterbicycle

    It isn’t just about good ol’ Bowser, the family dog. My guys are Orcas, killer whales. Yes they’re highly intelligent and it upsets them that we call them killer whales—they like us and don’t go after humans in spite of their toothy, scary appearance. Needing my young-adult protagonist’s help, my Orcas began a telepathic communication with her and they’ve pretty much stolen the novel.


  13. Wendy

    As a past Border collie “Mom,” I totally relate to your passion. They are incredibly intelligent and dizzily energetic. I love your characterization of Duncan when he was sick! The phrase “new carpet” is an oxymoron for dog owners. At least after a day or two…
    Good luck with your book. Can’t wait to read -does it have a full tissue box ending? We just lost a 14 year old epileptic Australian cattle dog and I am squarely in your paragraph 1 above.

  14. Virginia Wood

    “When we write about animals, we might want to take off our shoes because we’re on sacred ground.”

    I love that line. Even though my WIP isn’t about animals, it has two important animal characters in it whom I hope to develop fully.

    Would love to read your book: Adore the face on the cover!


  15. dlpierce2

    Thanks for the great tips! I love animal stories. Two of my favorites are The Art of Racing in the Rain and the Chet and Bernie series of detective stories. I’m thinking about a young adult novel about a dog but I’m finding it a lot harder than I thought to think like a dog!! These tips help immensely. Thanks!


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