Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Adding an animal character to your novel

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog by Joanna Campbell Slan on incorporating an animal character into a novel. A mystery novel, one may assume, given that this post is at Kill Zone Blog, but it’s an interesting topic no matter the genre, right?

Writing an animal character is tricky. You don’t want to get too sappy, you don’t want to turn off non-pet people, and you shouldn’t rely on the animal to be a deus ex machina, a mystery that’s literally solved by God’s intervention.

All good points. Too sappy, too human, too artificial-robot-friend, there are many ways to go wrong. Looks like Slan based her animal character on a friend’s Golden, and used this particular dog’s obsession with carrying around stuffed toys to incorporate a dog into her plot:

Taken all together, those observations gave me a lot of good ideas. What if someone used a pet toy as a place to hide something of value? What if the toy as a sort of ersatz safe deposit box? That was the break-through idea that became the nucleus of my story.

So that’s all fine and good, but this post is really rather specific. It’s not about fitting an animal character into YOUR story; it’s about how Slan worked a particular dog into HER story. It’s not actually that hard to broaden the topic. In fact, let’s make it into a top-five list:

Top Five Points to Keep in Mind When Writing an Animal Character:

1) Animals are not humans in furry suits. Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise (say, the bull terrier is solving the murder mystery), an animal should behave in a moderately realistic way. It will add depth to your novel if your dogs behave like dogs, your foxes like foxes, your horses like horses, not like humans or like transportation robots (like a whole bunch of examples). Exceptions: if your horses are actually avatars of the gods, that’s different. Or robots, like Fes, for example.

2) Animals do not come pre-programmed by God to do what they’re told. The idea that dogs are easily trained to be perfectly obedient regardless of the distractions around them is ridiculous. I just detest fictional dogs — and worse, wolves — that are perfectly obedient. In fact, I dislike all Perfectly Obedient Robots in fantasy, whatever animal they are disguised as.

3) Animals are quirky. I like the ones that have personality, especially personalities that are not always convenient. I’m thinking of Dag’s horse Copperhead here.

4) If you’re writing anything contemporary, breed matters. Ilona Andrews does the best job with dogs of anyone I know of. They insert believable dogs of various interesting, less common breeds into their books. I really like that. If you’re writing secondary worlds, then inserting breeds that make sense in the region adds depth to your worldbuilding. Elizabeth Bear did a great job of this.

5) And sure, getting back to the linked post that started this whole thing, it can probably add verisimilitude to base your specific animal character on a real-world example, at least in some instances. My Lila, in the story of the same name, was based on my first Papillon.

One story that comes to mind where the animals were handled really well — and were not telepathically or otherwise subordinate to the human protagonist — is Catseye by Andre Norton.

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The perilous season is middle age

Here’s an interesting quote from Elizabeth Peabody, a woman I don’t recall hearing about before reading an article about her. Quote first:

The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth. The holy sensibilities of genius — for all the sensibilities of genius are holy — keep their possessor essentially unhurt as long as animal spirits and the idea of being young last; but the perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth; when the world comes to them, not with the song of the siren, against which all books warn us, but as a wise old man counselling acquiescence in what is below them.

Interesting! Evocative!

Have you heard of Elizabeth Peabody? This is her:

As a child, Peabody had taught herself Latin and Greek in order to access the world’s wisdom and cut off her curls in revolt against her culture’s preoccupation with young women’s appearance rather than their minds. She learned astronomy and geography in an era when higher education was not available to women and become the first woman allowed into Boston’s only lending library. (The exception only lasted a month, during which she borrowed twenty-one books.) In her ninety years, Peabody founded the first English-language kindergarten in America, translated the first American edition of Buddhist scripture, launched the country’s first foreign-language bookstore and circulating library, coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England

Wow, we are all such underachievers.

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Caves in SF

Okay, I had not noticed any specific trend toward caves appearing in SFF. But here’s a post from The Book Smugglers discussing recent caves and caverns in SFF novels.

Is caving the new shiny thing in speculative fiction? Three books—a novel and two novellas—I read recently are Science Fiction thrillers featuring caving. Heck, it truly works as a horror hook for me, as I can’t imagine anything scarier than spelunking in the dark, pretty much alone and in an inhospitable environment, be said environment another planet, an artefact from another civilization or an outworld prison.       

It’s probably just coincidence, but hey, I actually like caves quite a bit. Our science teacher waaaaaaay back in grade school took us caving a bunch. We spent the night in a cave once. Very neat. I went along on a bat census in college, also neat, we were counting various species of bats, but I fear I don’t recall which species or how many we found.

Anyway, let me see:

In The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling (published last April), a young, inexperienced caver takes on a very very well paid job in a new, unexplored cave system on a different planet. …While she continues with the mission, Gyre slowly starts to realise that the mission is not so straightforward, Em may be lying to her, the cave is not so safe, and there are things in the dark.      

Oh, that sounds fun, it really does. I will add, though, that the horror aspect of the story seems to come to the forefront a bit more if you read the Amazon description, so that’s something to note. Here’s the full joint review by the Book Smugglers.

Walking to Aldebaran is a new novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky (out on May 28) … A probe is sent to explore a strange (possibly alien) artifact in the outskirts of the galaxy (the trip of a lifetime! Literally!) and Gary is part of the mission. But Things Go Wrong (as per usual) when a new mission is sent down to the artifact and Gary finds himself alone, walking and walking and walking those dark entrails. And as you probably guessed it, there are things in the dark.

One more:

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan (out this week) is a thing of beauty. Bee is a queer latinx who together with her lover, Chela, is trapped in the hell-ish caverns of a prison planet Colel-Cab that has been created specifically for people like them: murderous telepaths. But Bee doesn’t remember what she has done, or why. She doesn’t even know how long it has been that they are have been there. She only knows she loves Chela and that Chela is always looking out for her. But then someone from the outside manages to reach out to Bee, and she realises the only thing in the dark is her.

Goodness, that sounds awful. Way too creepy for me. Don’t care if Ana loved it, that last line triggered a definite No No No! response from me.

Meanwhile, my favorite cave adventure in fiction is actually in a murder mystery: When Lindsay is lost in the cave in Questionable Remains. This is a low-stress situation for the reader because, hey, mystery series, three guesses whether Lindsay survives. But the author does a great job handling the physical description of the cave, tying it into the main plot and the historical-interest plot, and making Lindsay’s emotional reactions perfectly believable. In fact, for the rest of the series, Lindsay carries a tiny flashlight on her keychain: light is life.

The only other cave I remember right now is from F. Paul Wilson’s The Healer. Ever read that one? The cave only appears right at the beginning, but wow, major consequences to going into that cave:

Steven Dalt should have died in that cave on the planet Kwashi. After all, as the natives say, of a thousand people attacked by the cave-dwelling alaret, one will not die. But Dalt is that one. He survives, but not without personal cost: he has picked up a passenger: an alien intelligence transferred itself from the alaret to take up residence in his brain. Steven Dalt will never be alone again.

Got a favorite cave in fiction? Or for that matter, in real life? Drop a mention in the comments.

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What to wear to a gunfight

Aaaaalllll about guns, or at least a nice technical discussion about some kinds of guns, here at Kill Zone Blog.

Here’s the scenario: Your character, Detective Dan, knows that he is marching into harm’s way to confront at least two bad guys who he knows are armed.  For our purposes here, Detective Dan is part of a small force, maybe just a partner or two.  The smart move is to wait for backup, but they can’t do that because a family of four is being held hostage and things have gone very bad very quickly.

It’s almost certain that shots will be fired.  The good news is they have a pretty good arsenal to choose from. Just to make it interesting, they have to walk a long way to get in an out, and climb a lot of stairs.  And let’s put them in regular street clothes–nothing tactical.  Think business suits.

Choose Your Weapons

I like wrapping this gun discussion up in a little bit of a story. The discussion covers choices of weapons and why a rifle may not be a great idea if your good guy is trying to rescue hostages, whether to wear armor, and neat adages like “the only reason to carry a pistol is to fight your way back to your rifle.”

I don’t know that I’ll ever need to know all this stuff, but if I were to write this kind of thriller, I’d be checking out all kinds of posts just like this.

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Recent Reading: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

I bet some of you were waiting for this, weren’t you?

OKAY! I admit that the plot twist took me COMPLETELY by surprise, even though in retrospect I should have seen it coming.

If you read the description of the book at Amazon, it won’t be a plot twist, because the back cover copy gives it away. Personally, I was happy to be surprised. I may never read back cover copy again ever, this seems to happen so often. Really, there should be a rule: put something in the description that, while evocative, does NOT give away anything.

Probably too hard to follow that rule. Anyway —

YES, fine, this particularly Regency-ish romance might as well have been written specifically with me in mind.

I have never before seen Regency romances that slid so decisively off the historical rails and went charging off into a different future. It never occurred to me that might be a thing. Kudos to Milan for doing something so creative as to establish a new alternate-history version of Gregor Mendel. Not someone whose work didn’t get noticed for fifty years, either. Someone right out there in public, making sure the work was noted and incidentally also discovering chromosomes, which to be sure does stretch credulity more than just a bit.

In our world, this was all stretched out. Darwin’s Origin was published in the mid-1800s, around the same time that chromosomes were first described as a component of cells. But Mendel’s work was not noticed until around the the turn of the century, with a much less famous guy named Theodor Boveri realizing that chromosomes might be involved in inheritance around the same time.

For Courtney Milan, that pace seems to have been too slow and boring. Poof, one person does it all, in the space of just a couple of years. I mean, not Darwin’s part. The rest of it, yes, all very compressed.

What an entertaining setup, and I am longing to know what impact Milan thinks this revised history might have had, but I doubt she will ever move forward sufficiently in the timeline for anyone to find out.

Great book, and now I am hesitating to read the next in the series because there is no way it will appeal to me as much as this one.

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My Desperate, Stupid, Emotional Hunt for the Perfect Pants

This is an article that is just funny to read, even though I am not (I have to admit) all that nostalgic for the jeans of my childhood, which seem a lot like the jeans of today to me. (I will admit to considerable nostalgia for the size of jeans I used to wear in my twenties.)

But admire this paragraph:

The clerk helping me was a chubby fellow with a handlebar mustache. I have no patience for contemporary handlebar mustaches. They anger me. They look indulgent and ridiculous. If you have a handlebar mustache, that is pretty much all you are. You are a delivery system for a handlebar mustache. I saw a guy in Brooklyn once with a handlebar mustache, pierced ears, a fedora hat and jodhpurs. He was a collage of sartorial attempts at evading himself. It looked as if he were interrupted during a shave in the mid-1850s and had to grab some clothes and dress quickly while being chased through a time tunnel.

Now that . . . that . . . is a perfect paragraph. Silly, of course, but perfect.

If you read the whole thing, you will find, perhaps not much to your surprise, that the author is not actually taking himself all that seriously.

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So, have you happened to read Door Into Light yet? I’ve been very pleased with the earliest reviews, which also revealed that for some reason the book got linked to someone else’s House of Shadows (!), which is very much not good, and I’m writing to Amazon today to ask them to please link Door Into Light with the correct House of Shadows. Good God above.


Check this out: Nine Fiery Fantasy Novels for Dragon Lovers, at WikiEzvid. Very cool to see House of Shadows — the correct House of Shadows — included in this wiki post.

Nine dragons! How many have you read? Of the eight other titles mentioned, I’ve read … drum roll … precisely none. As though I didn’t have enough on my TBR pile, now I need to check out every one of these titles and enjoy the various dragons.

Of the titles listed, As the Crow Flies by Robin Lythgoe sounds especially appealing. It hits all kinds of tropes that particularly appeal to me. Here’s the description from the wiki:

Once he completes his final job, infamous thief Crow is looking forward to retiring and settling down with the woman he loves. Actually doing that, however, turns out to be anything but simple. When Crow is caught by his mark, a mad wizard masquerading as the Baron Duzayan, he is coerced into stealing a dragon’s egg with the help of a lawman who has been his longtime foe. If their mission is a success, the empire might just suffer because of it.

A thief, yay! Ooh, caught by a mad wizard; you know, I have a plot in my head a lot like this, that I never even started writing. Too bad, looks like Lythgoe beat me to it. “With the help of a lawman who has been his longtime foe” — sounds like Lythgoe was deliberately ticking off boxes for me. Four and a half stars on Amazon; 75 reviews … let me just mention that House of Shadows only has 26 reviews … anyway, As the Crow Flies is only 99c for the Kindle version. Okay, I’m giving this one a try.

Click through and check out the rest of the entries, if you have a minute.

Considering it’s a top-nine list, we should all name our favorite dragon that is not included, thus taking the number to the aesthetically appropriate ten. I’ll go first, leaving all of you to either agree with me or pick your own dragon for the tenth spot. But who could disagree with me when I pick the dragon from McKillip’s The Cygnet and the Firebird? That one is the very best and most impressive dragon in all of fantasy.

Agree / disagree? What other dragon ought to be in contention for the top spot out of all dragons, and the tenth spot on this wiki list?

A dragon pulling itself out of stone, a lot like the one in a certain cavern beneath a mountain.

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Happy 4th!

I am sure you already have activities and food planned for the holiday. Here’s a link you might find handy if not:


I made something pretty tasty yesterday — slow cooker pork with coconut milk. Eight pounds of pork because I happened on a big pork shoulder at a great price. Not quite as traditional as hotdogs, but still, very nice.

I more or less used two different recipes. Here is one that combines what I think were the best aspects of both:

4 lbs pork shoulder in 4 thick slices

2 onions

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 inches ginger, minced

2 cans coconut milk, preferably Chaokah

2 tbsp brown sugar

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp salt

Brown the pork in a skillet over medium heat. Saute onions with garlic and ginger for a couple minutes. Place in slow cooker and deglaze skillet with some coconut milk and pour in the slow cooker. Stir the seasonings into the rest of the coconut milk and pour in the slow cooker. Cook on low for 8 hours, until meat shreds with a spoon. Thicken with 2 tbsp of cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsp lime juice, if desired.

There you go. You probably won’t make this today, but try it some time.

Here are the 2 recipes on which the above is based:


Coconut Curry Pork

Whatever you make or do today, enjoy the holiday!

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Happy birthday —

I just realized that Beyond the Dreams We Know came out just about a year ago.

I notice it only has six reviews at Amazon. If you left one of those reviews, thanks! (Especially since they’re really positive reviews!)

I bet more of you have read Beyond the Dreams in the months since its birthday. If you have, and hadn’t gotten around to leaving a review, perhaps today might be a good time.

Incidentally, if you’ve read it, do you have a favorite story? As a reminder:

Heart’s Desire — Neill’s story, in the world of The City in the Lake

A Walk on the Beach

Fire and Earth — Bertaud’s story, in the world of The Griffin Mage trilogy


Audition — Nescana’s story, in the world of The Floating Islands


The Kieba — Erest’s story, in the world of The Mountain of Kept Memory

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Writing advice

From Black Gate:

Any aspiring writer can tell you of the plethora of advice out there for those who are starting their writing journey, much of it contradictory. … Let’s take a piece of oft-delivered piece of writing wisdom: Write every day.

Fairly simple and innocuous, right? Well, not so much.  What if I told you that it is actually quite ableist, and not a little classist?

Let’s tackle the ableist issue first.  For someone labouring under a chronic or even short-term issue, just getting out of bed on any given day requires a great deal of effort. The amount of effort required to put words down on the page, no matter what someone might be suffering, is not a labour that the abled people are expected to perform.  It sometimes simply takes a monumental effort. …

…With just a little thought, it is clear that a familiar piece of writing “wisdom” isn’t nearly so wise as it appeared at first glance.  A better piece of writing advice, to my ind, would be: Write when you can, if you can.

This caught my eye because I hate the advice “Write every day,” rather too often phrased a little more harshly as, “Real writers write every day,” or “If you want to succeed as a writer, you must write every day.”

It’s not just the ableist thing, though in fact I do know more than a couple authors who struggle with various conditions that make it difficult to write. Nor the classist implications, though that’s also a good point.

But besides those concerns, isn’t it obvious that all kinds of various complications can suddenly rise up and derail your life? Imagine a gung-ho author who normally does write every day, but her mother just died. Or her daughter just had a baby. Or anything big and important just happened. Obviously there is nothing remotely unusual or wrong with the author taking a break from writing while catching up with life, even if she normally actually likes to write every single day.

And besides all that, the advice is also just plain wrong.

Lots of writers do not write every day. I personally either write a lot every day or else, and this is the important part, I’m taking a break and not writing at all. It just kind of annoys me to hear the constant drumbeat of you-must-write-every-day from all sides. I once saw every panelist on a panel agree with this statement. Yep! You have to write every day!

Too bad I wasn’t on that panel, because surely someone in the audience would have been glad to hear that this is not true.

Anyway — read the whole post, of which I abstracted only a smallish part.

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