Shady Hollow is the first in a series of mystery novels. The twist of our setting is that all our characters are animals. They are wonderfully charming, very civilized animals, but animals nonetheless. Our amateur sleuth Vera Vixen is a literal foxy reporter who senses more to the story when the local curmudgeon (a toad) turns up murdered and it seems like every resident had a solid reason to do the deed. Think Animal Crossing meets Knives Out. As Vera works her way through the clues, the reader is introduced to the world of Shady Hollow.
Establishing this world was a challenge, because it not only uses common tropes of the cozy mystery genre, but also places them into a non-human world. As writers, we had to get in our characters’ heads and portray their behaviors and beliefs in a way that made sense for what they were (both physically and socially), while fitting in the traditional detective story so that readers can follow along with each clue and solve the puzzle with Vera.
Our problem in a nutshell: Foxes don’t own handkerchiefs. Well, that’s an obvious statement, isn’t it? Of course they don’t. They don’t have hands. Yet in the world of Shady Hollow, our civilized animal denizens do wear clothes and own accruements and if someone starts blubbering into their coffee, it would be downright rude to not offer a clean bit of cloth to soothe them.
But what to call that cloth? It has to be a word that instantly conveys the idea of handkerchief, without the human-centric assumption of hands. We could call it a pawkerchief…but that sounds too cutesy for a book with murders in it. So we looked for alternatives: Hankie? No, it’s a riff on “hand” and therefore isn’t a word that would exist in this world (and its logical equivalent “pawkie” is so twee it’s sickening). Snot rag is accurate but maybe too gross. Pocket square turned out to be our winner, since it describes the object in a way that the characters themselves would understand.
Now have that discussion for a few hundred other common terms and you’ll understand what we went through while drafting the novels. For example, we couldn’t have a chairman or chairperson (so we used a phrase like “leader of the committee”). When investigating, Vera sees pawprints in the mud (not footprints). Similarly, characters move “a few paces” away, not a few feet. Basically, Shady Hollow is a lipogram, but for humanity.
Another related aspect of writing a setting populated by only anthropomorphic animals is that we wanted each character to reflect whatever species they were. Thus Howard Chitters, a mouse who works as an accountant, tends to be a little jumpy and nervous, while Vera the fox is eager to jump on a clue and has a quickness and inquisitiveness expected of her species. Deputy Orville Braun, a large brown bear, relies on his brute strength and intimidating size to get things done – though he’s also happy to act dumber than he is to trick other characters. Choosing the animal to embody each character was delightfully fun and happened very naturally in the course of plotting and drafting the books.
However, we don’t want the animal aspects of our characters to become mere caricature, so everyone has a personality and motivation that has nothing to do with their species but instead reflects their personal beliefs or background. And this is applicable to any story, particularly a mystery. In Shady Hollow, Vera is a journalist by trade. Unsurprisingly, she seeks out and eliminates suspects largely by assembling facts and bits of information to build a larger picture. This helps her understand their motivations, their fears, and their desires. In a detective story, events are usually not random—they are precipitated by individuals who are trying to change the world around them. This change might be a robbery, or a murder, or international espionage (depending on the setting). And all the most excellent detectives have a degree of empathy, an ability to put themselves in the place of X and ask “why did someone do this? What drives them to do it?” And no matter if your characters are humans, or animals, or self-aware AI, the appeal for readers is getting to know those characters. So building out their quirks and secrets deepens the enjoyment of the story.
Now, Shady Hollow is a created world, a fantasy realm where there are no humans, and there have never been humans. It is most definitely not our world. There’s no New York City (sorry, New Yorkers). There’s no London. There’s no Hong Kong. And yet, the real world is here, because we the authors live in the real world, and the readers (presumably) live in the real world. There’s only so much we can do to separate ourselves from our own understanding, and honestly, much of the pleasure of reading comes from steeping yourself in a setting that’s familiar…otherwise the reader has to pull far too much weight to actually sit back and appreciate the story. And we really wanted our readers to feel at home!
Because Shady Hollow is so inspired by detective fiction, we built a world that reflects the settings of Agatha Christie and the many other writers who shaped the genre. Of course our small town is filled with quirky personalities. Of course, we have a church and a parson…although there’s a deliberate vagueness about doctrine. Suffice to say that religion in Shady Hollow is extremely nature-based. For example, in our holiday short story Evergreen Chase, the town is preparing for a Winter Solstice celebration, not Christmas or Hanukkah or any other special day at this time of year. (Luckily, most Christmas traditions are wholesale swiped from older pagan practices, so reverting them back for our purposes was easy).
We did slip in a few “real” literary references and jokes. In her bookstore, the raven Lenore Lee helps a customer find a copy of Of Mice and Men, which is shelved in fantasy (the joke being that “men” are a mythical sort of creature). In a later book, Vera reads a copy of Watership Down whilst on a ship. Now, it’s possible that these titles merely share the same name as books in our real world. But as readers, we love it when realities intersect and play with each other a bit. There’s a reason why Terry Prachett’s L-space resonates with so many Discworld readers!
In Shady Hollow and its successors, we aimed to build a world that is familiar despite the unusual choice to exclude humans from it. It required some careful thought about how to reference events and descriptions so that readers could grasp the point while keeping them in the story. But we also found that the usual rules of writing apply. By sinking into the story and viewing the setting through the understanding of our characters, much of the story and description flowed very organically. (Making the mystery plot all make sense was more difficult, especially since we hadn’t decided who the murderer would be when we started writing.) And of course, having multiple people read and edit the drafts was incredibly important, as with any book. It’s probably significant that at the beginning of each book, we include an author’s note explaining the quirks of this world, along with encouragement to not worry too much about the details and just enjoy the story. Occasionally, we do get a confused reader who spends too much time focusing on the logistics of a bear and a fox having lunch in a café, rather than just enjoying their conversation. Please just go with the delightful prospect of all of these animals living together in (mostly) harmony in the village of Shady Hollow. After all, this is a mystery…we’re all supposed to be puzzled, right up to the very end.