Monday, September 13, 2010

Author Susan Wittig Albert

 New York Times Best-Selling author Susan Wittig Albert has written three mystery series, as well as five non-fiction books. Under the pseudonym Robin Paige, she and her husband co-authored a Victorian/Edwardian mystery series. In addition, she’s edited two anthologies and founded the national organization Story Circle Network. Given all that, it’s no wonder she’s been inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

What you may not know is that she talks to animals. Or, perhaps more accurately, they talk to her. She’s agreed to tell us today how that came about.

Please welcome Susan Wittig Albert.

The Tale of the Talking Animals

With apologies to Rita Mae Brown, Carole Nelson Douglas, and others, I’ve never been a fan of talking animals in mysteries. So when I set out (back in 2002) to write a new series featuring children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter (1866-1943, The Tale of Peter Rabbit and more), I didn’t plan on including animals who talked.

But while writers may have the best of intentions, things don’t always work out the way they plan. In this case, it was Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Beatrix’s real-life hedgehog, who tossed a spanner in the works. In 1905, when Beatrix went to the village of Near Sawrey to take possession of Hill Top Farm, she took her animals with her: Mrs. Tiggywinkle, two rabbits, and a mouse. So I included these creatures in The Tale of Hill Top Farm (the first book in the series) to characterize Beatrix as a woman who loved animals and used them as models for her drawings. Three chapters into the book, Mrs. Tiggywinkle started to talk.

I’ve known for a long time that I am only partially in control of my characters. Sure—I can give them a history, equip them with a personality, and confront them with challenging circumstances (commonly known as the “plot”). But once created, characters have their own minds and don’t always take directions from me.

What can I say? I’m an opportunist. Beatrix’s animals wanted to talk? Well, fine. I’d listen and take notes.

 And so I did, happily. In fact, I enjoyed the results so much that I invented a few talking animals of my own: Bosworth Badger, Professor Galileo Newton Owl, and others. There’s even a dragon, who plays an important role in Oat Cake Crag. Not wanting to just sit around and be decorative, these industrious characters got busy and developed their own storylines. My big task in these books is integrating the animal plots with the people plots.

Animals are incredibly useful as point-of-view characters because they roam everywhere, at all hours. They hide in the corners. They watch from the trees. They know and discuss all the villagers’ secrets, even the guilty ones. This allows me to play some interesting games of who-knows-what.

Some of these animals, however, gave me a different challenge, since Miss Potter’s characters belong to Frederick Warne, who owns her copyrights. I had to get a license to use them, which took some doing and involved some tradeoffs. (A Warne editor reads and critiques my books before they go into production.) But it is definitely worth the effort, for the animals--Miss Potter’s and mine--give the series a unique whimsicality, and the multiple people/animal plots make for some interesting surprises. And the readership is broadened, too, since the series is promoted as a crossover. Kids enjoy the animals, making the books perfect for family read-alouds.

I think Miss Potter would be pleased.

Thank you Susan!

If you go over to Susan’s website, you’ll find links to all of her series and books. You’ll also find a list of her podcasts about herbs and more.

In addition to this fascinating post here today, she’s holding a drawing for a free book.

Book Drawing!
If you’d like to enter our drawing for a copy of The Tale of Oat Cake Crag, go here: http://cottagetales.com/blogtour/drawing_0913.php. This drawing closes at noon tomorrow, September 14, 2010.

You can always find Susan on her blog, Lifescapes.

Plus, there’s more! You can ask Susan questions or say hi to her right here in the Comments. She’ll be checking in over the course of the day.

41 comments:

  1. I have to admit, I'm not a huge fan of animals as characters but I loved hearing about how you developed these characters and the process you went through in negotiating the license to use some of these characters.
    Thanks so much for sharing your story.

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  2. Thanks so much to Helen for hosting Susan.

    And thanks, Susan, for this fascinating post. I had no idea that Warne owned the copyrights to the characters! I'm sure, at the start, that it seemed like a big hurdle--I'm so glad it worked out.

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  3. What a facinating post! Thanks for having Susan come by, Helen.
    Susan - Life of Pi's author, Yann Martell is also a fan of talking animals. He believes (I think) that talking animals give him much more freedom to develop ideas that might not be palatable if spoken by humans. Has that been your experience? I love that you confess your characters take over - mine certainly do and it causes me no end of problems!
    Jan Morrison

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  4. I've been a fan of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries from the beginning. I haven't read any of the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter yet, but after reading your post I've got them on my "must get" list. I like the way the characters brought themselves to life so to speak.

    Helen, thanks for hosting Susan.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  5. Hey, folks--the book drawing link is wrong (NOT Helen's fault!). Helen will correct it in the post. Meanwhile, if you click on the link in the post and it doesn't work, go here: http://cottagetales.com/blogtour/drawing_0913.php

    Thanks!
    Susan Albert

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  6. Jan, since this is a "family-friendly" series, it's not so much that the animals speak things that are "unpalatable" (love that metaphor) to humans, but that they know things that humans don't. Everywhere, at all hours, they're ideal POV characters. And they are free to comment on human lives in a way that other humans may not be. The problem is in creating a narrative context in which this is all believable. Once you're over that hurdle, the rest seems easy! (At least to me)

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  7. I've corrected the link. Thank you Susan.

    Even if you don't plan to enter the drawing, link over and take a look at the really cute page Susan has created for the contest, everybody.

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  8. Which animal character became your favorite?

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  9. Yup, typo in Potter's date of death: 1943.

    Favorite animal, Alex: The badger clan opened the possibility for a parallel social order--that was fun. The owl is a great I-Spy character, because he's everywhere, all night (plus he's pompous and always good for a laugh). But my favorite is the dragon, who went to sleep around 1100 and woke up in 1919.

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  10. Re: Warne owning the copyrights. Yes, that's a little unusual. Because Beatrix was once engaged to her editor, Norman Warne, and maintained close relationships with all the Warne family members (even Norman's brother, who embezzled from the family firm and nearly wrecked it in 1918!), she bequeathed the copyrights to Norman's nephew. He gave them to the firm. That's how Warne ended up with the copyrights.

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  11. Hey, nice to see you over here, Susan. Thanks to both of you for this very interesting post. I am off to check the links now.
    Karen

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  12. A fascinating look at the details, especially copyrights to the animals.
    Thank you for the links.

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  13. Thanks Susan for stopping by so often!

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  14. This was fascinating! I am no fan of talking animals, but I love the Potter mysteries! It is like taking a gentle walk in the country with animal friends.

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  15. Just finished the book last night and throughly enjoyed it. Thank you so much for this relaxing break from day to day!

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  16. I'm a huge fan of talking animals. What can I say, Charlotte's Web was one of my favorites. I'm very curious to see how you used Potter's real life and what cross over it has with the imaginary in your story. Just added it to my list of must haves as well. Thanks for sharing!

    Kara

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  17. I don't usually care for talking animals, but your animals, like Potter's, are fully developed characters. I enjoy seeing how their stories mesh with the main plot. Tuppenny's quest to rescue a damsel is one of my favorite scenes. (A china Benjamin Bunny watches as I type.)

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  18. It's interesting that some who say they don't particularly like talking animals change their minds when they read a book like Susan's where it's handled so well!

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  19. I had wondered about the permissions but more in the case of Beatrix Potter. Isn't it interesting that you have to be more careful about what you write about the animals than about Beatrix Potter herself?

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  20. I'm sure Miss Potter would be quite tickled with her talking animals!

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  21. I know what you mean about characters deciding to go in a different direction. We only have so much control over what they do!

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  22. Susan, if I had not already read your China books and loved them, I might not have tried the Breatrix Potter books. In general, I'm not too keen on talking animals, although I like Rita Mae Brown's books. However, I was also concerned about the use of a real person as a main character in a book. But since you wrote them, I decided to give the first one a try. Amazingly I enjoyed it although the style is vastly different than the China books. I'll be sorry to see the series end.
    Joyce

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  23. That's fascinating!

    Jan got there first but I was thinking the same thing - Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi'. I love the talking animals there and this reminded me of that.

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  24. Susan, a thoroughly delightful article in which, once again, I learned something new (such as Warne owning the copyright). I'm sure Beatrix Potter would agree that you were the perfect person to write the Cottage Tales. Although she wrote for children, you allow us adults to dip back into the childhood world of talking animals without feeling like we have to explain ourselves. As with the humans in the stories, the animals are multi-dimensional characters with their own cares, concerns, and quirks. Hate to see the series end, but you can move on knowing you've done an excellent job.

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  25. Donna, that seems to be the clue to Susan's success with talking animals - she makes them three dimensional characters.

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  26. Re: making the animals 3-dimensional. One interesting part of this (for me) is discovering that the animals have continuing stories that (like Beatrix's story) bridges across the books. Like people, they grow and change. Bosworth Badger grows older (and a little wiser); Hyacinth Badger grows more powerful; Tabitha Twitchet (one of BP's animals) retires from active mousing; and the dragon has adventures beyond the Lakes. In some ways, they are more alive and "natural" than the real people, who are Victorians (after all) and a bit stiff. :)

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  27. Delightful interview, Susan and Helen. I'm one of those who doesn't like talking animals, Charlotte's Web being an exception, but have loved the Cottage Tales. I'll be sad to see it end. I too imagine Beatrix Potter would be tickled with what you've done. I'm glad the dragon is your favorite, Susan, as he's mine as well - tickles me no end! While reading your comments about characters going their own way, suddenly one of my protag made clear to me what she had to do next. Thanks! Hope I win the book [never happens!]

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  28. It's been so much fun having Susan here today.

    All you late comers - don't forget to link over and sign up for a chance to win her book!

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  29. It's funny how stories and characters take on a life of their own.

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  30. Susan,

    I love the original art and the blue in your cover. What an awesome concept of creating so much crossover using your talking animals.

    Interesting blog interview/post. Thank you, Helen!

    Monti
    MaryMontagueSikes

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  31. This topic is so intriguing and such a clear indication that there is something mystical about writing...we are only so much in control and sometimes the story tells itself. Thank you Susan and Helen.

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  32. Monti, I love the blues in this cover, too. The artist is Peggy Turchette http://www.peggyturchette.com/ I found her thro a friend for whom she did some wonderful flora calendar art and recommended her to my editor. The cover of the first book was not to my liking and I let Prime Crime know: bless 'em, they allowed me to recommend Peggy. It's unusual for an author to get involved in the cover art, but this is a unique series.

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  33. The cover has a wonderful "feel" to it, Susan.

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  34. It’s always so interesting to me to hear how other authors come up with their ideas. It sounds like a real challenge to blend the animal plots with the people plots. I’m on the way to check out the links to find out more.

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  35. "I’ve known for a long time that I am only partially in control of my character" - this is SO true for me as well! :)

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  36. It is wonderful when the characters begin to speak for themselves.

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  37. lear.linda@gmail.com9/14/2010 2:38 PM

    I'm so glad I found this great dialogue. I am Beatrix Potter's most recent(and most enthusiastic biographer. Susan and I met, became friends, and even did a number of gigs together in which we discussed the differences between treating a subject in fiction and non-fiction.
    Our collaboration has been a pleasure for both of us (Susan I hope agrees) and although "Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature" came out in 2007/pb in 2008, we still discuss factual details and how Susan wants to use them in her tales. Her research is amazing and her skills contributed a great deal to my discussion of Beatrix's farming and land conservancy, and my research contributed to her
    realistic settings and characters.
    Potter's life was a fascinating one and much more than just being a major writer of children's literature. She was an incredibly talented naturalist and scientist; and might have made a career of it, if women in her day had been allowed to be scientists. We are all glad she didn't, but her interests contributed to her ability to save and preserve the English Lake District.
    Kudos to Susan and love from
    Linda Lear

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  38. Hi Linda. I'm so glad you stopped by. How interesting that you and Susan connected and ended up helping each other.

    P.S. I have a good friend named Linda Lear!

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  39. Linda, thanks so much for dropping in. I am so grateful to you for your fine work on Beatrix's life: without your book, I would have been inventing much more, or writing boring generalities. Your research gave me facts to work with, and I love finding the fictional dimensions in the facts of people's lives. Hugs & love to you!

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  40. Linda, thanks so much for dropping in. I am so grateful to you for your fine work on Beatrix's life: without your book, I would have been inventing much more, or writing boring generalities. Your research gave me facts to work with, and I love finding the fictional dimensions in the facts of people's lives. Hugs & love to you!

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