For my ‘free’ week I have brought in a special guest,
Sheila Webster Boneham’s experience and expertise with dogs and cats has found her publishing around two dozen books including “idiot” guides on choosing and caring for a dog or cat, on multiple cat or dog families for Animal Planet, books on specific breeds, rescue animal…the list goes on and on.
She also has a series of cozy “Animals in Focus” mysteries, which I have only just started. She calls upon her work in rescuing, breeding, training, and showing dogs in Drop Dead and Recall,the first of the series.
What impresses me the most about Sheila’s stories is not only the well thought-out characters and plots, plus the flow of the story, but Sheila imparts just enough knowledge of the complexities of both the nuances and rules of showing dogs and the process of responsible breeding (there are intricacies I never imagined) without losing the reader in technicalities. And she does so without any forced lines or dialogue; it is truly a joy to read for anyone interested in dogs or for the rest of us who find themselves simply reading a good cozy mystery!
Let’s learn more about Sheila.
Welcome! We’ll get right into writing. How did you find yourself writing ‘how-to’ books?
Good question! I had been publishing in magazines and academic journals for a number of years before I wrote my first book, Breed Rescue: How to Start and Run a Successful Program, published by Alpine Publications. In the early 1990’s, I started the first Labrador Retriever rescue program in Indiana and helped start another program for Australian Shepherds, and information was much harder to find than it is now. The Internet was new, and animal rescue programs as an alternative to shelters were also pretty new. I decided to write the book I needed when I was feeling my way along, and was fortunate that Betty McKinney at Alpine believed in the book. Breed Rescue won the 1998 Maxwell Award for General Interest Books from the Dog Writers Association of America. After that I wrote articles for Dog Fancy, Cat Fancy, and a lot of other magazines, and of course more books, including Rescue Matters: How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine, 2009/13), which updated and expanded Breed Rescue to include other domestic animals.
I am fascinated that you wrote of Animal Planet; how did that come about?
The Animal Planet books are actually published by T.F.H. Publications, a publisher specializing in pet books. I had written several books for them, and was lucky enough to become one of the Animal Planet authors.
Did you write before you published the non-fiction books?
I did! I have a PhD in folklore from Indiana University, and I published a number of academic articles in the 1980’s and 90’s. Then I moved to magazine feature articles that drew on my background in folklore and cultural anthropology. One of those, a piece about the legend of Gelert, Welsh King Llewellyn’s gallant hound, was re-published in a slightly different form in Dog Fancy, which gave me my entrée into dog and cat magazines.
What made you start your mystery series?
Four impulses, I think. First, I’ve always loved mysteries and thrillers—anything that keeps me reading way too late into the night! But as a recovering academic and a nonfiction writer, I didn’t think I could make up a story, so I went for years without trying. Then I was in a critique group with three women who were working on mysteries. I would come in with my nonfiction passages (good stuff, but not exactly read-til-three- a.m. material!), and they would come in with murder and mayhem. I slowly began to think that maybe I could give it a try. Meanwhile, I was reading Susan Conant’s wonderful Dog Lovers Mystery series—the beginning of a genre!—and that started me thinking about dog- and cat-related plots. Finally, I was driving home from a dog show and obedience trial one weekend and the title Drop Dead on Recall popped into my head. As I drove, an opening scene formed in my mind, and a vague notion of a story. I started writing the next day. It was a long and steep learning curve, and the book experienced many stops and restarts as I left it to write nonfiction, but I finally had a book. A year or so later my agent, Josh Getzler, agreed to represent me, and here we are now with Animals in Focus #4 scheduled to launch in October.
Have you any other non-fiction books planned?
I’ve moved to a different type of nonfiction now, and I do have two potential books in progress. One is part memoir, part lyrical narrative, about (surprise!) dogs (and a lot more). They other is based on riding long-distance trains in the U.S. and elsewhere. They’re both in early stages, though, so we’ll see!
Do you have any other fiction planned, any other series? Since the title of the series is“ANIMALS in Focus”, as opposed to “DOGS”, will we be seeing any other pets, besides protagonist Janet MacPhail’s cat, Leo?
Oh, yes, lots of other animals. Animals in Focus #3, Catwalk, brings in a clowder of other cats, as well as a cat sport (feline agility – really!) and issues related to feral cat trap- neuter-release programs. The dogs are still there, of course. I’ve never bought into the “cat person” versus “dog person” fiction as I’ve always loved and lived with both species, plus a few others at various times in my life. The Money Bird, Animals in Focus #2, has one of the main dog characters training for his retriever titles, and the mystery involves exotic birds kept as pets. We have some sheep in the forthcoming Shepherd’s Crook, as my amateur detective, Janet MacPhail, enters her Australian Shepherd, Jay, in a herding test. I have the next two series books planned. One of them involves a sanctuary for large exotic animals—lions and tigers and bear, oh my! Of course, dogs and cats are central in all of the books, because Janet and her friends live with them. But as I like to say regarding my Animals in Focus Facebook page, all species are welcome!
You told me that there was more ‘romance’ in the subsequent Animals in Focus” series. Is that human or dog?
Well, the dogs and cats do love their people and their other housemates, but I was referring to human characters! In Drop Dead on Recall, Janet, who is in her 50s and long single, meets handsome Tom Saunders. That relationship may or may not develop throughout the series (no spoilers here!). A couple of other surprise romances spring up later in the series, but I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say that age, infirmity, and nerdiness are not necessarily obstacles to love!
Do you write in any other genre?
Yes, I write essays, poetry, and literary fiction, often focused on animals, nature, travel, and traditional culture. My essay “A Question of Corvids,” about encounters with crows, ravens, and other corvids, is coming out this fall in the 2015 Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology edited by Rebecca Skloot. I’m very excited about that! Some of my work is available in online magazines, such as my essay “Nocturne: Nebraska” in The Wayfarer. I’m also working on a literary novel and a thriller.
What do you like to read?
Wow – just about anything that is well-written. Obviously, I enjoy mysteries and thrillers. I also read a lot of poetry, essays, and longform nonfiction, as well as a range of fiction, both American and world-wide. I like travel narratives, nature writing, memoirs that place the personal in a larger context, and some science and history writing.
Any upcoming important events for you?
Shepherd’s Crook launches in October, so I will have a few readings related to that. I plan to be at Bouchercon, the ginormous World Mystery Convention, in Raleigh, NC, in October, and the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Los Angeles in the spring. Otherwise, I have a lot of writing, walking, and research to do, and some furry bellies to rub.
Anything you’d like to plug?
For readers who enjoy books with animals, my blog Writers & Other Animals blog may be of interest, as well as the companion Writers & Other Animals group on Facebook. Ialso have a Facebook page for my Animals in Focus Mysteries. I can be reached through any of those, as well as through my website, Twitter @sheilabwrites, Goodreads, and Pinterest. Autographed copies of my books are available through Pomegranate Books, my local Indie bookstore, and may be ordered here. I love to hear from readers!
Thank you so much for being my guest and for such a great interview, Sheila!
I hope that all our readers will check into all of Sheila’s work.I believe we are all animal lovers here.
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