An Infestation of Animals

10 February 2022 An

Nick Mills has a problem - animals have infested her books.

I have a problem. A kind of infestation. The sort of thing that other people manage to keep under control, but I just can’t.

The trouble is that every time I write a book – and I’ve written a few – animals just keep appearing in them. I can barely write a book without at the very least a hare, or a crow. Dogs and horses are everywhere, and I have a particular problem with cats and pigs. I just can’t seem to keep them out.

The issue is self-inflicted, in a way. For one thing my series are historical, set in Viking Orkney and Georgian to mid 19th century Scotland, and therefore transport is to a great extent equine-dependent, and for another, two of my main characters farm, in different ways. I know many people anthropomorphise their cars, but how much easier is it when your mount needs feeding and watering instead of just petrol, grows tired when over-worked, flinches at loud noises, takes an interest in another passing horse, dislikes particular routes or stables?

The trouble is animals are so useful. They can provide comic relief, or become dei ex machina, causing accidents or distractions at crucial moments. But more strategically, animals can provide a very neat shorthand to help portray someone. Take the very beginning of Margaret Skea’s first Munro book, Turn of the Tide

“Easy, lass, easy.’ Munro slid his hand from the reins to gentle Sweet Briar.”

You know at once that he’s going to be one of the good guys, because he’s considerate to his horse. At the beginning of one of my own series, it’s the contrast between the first character wanting to shoot a crow and the hero resisting that sets the scene.

If someone is taking care of his dog, or tending to her sheep, or even watching seals with any kind of interest and sympathy, it’s our instinct to warm to them before we have any idea who they are or what they are up to. If we see them being nice to their mother, or their husband, though, we’re not so sure of their motivation. Are they hoping for an inheritance? Praying not to be beaten? Plotting to leave or to kill? Relationships with animals are so much more straightforward, usually.

In fact, they are usually so straightforward that it’s even quicker shorthand for a character description if they are reacting strangely to an animal. An elderly man sitting in his armchair stroking his cat is a sweet scene, but what if the cat is a fluffy white Persian, and the man is Ernst Stavro Blofeld? There is something menacing about the stroking of that cat – Blofeld would be a very ordinary villain without it. The figures in Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, so keen on their snakes, are disturbing. Someone encouraging their dogs to be savage or their rats to bite is particularly unpleasant, manipulating the innocent animals for their own purposes.

In fact, cruelty to animals in literature is almost unacceptable. In my own field, crime fiction, writers can do almost anything to human victims, but as Elly Griffiths says, speaking from experience, ‘Never kill the cat’. Crime fiction readers are remarkably unforgiving about any threat to animals.

I once had a mynah bird in a book. My hero had travelled to India (thus allowing me to give his up-to-then rather stern manservant a fascination for elephants which has stayed with him) and the mynah bird, which could speak, turned up in his room. But having discovered this bird, I was a bit stuck over what to do with him. Was a talking mynah bird the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun?

‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.’


Does a talking bird have to overhear and repeat something that will help solve the mystery? And then, when my hero returned to Fife, could he reasonably take the bird with him? 

Or was that as ridiculous as the manservant taking home an elephant? In fact, I’m still stuck: the mynah bird has not been mentioned since Delhi, years ago, but one day I know I’m going to have to go back and write about what happened to the mynah bird.

In my second series, my doctor’s wife, who is very young when the series starts, draws some confidence from the fact that while she might not be very good with people, she is excellent with animals. However, six books later, this means she has a tribe of cats, a pig and hens in the garden (and one hen in the house), and an adopted pony kept at the local inn which boys have to be bribed to look after: the pony is a thoroughly unpleasant creature. So unapproachable is it that even I am not sure whether it is male or female. Only my heroine can do anything with the beast.

The despair of my cover illustrator, though, is the Viking series, where the titles so far have involved eagles, wolves, dragons and now bears. My heroine here has a couple of cows and several sheep, but despite my best efforts one of the other characters has now acquired a pig, too.

A book in my first series involved pigs, as it was set in St. Monan’s in Fife, where historically the fisherfolk regarded pigs with deep suspicion and the farming folk at the top of the town kept pigs quite happily – a useful point of division as a background to the main plot.

So many Scottish superstitions and folk tales (and no doubt those from other traditions, too) involve birds and beasts that bringing in animals allows the writer to tap into a whole rich tapestry of stories and imagery, from Odin’s ravens to black dogs to selkies and kelpies.

In fact, as I’ve discovered, once you let in one small white cat, the whole animal kingdom will follow!

About Nicola Mills

Nicola Mills, writing as Lexie Conyngham, is the author of three historical crime fiction series and a number of stray stand-alones, as well as working as a Latin teacher, knitter, and part-time zoo-keeper (if her bills at Pets at Home are anything to go by).