Tuesday, August 20, 2019

How to Write a Four-Footed Sidekick (and other Trade Secrets): Guest post by David Handler


I decided to end my Edgar Award-winning crime series about the novelist turned celebrity ghostwriter Stewart Hoag and his faithful, neurotic basset hound, Lulu, in 1997 after eight books. When I did it I was absolutely, totally certain I would never return to them again. As it turns out, I was absolutely, totally wrong. In 2017, Hoagy and Lulu came roaring back into print after a brief 20-year hiatus in THE GIRL WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, returned last year with THE MAN WHO COULDN’T MISS (which has just been named a finalist for the Nero Award), and are now back again with their newest adventure, THE MAN IN THE WHITE LINEN SUIT, which takes place in the high stakes, cut-throat world of New York publishing. It’s a world that I know a bit about. More than I care to, actually. I hate to disillusion you but it can be quite deadly.

I had ended the Hoagy series back in 1997 because I felt that the arrival of the Internet and 24-hour cable news had rendered Hoagy’s specialty -- celebrity memoirs chock full of closely guarded, long suppressed secrets -- utterly obsolete. I can still vividly remember the famous 1985 press conference when a gaunt, haggard Rock Hudson announced to the world that he was dying of AIDs. Rock Hudson had been a major, major Hollywood star for 30 years and yet NO ONE in America knew he was gay. Everyone in Hollywood knew. Everyone in the Hollywood press corps knew. But the film-going public didn’t. They kept secrets in those days. There were gatekeepers. With the arrival of the Internet, the gates were flung open.

And so, I decided, Hoagy and Lulu were history.

And if you’re wondering how I’ve gotten around the arrival of the Internet in these newest books the solution was shockingly simple. I can’t take credit for it because it was my editor’s idea, not mine: They’re period novels. THE MAN IN THE WHITE LINEN SUIT takes place just after Labor Day weekend in 1993.

I wasn’t exactly idle while Hoagy and Lulu were on hiatus. I wrote eleven novels in my Berger-Mitry series, which is set in the small, historic New England coastal village of Dorset that bears a striking resemblance to my own small, historic New England coastal village of Old Lyme. I wrote two novels about Benji Golden, the pint-sized 26-year-old New York City private eye who specializes in finding runaway teens.

I also answered hundreds of e-mails from devoted Hoagy fans who were desperate to know when I was bringing Hoagy back.

Okay, I just lied.

Almost none of those devoted fans wanted to know when I was bringing Hoagy back. They wanted to know when I was bringing Lulu back. Hoagy’s name was almost never mentioned. Practically every e-mail began with the sentence: “I can’t begin to tell you how much I miss Lulu.”

Not Hoagy, the first major new literary voice of the 1980s, with his dapper wardrobe, razor-sharp wit and keen observations. Nope. It was breath-challenged Lulu whom they missed. Lulu, she who dines on 9Lives mackerel for cats. Lulu, whose favorite snack is anchovies, which she prefers straight out of the refrigerator because the oil clings to them better when they’re cold.

I’d always been aware that Lulu was an important element of the Hoagy series. In fact, my first editor, Kate Miciak of Bantam Books, told me flat out back in 1988 that she would never have made me an offer if it hadn’t been for Lulu. Yet I was still genuinely shocked that it wasn’t my handsome, gifted, brilliant hero whom my fans missed most. It was his basset hound, who has a gazillion allergies, snores, hogs the bed, is incredibly stubborn and can really be quite impossible to live with. But after a few years of feeling quite grumpy about the whole thing I decided to embrace it as a compliment. After all, I did create Lulu. And if she connected with readers so strongly then this meant that I’d managed to stumble upon something truly significant about the secret to writing an animal sidekick.

I don’t share this secret very often. So, to you aspiring authors out there, I suggest you get out your notebooks because here it is:

I don’t write Lulu as if she’s a dog.

In fact, I don’t think of her as if she’s a dog at all. I think of her as a full-fledged person who doesn’t talk but happens to possess special powers that Hoagy doesn’t. Her sense of smell, for one. Did you know that basset hounds are the second highest-ranked scent hounds in the dog world? Only bloodhounds have keener noses. That makes her a very useful partner to have around, especially because she’s allergic to a number of perfumes such as Calvin Klein’s Obsession. So if a murder took place in a hotel room last night and Lulu walks in and immediately starts sneezing that means someone who was wearing Obsession was in that room last night. She also has a scent hound’s unerring sense of direction. Never gets lost, which I can’t say is true of Hoagy. She can hear things that Hoagy can’t hear. Plus she possesses that special instinct that all dogs possess. If she likes someone then that means they’re okay. If she takes an instant aversion to someone then that means they’re not.

Hoagy knows well enough to respect her instincts. And he knows well enough to treat her she’s like a person, not a dog. That’s something he and I learned together. He is, after all, an extension of me. And, deep down inside, I’m pleased that fans are fonder of Lulu than they are of Hoagy. I take it as a real compliment to my skills as a writer.

Okay, I just lied again. I’m not pleased at all. I’m jealous as hell. Just don’t tell anyone, okay? They’ll think I’m small-minded.

David Handler has written eleven novels about the witty and dapper celebrity ghostwriter Stewart Hoag and his faithful, neurotic basset hound, Lulu, including the Edgar- and American Mystery Award-winning The Man Who Would Be F. Scott Fitzgerald. His other series include the Berger/Mitry franchise and two novels featuring private eye Benji Golden. David was a member of the original writing staff that created the Emmy Award-winning sitcom Kate and Allie, and has continued to write extensively for television and films on both coasts. He lives in a 200-year-old carriage house in Old Lyme, Connecticut. His latest novel is The Man in the White Linen Suit.

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