Writing: Can a Dog Change Everything for a Main Character?

Jan 6, 2021 | 2021 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Pets

by Kelly Brakenhoff

Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win an ebook copy of Dead of Winter Break by Kelly Brakenhoff and a link to purchase it.

Not everyone loves dogs.

Shocking statement, I know. A series of dogs have left their indelible marks on me from childhood through today. As a young girl, my constant companion was Susie our Beagle, who should have been named Houdini, because she escaped on a weekly basis. Recently, our family said goodbye to Sadie, a fifteen-year-old black Cockapoo. She grew up with our sons and daughter, entertained them with her tricks, and cuddled anyone sitting on a couch.

Our remaining dog is Duke, a German wirehair pointer who’s great at finding birds and swimming, but not so great at retrieving. He wants to be friends with every Amazon and UPS driver who stops on our street. Usually you can find him watching the neighborhood from his window seat perch or sprawled out in a chair napping.

Because I have such a soft spot in my heart for liquid brown puppy eyes, I wanted to include dogs somehow in my academic mystery series. Cassandra Sato, the main character, is a college administrator who recently relocated from Hawai’i to work at a private college in a small Nebraska town. In the third book, Dead of Winter Break, Cassandra, a workaholic millennial who’s never even owned a goldfish, adopts Murphy, an orphaned West Highland terrier. And the transition is not going according to plan.

Dead of Winter Break takes place between the fall and spring semesters when most of the campus is closed for the holidays. Cassandra has traded in her designer heels for furry boots, and she’s buried under her first Nebraska blizzard. Cassandra’s boss is dead, and the police are calling it a burglary gone wrong. Introducing a traumatized dog into the mix increases everyone’s stress levels.

One of the biggest challenges writers face is including characters, plots, and storylines that are completely foreign to their personal experiences. Like a man writing about how a woman feels while she’s pregnant. Or a middle-aged white woman writing about a young person of color in a different time period.

What do I know about pet-adverse people?

When faced with this task of getting inside the head of someone who thinks differently, what do authors do? We research! Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far. My mother is the only pet hater in our family. Maybe I shouldn’t go so far as to call her a hater. I mean, she fed, watered, and housed our dogs. Even after we all moved out, leaving her with a thirteen-year-old arthritic Maltese for several years, Peppy’s basic needs were met. But she didn’t snuggle, coo baby talk, or knit winter sweaters for the dog either. Mom was busy and didn’t appreciate another dependent life form to care for.

Cassandra doesn’t know whether she likes animals, yet. But with a demanding job, a new home, and limited free time, her life is already complicated. Murphy misses his owner and reverts back to his pre-housebroken days. Sensing Cassandra’s discomfort, he acts aloof.

Besides mining our life experiences, another way writers research is online. In the bowels of the National Security Agency, a poor technician is probably tasked with interpreting the search history of crime fiction writers like me. While writing each of my academic mysteries, I have looked up all sorts of oddball questions.

What does a stalker do to freak out his victim?

This is a family-friendly magazine and you don’t want to know specifics, but the more personal the worse it is.

Famous college hazing pranks?

Often involve drinking and running naked on campus.

Foster dog behavior problems?

A host of issues like anxiety, fear, barking, and aggression.

This research helped me incorporate authentic details into Cassandra and Murphy’s situation. Luckily, Cassandra has friends who encourage her to keep trying, help watch Murphy, and talk her down when she’s ready to give up. Friends see Murphy as an opportunity for Cassandra to spend more time at home and get in touch with her nurturing side.

When her boss’s killer comes after Cassandra, it’s going to take her friends and community to keep her out of trouble and help her adapt to becoming a dog mom. Each book I write includes a mix of personal experience, details I’ve learned from friends and acquaintances, and online research. All three build the foundation for the characters to grow within the story.

By the end of the winter break holidays, Cassandra has to decide the depths of her commitment to her long-term career goals and balancing those with a healthier home life. Can Murphy worm his way into her heart?

Dead of Winter Break (A Cassandra Sato Mystery #3)
It’s beginning to look a lot like murder . . .
And Cassandra is knee deep in . . .Suspects. Her boss is dead, and the police are calling it burglary gone wrong. But when the killer comes after her, it’s going to take more than a pair of furry boots to keep the smart, witty Morton College administrator, Cassandra Sato, out of the deep…??Snow.?Her first Christmas in Nebraska could be her last unless her friends help unravel the mystery and housebreak her dog.??Buy now for a fast-paced, holiday-themed whodunit.

To enter to win an ebook of Dead of Winter Break, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “winter,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen January 16, 2021. US only, and must be 18 or older to enter. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode goes up next week!

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Kelly Brakenhoff writes the Cassandra Sato Mystery series including Death by Dissertation, a 2020 RONE Award Mystery Finalist; Dead Week, “a diverting whodunit” (Publishers Weekly); and m>Dead of Winter Break, a holiday-themed whodunit new in 2020. Kelly is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. Her children’s picture books featuring Duke the Deaf Dog have quickly become popular with children, parents, and educators for promoting inclusive conversations about children with differences. You can learn more on her website.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


  1. Put a puppy in the story and
    I’m hooked. Sounds like a good
    read. thanks

  2. I love Christmas and cozies, especially when they are in one place. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.
    robsnest60 (at) yahoo (dot) com

  3. Hi Mary! I’m the same way about books with dogs. I couldn’t imagine writing a series without them!

  4. I love books with dogs in them! Dogs are so special! I love it when a dog plays an important role in the story. They can be a best friend and a slueth at the same time, but my favorite part is when they always know when their human justs needs a hug and a good snuggle.

  5. A very interesting lesson. Count me in the drawing!

  6. I love animals in my cozies. Thanks for the chance. JL_Minter(at)hotmail(dot)com

  7. We have a winner!


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