A Writer’s Question for Readers

I feel like I’m making good progress on my “wolf book.” It’s actually a memoir, but it will focus heavily on dogs, running, disability, wilderness, and wolves. Thus the shorthand name, wolf book.

Yay, me!

I recently submitted a sample (what I think will be the opening chapter) to a local nonfiction writers group for feedback.

Their comments and editing suggestions were positive and helpful.

However, on one issue they split almost evenly: whether I should refer to my two (now deceased) female Malamutes as “the girls.” I also used their names in the piece.

When the girls were alive (and even now, years after they’re gone) I frequently used that shorthand. I do the same today with Finn and Conall, referring to them as “the boys.” When writing about my dogs, it feels natural to use that shorthand. The criticism from some in the writing group was that I was anthropomorphizing them, referring to them as if they were human children.

Fair point.

So. Here’s my question for you, valued readers: how do you feel about a writer referring to their multiple dogs in such shorthand – “the girls,” or, “the boys,” rather than “the dogs,” or always using their names? (A related aside: isn’t giving pets human names also anthropomorphism?)

A couple examples of my writing to illustrate:

Once we settled into a rhythm, the girls were in the lead followed by me, then Mike. He and I both knew I often missed a strip of flagging, eyes intent on the trail surface, so having Mike bring up the rear ensured we got all of them. And I got to watch the girls happily trotting ahead of me, fluffy white tails flying high over their backs, their senses alert to the sounds, sights, and smells we traveled through.

And another, from a different chapter:

Occasionally I broke the quiet by talking to the girls. “Maia, wait!” if she got too far ahead, or, “Come on, Meadow,” to encourage her if she lagged, stuck on an interesting scent. I focused on them most of the time. Their movements and body language were rich with important information: whether they were happy or afraid, curious or concerned, tired, too hot, injured. Most importantly, their body language told me whether there was something out there in the trees I needed to be aware of. I knew I could rely on them.

Please share your thoughts with me in the comments. This has been bugging me!

Also, please share whether you think of yourself as a dog/pet person or not. No judgment either way, but my sense is that one’s answer to the word choice question is partially dependent on that.

Thank you!

As a small gesture of gratitude for your help with my writing dilemma, here are some recent photos of local leaves starting to turn autumn colors here in Vermont.

closeup of maple leave with red coloring on outer edges
several maple leaves with colors including green, yellow, orange and red
closeup of bright red sugar maple leaves

24 thoughts on “A Writer’s Question for Readers”

  1. I think someone likely to read your book would be pretty into dogs and might find girls and boys natural. I personally don’t like it that much but obviously it isn’t a deal breaker. I’d probably say the dogs (I stay the cats about my own). I’d leave it how you like it until you get to the editing stage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jeff. Yes, my target audience is those who have affinities for dogs/animals/wildlife. Interestingly, I’m sensing a divide not just between those with pets/those without pets, but between males/females. Interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good grief. They probably don’t think dogs have souls, either. 😉

    “The criticism from some in the writing group was that I was anthropomorphizing them, referring to them as if they were human children.” I think this is a very petty point. Your dogs are NEVER human beings; they are always dogs. Calling them “girls” doesn’t alter anything. The word “girls” establishes the kind of cooperative partnership I know you have with your animals (and I with mine)

    It’s your book, your dogs, and your relationship with them. For some of us our dogs are not “fur-children” but they are more than “just a dog.”

    For example, until I got Cody O’Dog, my huskies were “the girls” and “girlies.” I knew perfectly that they were autonomous non-human beings, but they were female and I both loved them and worked with them. There was a relationship, dog to human. After Cody arrived? They were the Huskies. You can’t do that with your Malamutes because you have/had both genders.

    There are dogs out there who have the wisdom to care for human babies — Siberian Huskies among them. I don’t think they make a big deal out of that or regard loving and caring for a human 3 month old “caninemorphization”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this feedback, Martha. I do sense it’s a love dogs/don’t love dogs thing. My primary target audience will be one that loves dogs, but maybe there’s a middle ground available, in an effort to not disgruntle readers who aren’t dog lovers?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Or fool. I don’t know. I think your book (what I know of you) will demonstrate the relationship you have with your dogs and any audience will accept your “girls”. Lots of people read my dog book — many who aren’t dog people. It’s my most popular book and opened a world of dogs to people who never lived there, a few readers of my blog. ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think I have strong opinions about this. You can call them the Beach Boys or the Spice Girls, or the Rat Pack, or whatever. How you refer to them in a book is something that I will understand from the context. I will judge whether you anthropomorphize them or not from the totality of the book. Yes, and if we have a fruitless argument about intents behind nouns, then I agree that you could make a case that giving dogs names which usually are given to humans in some culture is not only anthropomorphism, but also cultural placement. I’ve not come across a dog called Baron Gadzooks von Muenchen, but if I did, would I mistake his owner for a snob? I wonder.

    I grew up with dogs around the house, but I haven’t had any since I left home, because I think apartments in cities are not good places for dogs.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the laugh, I. J. (your reference to Baron Gadzooks von Muenchen)! Interestingly, your example provided an insight I hadn’t thought of: is it snobbish to insist my dogs NOT be referred to as “the girls,” or with the two living with me now, “the boys?” Hmmm.

      I agree with you; sadly, city apartment life is challenging if not impossible for dogs. It’s good of you to put the needs of a potential family dog ahead of your own. I wish more people did that.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Well, I am a dog person but also very into nature and environment writing, personally, I have no problem with “the girls” that is how I and I think everyone in my household refer to our two hounds, it is a convenient shorthand. Anthropomorphizing, in this case, does not seem to be a fair description of your writing and anyway it is no big deal, go with what you feel most comfortable with.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I find absolutely nothing wrong with referring to them as girls. They are females of their species after all. That criticism seems a bit nit picky to me. Even my vet asks me how my “boy” has been doing when talking about my cat.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with you. Yet I kept hearing that criticism, so I started second-guessing myself. I think, though, the was coming from people who aren’t pet people. They’re not my target audience, so I’ll learn to tune them out.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think the criticism is fair, but I don’t think it matters. What matters is your relationship with your dogs, which is central to the book, and your language should reflect that relationship.

    I would describe myself as a dog person, although I haven’t had one for several years.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points, Brad. It’s a way of referring to pets that will always rub some the wrong way, while others will think, “Well, that’s how I refer to my pets.” And my target audience is primarily the latter. But, I don’t want to alienate a large subset of potential readers because one goal for the book is to open some eyes, minds, and hearts to the plight of wolves. Thanks for the feedback and encouragement!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. Thank you, Marc. Repeating names every time was clunky, and referring to them as “the dogs” or “my dogs” was too… distant, impersonal (there I go anthropomorphizing again). I think the comments came from people who don’t have, or haven’t experienced, the close bond one can have with a companion animal. They aren’t my target audience, so henceforth, I give them no influence!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Rebecca – I am not a dog person {at times I think it would be nice to have a dog with me!} I feel as your book is actually a memoir, then for me, the girls are a must rather than just their names. I am sure you will have some introduction giving details of the girls once you have referenced that the reader will know who the girls are in the same way when you mention the “boys” I know you are talking about Flinn and Conall and not the boy band at the local bar!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Andy. Let’s hope no one mistakes “the boys” as a boy band! 🙂 I’ve been heartened by the comments here and am convinced that referring to my dogs in writing the same way I do in life is the way to go, with the proper introduction for the reader, as you note. PS: While I enjoy having my dogs with me when I’m out in nature, in your case, taking your wonderful close-up photos of insects, birds, deer, and other wildlife, a dog would totally interfere with that!

      Like

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