A Shortcut to Our Hearts: How Animals Add To Your Story by Sara Ackerman

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[Note from Frolic: Today, we welcome author Sara Ackerman to the site. She’s talking all things animals. Take it away, Sara!]

I’m going to share a secret with you: I love animals. Anyone that has read my books already knows this. But I’m not the only one. We live in a world where pets rule. And not just dogs and cats, but alpacas and geese and tortoises too. Animals have the ability to crack us wide open and tear down our defenses. They give us unconditional love, they bring out the natural good in us, and they make for adorable and entertaining companions. Who wouldn’t love being greeted after work by a wiggling dog who can’t stop spinning in circles just by the mere sight of you? Or a warm and purring cat curled up against you in bed? 

Animals have always had my heart. From the time I punched a boy in my fourth grade class for hurting a rabbit, to when I spent a solid year of my life helping my paralyzed dog, Hina, learn to walk again, I’ve always been a softy. For me, animals add another dimension to the world  and I can’t imagine life without them. Which is why I also can’t imagine writing books without them. In fact, animals inhabit all of my novels in some way, shape or form – dogs, cats, donkeys, sea turtles, a featherless chicken, endangered Hawaiian crows, horses, and even a lion. 

Not only do animals have so much to give us and teach us, they can also reveal much about the characters in a novel, making them seem more human and more relatable. How does the handsome Marine treat the lion runt that no one wants? He buys him and smuggles him to Hawaii with his division. Or what does the nurse do with the little dog whose owner dies in the attack on Pearl Harbor? She adopts her, of course. If that doesn’t reveal character, I don’t know what does. I’m convinced that we are far more willing to root for characters when we see how they connect with the animals that share the pages with them.

When embarking on a new novel, I usually have an idea of the main animal characters before I start writing. For example Roscoe the lion was the inspiration for my novel Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. I had grown up hearing about him from my grandmother and later decided I had to create a story around him. A character in his own right, Roscoe also turned into a saving grace for 10-year-old Ella, and allowed her to safely work through the trauma over losing her father. When I started on The Lieutenant’s Nurse and began researching nurses at Tripler hospital tending to the wounded, I realized a therapy dog would be a perfect addition I’m a huge proponent of therapy animals, and even though Brandy was a figment of my imagination, I thought what if?  For me, she added an element of compassion and empathy. In the dark moments, when our hearts are broken, she helps stitch them back together. You’d be surprised at how many readers–from the copy editor to a survivor of the attack–have let me know how concerned they were that Brandy might not survive.

In my third novel, Red Sky Over Hawaii, I wrote in my favorite dog from Instagram. Yes, I follow a dog!  The previous year, I had fallen in love with Sailor, a Great Dane with one blue eye and one brown, and I asked her mama @love_my_dane_dolly if I could make her a character in my book. She said yes. Sadly, several months in, Sailor suddenly passed away. I was heartbroken for her family, but they gave me their blessing to keep on writing and I feel honored to be able to keep her memory alive. 

Other animal characters show up unannounced. Brownie, the featherless chicken in Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers surprised me as if I had been reading someone else’s book. I kept her in and one thing led to another and soon the characters were concocting salves and knitting her sweaters. I believe these kinds of small details can greatly enrich a story. The main thing is to be genuine and not force it. I write them in because I love them, and the byproduct is a far richer story. Animals provide a shortcut to our hearts, and in this case it’s a shortcut worth taking. 

About the Author:

Sara Ackerman writes books about love and life, and all of their messy and beautiful imperfections. She believes that the light is just as important as the dark, and that the world is in need of uplifting and heartwarming stories. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories. 

Connect with Sara:

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Red Sky Over Hawaii by Sara Ackerman, out June 9!

Inspired by real places and events of WWII, Red Sky Over Hawaii immerses the reader in a time of American history full of suspicion and peril in this lush and poignant tale about the indisputable power of doing the right thing against all odds.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changes everything for Lana Hitchcock. Arriving home on the Big Island too late to reconcile with her estranged father, she is left alone to untangle the clues of his legacy, which lead to a secret property tucked away in the remote rain forest of Kilauea volcano. When the government starts taking away her neighbors as suspected sympathizers, Lana shelters two young German girls, a Japanese fisherman and his son. As tensions escalate, they are forced into hiding—only to discover the hideaway house is not what they expected.

When a detainment camp is established nearby, Lana struggles to keep the secrets of those in her care. Trust could have dangerous consequences. As their lives weave together, Lana begins to understand the true meaning of family and how the bonds of love carry us through the worst times.

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