Sheila Norton: my pets are my inspiration

The author of The Vets at Hope Green and The Pets at Primrose Cottage discusses how her years of pet ownership inspired her writing

Because my most recent novels have pet backgrounds, I’m sometimes asked how I get the necessary inspiration. The answer is: years of pet ownership! My family and I have, over the years, enjoyed the companionship of two dogs and three cats (not all at the same time)! They all lived to a good age and gave us so much fun and love. They also featured in lots of family photos, and I enjoy looking at these now, remembering some of the happy, funny and even sad moments that made up our shared lives. How could such a treasure store of memories not give me inspiration?!

Our first dog, Honey, was bought back in 1974 as a crossbreed. She was a scrawny and nervous puppy who, as she grew, quickly showed herself to be at least half whippet. She ran like the wind, doing circuits of our tiny garden, but she always remained quite a shy little thing. Thunderstorms would make her tremble and shake like a leaf, and she was nervous of strangers. But within the family she was gentle and affectionate. Our three children were born in fairly quick succession during the four years following her arrival, and she was always happy to lie quietly watching them toddle around. There was never any worry about her being jealous; the babies could safely pat her and play with her and she was endlessly patient.

Sheila Norton | Why my pets are my inspiration

How could such a treasure store of memories not give me inspiration?!

When Honey was twelve, we introduced our first kitten, Misty, to the family, and Honey treated her with the same patient tolerance as she had the children. Occasionally the kitten would jump on her and startle her, and she’d simply get up and go off to bed with a sigh! Honey deteriorated slowly after a stroke in her old age, and died at the age of fifteen. It was very sad for us all, and our daughters’ first experience of the loss of a beloved pet.

Misty was a Devon Rex, full of mischief but very loving. She loved to be cuddled and stroked on a lap, but also even climbed onto my shoulders to lie around the back of my neck. I could walk around the house like this, ‘wearing’ her as a scarf. I’ve never yet heard a cat purr as loudly as Misty did. I’d often find her lying on, or in, one of the girls’ beds while they did their homework in their rooms. She never completely grew out of her mischievous ways. I couldn’t cure her of the habit of jumping onto worktops, so I didn’t leave food lying around. One Easter we went away, and my friend next-door looked after Misty. Her own cat was better behaved, so she hadn’t thought to securely cover a turkey, left on her worktop after some was carved off for dinner. Returning to the kitchen later, my friend found Misty inside the turkey, eating her way out. It was lucky we were good friends, but I was highly embarrassed when I found out!

My poor little Misty was hit by a car outside our house at the age of ten. A neighbour found her and came to tell us she hadn’t survived. I was heart-broken. Losing a pet in such circumstances is even harder than when they die of sickness or old age. But we now already had our second dog – acquired soon after we’d lost Honey. And she was enough to keep us all busy!

Sophie, an English Springer Spaniel, is the pet we still talk about most. She was such a character! From puppyhood, we knew we’d probably bitten off more than we could chew – and chew is the appropriate word. She chewed up and devoured everything, from her own toys to her bed, from raw potatoes to furniture, from a camera, to the shoe of my long-suffering friend next-door (see above!). Even when we were cross with her, she’d give us her ‘sorry’ spaniel eyes for a moment, then wag her tail to show she didn’t mind. We heard that this breed doesn’t calm down until they’re five, and with Sophie this was true. She always needed long walks over the fields to tire her out, but in her later years she was, at least, much less destructive! And her lovely personality made up for everything: she was so good-natured and happy, such delightful company.

When, a little while after Misty’s loss, we brought home two new kittens, Sophie was so excited. She loved them, mothered them, shared her bed with them and was their constant, patient friend. At the great age of sixteen she lost the use of her back legs and we had to say goodbye.

Our two Burmese brothers, Charlie and Oscar, were sweet little furry friends inside the house – and voracious hunters outside. I’d often come home to find carnage in my kitchen: the boys hunted as a team and would bring the results in through the cat flap, sometimes still alive. Sophie dog would then ‘steal’ the prize and lie on it in her bed. I can’t describe the horror of some of these occasions. One involved the chasing upstairs, during the night, of a mouse which then jumped on my face while I was asleep! Despite all this, we loved our two little cats, and they loved each other, always cuddling up together or with Sophie, to sleep.

After we moved house, both cats, then aged eight, escaped during the night and vanished. We were distraught, and despite all our efforts Oscar was never found. Two weeks later, though, Charlie was found up a tree in a nearby garden, thin and frightened. We nursed him back to health and he cuddled up again with Sophie. He eventually died in his sleep at the age of sixteen.

All these memories have inspired the writing of my two cat stories and The Vets at Hope GreenThe Pets at Primrose Cottage, and another new series to follow soon. I hope you enjoy reading them.

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