What’s the deal with shapeshifting vermin?

rat-457984_640In my last blog post, I wrote that the seed for this story came from a conversation with a friend, who thought that vampires were overdone and wanted to see shapeshifters, instead. But what made Theo a rat, or Emilia a raccoon?

Without recalling the precise confluence of things, I can say that it was a mix of:

  • Getting to know rats through a pet, Tibble, who was with us for only eighteen short months but demonstrated just how loving and family-oriented these little creatures are. In much the same way, my involvement with raccoon rehabilitation through a local wildlife rescue group would inform Emilia’s character.
  • A New York Times piece, “The Rat Paths of New York,” that rounded out my observations of my sweet domesticated rat with details about her feral, urban counterparts.
  • Neil Gaiman’s underground rat society, described with affection and great care in Neverwhere.

It was the Times piece that helped the most in describing the way Theo uses the Harvard Square rat paths to his own advantage — and overcomes his disadvantages — in his travels:

“…they’re “neophobic,” which means they won’t touch a new object, even unfamiliar food, for at least two days and sometimes as long as a week. They nearly always follow the same routes to their food sources. They sleep, on and off, for about 10 hours a day, and the rest of the time they travel in tight, well-worn paths…. In the city, rats hug structural edges (“feeling” the walls with whiskers), and their routes are marked by sebum, oil from their hair that rubs off and darkens the concrete landscape.”

All of this became crucial to Theo’s and Marcella’s escape from the hungry revenants, moving toward the story’s climax, as well as Theo’s movements throughout unfamiliar territory.

Exploring our relationship with the fringe

Going further, however, shapeshifting “vermin” became part of the story’s social statements. It wasn’t just their relationship to the real, human “Pit Rats” whose presence reminded daily commuters in the 80s and 90s that not everyone fit in socially acceptable ways of dress or occupation.

While I’d started out simply wanting to work with animals other than typical shapeshifters — wolves and werewolves, tigers, bats — I soon realized that I was really working with the very animals that are frequently seen as “nuisance,” even dangerous wildlife.

All three are rabies-vector species; humans fear rabies, which, while preventable, is incurable past a certain point. Additionally, each year animals can cause hundreds of dollars of damage to residences or even people and pets. In much the same way, people fear the preventable, manageable-but-incurable AIDS, and many believe that people who identify as LGBTQ are capable of destroying a society the way a raccoon can destroy a home.

Therefore, showing Theo, Emilia, and Shannucke as thriving in their own society and protecting the humans’, despite their small size and status in human society, became more important than I’d first anticipated as I set out to write this story.

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