Monday, 29 August 2016

THE FINNIGAN EFFECT: A Guest Post by Mary T. Wagner

Writing has been an essential part of my life for as long as I’ve been an adult. I’ve written for newspapers, magazines, and courts of law. Who knew that now—as both a grownup and a grandmother—writing about a kitten would let me channel my “inner child” with such total abandon?!


I can’t claim to have been one of those writers who “just knew” from the time they could read that they wanted to write and to create their own stories. 

To the contrary, I buried myself in books as a child and was quite content to immerse myself in the stories that others created—first all books I could find about horses; then mysteries featuring the teenaged American sleuth Nancy Drew; and finally “regency romances” which usually featured a very difficult hero and a plucky damsel who won his heart by the last chapter. Quite often carriages and castles were involved. I grew up with a great vocabulary…and very little to show in the way of my own imagination!

However, after drifting through my first year in college as an “undeclared liberal arts major,” I took a stab at newspaper journalism, relying on the occasional praise of others that I wrote well in my earlier school assignments to crack open the door. After sitting through my first reporting class, I was hooked. “That’s it, I’m home,” I thought, and I eagerly rolled up my sleeves to practice writing snappy leads and funneling facts into an “inverted pyramid style” of news writing.

I wrote for two major daily newspapers in succession, keeping my prose short and clear, aiming to explain things at a fourth-grade reading level. After I married and started a family, I switched to freelance magazine writing, indulging in more complicated sentences and words with three or four syllables. At the age of forty, I switched careers completely and went to law school, where my early newspaper training served me well in simplifying legal issues. And when I began my career as a prosecuting attorney for the state, I quickly found that putting my legal arguments on paper could be an advantage.

At every step of the way, writing had been a tool to wield, to explain, to persuade, to illustrate. And then friends talked me into starting to write a blog, “Running with Stilettos,” where I finally began to write just for me…and to write for fun!!

And then Finnigan showed up.

Every book starts with a small idea, but Finnigan the Circus Cat started with an even smaller kitten. My youngest son and his wife called from school shortly before they came home for the Christmas holiday. They’d just adopted a kitten from a shelter. Given that my ex-husband was deathly allergic to cats, could they park the wee little Finnigan at my house for a few weeks?

I jumped at the chance! My household already held two adult cats and a large dog, but there’s nothing cuter than a kitten as the saying goes, and that window of “tiny and cute” only lasts so long. 

 Finnigan was the tiniest kitten I’d ever seen away from his mother’s side. So tiny, in fact, that I quickly realized that the standard kitten chow the kids had brought home was too large for him to eat with his tiny teeth and I raced to the nearest pet store for special food that was almost as finely granulated as sugar. 


For the next few weeks, my kitchen resembled a circus act…literally. I had fenced off the kitchen to keep the dog in there so that he didn’t bother—or step on—Finnigan. And so when it was time to give the bigger animals their nightly treats, I stood in the kitchen like a ringmaster and pointed to the far side of the gate. The cats soared over the divider like lions jumping hurdles, while Finnigan perched on my shoulder like a pirate’s parrot. Dog treats and cat treats dispensed, Finnigan and I could retreat to the living room sofa for some quality time.

Inevitably, the new semester began and the kids went back to school, taking Finnigan with them. But in another year, he was back at my house for a half year while my son and his wife studied in Ireland. By this time he had grown into a sleek young feline, with a narrow face, legs that seemed a little too long for his body, and a long tail that draped like a rope behind him. There was something about his coloring—smudges beneath his nose like a mustache; grey and black stripes that resembled a leotard—and his natural swagger that reminded me again and again of a circus performer strutting around a ring.


The “circus” theme was naturally never far from my thoughts, since one of my daughters is in fact a contemporary circus aerialist, and somehow the thought of a foundling kitten in a circus setting just stayed in my imagination. Eventually, in the swirl of selling my house, moving to another, and hitting my marks in court, I began to write “Finnigan the Circus Cat.” Writing the story was just the start of the project, however, as it developed that I also drew the pictures inside the book that start every chapter. Call it a confluence of poor timing, looming deadlines, and pure cussedness, but yes, I rolled up my sleeves and summoned the vestiges of the sketching I did as a child, and drew the pictures too!!!

What I DID NOT expect, however, after getting this first book into print, was just how much the fictional Finnigan would stay in my head as a constant source of happy thoughts! 



I confess to doing “double duty” as my print deadline for the first book loomed. I brought my drawing pad and pencils and photographs of the real Finnigan with me to a law conference as time was running out, and sketched pictures of kittens and mice to my heart’s content as I trained my ear toward lectures on grim subjects such as “lethality assessments” and “drug treatment courts.” I dutifully listened to presentations about evidence and witnesses…while Googling pictures of mice in cute poses. Who says you can’t multitask?




Back in “the real world,” there are any number of sobering subjects to ponder from the time I get out of bed. Bills, car maintenance, yard work. And let’s face it, on the job, the subject matter for a criminal prosecutor is rarely the stuff of laughter. 

But I find to my delight that as I drive around town (or—gasp--as I sit in court waiting for the next case to be called!), there’s a part of my brain that’s engaged with wondering what Finnigan and his friends are going to be doing next. Just how are they going to convince a pair of con men that a circus wagon is haunted? How exactly will Leroy, the larger of the two mice (and a gentle soul quite sensitive about his size,) impersonate a rat in the next book? Which of Aesop’s fables will I work into the conversation in the third book, and how will I stage a faceoff between a circus lion and one of the villainous neighborhood cats? 

I could go on and on…and in my head, I certainly do! But for me it’s not just academic. Because as I feel the “Finnigan Effect,” it’s always with the blissful memory of just how soft that real  kitten was, sleeping in my lap, when he was absolutely, totally brand new. 


Mary T. Wagner
Award-winning author of When the Shoe Fits (Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances), Heck on Heels, and more...

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Update October 2016

Mary T Wagner awarded First place finishes for Finnigan The Circus Cat and her essay R.I.P. The Meatball at the Royal Palm Literary Awards, Florida.

Mary T Wagner at the Royal Palm Literary Awards

Congratulations Mary I am thrilled for you,  Barbara.

42 comments:

  1. Well...I got up at 6:30 this morning...!
    Popped downstairs, stopping off in my pink
    bathroom on the way, put water in the the
    kettle..pink of course..! :). Lemon tea, Earl
    Grey, what else! Back to bed for half hour,
    watched the depressing news!
    To~day in a Bank Holiday Monday...mmmmmmM! What
    shall l do...I gave a shower, shave etc a miss..
    So, a large fry up is called for..just discussed
    breakies with Barbara recently..! :).
    Popped out and around my home, pruning back the
    Virginia Creeper...HeHe! After half hour, l found
    the front door...! :). Job done!

    Then l thought...'wonder if anyone's posted'...
    Oh! My goodness! Whey~Hey! Golly! Gosh! Purrs!
    A pussy~cat called Finnigan...! Bless!x
    I've been up and down this post, like a barmaids
    apron..(am l aloud to say that)...!
    He's lovely...I~LOVE~KITTY~KITTIES! Their the most
    wonderful creature on the plant..."Willie..you've
    been through all that before". "Yes! Sorry".
    "And..Willie..your going on a bit". "Yes Sorry". :0).

    The next thing l'm gonna do is research this book...
    You see..again..it's no secret..l don't read books,
    not..book..books! Loads of writing, and no pictures!
    The problem...Patience...I don't have any...l always
    say.."I'd be patient, if l had the time".
    So, l read Ladybird books, Care Bear books..and so
    on...the heavy books..l wait till the film comes out!
    Yes! It's wicked l know! But!

    So..give Finnigan a great BIG (((HUG)))..He's lovely!
    Bless him!x =(^..^)=

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    1. Hi Willie, I just knew you would love Finnigan! Isn’t he the most adorable puss cat? I was up early too, and as I pressed the publish button on this post I thought to myself; I hope Willie sees this!
      Toast and tea again this morning – I only ever have a ‘big breakfast’ when on holiday – shame because I do love them.
      If you want to see more about Mary and Finnigan, I recommend a visit to Mary’s website (Running with stilettos) and Instagram page – links in post above. I spent a happy half hour looking at both last evening.
      Have a super Bank Holiday Monday, enjoy the fry up & think of me with my dry toast!!! ;-)

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    2. All done...I've sent the Amazon link to my
      daughter, she will order the book for me,
      and have been researching a bit of history!
      The Author, book etc...Great fun on a Monday
      morn'in...Time for another cuppa me thinks..!
      Thanks again...! :).

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    3. I've never heard the phrase "up and down like a barmaid's apron" but I LOVE IT! I wonder if I could work it into a legal argument... Thank you for your kind words about Finnigan!!

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  2. Barbara, you have done it again, posted another cracker.
    Mary, a really interesting insight into your life and that of Finnegan. Thank you for sharing. I envy you for two reasons, first your ability to multitask ( I just about managed it once when my wife told me to sit down and shut up. ) and secondly how you and other authors can remember and translate imagined scenarios into such interesting stories.

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    1. Morning John, I can take no credit at all for this, but it is nice of you to mention me. I’m envious of Mary too not because of the multitasking, I’m OK at that but the writing – how I wish! Enjoy the sunshine. Barbara

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  3. Not only a writer, but a talented illustrator as well! Mary's book sound delightful. I wish her much success.

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    1. I agree with you Bish. I especially like the first illustration of Finnigan with the circus sign.

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  4. What a super blog and I just love THAT cat.

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  5. This was such a sweet story. I loved how you turned your visiting feline into a wonderful story.

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  6. Very cute main character. Best of luck with your Finnigan books!

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    1. Thanks Lee and Marcia I had a feeling you would both enjoy Finnigan.

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  7. What a delight to read Mary's story here! I can relate in some ways about that feeling one gets when around books, especially in youth. It's a calling to feel this pull toward story telling, and a duty to follow the rigors of writing. Then we one can use inspiration (like that darling cat!) to help animate the ideas, then a book emerges. WELL DONE, Mary! And, good morning, Barbara!

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    1. Good Morning Anita, thank you for visiting and leaving a comment for Mary (and me!). x

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    2. And thank you Anita! There is SO MUCH of the real Finnigan in the fictional one--the long legs and tail, the "strut," the way he loves to pounce. In his second stretch at my house, he used to hide behind the furniture and then jump out like a giant vampire bat on the older, more sedate two cats just for something to do. The adventure continues...!

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  8. This was a delight to read - thank you Mary and Barbara. I can completely identify with, you, Mary as you spoke of that multi-tasking - dreaming up imaginative stories while also concentrating on the demands of your job. And I'm madly jealous that you're a talented illustrator as well as a writer! Best of luck with your Finnigan stories.

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    1. Thank you Sue! I drew (always horses) when I was a child, but there was, let's say, a "family malfunction" when I was teenager that was pretty cataclysmic and divided my life into "before and after." I think drawing was just something that got left behind for the most part. And so pushing myself to pick up a pencil and draw again has felt quite liberating...and like a lost piece of myself has been found. I'm glad you like the book and pictures!

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  9. What a delightful post! Thank you for sharing A bit of your life with us

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  10. This was a most delightful post. I love how we as writers get our ideas. We just got a ten moth old dog and I am already seeking ways to put him in one of my stories!

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    1. Hi Darlene, I wondered if your little dog would make an appearance in one of your stories – what a good idea.

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  11. Her book has a circus theme, too! I was looking for circus-themed books when writing my book. I wish I'd found this one. I'll have to read it for solidarity!

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    1. Hi Stephanie, that sounds like a very good idea. Enjoy! Barbara

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  12. Thank you Mary for your story and thank you Barbara for sharing Mary with us!! The illustrations are so cute and the story sounds delightful!!

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    1. Thanks Teressa, I was excited to share this lovely post.

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  13. How I wish journalists and other columnists were as diligent, the number of times I find myself mentally correctly things.

    Anyway, great post. How sweet is the photograph of Finnigan reading that book.

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    1. Hi Tracy, I’m sure I make lots of mistakes in my blog posts. I try to be diligent, but it is so easy to read what you think is there rather than what is really there. I hope you will tell me if you spot errors in the future I would like the chance to put them right.
      Mary has no worries on that score.

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  14. Not being a cat person, I had to skim through this post but I also wanted to wish you a happy, belated birthday! :)

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    1. Don't despair, there is STILL TIME for you to come over to the feline side of the force!

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  15. Hi Barbara,

    Mary's story of Finnigan the Circus Cat, is just the sort of story that Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar would like to read to me. Of course, Penny would also point out all the wonderful illustrations.

    Penny's fictional human,

    Gary :)

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    1. Morning Gary, how lucky you are to have Penny – she spoils you!
      I must pop over and see if my favourite Internet superstar has written any pearls of wisdom this week. ;-) x

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    2. And how I would love to meet Penny the "modest internet superstar"!

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  16. My God, Finnigan was so cute then and such a handsome one now. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary's journey in writing and how she juggled sketching for her children's book while at a law conference. Don't think I can multitask like you, Mary! Well done on finishing the book. Your cover is gorgeous and the sketches shown here are delightful, too!

    Thanks for sharing Mary's story with us, Barbara. Have a wonderful weekend ahead! xoxo C.

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    1. I fell in love with Finnigan and couldn’t wait to share! Thanks so much for your visit and kind words Claudine, have a lovely weekend. xx

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  17. Thank you for brightening my day, Barbara with this lovely story from Mary! The photos are adorable. Lucky Finnigan - wonderfully kind people to love and care for him -and he is the hero of a book all about him! I am so impressed, Mary by the way you went about writing as well as illustrating the book. Brava!

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    1. Hello Colleen, I just knew Mary’s post would be a winner – how could it not be? I’m really glad you enjoyed it. x

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  18. Like that idea of drawing the pictures inside the book.

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    1. I agree with you Haddock and just wish I had a little of Mary's talent. Thanks for your visit, Barbara

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  19. Finnigan is adorable. I loved learning more about the book and the cat behind the story. :) Looks and sounds like a great book. Wishing Mary the best of luck. :)

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I really appreciate your comment. Thank you!
Barbara xx

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