Several years ago, when I was first fleshing out the character of M. J. Holliday—the protagonist of my Ghost Hunter Mysteries series, I knew that I wanted her to have a pet suitable enough for her rather independent and fearless nature, and be a pet that would live a long life, perhaps be M. J.’s one and only fluffy companion from youth through most of her adulthood.
Now, M. J. comes from famous and somewhat eccentric stock—her great-great uncle was none other than Doc Holliday. So, I wanted M. J. to have the same sort of rebel spirit as her famous relative, but I also wanted her to be marked by a tragedy early in her youth, which perhaps expedited the psychic medium gift she was innately born with. With all of that in mind, I created a backstory where, when M. J. was eleven, her mother died of cancer, sending poor Mary Jane into a state of muteness for nearly a year.
To draw her out of that silent well of sadness, M. J.’s grandmother bought her a pet parrot—an African Grey, for her birthday. Her grandmother told M. J. that the only way to teach the bird to speak, was to set the example.
The ploy worked and M. J. named her bird after her famous great uncle. From the beginning, Doc has been a series regular and, for a number of reasons I’m so happy I chose such a fascinating creature for her muse.
I based Doc on a very famous African Grey parrot named Alex, who was the subject of a thirty-year research project into the intelligence of birds. Alex’s name was actually an acronym for Avian Learning Experiment. The project was conducted by Alex’s owner, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, whose groundbreaking research forced animal behaviorists everywhere to reconsider the “dumb bird” theory.
Turns out birds are crazy intelligent, and Alex proved that he actually had the ability to understand language. He could count to ten, understood the concept of zero, and he had over a thousand-word vocabulary. I found the research I did into African Greys so utterly fascinating, in fact, that a few weeks after learning that Alex had died unexpectedly, I decided to get a Grey of my own.
In September of 2007 even though I’d never owned a bird before, I brought home my very own Doc. Those first few weeks I was terrified of the beautiful little gray bird with a flashy red tail, and did little more than feed him and change the paper in his cage. Nervous about causing him undo stress, I didn’t try to hold him, or touch him and we both sort settled for eyeing each other nervously from across the room.
Then one day I just decided to get the heck over it, and dove in. I taught Doc how to step onto my fingers, and settle on my shoulder. The more I experimented and handled him the more comfortable we got with each other and every day since has been wonder and absolute joy.
Before Doc, I never understood how incredibly sweet birds could be. Doc will take an almond out of my hand, then lean in for a kiss. This is something he developed all on his own; it wasn’t something I taught him. It shocked me to my toes the first time he did that, because it was such a human thing to do, you know? To kiss someone after receiving a treat felt almost spiritual in its sweetness.
I was also unprepared for how clever and funny my birdie could be. He’s a regular prankster that bird. Sometimes he’ll lean his head in for a kiss, and just as I’m about to give him a peck he’ll blow a raspberry and mimic my laugh. Again, that was something he put together on his own.
And like Alex, Doc also seems to have a keen understanding of language. We’ve actually had conversations that go something like this:
Doc: “Come here!”
Me: “Can’t right now, birdie.”
Doc: “What you do?”
Me: “I’m working, honey.”
Doc: “Thhhhbbbbbbbt!” (As you can see, he’s quite adept at blowing raspberries.)
When he first came to my home I thought, What a delightful muse to inspire me while I write. I had no idea the richness he would bring to both my life and my writing. I keep Doc in my office, in a large cage with plenty of windows and it’s also close to my desk, so most of the people who call me must put up with the Chatty Cathy in the corner. I remember one particular afternoon when I was on a conference call with my editor and my agent and Doc was in the background making every single fart noise he could think of. Loudly.
After about ten minutes of trying to ignore it, I finally laughed nervously and said, “In case you two were wondering, that’s not me; that’s my bird.”
There was a bit of a pregnant pause, before my editor said, “Sure it is, Victoria. Sure it is.” (I’m still embarrassed!)
And just last week I thought, How fun would it be to teach Doc to say, “Bow-chicka-bow-bow.”? It only took ten minutes and I was deeelighted with how cute he sounded.
What wasn’t so fun (at least at the time) was the frustrating conversation I had with my insurance agent over a major screw up on their part a day later while Doc serenaded us with, “Bow-chicka-bow-chicka-bow-chicka-BOW-BOW!”
Ever try to be stern with someone on the phone while “Bow-chicka-bow-bow!” plays in the background? Yeah…it goes about as well as you might expect.
Overall, however, Doc has proven to be the most wonderful muse, and has provided some real life levity to add to The Ghost Hunter Mysteries. If you’d like to learn more about his antics, both real and mythic, I hope you’ll check out my latest release in that series, The Ghoul Next Door, available January 7th, 2014!
Victoria Laurie is the New York Times bestselling author of over twenty books. With two series in full swing, Victoria divides her time between The Psychic Eye Mysteries and The Ghost Hunter Mysteries. As a professional psychic herself, Victoria knows all too well the tricky world of the paranormal in which her protagonists psychic Abby Cooper, and spiritual medium M. J. Holliday tackle murder, mayhem, and the occasional demon with plenty of plucky humor and determination. You may find Victoria on the web at victorialaurie.com and https://www.facebook.com/groups/VictoriaLaurieFans/.