Want to spend four days immersed in the world of fiction writers and fans? This year, you can participate in the legendary Malice Domestic convention–still going strong after 30+ years–without ever leaving your home. No need to worry about DC-area traffic, or hotels, or crowded venues amid the seemingly never-ending pandemic. It all happens July 14th-17th, and it’s as close as your keyboard.
Whether you’re new to the world of crime fiction or a long-time fan or writer, this could be your perfect opportunity to meet and mingle (virtually, of course) with some of the biggest names in the business. Malice is a fan-focused convention celebrating the traditional mystery–books written in the style of Agatha Christie. As described by the Malice organizers “the genre is loosely defined as mysteries which contain no explicit sex, or excessive gore or violence.” (I think the key phrase here is loosely defined. There might well be violence, or even–gasp!!!–sexual scenes, but that’s likely going to take place off-screen–or should I say off-page?)
I’m delighted to welcome award-winning author Sue Owens Wright back to the blog. She is a twelve-time finalist and three-time winner of the Maxwell Medallion–that’s the Dog Writers Association of America’s prestigious award for excellence. She joins us today to talk about writing and dogs, along with photos and a commentary on life, loss, and change.
It’s been a while since your last visit to dogmysteries.com, and it’s possible some readers haven’t yet discovered your delightful dog-themed fiction. So let’s backtrack a little…what led you to create the Beanie and Cruiser mystery series?
The Beanie and Cruiser Mystery Series, featuring Native American Elsie “Beanie” MacBean and her basset hound, Cruiser, has been inspired by many things in my life. Since childhood, I have loved dogs and reading books about dogs. I adored the Albert Payson Terhune classics about his Sunnybank collies. I also read all the Judy Bolton Mysteries by Margaret Sutton. Secretly, I dreamed of writing a book of my own. When I was eight years old, I tried to write a chapter of a mystery, but decades would pass before I actually wrote the first novel in what would become an award-winning mystery series.
My writing has been greatly influenced by James Herriot’s “All Creatures Great and Small” series about a Yorkshire veterinarian. I once aspired to be a vet myself, but at college I did much better in English than science courses. In the 1990s, I had the thrill of visiting Thirsk, the picturesque village that inspired the fictional Darrowby, and seeing the location of Alf Wight’s (James Herriot’s) veterinary surgery. [Click to enlarge the photo below for more detail.] I also toured the set where the original British TV series was filmed. (The latest adaptation is currently showing on PBS “Masterpiece.”) I bought several of the author’s autographed books at the village bookstore.
It so happened that the owner of the lovely cottage where my husband and I stayed was a close friend of the famous author. She said he often passed by on his walks up to Sutton Bank, an outcropping that overlooks the breathtaking panorama of the Yorkshire Dales. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet him.
The setting for my mysteries came about from my love for Lake Tahoe, where I’ve visited since I was a child. My family owned a cabin that was surrounded by the El Dorado National Forest. In the late ‘90s, I began writing the first book, “Howling Bloody Murder” while sitting on the deck gazing out into the dark, mysterious woods, which sparked my wild imagination. The plot began with one question: What might be lurking out there?
Lake Tahoe has a wealth of history and local lore to inspire a writer. Whenever I stayed at the cabin, I worked on my Beanie and Cruiser novels. Many of the adventures I write about in the books were based on my own. One example is the forest fire that breaks out in “Ears for Murder,” winner of the 2018 Maxwell Award for Best Fiction from the Dog Writers Association of America. I was at the lake in 2010 with my two bassets when the Angora firestorm forced us to evacuate. It was terrifying! That catastrophic event impressed upon me for the first time since I’d been coming to admire the Jewel of the Sierra, with its pine-covered landscape, that forests can and do burn.
Why Basset Hounds?
I’ve had eight basset hounds over the years, so naturally one or two would end up featured in my series. Cruiser and Calamity are canine characters based on my own dogs. They have provided me with endless plot twists and plenty of humor. My easy-going male bassets, first Bubba Gump and later Beau, were the real dogs who inspired the fictional Cruiser. They embodied all the delightful qualities and quirks of this funny, endearing breed. Cruiser is the star of the first three books, but I later introduced Calamity, who is the polar opposite of laid-back Cruiser. Calamity is a composite of my two most challenging rescued bassets, Peaches and “Crazy” Daisy, as I often called the wackiest dog I ever knew. Crazy Calamity causes plenty of trouble for Beanie. She has many of the same experiences I had with my own dogs, not all of them good.
Like Cruiser and Calamity, my bassets were rescued from shelters. Shelter dogs are often unfortunate victims of past lives with people who don’t understand the breed and can’t tolerate their obstinate nature. Buyers who are charmed by adorable basset puppies with those long, floppy ears don’t do their homework before embarking on becoming a basset slave, as fanciers laughingly refer to themselves. Don’t be fooled by the basset hound’s laissez faire demeanor; there’s a keen mind inside that pointy noggin, and it’s plotting the next assault on your dinner table. They are also champion counter surfers. Truth to tell, basset hounds are much better at training us than we are them.
Peaches, our last in a long line of beloved bassets, sadly had to leave us for Rainbow Bridge on July 3, 2019 at the age of 16, a very long life for a basset hound or any dog. Three months later, my mother passed on. We adopted her dog, Piccolo, an aging Shih-Tzu/Yorkshire terrier mix, or a “Shorkie,” as we call him. In 2011, I took Mom to the local SPCA, where she rescued him, so he’s actually been rescued twice. But who rescued whom? Piccolo turned out to be a 10-pound blessing. He has seen me through the traumatic loss of my mom and Peaches and the deadly pandemic of 2020. I caught the virus early in March, which fortunately did not require hospitalization, but it took me a month to fully recover. Piccolo may be a mutt, but he’s a registered Emotional Support Animal (E.S.A.), or Extra Special Animal, as my husband and I call him. We both adore that sweet, little guy. We’ve downsized from 60-pound hounds to our first toy breed, but I confess I’m still a basset lover to the bone. I fully expect that another one may waddle into my life at some point.
A sixth Beanie and Cruiser Mystery is in the works, though progress on the manuscript has been slow this past year. I do my best writing in coffee shops, and I can’t wait until they can open up again. I have more books to write!
Like my Sierra sleuth, Beanie, I’ve never met a dog I didn’t like, even crazy ones. Other dogs besides basset hounds have found their way into the series, including a Newfoundland, a Pomeranian, and a Scottish terrier. You never know, my little E.S.A. may inspire a new canine character that will join Cruiser and Calamity in a future Tahoe adventure.
Beanie and Cruiser Mysteries, in order of release:
In Dangerous Deeds (book #2 in the Waterside Kennels series) Maggie Porter’s dog Sweet Pea rescues an injured stray kitten she finds beneath the dock. Although Maggie initially describes him as “not much more than bones and fur” the kitten turns out to have a tiger-sized attitude and soon claims the kennel—and Sweet Pea—as his own.
Whether real or fictional, kitties certainly make life interesting for us! Here’s an excerpt of the tale of one kitty who earlier this year joined the household of award-winning mystery author Susan Cox. Susan admits finding the new addition to be a challenge. As she says, “I’m used to poodles–and poodles are very smart–but this cat seems ‘nuclear physicist smart’ and I’m not sure I can keep up.”
Read on to learn the latest in The Middy Chronicles. (Middy, by the way, is short for Midnight.)
I can’t sleep tonight (although Middy’s sleeping just fine, thanks), so I thought I’d let you know how Middy and I are doing as we spend more time in each other’s company due to social distancing and lockdown and such. Short form spoiler–we’re doing fine.
For a cat who was an outdoor cat until a few weeks ago, scrounging for bugs on the driveway and drinking from sprinklers, Middy has entered wholeheartedly into indoor life. When I open the door to offer her an outing she dithers in the doorway (the better to let in as many mosquitoes as possible) and then declines my invitation. I’m not sure why, but outdoors has been crossed off her list of acceptable places to visit. Indoors however, preferably in a patch of sunshine, is the bomb.
THE RED DOT LASER THINGY:
She’s figured out I’m responsible for the red dot laser thingy, and stares at the pen in my pencil pot when she feels like chasing it. I of course immediately leap to do her bidding which is how it should be, she tells me. The red dot laser thingy was cheap, so I found I had money left over to spend on other things.
I bought her two new dishes because…I have no idea why. I have a bunch of little bowls that have been working just fine, but they don’t match and they’re not cute. The impulse to buy the matching pair of very cute square bowls (they were $59 each, btw) was something to do with the availability of one-click ordering, and a fairly large helping of guilt about the mis-matched bowls. Not that she’s ever said anything about them, but a person knows, somehow.
So far the things she likes to eat include tomatoes, apples, canned chili (with sour cream), Havarti cheese, roast beef, yellow mustard, mashed potatoes, tomato soup and Pepperidge Farm coconut cake. She likes her tea with milk, and lemonade holds a strange fascination for her. I hasten to add, before you call the SPCA, that these are mere morsels and licks, not huge helpings. The things she doesn’t like to eat include milk, ice cream and chocolate.
This week I bought her a chic new litter box because, while the other one was fine, it didn’t have much in the way of panache. And panache, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a critical component of one’s litter box. The new one is a top entry one and it looks nicer in the guest bathroom. After worrying that she would find switching to the new litter box stressful, I watched her hop in and use it before I could do any of the things Google recommends as helpful to the transition. I may use the old one–although “old” is stretching it when describing something that’s only a few weeks old–for raising seedlings in the garden. So there’s that.
I found her a cute black collar with gold moons on it and a tiny bell and a half moon charm with a little cat on it. The collar looks so incredibly cute I may buy her a couple more in different colors. For the first few hours she found the bell distracting, sure it was chasing her and not too happy about it, but we persevered and now she seems to appreciate being fashion forward. She looks completely adorable.
I’ve been trying to get some writing done on my laptop, which I suspect Middy is unhappy about, because she tends to stamp around on my keyboard a lot. So I’ve been tearing out pages of my notebook and crumpling them up for her to chase. I’ve also made her a couple of “enrichment” toys by cutting holes in my Tupperware and filling them with small balls, and I made her some pompoms on strings to hang from the dining room chairs. I found a packet of shiny gold and silver plastic coins in the kitchen junk drawer and I toss them around for her to chase and kick the crap out of. She likes that. The house seems a bit like a Traveller’s encampment, but we’re both happy with the stylin’ Boho look of the place.
Even though tonight it’s eluding me, I do generally sleep quite well until about 5:30 every morning. FYI, this is about three hours before my preferred time for getting out of bed. For a cat who doesn’t even weigh five pounds, Middy has extraordinary strength and powers of hypnosis or something. She purrs so loudly I can’t possibly sleep through it, insists on head rubs and ear scratches, and then drags me into the kitchen to prepare her breakfast. So, I do that and then, if she doesn’t want to play with the red dot laser thingy, I sometimes go back to bed for an hour.
In short, Middy and I are learning to give and take. She is taking pretty much everything she wants; while I’d give nearly anything for a couple of extra hours sleep in the morning.
Note: Middy’s story and photographs are the exclusive property of Susan Cox and may not be used without the author’s express written permission.
Susan Cox is the author of The Man on the Washing Machinewhich earned the winning place in the First Crime Novel competition jointly sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books. Watch for The Man in the Microwave Oven (next in the Theo Bogart Mysteries) scheduled for publication this year. In the meantime, you can keep up with Susan (and Middy!) on her website and via Facebook.
If you like complex characters, strong plots, and a touch of humor, be sure to check out Susan’s work!
Years ago, I was traveling with a group and we’d checked into a pet-friendly hotel. I left my spaniel, Alix, in the room while I retrieved the rest of the luggage. One member of the group–one of the few traveling without dogs of her own–wasn’t paying attention and left the door open. My dog decided she didn’t want to stay in a strange place unless I was with her so she slipped out of the open door and set off to find me. By the time I tracked her down, she’d charmed everyone she’d met and the front desk clerk was sharing her lunch. “She looked hungry,” the clerk explained. Fortunately, both staff and guests were amused by my dog’s antics and quick to accept my profuse apologies for an unleashed, unsupervised dog in the hotel.
I learned a lot from that experience, and I’m happy to report that Alix went on to become a wonderful travel companion. Far better, in fact, than I suspect my Sheltie will ever be. If Sasha ever got loose in a strange place, I seriously doubt I could catch her. Beyond our yard and whatever the destination might be, Sasha is always leashed and properly secured.
If you’re traveling this summer by vehicle or planes or even on foot, there are some basic practices that can make the adventure an enjoyable and safe experience for everyone.
The American Kennel Club staff present some great suggestions that can help you plan for your trip. You’ll find excellent information about health, safety, crates, and best practices in the article titled The Complete Guide to Travelling With Your Dog.
Jenna Stregowski, RVT has a thoughtful article titled How to Travel With Your Dog that addresses different types of travel accommodations. The article also includes a handy “what to pack” checklist.
If you’re planning to travel on foot with your dog, The American Hiking Society has great information online at the site Places to Hike With Your Dog.
Although fractured bones have kept me off the trail for the past several months, reading about a hike with a dog is almost as good as the real thing–especially when the writer is as gifted as Jim Warnock. If you’ve never hiked with a canine partner, check out the 12 qualities of a good trail partner. And for more great reading, check out his blog post Just Perfect.
Writers, readers, and dog lovers of all kinds will appreciate today’s post, brought to us by the award-winning author Juliet Mariller.
According to her website, Juliet was born in Dunedin, New Zealand – the most Scottish city outside Scotland itself – and now lives in Western Australia and writes historical fantasy. A former music teacher and public servant, Juliet now focuses on writing novels that combine historical fiction, folkloric fantasy, romance and family drama. The strong elements of history and folklore in her work reflect her lifelong interest in both fields. Above all, you’ll find a focus on human relationships and the personal journeys of the characters.
The writer’s dog is a multi-talented individual. He or she carries out a support role essential to the creative process. The writer’s dog is companion, confidante, inspiration, distraction, time keeper, and monitor of all matters health-related: nutrition, exercise, stress, sleep. His or her job includes keeping the writer mostly sane, reasonably fit, and for the most part on task.
I speak from personal experience here. For a long while I’ve worn two hats: writer and crazy dog lady. I spent some years as a foster carer for a canine rescue group, specialising in old and frail dogs, and I have seen quite a few little ones come and go from the household. These days I am down to three permanent dogs, two of whom were ‘foster fails’, that is, animals with whom the foster carer falls in love and cannot bear to part. It is perhaps no surprise that I’ve written so many dog characters into my novels, or that I love reading stories with great dog characters in them, including a few by WU’s own Barbara O’Neal.
I write full time from a home office. My dogs have my working day well under control, with suitable breaks for walks, snacks, and administration of their various medications, of which there are many. If I sit at my desk for longer than an hour and a half at a stretch, they have several techniques for drawing my attention. One, come and sit by my feet, gazing up piteously until I respond. Two, run to the front door barking wildly. Sometimes this means a real person is at the door, sometimes it’s only someone walking up the road (person with dog or dogs gets an extra loud bark), and sometimes it is solely an attention-grabbing ploy. It always works. Fergal may be very small but he has a mighty voice. Three involves tipping over the kitchen bin and scattering the contents on the floor. Four is to sit alone in a distant part of the house and wail as if the end of the world is coming.
The correct response to all of these is to get my eyes off the screen, stand up and take a break. Such breaks must include cuddles. They should involve moving out of the office to an area where at least one dog can get on my knee, and the dispensing of snacks for all.
Dogs love naps. They especially enjoy taking naps with their writers. I take a break from work in order to do this most days, and stay up later to compensate. The dogs give me the sign when it’s time, more or less herding me into the appropriate area and settling around me.
Dogs don’t like deadlines. When a deadline is looming, writers don’t stick to the sensible program the dog expects of them. They sit at the desk far longer than they should, they forget the established protocols and they miss the very clear signs that it’s time to take a break. At such times the writer can be tense and cranky. They may even shout and throw random objects. Basically, they are not a lot of fun to be around. Dogs will make their displeasure clear. We should try to take notice. A quick walk reduces tension. Dogs know this.
However long a writer has dogs, there’s always something new to be learned from them. Today I learned that the most unlikely canine can be an emotional support animal.
It’s easy to feel amused at stories of travellers taking their emotional support peacocks or guinea pigs on a plane to alleviate their anxiety. Travel is not a huge source of stress for me, but I don’t love the publicity that goes with being an author, and I particularly dislike having my photo taken. I have a set of studio photos that were taken with my dogs, and I use those as my official author shots. However, a new publisher needed a standard author ‘head shot’ – just me without a dog. The photographer did the shoot at my house, with Fergal, Reggie and Pip running around at foot level. When I explained how hard I find it to relax in photos, and how having the dogs in the pictures had made my previous shoot easier, he suggested I sit and hold Fergal on my knee while he did the head and shoulders shots. So all those pictures that don’t show a dog actually do have a dog in them, sort of. And they have a much more relaxed-looking writer. (Actually we did sneak in one or two with Fergal visible – he had been such a good boy.) Did I mention that Fergal is a wispy little one-eyed dog with Addison’s disease and glaucoma? His name means ‘valorous’ and in his own way he truly lives up to it.
Last but not least, the writer’s dog takes his human through highs and lows of emotion. I’ve written before about the traumatic loss of a beloved dog to an unprovoked attack. We lost another dear old man about two weeks ago, this time from a mystery illness which, compounded by his severe heart murmur, meant it was time to let him go. Zen came from a situation of neglect, and proved to be the gentlest, sweetest dog I’ve ever known, spreading peace and calm wherever he went. He especially loved babies and small children. It was sad to say goodbye. I write this with tears in my eyes, but such a shining example of goodness can only be remembered, in the end, with joy.
A writer learns many things from a dog. A dog allows us to set free emotions we might not express in front of another human. A dog can show us qualities we may not find in another human. Dogs teach us wisdom that feeds into our creative work, not only when we write about animals, but when we write about life. They teach us sorrow, they teach us hope, they teach us utter joy and blissful contentment. They teach us unconditional love and deep forgiveness. In the end, they teach us pain and they teach us acceptance. I say thank you to each and every one of them, the easy and the challenging. But especially to you, Zen. You sure lived up to the name I gave you.
While enjoying her website, I learned this new-to-me author has written twenty novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. She’s currently working on a new fantasy trilogy for adult readers, Warrior Bards, of which the first book, The Harp of Kings, will be published in September 2019. Her short novel Beautiful, based on the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, comes out as an Audible Original on May 30.
When not writing, Juliet is kept busy by her small tribe of elderly rescue dogs. You can learn more about Juliet and her work on her website at http://www.julietmarillier.com/.