Writing, Dogs, and Change

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.

Touring the TV set of James Herriot’s surgery for All Creatures Great and Small (from the first 1970s series); in front of James Alf Wight’s surgery in the village of Thirsk. Photos ©Sue Owens Wright; used by permission.

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.

Vale of Pickering in Yorkshire Dales seen from Sutton Bank. Photo ©Sue Owens Wright; used by permission

What’s the setting for your own series?

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.

Meet Bubba Gump, the main inspiration for Cruiser’s character. Photo ©Sue Owens Wright; used by permission

What’s next in your Beanie and Cruiser series?

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.

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Beanie and Cruiser Mysteries, in order of release:

Howling Bloody Murder

Sirius about Murder

Embarking on Murder

Braced for Murder

Ears for Murder

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They are available wherever books are sold, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Waterstones (Britain and Ireland), Booksamillion, and Walmart.

Visit www.sueowenswright.com for more information.

Dangerous Dogs: Fact and Fiction

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Who was it who said that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans? That’s certainly true for writers–at least, for some of us. I’m frankly awed by those who produce well-crafted novels every year (and sometimes more often than that) and I’m the first to agree I’m not in that league. Instead, I’m comfortable doing things my way in my own time. Since the major plot lines for the series are drawn from both life and legend, the research process for each book is proving to be an adventure all its own.

Dangerous Deeds, the second book in the Waterside Kennels mystery series, tackles two hot topics that are rumbling through the region: land fraud and dog ownership. Researching these real-life issues led me to courthouses, community meetings, newspaper archives, legal records (both on- and off-line) and animal shelters. Along the way I’ve interviewed county deputies, elected officials, and environmentalists as well as kennel owners, dog trainers, veterinarians, and community activists. Along the way I learned that people are prone to what scholars term confirmation bias–that is, they’re most likely to believe whatever evidence supports their personal beliefs. They’re vocal in expressing their opinions and quick to dismiss opposing perspectives.

Take the issue of “dangerous dogs” for example. You can find plenty of anecdotal information supporting the position that some specific breeds are inherently dangerous and should be banned. Look further and you’ll find scholarly studies disputing that. Based on these studies, it would appear that Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is a flawed approach while Breed Neutral Legislation (BNL) takes a more responsible view. In summary:

The data, scientific studies, and risk rates all confirm that serious dog bite-related incidents are not a breed-specific issue. For canine regulation, it is important to understand the differences between the two major forms of regulation – breed-specific legislation (BSL) and breed-neutral legislation (BNL). BSL is a limited, single-factor, appearance-based approach while BNL is a comprehensive, multi-factorial, behavior-based approach. For public safety, BSL imposes regulations on a minority of dogs based only on their appearance or breed (regardless of a dog’s behavior or responsible ownership) while breed-neutral regulations address all potentially dangerous dogs, all irresponsible owners, and all unsafe dog-related situations – regardless of a dog’s appearance or breed. Consequently, multiple peer-reviewed studies have concluded that BSL is ineffective; furthermore, it is a discriminatory trend in decline evidenced by the vast majority (98%) of cities and towns that use breed-neutral regulations as their primary and only form of regulation because of the many advantages of breed-neutral regulations summarized on our breed legislation page. For public safety and to reduce dog bite incidents, the data and scientific studies both validate that the most effective solutions are breed-neutral and address the human end of the leash.

While there are some who may question the value of this source, the inclusion of scholarly studies, reports, and position statements from credible associations suggest it’s worth taking the time to review the information and links before making up your mind.

And despite the plethora of peer-reviewed studies and expert positions, there are many who prefer instead to support boycotts and breed bans.  I’ve drawn upon real-life incidents, actions, and attitudes reflecting both sides of the issue to create authentic conflict for my protagonist as she finds herself in legal jeopardy when an opponent is found murdered on her property. To save herself, Maggie must unravel the web of deceit and discover the truth before nefarious foes can succeed in their efforts to destroy all she holds close to her heart.

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Windows to the World

As a child, the public library introduced me to the world of possibilities. As an adult, my career obligations sent me to many new towns, new countries. No matter where I was, stepping into the library was, for me, coming home.

Whatever their size, wherever their location, libraries are truly mystical, magical places. Over the years, librarians have found a way to make books available to the public. At the start of the 20th century, for example, Washington County Maryland launched what’s believed to be the first bookmobile using a horse-drawn carriage:

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Mary Titcomb’s Book Wagon

While urban areas transitioned from wagons to gasoline-fueled vehicles, people living in isolated rural communities in the Appalachian Mountains were served by the Pack Horse Library Project:

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Digital Library

Meanwhile, county libraries in many states incorporated book wagons of their own:

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Many early libraries depended on the generosity of philanthropists such as the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Here’s one reputed to be the earliest Carnegie Library in Wisconsin: 

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This quote by the gifted Ray Bradbury sums it up perfectly:

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Along Comes A Kitty

Eight years ago, a two-pound kitten named Buddy adopted us. He was on his own for the first 12 weeks of his life, and the memory of his feral days resurface whenever we go to the vet clinic. I suggested falconer’s gloves to our veterinarian, who laughed and said “This ain’t my first cat rodeo” before tackling my tiny wild beast. That vet deserves a medal or at least a lifetime supply of Betadine and Band-Aids.

In the past few years, Buddy’s real-life adventures have rivaled those of even the most daring fictional kitty. He’s been cornered by predators and captured by brambles and the resulting rescues inevitably required ladders, clippers, brave volunteers, and a whole lot of swearing. (By humans, that is. No idea what Buddy was saying, although it’s safe to assume it might have been “Get me out of here!”) He’s broken or dislocated more bones than I can name and now sports a non-retractable razor-sharp claw. And, despite being uncoordinated to the point of being unable to climb trees–not a bad thing, in my opinion–he’s managed nonetheless to scramble over a tall fence more than a few times, only to discover he couldn’t get back over the way he came. Once, he landed in a yard owned by a pit bull. (To be fair, their meeting was entirely Buddy’s fault and the dog wisely retreated before the interloper attacked.) Is it any wonder we call him Buddy The Wonder Cat?

He watches Westminster dog show every year, and he’s not shy about announcing his favorite (last year, it was the Great Pyrenees).  We no longer let him watch any shows with lions, though, after he imitated their habit of dragging off their kill. In Buddy’s world, he drags off whatever he decides to claim as his own, and good luck finding his booty once he stashes it. To date, that includes the electrician’s pliers, the plumber’s wrench, a house guest’s scarf, the dog’s leash, and every string he can find. The strings are the only things that routinely turn up–in his food dish and water bowls.

Since Sasha joined the household, he’s decided he likes having a dog of his own. He joins her for training sessions and scent games and is apt to “help” her when she loses the trail or overlooks something I’ve hidden. He watches over her while she eats and keeps her company whenever she’s crated. When she’s out of the house without him, he paces until she returns and he can see for himself that she’s okay.

You’ll meet Buddy The Wonder Cat’s fictional self in Dangerous Deeds (book #2 of the Waterside Kennels mystery series). While that’s making it way through the book pipeline, here’s a slideshow featuring the many faces of the kitty who came to stay.

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