Scenes from the home front

In the post titled “A cat with a dog of his own” I shared a few memories of the challenges of convincing Buddy The Wonder Cat to share his home and his people with Sasha. There were a few early bumps in the road, but the two of them have happily settled down to life together. In fact, we’ve now reached the point where Buddy The Wonder Cat stands vigil whenever Sasha leaves the house without him:

It’s fair to say the cat takes a personal interest in anything the dog does. Training time? Buddy’s right there to supervise.  Yard patrol? They share sentry duty. If Sasha overlooks a treat during the Find It! game, Buddy finds it for her. Feeding time creates shared moments, too, although the cat doesn’t share the dog’s passion for cucumbers and Sasha seems puzzled by Buddy’s penchant for ice cubes in his water bowl.

You’ll see quite a bit of Buddy The Wonder Cat later this year–or at least his fictional counterpart. In Dangerous Deeds (Book #2 in the series), Maggie’s dog Sweet Pea finds an injured kitten and carries it to safety. Some of the injuries mirror the real-life accident suffered by Buddy The Wonder Cat a few years ago.  Confession: it was a traumatic experience for the cat, me, and the staff at the Crossover Veterinary Clinic.  On the other hand, our vet (Beth Stropes, DVM) was remarkably cheerful throughout, assuring me that this wasn’t her first cat rodeo. It was then that I decided that if we all lived through the experience, that scene was going in a book.  We all lived, and I kept my promise; Dangerous Deeds will be released this fall. In the meantime, here’s a slideshow of Buddy The Wonder Cat through the years. Enjoy!

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Dangerous Deeds

One of the most common questions asked of writers: “Where do you get your ideas?”

As a professor and research geek, I love this question. Maybe I’m genetically wired this way; my dad was brilliant with crossword puzzles and my mother excelled in finding creative solutions to vexing problems. That’s as good a reason as any to explain why I’m prone to wonder who and how and why and what if. I might see a headline, visit someplace new, overhear a conversation, sift through photographs, encounter someone unusual, or dream a tall tale—any or all of these  become grist for the proverbial mill. For me, the answer to  “Where do you get your ideas?” changes from one writing project to the next. The idea of breed bans as a plot for Dangerous Deeds (book #2 in my series) started with news headlines.

The Plot Challenge

Breed specific legislation (BSL) has been a controversial issue in many communities, including mine. A nearby town’s efforts to ban pit bulls caused an argument that went on for months. When unleashed dogs attacked cyclists and joggers on roads and trails, elected officials were challenged to reconsider the county ordinance. They struggled to find reasonable common ground, balancing owner’s rights with public safety. Not an easy task! These and similar events prompted me to wonder how the folks in my fictional world would react to a proposed ban.

Search the Internet and you will likely find hundreds of articles and stories and websites focused on this issue. Tempers run hot on both sides of this controversy, and the thought of researching a topic steeped in such graphic violence left me downright queasy. Still, the idea lingered. I spent months searching for credible information about BSL from advocates and opponents alike, trying to figure out how to tackle the issue in a way that wouldn’t offend readers or my own sensibilities. The AKC’s issue analysis of BSL published in 2015 gave me the hook I was looking for. Read on for a glimpse of how the AKC position and citizens’ comments at public hearings inspired the primary plot line of the book.

Excerpts

There’s a scene early in the book where the sheriff warns my protagonist, Maggie Porter, about a sleazy local attorney:

“Simon Tate claims to have a client whose dog was attacked at the county park.  No witnesses, mind you, and no injury to the dog according to the vet. Still, the suit claims negligence on the part of the county, and he’s demanding we outlaw what he calls vicious breeds. He convinced the Quorum Court to hold a public hearing. My gut tells me he’s after a whole lot more than just a county ordinance, but darned if I can figure out his motive here. Gotta say, that worries me some. Seems like whenever Simon Tate profits, somebody loses.”

Fast forward to the public hearing, where Maggie does her best to explain her opposition to breed ban.  She’s blindsided, though, when Simon Tate uses the event to attack her reputation with a barrage of lies and innuendo. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the scene:

“These breeds have a known history of attacking others. Killing machines, that’s what they are, and you let them in your kennel, side by side with beloved family pets.” Turning to face the crowd, he had to shout to be heard. “Until we get the Dangerous Dog Ordinance signed into law, I challenge everyone to take a stand, show your support for our community. Vote with your wallet—boycott any place that puts profit over safety! Don’t take your business to any animal clinic, pet shop, groomer, or kennel that won’t stand up for our pets, our children, our community!”

Simon pointed to Maggie. “We’re going to shut you down.”

***

Maggie soon discovers the boycott is just the start of trouble. When a body is found on her property, suspicion turns to Waterside Kennels where everyone has motive and nobody has an alibi. Can Maggie unravel the web of deceit in time to save herself and everything she loves?

Dangerous Deeds is scheduled for publication this year. Stay tuned!

With Thanks

As a child, I was very fortunate to have an older brother and sister willing to take me WAY across town to the public library. (Thanks, Jim Holmes and Maureen Kidd!) The wonderful librarians steered me first to the children’s section and, after I’d gone through those shelves, allowed me to read whatever I wanted as long as I showed them first. (How lucky was I???) I raced through biographies and travel guides and read about places I’d never heard of that inspired a love of geography and the library’s Map Room. I quickly fell in love with the glossy, sophisticated publications like Harper’s and the New Yorker as well as newspapers from around the world in languages I didn’t understand. (Thanks to the patient librarians who introduced me to the wonders of the world, and who unknowingly set me on a journey to travel the globe!)

Many of the stories I read referred to New York City as simply “the City.” When I was in the first grade, I had to make up a story about people in that particular city so, drawing upon what I’d read at the library, I referred to NYC as “the City” paying careful attention to capitalization, of course.

My teacher Miss Hess was convinced I stole the story “because first graders cannot possibly know things like that” and scored it an F. I cried all the way home. My mother, at a complete loss over how to deal with an hysterical 6-year-old, told me “just wait until your father comes home.” (Not your usual use of that phrase.)

My father went straight to the school with me in tow. Even though I had to wait on the steps outside the classroom, I clearly heard every word my father said in my defense. From that firestorm, a writer was born.

You should know our wonderful father made sure Santa put a dictionary under the Christmas tree for us and gave us a magnetic alphabet board so we could play with words. Despite his fiercely mathematical mind (genes I sadly did not inherit) our father was a literary aficionado who loved  to complete the New York Times crossword in ink. He was seriously good at the show Jeopardy, too.  He clearly understood this daughter of his was DIFFERENT (an understatement if you ask anyone who knew me then or now!) and knew I was prone to integrate what I read into whatever I was doing.  He’d read the story and it made perfect sense to him. Of course, my Dad loved to read the Horatio Hornblower series and would discuss those books and the Napoleon Wars with his kids, as long as we didn’t interrupt his reading time while eating supper after working late. (And yeah, I paid attention. Any wonder I followed his footsteps and joined the military?)

From my earliest days, my father was a champion of my writing. I carry his words in my heart and remember them often.

Thanks, Dad, for the gift of literature, and words, and the world beyond my doorstep.

 

There Came Along A Kitty

Like Deadly Ties, the first in the Waterside Kennels mystery series, there are multiple scenes in book #2 (Dangerous Deeds) that were inspired by real events. One of those is the scene in which Maggie Porter’s dog Sweet Pea rescues an injured stray kitten she finds beneath the dock. Although Maggie’s initial assessment is “not much more than bones and fur” the kitten turns out to have a tiger-sized attitude and, after a brief stay at the vet, claims the kennel—and Sweet Pea—as his own.

The roots of that story go back to the mid-1990s when my own beloved spaniel Alix found a raggedy bundle of fur in our yard and dropped it at my feet with a “Fix this!” look. Beneath the raggedy coat was a near-starved Calico we promptly named Katie. We nursed her back to health under the watchful eyes of the dog Alix and Amy, our Silver Tabby (another rescue). The three of them immediately became collaborators, conspirators, and loyal-to-the-end friends.

About six months before we lost Katie—the last of the three—in 2012, Buddy the Wonder Cat came to us as a feral kitten weighing just 2½ pounds. One of the reasons he’s called the Wonder Cat is because it’s a wonder he’s still alive. On one terrifyingly memorable occasion he injured his foot, fracturing or dislocating most of the bones and mangling one of his claws. In the fear and pain that followed, Buddy’s feral instincts came roaring back and nobody escaped unscathed before the vet managed to get him sufficiently sedated to examine. If the vet clinic keeps a “Look out for…” list, there’s probably a picture of Buddy with the warning “don raptor gloves before handling.”

Thanks to the fabulous skill of our veterinarian and the clinic crew, our only reminder of that experience is one razor-like claw which to this day does not retract. I channeled a good bit of Buddy the Wonder Cat into the fictional feline you’ll meet in Dangerous Deeds. (That probably explains why he tends to sprawl on the desk when I’m writing.) In celebration of life ongoing, here’s a slideshow of the best of Buddy the Wonder Cat through the years.

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Lessons Along The Journey

It’s been a month since Sasha came into our lives. What an adventure we’re having!

Who could resist that face?

Sasha Feb 2016

After so many years without a dog of my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that this adventure comes with a learning curve for all of us. For Sasha, everything’s new after losing whatever home she knew when she was surrendered to a rural county sheriff’s office. (From what little I’ve learned, it wasn’t much of a home, but still…) Buddy the Cat unexpectedly gained a housemate, and we humans found ourselves in unknown territory as we integrated a rescue dog in the family mix.

Sasha came to us with various minor health issues, poor skin, and a pitiful short, thin coat—problems most likely caused by poor diet and a lack of attention. With the final round of antibiotics and other prescription meds now complete, we’re focused on improving her stamina and overall good health. I’ve spent the last month transitioning her to quality food. (If you’re new to the world of dogs, consider sampling different foods and remember to make any switch a gradual process.)

After addressing her health and dietary concerns, we started training in earnest. She came to us knowing a few of the basics and at least one new-to-me skill: she can sneeze on command. (Yes, really!) After working together every day, I’ve learned three essential lessons (so far) along this journey.

Lesson #1: Be patient.

There’s a scene in chapter 1 of Deadly Ties when veterinarian Angus Sheppard is looking over a Beagle rescued by my protagonist, Maggie Porter. Maggie’s concerned about Mr. B’s health and his transition to a new way of life. In response, Angus said, “Look at it from the dog’s point of view—he’s lost everything he’s ever known. That can haunt you for a long time.”

I wrote that scene years before Sasha came into my life. I’m reminded of those words, though, every time we hit a bump in the road. She’s over a year old, but she was as clueless as a puppy at the end of a leash. The volunteer who fostered her handed her over with a retractable leash (that didn’t retract) attached to a cheap collar. I can only guess what her life was like before coming to us, but it’s a safe bet that it was nothing like her life now. She came to us afraid of loud or unexpected noises and strange places, skittish around strangers and around men in general, leery of other dogs, and super-stressed when put in a vehicle. As Shelties tend to be VERY vocal when nervous, agitated, or excited, I confess I’ve had to refrain from shrieking myself more than once!

Every time we head out for a neighborhood walk I remind myself to be patient as Sasha encounters new sights and sounds, and to see every “moment” as a training opportunity. And after one wild experience near the pond when assorted ducks, geese, dogs, and children proved too much excitement at once, I now take greater care in planning our route!

Lesson #2: Make training a daily habit.

I started all her daily training sessions in the house, then moved to the backyard before venturing out onto our quiet cul-de-sac and eventually the busier streets of the neighborhood. After two weeks she’d mastered the sit-stay command at a distance of 50+ feet and I was convinced training her myself would be a breeze.

Not quite.

Sure, she’s doing a great job of the basics in the house, the yard, and even the neighborhood—just as long as there are no people, dogs, moving cars, ducks, squirrels…well, you get the picture.  So off we went to basic obedience class. I cringed at the thought of managing her in a room full of strangers with all sorts of dogs, but Sasha needs both training and socialization time. And how did she handle the noise and confusion? Take a look:

 March 8th 2016

Sasha in a down-stay of her own choosing 3-8-16

Once we got past that hurdle I thought we were home free. Then came the clickers. She didn’t like the sound of one clicker when we practiced at home, and a room full of people clicking repeatedly (with their dogs happily responding, I’ll note)  proved too much for her.  I stashed the clicker and rewarded her with yummy treats as we ran through the exercises.

This week our training focus is learning how to walk on a loose leash (that’s test #4 on the Canine Good Citizen test). We fitted her with a martingale collar; that was essential, as Shelties are prone to “back out” of a regular collar. (If you’d like to learn more about this type of training collar, check out the No Dog About it blog. Great info!)

Even with the martingale training collar, teaching Sasha “no pulling” is another exercise in patience. Every time she pulls I stop walking, which brings her attention back to me. Being a Sheltie, she always has some comment to make even as she stops pulling and waits to start again! We’re still in the stop-wait-start-again phase but it’s gradually improving. She’s aced loose leash walking in the house and backyard. Beyond that, she’s only good at it once she’s worn out from running around the park. (We have a big open field and I put her on the long line and let her run circles around me.) The walk home is always good. It’s a start…

Lesson#3: Praise, laugh, and love.

Sasha is one happy dog! She pops out of bed eager for whatever the day brings, and we make sure she hears lots of praise whether we’re training or not. Every day sees her more energetic and playful, and it’s clear she feels safe in her new home. She and Buddy the Cat are often nose-to-nose and have recently begun to chase one another around the backyard and through the house. She’s learning hide-and-seek and now has a basket full of toys all her own. Add in a couple of gel memory foam beds, a collection of yummy treats, and walk-and-play time every day, and the result is a wonderful new member of the family. Here’s the latest photo; the bare patches have filled in and her skin and coat are already showing signs of loving attention!

Backyard shot 3-6-16 1 month

My Sasha, one month after joining the family