This Writing Life

For reasons that totally escape me now, I convinced myself it would be a good idea to plot my current work in progress (WIP) Dangerous Deeds by writing segments based on themes, characters, and key plot lines.

So what, you might wonder, was wrong with that approach? The short answer: everything. Imagine dumping dozens of jigsaw puzzle pieces onto the table and you’ll have a glimpse of the mayhem I’ve been sorting through for far too long.

On the bright side, I have an editor who’s intelligent, patient, and open to the back-and-forth that so often accompanies plot development, revision, and rewriting. Then there are all those who send a steady stream of support and encouragement, and my ever-present writing companions Sasha and Buddy The Wonder Cat.

With all this support, it’s time to be the green arrow and aim for the finish line!

 

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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Breed and Behavior

Photo courtesy of PetPlace.com

In Dangerous Deeds, residents are divided by a proposed ordinance to ban what some consider “dangerous dogs” in the county. Those in favor of the ordinance believe some breeds can never be trusted, while others disagree and refuse to endorse the proposal. When asked her opinion, dog trainer and owner of Waterside Kennels Maggie Porter has this to say:

“Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s only breeds on somebody’s banned list that can be dangerous. Any dog that’s not properly trained or supervised or exercised regularly is capable of harming others. The answer isn’t a ban. The answer lies in better training for dogs and education for everyone in the community.”

Maggie’s stance on Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is similar to the positions held by the American Kennel Club and the American Veterinary Medical Association. The AVMA’s published position statement argues that “breed does not predict behavior” and offers a thoughtful and comprehensive review of BSL and offers cogent alternatives.

And while some people think bans are limited to what they consider dangerous breeds, research by groups such as the Responsible Dog Owners of The Western States suggests at least 75 breeds are listed as either banned or restricted. You might be surprised to learn that two of the most popular breeds—the Golden Retriever and the Labrador Retriever—are included on the list. Even more troubling, many bans extend beyond named breeds and instead rely on physical descriptions. Consider this excerpt from the article Why Breed Bans Affect You published by the AKC this year:

Does your dog have almond shaped eyes? A heavy and muscular neck? A tail medium in length that tapers to a point? A smooth and short coat? A broad chest? If you said yes to these questions, then congratulations, you own a “pit bull” …At least according to the City and County of San Francisco’s Department of Animal Care and Control.

The American Kennel Club takes exception to this generalization. In fact, AKC does not recognize the “pit bull” as a specific breed.  However, across the country, ownership of dogs that match these vague physical characteristics are being banned – regardless of their parentage. The City of Kearney, Missouri, for example, only requires a dog to meet five of the eight characteristics on their checklist before they are banned from the city. Would your pug with its broad chest and short coat be in danger of getting banned under these requirements?

Whether you support or oppose breed bans, I hope you’ll agree that responsible ownership can go a long way toward improving the quality of life for people and dogs alike.

Responsibilities evolve over the lifespan of your dog. Check out the AKC’s 75 Ways to Be a Responsible Dog Owner for a comprehensive overview. A great read for anyone new to sharing their life with a dog, and a great reminder for all of us!

Photo courtesy of AVMA.ORG

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!