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Archive for July 4th, 2021

My attempt to write a blog post about writing techniques, which I’ve been trying to do since Thursday, got hijacked and I’m attempting to jot off something. Of course, trying to write it today, four days after starting the other, is taking hours because family wants to chat or needs attention. My intended writing time became half a day waiting at the vet.

Life just happens sometimes and takes away your planned writing and editing. Life also gets in the way of your characters, but this vet thing has me thinking about the animal aspect of stories.

Roxy the reverse lampshade

Our stories generally revolve around humans or humanoids. Unless you write for children, where your main characters are just as likely to be animals.

Do you ever include animals in your stories? At the very least as part of the world scenery because they are everywhere and naturally will be encountered? As backdrop characters like that angry looking chair that sets the tone?

How about as small bit characters whose purpose is to reveal something about your main character’s personality?

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I did that in The McAllister Farm. Some readers will hate me for it. First for Zeke, the dog at the start of the book, and later for the new McAllister dog, Boomer.

Some readers will tell you they will forever hate any author who harms an animal. Some authors will say that sort of thing is off limits. But in some stories brutal things happen and in real life it is often the innocent that get hurt. Even while your stories are fictional and no real animals are harmed, writing is emulating real life to make your reader feel they are inside the story.

William McAllister is a hard no-nonsense man. He doesn’t hesitate to do what must be done and nothing is more important than the safety of his family. So, when the farm dog, Zeke, is bitten protecting his wife, Marjory, from a rabid raccoon trying to attack her, William knew there was only one thing to do.

Keeping with the times and being a rural farming area, farm dogs were not always vaccinated. They also weren’t pets that were coddled. When it came to putting a dog down, it was not out of the ordinary to treat it like any other farm animal on some farms. A lot of this came from the stories of my own family generations before me. Zeke was a working dog who had a specific purpose and that was to keep away from the house anything that might be considered a danger to William’s family. Coyotes, bears, and people.

This opening chapter showed both the ruthlessness of William McAllister, and his softer side. Zeke was bit by the rabid raccoon. He would be infected and suffer a degenerative death. There is no cure for rabies and it is an interspecies disease. Zeke would also be a danger to William’s family. Any animal or person coming in contact with the dog risked being infected with the contagious disease.

The gun would be a quicker kill, but William put his family first even in this. “Best not to use the gun. The kids will hear.” Marjory was distraught and he knew the kids would be without having to see their teary faces to know it.

Inside the dim interior, William stops and turns to Zeke.

Zeke stands staring up at him expectantly.

“Zeke, drop it,” he commands. “Sit.”

Zeke obediently does as ordered, looking up at him with trusting eyes.

“Best not to use the gun. The kids will hear.”

William casually moves to the wall where a shovel hangs. Taking it down, he approaches the dog.

Waiting patiently, Zeke sniffs around at the air, not paying attention to his master.

William walks around the dog, moving behind him and suddenly swinging the shovel in what is intended to be a fatal blow.

The scene gets more traumatizing to the reader before it ends, but even after the brutality of Zeke’s death, one William partially fails at because he’s concerned with upsetting his family more, and perhaps he even held back on that swing out of feelings of remorse for the dog, William showed care in the gentle treatment he gave the dog’s body in burying it.

And again later, in showing just the edge of the harsh reality of their world, the new dog, Boomer, is also injured protecting his family. This time, the little girl Sophie ran into a pack of coyotes. William failed his family in not driving them off or killing them sooner. The den is too close to the farmhouse. That is the remorse he lives with. And on seeing the severity of Boomer’s injuries, William automatically turns to what he knows. The dog should not be made to suffer unnecessarily and he does not think he will survive. It’s that soft spot in William that intervenes again, but this time the only danger Boomer is to his family is to their broken hearts.

The little girl, Sophie, trying to gently hug the dog, still a puppy, their pleading pained eyes as she begged her father not to kill Boomer. How could he not relent?

It’s a tough life for the McAllisters and Boomer will continue to play his occasional part in revealing things about the family members. Sophie’s brother Jason, with his barely repressed anger, self-doubts, and jealousy of his sister. Marjory in her anxious concern over protecting her children from everything, including from her own husband at times. And again near the end of the story where the family is pitted in a standoff against the community, Boomer will take his place as a story tool to bring home the harsh realities of the darker side of humans. Spoiler alert: Boomer will survive this story.

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Where do animals place in your stories? Have you considered it? Are they all animal free? How much thought and story do you put into the personalities and impact the narratives have on the animals in them?

After the long stressful day waiting for the vet

I try to put a little humanity and personality into every character. Even a short sentence of that character whose whole existence is three sentences long. The animals are no different. They are confused, trusting, and feeling even if it is only behind the scenes which don’t make it into the story.

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Even in our real world we sometimes forget to consider just what is going through the minds of the animals around us. That dog silently watching you walk by its house. The one maniacally barking and lunging at the fence as you pass. Your own pet enthusiastically greeting you or saying goodbye at the door only to rush to the window to watch you go.

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Observing these things with the mindset of trying to see it from their point of view like you do with a human character can add a depth of understanding to your writing.

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The sympathetic sister

I recently read an article about how a study analyzing stress hormones in dogs showed them to have lower levels of it if the owner leaving simply takes a moment longer to show them some love and say goodbye when they leave versus rushing out the door.

This article was completely forgotten when we ourselves left, being rushed out the door without the chance to do anything more than shout a quick, “Bye and have fun,” as your are being verbally pushed out of the house.

Three-quarters of the human part of our household vanished mysteriously Sunday. We were rushed out so fast we didn’t get the usual moment of goodbyes at the door. Both dogs always come to the door to say bye when you leave, even just stepping out to pull the garbage bins to the curb.

What goes through the minds of pets when some of their people disappear? They don’t know what’s happening. If you aren’t someone who regularly goes away overnight or for days for work or school, they aren’t used to you being gone. And now with Covid forcing so many to work from home or be out of work, pets have had to adjust to losing their quiet time being home alone for hours and become used to some of their people never or rarely leaving the house.

Not feeling good.
Red, raw, and swollen

By Tuesday one of the dogs had an irritated foot without having done anything to actually injure it. When we returned Thursday the foot was worse. She yelped and cried when we tried to look at it, trying to hid the foot, and obsessively licking it despite our best efforts to keep it wrapped. The dog was out of sorts and very cranky. And being Canada Day, the vet offices were closed.

Between the day closure and a large outbreak of kennel cough currently happening in the area, it took two more days to see a vet. Arriving at 9:30 am and sitting for hours in the car outside the vet’s office because they are doing curbside only with Covid, we were camped at the emergency vet.

This is a dog who was absolutely terrified of cars when we got her from the shelter. She’s over that fear, but not the anxiety, so waiting hours in the car was not ideal. And with the current heat wave it was too hot to take her out to walk around, so it was sitting in the air conditioned car with the engine running the whole time.

So out of sorts.

Spending hours in a car is enough time, apparently, for a large dog to abandon alternately huffing against the window like an anxiously bored child and trying to open the door, and learn how to operate the electric window button. She starts rolling down the window and we’re rolling it up before she can get it down enough to jump out. And repeat, repeat, repeat. Fortunately, there was a lock button on the driver’s door to stop children from playing with the window buttons.

The long wait also gave the opportunity to watch others bringing their pets to hand them off at the door and picking them up. There was the fat dog that had to be helped over that flat metal floor piece separating the vet office tile from the outside world at the door. Apparently the dog couldn’t step up over it. And the smartly prancing little dog being taken for a pee walk by a vet tech, its bright pink cast blinding in the sun. The little dog kept staring at the cars with a look that said, “Mom? Mom? Mom?”

They all exhibited a similar behavior, the reluctance to enter and the sulking slinking out the door after. Even Roxy after her turn finally came, went in reluctantly and she smashed her cone-headed face into the door before sulkily slinking out back to us.

The dog also came from the shelter with an abject fear of vets and needles, and very traumatized by the whole shelter experience. So, we knew she would not be happy to see the vet.

But why are vet offices so filled with anxiety? Do they remember the needles? The techs and vets are always so friendly towards them, offering cookies, but most animals seem so scared and anxious. Is it just them feeding off your anxiety, even if it’s only the size of the bill making you unhappy? Are they reacting to sensing and smelling the fear of the other animals? Is it the smell of sickness and injury? Do they smell the deaths of those who came before and were euthanized?

Our reverse-lampshade dog was clearly relieved to meet us at the door and slink out after being held down to be x-rayed and her foot examined. They wanted to sedate her for it, but she wouldn’t let them.

More than $400 Canadian later, three medications, the cone of shame, and the entire day shot, we learned there was nothing actually wrong with her that was not self-inflicted. There was no injury. The vet figured she stress licked her foot raw, which caused a cascading event of more licking because it hurt and more stress licking and more pain and inflammation, which caused more obsessive licking until it was raw, swollen, and infected.

And now she seems to be getting stuck on everything almost intentionally. Almost like giving us the middle finger while unhappily silently seeking attention and feeling sorry for herself. She gets stuck on chairs, tables, people, the other dog, and can’t get through a door. She paces and lies down and paces, unsure what to do with herself with that big cone constantly in the way of everything.

This isn’t the first time we’ve left the dogs, but they were used to all of us leaving the house for up to ten to fourteen hours a day, depending on the person, for work and school. And with kids activities, that was often followed by more hours away. It was rotating constantly with who was out or home at what times of day and night, and rarely everyone home at once. We went on vacations leaving them home alone for a week with a dog-sitter staying with them. A virtual stranger.

We never before had issues with one of the dogs going drama queen and stressing themselves like this over anyone being away an extended time. Not until Covid and three of four of us not leaving the house for months at a time (okay, maybe a year at a time, or at least it feels like it) because of schools and offices being shut down, and stores and businesses being for the most part shut down.

Maybe taking that moment to say goodbye with some extra ear scratches would have helped. Maybe not. But they are more anxious every time anyone leaves the house even before the camping trip that some of us went on. And leaving one of their favorite people home with them wasn’t enough.

What happens when the world opens up and we return to full time school and working in offices and other jobs, and our animals are stressed over our suddenly vanishing for hours every day?

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If this were all part of a story, how would I consider the animals’ feelings and how they relate to and affect their human’s reactions? The pining of the dog and its growing anxiety, whether its humans are aware or entirely oblivious to it, both the humans present and away.

In making our stories real for our readers, we want to add as many little touches of reality as the story needs. These details are also valuable tools in revealing things about our characters, both obvious and hidden personality characteristics.

Everywhere you go, everything you do, is an opportunity to observe the world and its interactions. Watching both people and animals gives you an insight into making your stories better.

Take some moments to watch the often neglected characters of our world, animals. Your pets, others’ pets, farm animals in passing, and the wild creatures around you. Observe people and dogs distant interactions when they pass on the sidewalks. Even watching birds interactions is an insight into that hidden and often skipped piece of stories. And consider this, would adding the odd animal as part of your story or world-building enhance your story? They are everywhere and affect every part of our lives even when we don’t own a pet ourselves.

Keep writing my friends, and I have to go rescue my dog who got stuck on the wall. Yes, the wall.

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