Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Writer and Her Dogs by Livia J. Washburn

For most of my life, I've had dogs. The times when I didn't have been few and far between. And for the most part, the dogs I've shared my life with have been pretty smart. Buster Brown, a little brown dog (hence the name) would get a mouthful of food from his bowl, take it back to his bed, and drop it there so he could lie down and eat at his leisure. Bob (who despite the name was a girl) was smart enough to have two families feeding her for years without either being aware of the other. Cheyenne, a Great Dane who knew in her heart that she was really a lap dog, herded our other dogs around and made them stay on the porch where it was safe. Cheyenne also would sneak into the kitchen at night and grab cookies so neatly, leaving others so we didn’t catch on for a while.  With two small children in the house, guess who got the blame for that until I caught a hangdog face full of cookies.

Not that all of our dogs were really all that bright. Bailey, our Beagle, was absolutely neurotic when it came to storms. The sight of a dark cloud in the sky, followed by even the faintest rumble of thunder, would send her into a panic. You wouldn't think an overweight Beagle could climb a chain link fence, would you? But when a storm was coming, Bailey could. I don't know where she thought she was going, but she was determined to get out anyway. Other times she decided to escape from our fenced yard and go adventuring, but she could always find her way back. Unfortunately, the other dog who was in the yard with her when she unfastened the gate latch, couldn't.

Which brings us to Clifford, a miniature Schnauzer, who would go off with Bailey and then have no idea how to get home, so we'd have to go looking for him. Clifford may not have been smart, but he made up for it by being the sweetest, friendliest dog I've ever seen. You know those pictures of dogs you see on the Internet where they're grinning? Clifford was like that all the time.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, in addition to all the affection dogs bring to our lives (and that helps keep a writer sane, let me tell you), for years now they've been my close companions when I'm working. And by close companions I mean they're literally in my lap with the laptop. For a long time, our current old-timer (he's 18) sat in my lap with the computer while I was writing. Since he's gotten older and stiffer, he prefers to be in his bed, or his homemade wheelchair when he's up trying to convince me it’s dinner time, but I also have a pair of adorable miniature pinscher/Chihuahua crosses named Nikki and Nora (after the Dashiell Hammett characters, of course) who like to curl up in my lap so that I have to set the computer over to the side and work at an angle. It's a little awkward at times, but did I mention they're adorable? When those little faces look up at you with such love, there's no way you can find it in your heart to make them move. At least I can't, anyway. (Nora's the one doing the prairie dog imitation and Nicki is on bug patrol. )

So whether it's awkward or not, I intend to keep on drawing comfort and inspiration from the close presence of my little friends. In fact, they're here right now, and judging by the looks on their faces, it's time to put the computer aside for a little while and concentrate on ear rubs. I think I can spare the time.

My husband James Reasoner and I recently reprinted a historical novel of ours about the California gold rush, Rivers of Gold. We have an interesting dog as one of the characters.

 He woke up to the sound of angry shouting.
 "Hang him!"
 "String 'im up!"
 "Damn thief!"
 Nathan rolled over and lifted his head, blinking against the bright morning sunlight that slanted under the wagon. The outraged yelling was still going on. Using his elbows, Nathan pulled himself from under the wagon and looked toward the nearby hills, which seemed to be the source of the commotion.
 He saw a group of men clustered around a spruce tree. One of them waved a coiled rope in the air and cried, "Got my dust, he did! He's been sneakin' around the camp lookin' for something to steal for days now! I say we get rid of him!"
 One of the other men lifted a single-shot rifle. "I can shoot him," he offered.
 The first man, the one who had evidently lost his poke to the thief, shook his head and said loudly, "Shootin's too good for him. I say we string 'im up!"
 Nathan felt a shiver of apprehension go through him. During his days as an Argonaut, he had seen a few examples of the rough justice that was dispensed in the mining camps and heard stories of other times when miners' courts had been convened. Such proceedings didn't really follow any rules, and they were usually more concerned with vengeance than justice. From what he had seen and heard so far, some poor fellow was about to be hanged, and Nathan wasn't sure he wanted to wait around to witness the gruesome spectacle of a man strangling and kicking away his life at the end of a rope. He stood up quickly and began gathering his gear. The shouting from the mob grew louder and angrier as Nathan pitched his blankets into the back of the wagon. He could roll them up later, after he was away from here; and he could stop when he was well out of earshot to fix himself some breakfast.
 As he reached for his gun belt and buckled it around his waist, it struck him as a little strange that he hadn't heard the accused man trying to defend himself. Of course, if the thief had said anything, the other men likely would have just shouted him down. Still, Nathan thought it odd that a man would go to his death, would allow himself to be lynched, without even trying to speak up in his own behalf.
 At that moment, there was a burst of loud snarling and growling, and one of the men yelled, "Look out, he's bustin' loose!"
 Involuntarily, Nathan jerked his head toward the mob. He never would have expected the sight that met his eyes. A dog had broken free of the circle of men and was running toward him with a loping, ungainly stride that still managed somehow to cover ground in a hurry. The animal was a huge, ugly brute, with shaggy brown fur and a blocky head almost as large as a horse's. Its tongue lolled from its mouth and it trailed slobber from its muzzle as it raced toward the creek and the wagon.
 Nathan's eyes widened. Was the dog attacking him? He tensed, ready to vault up into the wagon bed, then he realized that wouldn't do him any good if the dog meant to maul him. A beast that large would have no trouble leaping into the wagon after him. Nathan's hand went to the butt of the gun on his hip. He might have to pull the Colt and try to shoot the dog. That thought made him so nervous he completely forgot about the things the miners had been saying only moments earlier.
 Before Nathan could slide the revolver from its holster, the dog veered away from him and darted underneath the wagon instead. Nathan stepped away from the vehicle, worried that the dog meant to go under it and attack his legs. The animal stayed where it was, though, whirling around to face the men rushing after it. It bared its fangs and growled harshly at them.
 The furious miners pounded up but stopped about a dozen feet short of the wagon. The dog was snarling at them now, and Nathan thought the sound was almost like a dare for them to come on and try to force the dog out from under the wagon. Nathan had backed away a good distance himself, and he still had his hand on the butt of his gun.
 One of the miners threw an angry glance at Nathan. "That your dog, mister?" he demanded.
 Nathan shook his head. "I've never seen the beast before," he replied.
 "It came a runnin' toward you like it knowed you," the miner pointed out.
 Before Nathan could again deny owning the animal, one of the other men said, "Don't be a fool, Brody. That damned dog's been around nigh onto a week, a long time 'fore this fella got here."
 "I don't care," the man called Brody said hotly. He was the one carrying the rope, and Nathan realized that he was the one claiming to have been robbed of his gold dust.
 But how could he have been robbed by a dog?
 Brody shook the coiled rope at the dog and went on, "Look at the way he's hidin' under that wagon! I still say it's mighty suspicious."
 "Look, mister," Nathan began, "I'm mighty sorry about whatever happened, but I don't know that dog, and he doesn't know me. He's just looking for a place to hide because he's so scared."
 One of the other men laughed and said, "He ain't scared, he's just found hisself a place where he can fort up and chew our arms off if we try to get him out.
 Brody slapped the rope impatiently against his thigh. "I'll get him out. He's got to hang, I tell you!"
 "You're going to hang a dog?" Nathan asked incredulously.

We're giving away a free e-copy of the book.  Leave a comment for a chance to win.


  1. Love hearing about your dogs. They really know how to slip inside your heart don't they?

  2. I have known many larcenous dogs...pickpockets, burglars (even second-story dogs), robbers, plenty of con-dogs, one I was pretty sure was writing hot checks (girlfriend would never admit to it), and a prank-calling cat...

  3. MWD, they certainly do.

    Tracey, we had a cat that stole all of our pens and pencils. We found his stash after he died on our 15th wedding anniversary.

  4. That was good to read about your pets, Livia.

    My daughter has a schnoodle. He's called Walt. He's six months old now and just the funniest little fellow. He seems to grin all the time and I am fortunate enough to get to share him for odd days. He has a mischievous personality and finds his way into all sorts of bother. Inevitably, he has found himself into the pages of my next Victorian kid's novel.

  5. Keith we actually got our little Schnauzer with the plans to breed him with a poodle. As a family we wrote a book called Oodles of Schnoodles, and we wanted to make it a picture book. Life got busy, and we never bred him, seemed wrong to do that with so many homeless pets, but he was a grand little dog and we sure did miss him when he was gone.

  6. I love animals in stories and always incorporate them in mine. We have a cat now--no dog. I grew up with dogs, though. We had Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. Great hunting dogs, and each had their own brand of intelligence and/or orneriness. The dogs kept us out of trouble and always led us home.

    Your excerpt is fun and a great teaser. It looks like this dog has found a human to adopt. :) I guess we'll have to read the book to see if they hang the dog or not.

  7. Livia,
    My parents never would allow me to have a dog--I had cats, but never a dog. Neither of them were big on having animals in the house. We inherited my daughter's dog, Embry. He's half great Pyrenees and half Anatolean shepherd. She got him from a shelter when he was a puppy, but then ended up moving somewhere with no fence so he came to live with "grandma and grandpa." LOL He weighs about 175 pounds and thinks he's a lapdog, too. I never thought I'd see my husband so crazy over an animal, but he loves that dog as much as I do. I really enjoyed your excerpt--I'm sure hoping that Nathan keeps them from hanging the dog!

  8. I loved the essay, Livia. Read it with a big grin. You know how I feel about my dogs.

    Mean Pete

  9. Don't know how anyone can write WITHOUT a dog at their side. My Shih Tzu, Dogie's, either always right next to me or on my lap when I'm writing. If I stay on the computer too long, he starts yipping and barking for me to get on the floor with him so he can lick my face and then get a belly and ear rub. Chauncey, Dogie's Shih Tzu predecessor, would lay on my bed while I wrote, back in the day when my computer was in my bedroom. Can't imagine life without a dog... or horse.

    Jim Griffin

  10. Jacquie, we had cats until we lost 3 when our home burned down in '08, but now we only have dogs, although the two little ones have some cat like attitudes.

  11. Cheryl, Great Pyrenees were one of the breeds we were looking at for my daughter. She decided they'd have too much hair to clean up, so she went with a Malamute/Husky and a White German Shepherd. Talk about hair. : ) Our Great Dane thought she was a lapdog, too. It was scary when she'd come running to jump in your lap.

  12. Pete, I do know how you feed about your gang. I always enjoy reading about them.

  13. Jim, our old dog is putting up a fuss right now. He's in his wheelchair waiting at his food dish. It's still an hour until his supper and he's letting the whole neighborhood know he hasn't been fed yet. I can't imagine a life without dogs, either. They ease the stress of a long day.

  14. My hubby and I are dog lovers too, although with our age we've dwindled down to a pint-sized Yorkie named Maggie. We thought she'd be easier to have fun and take care of! Ha Ha...were we ever surprised to learn how smart she was, crafty at avoiding us when she does something she isn't supposed to, and how stubborn she is when she doesn't want to do something we DO want her to do! :-) At any rate, I think it was a fun idea for you to include a dog in your Gold Rush Days story. I would love to read it.

  15. Never owned a dog but have had several cats. Including the irratable one that shares the house with us. I have used doga and cats in my stories. They provide a nice diversion. By the way. I hate these jumbled up security letters. almost impossable to read sometimes.


  16. Janice, our 18 year-old Doberman/Chihuahua mix was hands down the smartest dog we've ever been around. We started spelling words so he wouldn't know what we were talking about and that worked for a few months until he learned to spell. He came into our lives when our neighbor passed away and his wife had to work long hours and was desperate to give him away. I turned her down first because he supposedly didn't like kids and I had 2 of those. My youngest shamed me into taking him by reminding me that she just lost her husband, and how could I not take the dog. Turned out he loves my girls as much as they love him.

  17. Les, the cat that died on our 15th wedding anniversary was an irritable one, but it broke our hearts when he passed away. I hate those codes, too, but James and I were deleting spam off multiple post 3-4 times a day. It was crazy.

  18. Great piece, Livia. Heartfelt. I've met so many writers who write with their dog or cat nearby. Our late blue heeler would lie down under my desk with her chin on my foot...

  19. I grew up with animals, cats, dogs, frogs, etc. Now it is just the two cats, but every animal had their own personality and reason to love them.

    The excerpt was also exceptional. Who can't love an animal doing what is natural, and hate those who would harm them for their own satisfaction.

    Thank you for the great post.

  20. Marc, I appreciate the kind words.

    Renaissance Women, I also grew up with an assortment of pets. At one time James and I were taking care of a barn full of cats, a possum, and a small jackrabbit. They kept things interesting.

  21. LOVE LOVE LOVE all your dogsies!! and the stories, how funny! I do love dogs. So sweet, and you're right. They are more loyal than anything. Even my laptop!

  22. Thanks, Meg. I'm presently working on a mystery and dogs play a big part, and even more fun it's a cooking mystery, so I get to experiment with homemade doggy treats. Our crew will be great taste testers and I won't gain a pound.

  23. Using to pick, Les Williams you won the free copy of Rivers of Gold.