This post is late because I’m recovering from the Tony Hillerman Wordharvest Writer’s Conference, a two-day event filled with writers I’d never met, and many hopeful students of writing. I gave a breakfast talk, powered by coffee and fear, and apparently did all right because I got a lot of kind remarks throughout the day. As usual, I researched my topic far too much, and ¼ of the way through my talk, I abandoned my pages of notes and just talked about writing.
Later in the day, on a panel called “Building Tension,” with David Morel and Hampton Sides, both accomplished writers I’d never read, I told the story of my (late) Jack Russell terrier and the UPS driver. It was all I could come up with on the topic.
Here it is: Fifteen plus years ago, I was living in Southern California. The publishing world was old hat to me, but of course it sure isn’t now with all the changes. Anyway, my publisher sent me lots of UPS overnights and back then it was free to have them pick up and leave the parcel at your door. My UPS driver was kind of adorable in his brown shirt and shorts. He ran from the truck to my door, and usually he was met by Max, my Jack Russell who’d throw himself against the screen door and bark insanely. It became a game with them. The UPS driver would stealthily creep up to the door and try to drop the package before Max got to the door, yell “Gotcha!” and I’d hear Max’s nails scrabbling against the tile floor as he raced to get to the door in time to snarl. The UPS driver managed to win a couple of times. Jack Russells are tenacious, though, and if there was a scorecard for such things Max would’ve been declared the winner.
We had to put Max down when we lived in Alaska. He was 19, blind, deaf, senile and incontinent, but still walking, totally healthy. I cried and cried for a dog who never really liked anyone. He was part of my life, my marriage, my world.
This is a semi-humorous anecdote, so why did I talk about it on a panel called “Building Tension?” Because it’s the perfect example of how to create fiction by using your own experiences as seeds. So often writers overlook their own lives to use in fiction. But my feeling is if I live through it, I might as well use it. Max and Mr. UPS can be a lot of things in fiction: Comic relief. A telling detail. For me, it provided a new character, Juan, the UPS driver in Bad Girl Creek. It also gave me the opportunity to write about animals. Yes, let’s all agree that I am insane about dogs, and usually have 4-5 at any given moment. Anyone who’s taken a class from me has heard me say that animals, pets in particular, are “neutral love objects,” a term I learned from the Pulitzer-prize-winning poet, Maxine Kumin. Aspects about character that might otherwise remain hidden can be revealed when you put an animal in the story. The characters are having trouble in their relationship, but they both are nuts over the dog. They relate, communicate, commiserate, through the dog. Or the cat or parrot. Maybe snakes, though I’m not sure exactly how that would work. Your reader gains insight from how the characters relate to the pet.
It’s automatic tension, and a situation I could play out over the course of the novel. It also deepens plot and theme with its little tendrils reaching out and affecting other aspects of character, plot, action, and so on. It provides dimension. When I read a beginning writer’s work and a dog appears, I generally react with dread, because 9 times out of 10 the dog is there to be killed, function as a symbol, and frankly, that’s lazy writing. How much more interesting things become when the animal is allowed to do something else besides die.
Right now my rat terrier, a psycho rescue dog my husband brought home 14 years ago because he felt sorry for her, is at my feet. She’s in kidney failure, but has been hanging on for months. Terriers are incredibly resilient dogs, and Cricket is a perfect example. She sleeps most of the time, and is finicky about food, and lately doesn’t seem to want to eat anything unless it’s bad for her. Her blood values are way abnormal. This is the week, I think, where we have to decide to put her down. It’s killing me to think of saying good-bye to a crazy dog who cost me thousands of dollars (in Anchorage, we paid for cataract surgery so she could continue to play ball, once the most important part of her day) and who got in fights with the other dogs, cost a fortune, et cetera, etcetera.
So during the conference I was carrying that weight along with me, while encouraging new writers, discussing their plots, listening to their hopes and dreams. I was a prime example of “Building Tension” myself these last three days. It’s no secret, really. Every one of us humans knows grief, pain, anger, amusement and outright joy (far to rarely, but it does happen). Our lives are lived in tension that we are so used to we don’t recognize how simple it is to replicate tension in our characters’ lives.
My suggestion? Use it in your writing. You can’t turn away from loss and responsibility. There is no way out of grief but through it. But remember the joyful times, too, and allow your characters moments of happiness. Yes, only conflict/trouble is interesting, but that’s not all there is to life and it shouldn’t be the only option in writing a story.
I’m remembering throwing the ball for Cricket, how she’d bring it back, over and over an over and over. I’d have to make her stop to take a drink of water. Ball. She loved it. I’ve just decided I’m adding a rat terrier to the new book I’m working on. Dogs don’t live long enough. In my writing, she can have as many lives as I give her.