Saturday, October 13, 2012

On the Trail of a Story

By Sheila Webster Boneham

Tracking down a story can be challenging for a writer, just as tracking down quarry can be challenging for a dog. When I started my first mystery, Drop Dead on Recall, I wasn’t sure I could write fiction. And although I can’t ask her to verify, I’m pretty sure that when my Lily started training for her tracking title, she wasn’t sure she could track a stranger, either, at least not in the precise fashion required by the rules.

The analogy may seem a little far-fetched, but I hope you’ll bear with me. I often see parallels between writing and canine sports, and my new Animals in Focus series is full of dogs, cats, and other critters, so the notion of writing as a kind of tracking makes sense to me.

Writers begin with some basic tools. We have fabulous words and we have grammar to help us arrange them into meaningful order. Above all, we have a natural human tendency to frame experience as “story.” We explain, excuse, argue, teach, and entertain through narratives that we structure with beginnings and endings, suspense and surprise. Beyond that, a story always finds an audience, because we human beings love to have plots and characters and wordplay presented to us. Whether we listen to or read them, we love stories.

Dogs also begin with some basic tools. They have fabulous noses with some 125 to perhaps 300 million scent receptors, depending on the breed (compared to our measly 50 million). Unlike a newborn puppy’s eyes and ears, which are not fully formed and which remain sealed for the first ten days to two weeks, the nose works delightfully well at birth. I used to breed Australian Shepherds, and I’ve seen puppies follow their twitchy little noses to the milk bar before they’re fully out of the birth canal. “Smells good, Mom. Yip!” Our puppies learned within the first few minutes to identify their mothers and their pack – including my husband and me – purely by scent, and a stranger’s scent, even within a few hours of birth, would elicit a startle response. In fact, a puppy’s olfactory abilities are way ahead of a child’s story-telling skills for a good few years! 

Even very young puppies can begin tracking training. I started training my Labrador Retriever, Lily, when she was seven weeks old. Here’s Lily tracking a strange person’s scent at twelve weeks of age.

Back to the original story.... I had been writing nonfiction more than two decades by the time I tried fiction, and I wasn’t at all sure I could make up a story, especially a big enough story to make a novel. And then one day I was driving home from an obedience trial, and an opening line popped into my head. It was brilliant! And not only did I have a brilliant opening line, but I could see the whole brilliant book – not the cover or spine, but the guts! I had a story. All I had to do was write it....

Like most writers, I do a lot of other things besides write. I paint, I hike, and for many years I’ve trained and competed with my dogs. While I was working on my novel (in between nonfiction books), I was also competing in obedience with my Aussie, Jay, and starting my Labrador puppy, Lily, in obedience and tracking. Lily took to tracking like, well, a Lab to water. But just as I had to learn new writing skills in order to craft a story that people might want to read, Lily had to learn to follow the scent trail that I wanted her to follow so that she could find something I wanted her to bring me. (And I had to learn to trust that we were both on the right tracks!)

Lily and Sheila tracking Jim Huang’s “missing” daughter Miranda at a meeting of the Speed City Sisters in Crime in 2009. Photo courtesy of Brenda Robertson Stewart.
Lily earned her American Kennel Club Tracking Dog (TD) title before she was two years old. I finished my first mystery when I was...well, never mind! That brilliant first line is long gone, but the basic premise that followed me home from the obedience trial remains.  Drop Dead on Recall was released in September. I’m pretty excited about that, but Lily still thinks lost gloves are more interesting than piles of paper, although she’s tolerant of human foibles.

Our work isn’t finished, though. Lily is gearing up to demonstrate how tracking dogs work to the Triangle Sisters in Crime (NC) in December. It’s not her first presentation to crime writers – she tracked down a “missing” person for the Speed City SinC members when she was only five months old. For my part, I’m wrapping up the sequel to Drop Dead on Recall this week, and am thinking ahead to book three in the series. Before I begin, though, I think Lily and I will go out and see if we can track down a little fall fun.

Drop Dead on Recall (Midnight Ink)

When a top-ranked competitor keels over at a dog obedience trial, photographer Janet MacPhail is swept up in a maelstrom of suspicion, jealousy, cut-throat competition, death threats, pet-napping, and murder. She becomes a “person of interest” to the police, and apparently to major hunk Tom Saunders as well. As if murder and the threat of impending romance aren’t enough to drive her bonkers, Janet has to move her mother into a nursing home, and the old lady isn’t going quietly. Janet finds solace in her Australian Shepherd, Jay, her tabby cat, Leo, and her eccentric neighbor, Goldie Sunshine. Then two other “persons of interest” die, Jay’s life is threatened, Leo disappears, and Janet’s search for the truth threatens to leave her own life underdeveloped – for good.

Sheila Webster Boneham is also the author of seventeen nonfiction books about animals, including the highly regarded Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals. Six of Sheila’s books have been named best in their categories by the Dog Writers Association of America and the Cat Writers Association, and several others have been finalists in the groups’ annual competitions. Sheila also writes narrative nonfiction and poetry, teaches writing workshops, and, yes, competes with her dogs. Learn more at http://www/, or keep up with Sheila’s latest news on Facebook and Twitter.   


Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, does that adorable dog of yours revert to being a pet when she's at home relaxing? Is she as sweet as she looks?

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

No reverting necessary! All my dogs have always been pets first and always. And yes, Lily is as sweet and snuggly as they come!

Anonymous said...

Tracking is a great analogy to writing a novel, in which we must follow threads through complex knots and stay on track.

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Thanks, Skipper. Works even better when a tracking dog is part of the plot! :-)