What my dogs taught me about writing. Yes, I'm gonna be that gal.

When I first got a dog 15 years ago, I worried that he wouldn’t like me.

That tells you how much I knew about dogs.

Now that I’m dogless for the first time in 15 years, how much I learned about dogs in that time has become really clear. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those gloppy posts people write after they put their dog down — “How I learned to be a good person from my dog” or “Everything important in life I learned from my dog” or “Waaahhhh my dog is gone and no one will ever love me again.” No, all that’s been said. There’s nothing I can add. I don’t want to be that gal.

This is about writing.

Emma and Dewey in 2009.

Emma and Dewey in 2009.

So back to the dog. Or dogs, rather. Because after I got Dewey on Aug. 10, 2001 from a rescue in Oklahoma that specialized in corgi mixes and flew him to Boston’s Logan Airport, I got Emma on Nov. 25, 2002 to keep him company.

Dewey, always going for the big laugh.

Dewey, always going for the big laugh.

It was nuts to think Dewey wouldn’t like me. Despite several years of abuse and neglect, dodging death in a Texas kill shelter and languishing at the Oklahoma rescue for months waiting to be adopted, he loved everyone. Everyone. Without exception. A corgi-Australian shepherd mix, he looked like something Disney would invent and he bounced through life with a joyful devil-may-care attitude that made me laugh every day.

Emma's stop writing and sit with me on the couch look.

Emma’s stop writing and sit with me on the couch look.

Emma, a corgi-sheltie mix, was a little more nervous. A little more suspicious of the world around her. Very very sweet, but very smart and stubborn. She had a way of getting what she wanted just by staring.

So I didn’t know a lot about dogs, but I learned a lot in 15 years. Dewey was put down at 17 in April 2013 and Emma last week, also at 17. Don’t feel bad, it was time. And anyway, this is about writing, not dogs.

So the thing I’ve learned in the past week — my first dogless week in 15 years, first dogless week since 9/11, since moving from New Hampshire to Maine, changing jobs, writing two mystery novels and someone actually publishing them — is how much of my life has been dog-focused. Not “oh you’re so cute look at your furry face” or “have I shown you guys the latest video of my dog.” More micro. Like this: Before I go to bed, there’s that nagging feeling that I can’t just go to bed. Because I have to let the dog out. But wait, I CAN just go to bed. Same with getting up. Leaving for work. Coming home.

I can open the deli wrap on cheese for the first time in 15 years without having a wet snout poking my shin or huge wet brown eyes staring at me with longing. I can leave a sandwich on the coffee table while I go to the kitchen for a napkin without having to put it in the very middle, or up high on top of the TV. I can sleep in without one ear awake, listening for the pacing downstairs that means it’s time for someone to go outside for his or her morning pee.

Emma keeps my mom company last winter.

Emma keeps my mom company last winter.

So the point is, it’s not the big dog things I’m noticing as much as the little dog things. The things you’d only notice if you’d lived with a dog.

Have I told you about the time I met a young woman from New York who was writing a mystery novel set in Maine, but had never been here? She was using travel guides to get her information. Yeah, I’ve written about that before.

What does that have to do with dogs? Nothing. Remember, this is about writing.

Anyway, I suppose a really, really good writer could almost kind of get Maine without living here and using guidebooks. Though there’d be a lot of lobster, antique shops and main roads in it. But that begs the question, because a really, really good writer probably wouldn’t do that.

Like the dog thing, you have to live here, or spend a lot of time here, to get Maine. As I sit here on the first evening of September after a warm day, one of many in this hot, dry summer, I can see a tinge of change in the leaves outside my window. The breeze through the window is cool for the first time in months. (AC? Come on. Why would I have that here?) It’s not fall. But I can feel it coming. Hang on a second, I’ll take a photo. There it is . Put that in your guide book.

It's September 1, but there it is. Fall coming. Right outside my window. Right this second.

It’s September 1, but there it is. Fall coming. Right outside my window. Right this second.

When I lie in bed at night with the windows open, I hear loons and owls. The breeze through the trees. And when an empty log truck comes rumbling down Route 27 from the north in the wee dark hours — which they do more often than you’d think — I can hear it from far away. Tell it’s an empty log truck by the way the metal stanchions rattle, hear it cross the little bridge and bounce a half mile from my house and hear it roar past a block away, then hear it disappear. Wondering which guide book you’d read about that in.

Everyone is told to write what they know, it’s one of those things that everyone who writes, talks about writing, knows about writing, knows. But how often do we really think about it? Think about what we know? The details of what we know? The things that separate what we know from those who don’t know it but are faking it? The ones who are getting it from a guide book, or worse, just guessing.

When I first read Gerry Boyle’s Deadline in the mid-90s, I knew instantly he’d worked for a newspaper. It was the little things — the way the sportswriter talked to coaches on the phone, for instance. You don’t know that unless you’ve been in a newsroom. It’s not in the guidebooks. Long before I ever got off my duff and started writing, I knew I wanted to get journalism right in my books, too. I read one mystery around the same time where all the reporters had offices and the female ones wore high heels and slept with their sources. And there I was at a 1950s-era banged up metal desk elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of people in ill-fitting clothes, sneakers and hiking boots (try covering a fire on a winter night or tromping out to a shooting in the middle of the woods in high heels and a cocktail dress). I’m not sure anyone was even sleeping with even their spouses, much less their paunchy, polyester-wearing, not-very-helpful or crazy as a coot or numb as a hake sources.

I’d had my dog Dewey for a few months back in 2001 when, one night we were on the couch watching TV. He liked to snuggle with his butt against my thigh, which was a little odd and I was still getting used to. Something hit the side of the house with a loud thwap in another room (turned out it was an egg). It was in the direction he was facing, but he turned and looked at me, ears cocked. I looked at him, too, and said “What was that?” We both kept looking at each other, question marks over our heads, until I got up to check and he bounced off the couch to follow. Later I realized that before that moment, if I were writing about a dog, I would have written that it immediately jumped off the couch and ran barking into the room where the noise came from. Shows how much I knew.

Emma telling me it's time to get up. Dammit.

Emma telling me it’s time to get up. Dammit.

Emma, who before she went deaf was in charge of barking at things, used to throw back her head and howl like a wolf at sirens and ice cream trucks. The last few months of her life she didn’t do that (not that we get much of either up here). Didn’t even bark. She used to make anxious grunty noises at the cat, too, which made the cat purr loudly and rub against her. Not sure what was going on there, but it’s not something I would have imagined if I hadn’t had that little dog. She’d stopped doing that, too, though the cat purred and rubbed against her anyway. she was never allowed upstairs, but when it became just her and the cat, she started coming up at night, checking on me in bed, then going into the guest room. If I wasn’t up at a reasonable hour, she’d come to my bed, stand up on her little corgi legs and poke me with that soft little snout. She stopped doing that, maybe about six months ago, when she fell down the stairs a couple times because she could see them anymore.

Emma and Binti checking out a noise down the street last fall.

Emma and Binti checking out a noise down the street last fall.

Those are things I never would have thought about if I hadn’t had that dog. The fact she stopped doing them, too. That’s when I knew, one of the things at least, that it was time for her to go. If I hadn’t owned a dog, that’s a little detail that never would have occurred to me.

So writers: it’s not just what you know, but what you know about what you know. The details. That’s what will make the book authentic.

And I guess as much as this was about writing, it’s a little bit about dogs, too.

EVENT: Join Maureen and Gerry Boyle as they talk about mysteries, Maine, journalism and other stuff, as well as sign books, at 3 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 10, at Mainely Murders, 1 Bourne St., Kennebunk. For more information, go to mainelymurders.com.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second book in the series, No News is Bad News, came out in July. Follow her on twitter @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, and sign up at maureenmilliken.com for updates about upcoming events and other cool stuff.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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7 Responses to What my dogs taught me about writing. Yes, I'm gonna be that gal.

  1. Aileen Nowatzki says:

    Excellent remembrance of your dogs, poignant and meaningful. Your comments about writing about what you know is so true. I write mysteries and have to research every location, every detail, and actually go or live there for a time! It takes me awhile to complete a novel, needless to say. I’ve completed four this way and am working on my fifth. (Peril on Ponza, A Shroud Over Iceland, Mayhem on Mallorca, A Quagmire on Orcas Island).

  2. Lea Wait says:

    I’ve never had a dog, and you’re right. I would have gotten details wrong. In fact, I adopted a cat after my editor suggested a good mystery should also include a good cat. Not sure my cat is good, but at least my feline details are more accurate now! Great post.

  3. Skye says:

    I adored reading this so much! I love the seemingly random, yet meaningful manner in which you pulled this together, too. I also know how it feels to be without a dog; for me, it’s been the longest spell ( over 18 months), and I have always had a dog, and there are no words to describe the relationship between dog and mommy or daddy. Thank you for writing this wonderful remberance.

  4. Skye says:

    ooops, memory.

  5. Paul Doiron says:

    This is a GREAT essay, Maureen. Both about writing and about dogs. When you commit to writing about what you know — or about what you can learn if you’re willing to put in the time before applying fingers to keyboard — it improves your ability to detect bullshit. Not just in books where the author clearly used a travel guide as research material. But also in your own work when, in an otherwise solidly sourced novel, you throw in weak secondary characters and poorly imagined situations. My guess is that most writers look back on some of their work and say, “Hmm, I didn’t know this as well as I thought I knew it.”

  6. Jacki York says:

    Thanks this was a great read with my 14 year old beagle snoring away at my feet. All the little things with having a dog are the joys, even when they don’t always seem like joys.

    Do you think you’ll have dogs again?

    • Yes, I will. And they’ll be corgis or corgi mixes, because I love their funny personalities. But not right now. I work very long days at my newspaper job, and Emma was good girl who never made a mess in the house, but I wouldn’t want to do that to a new dog. Maybe when I become a hot enough mystery writer I can quit the day job… 🙂
      Thanks for reading! And your kind comments. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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