How my dog taught me about backstory
One snowy APRIL morning I learned the true art of writing backstory from a most unlikely source; my rescue lab mix, Cooper. (Yes, I did use snow and April in the same sentence. This is Ohio, after all:) I shrugged into my winter gear and headed into the snow with Cooper for our three mile walk. It’s a morning ritual we’ve engaged in since his rescue 2 ½ years ago. We look forward to it for so many reasons; exercise, quiet, exploring, daydreaming, plotting and planning. Okay, Cooper only wants the exercise and the exploring which has on occasion included sniffing out an Eggo waffle from the bushes, scarfing up a half-eaten bagel with cream cheese and wolfing down a banana strewn on the tree lawn. His finds are true testimonials to the discarded breakfasts of kids on their way to the bus.
As we made our usual trek, I thought about topics and possibilities for a blog I wanted to write and before the first half mile, it hit me; I would write about backstory, but not in an instructional way. I would write about it using Cooper and his history as the model. He’s got quite a story, some known, some guessed at, some revealed in dribbles, but all heartbreaking and inspirational.
After we lost our black lab, Molly, one short week after her twelfth birthday, I mourned her for months. Her story is for another time – this one is about Cooper. After seven months, I was ready to open my heart to another dog, a rescue this time. Enter Cooper. I passed him over the first time I saw him on the lab rescue website. He didn’t look like much of a lab, his nose was too long, his tail looked chopped, and he was a boy. (I thought I wanted a girl.) After days of scouring the site, I called the head of the lab rescue association for direction and she suggested Cooper. She had done the intake on him when he first arrived in their facility and said he was intelligent and eager to please. Probably two or so years old. What they knew about him, (backstory) was that he’d been found wandering along the state route highway and the town drunk picked him up and took him to the lab rescue center. Most likely, he’d been dumped.
My husband and I decided to visit the foster home and take a look at Cooper. Talk about skinny. I mean ‘count your ribs’ skinny. He had fly bites behind his ears, and long, spindly legs and one silly little barbell squeaky toy with the paint half chipped off. (We pictured him wandering the roads, scrapping for food and shelter. The fly bites behind the ears made us wonder if he’d been left outside for long periods of time. Tied up?) When we saw him in person, we spotted the lab in him but there was something else too – pointer? He was such a pathetic little bugger, so uncertain and timid, nothing like Queen Molly had been. That’s when I truly realized Molly would never be replaced BUT there was room in our hearts to love another dog and that dog was Cooper.
So, here’s some interesting backstory we guessed at once Cooper moved in:
This dog can smell! – How else would he have sniffed out two dead mice in our basement – behind a stack of lumber? Yes, gross! Or run along the lawn in a zig zag pattern, nose to the ground, sniffing like a pig searching out truffles but most likely tracking voles?
This dog can jump! He stole 24 half-frozen meatballs from a glass Pyrex on the countertop and didn’t move the Pyrex or leave a trace. A few months later, he stole a half a ham from the same Pyrex which was on top of the dryer in the laundry room, (put there as safekeeping for the next day’s graduation party, but I forgot to close the door.) Cooper got the ham and the Pyrex from the dryer and dragged them across the long kitchen floor, upending the Pyrex but not breaking it. Fortunately, we must have interrupted his shenanigans before he ate much of it. And no, we did not serve the remainder of the ham to guests.
This dog can’t run a straight line. Cooper is fast, I mean really fast, especially when he’s retrieving a tennis ball. But when he’s running back to us, he’s almost sidestepping as he moves. My husband thinks he was once on a chain and learned how to run this way. I try not to think about it.
This dog has manners. Despite his sad background, Cooper’s foster mother taught him a few tricks that have served him well. He sits and waits for the hand command before eating, he can back up, roll over, creep, and if something lands on the floor, he will wait until I tell him it’s okay to eat. (I wish he would do this on his walks!)
This dog doesn’t like Birthdays. One month after we adopted Cooper, we celebrated my mother’s 80th birthday. When the candles came out and we sang Happy Birthday, Cooper ran in the other room and hid under the computer desk. We’ve had several birthdays since then and we’ve learned he doesn’t like the song Happy Birthday or candles/fire of any kind. I don’t light any scented candles in the house because it scares him and he runs off. No outside fire pits either. I would love to know what happened that frightened him so much. He also doesn’t like ‘Soft Little Kitty’ from The Big Bang Theory. He perked up one night and watched the TV, mesmerized by the sound. Other songs are okay, trust me, I’ve tried them out on him. I think this one has to do with the fact that it sounds like a child singing and children also bother him. Crying children, loud voices, all worrisome to him.
This dog does not like engines. As much as Molly loved the UPS man, Cooper does not. It’s not the man or the vehicle that sends him in a tailspin; it’s the sound of the engine. Buses, UPS, Fed Ex, garbage trucks . . . Did he try to steal food from the garbage truck and get chased away?
This dog is still . . . a dog. I’ve had Cooper micro-chipped like Jason Bourne. He has an orthopedic bed and a snuggle bed. He has an L.L. Bean monogrammed leash and collar. He eats sensitive stomach dog food and bite- size apple turnover dog treats. And guess what? The other day we were on our walk and I noticed he had something in his mouth. I thought it was a pine cone. Uh,no, it was a partial head of a rabbit. I was not happy. Worse, too many times I’ve caught him in the wooded part of our backyard chomping away. I know he’s probably eating rabbit droppings! As my vet once asked me, “If Cooper were in the wild, would he choose organ meats or lean?”
This dog watches over us. When Cooper first arrived, he woke in the middle of the night and walked to my side of the bed and then my husband’s, just making sure we were there. He doesn’t do it as much anymore, but still, at least once a week, I hear him. I wonder what he’s thinking . . .
So what does this all mean? Cooper’s backstory was revealed to us a bit at a time. Rarely did anyone step up and tell us about him, because no one knows which lends to supposition on our part after evaluating and observing his responses and behavior in certain circumstances. Revealing backstory in writing is no different. Dump it all in the first chapter and the pace slows, the reader loses interest, and the intrigue slips away. But dole it out a bit at a time, through action or reaction and you’ve got a very interesting tale. Or in Cooper’s case, a dog tail – I mean tale.
I’ve got some great backstory in my new releases, A FAMILY AFFAIR and PIECES OF YOU. Great deals too at 99 cents on Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords.