Monday, February 1, 2016

Gentle Leaders

I'm a big fan of Gentle Leaders.   As a dog walking tool, I really haven’t found a better alternative.  They are far more humane than pinch collars or choke chains.  If you’re not familiar with Gentle Leaders, they are essentially a head harness that give you control of a dog in a similar way that a rider controls a horse.  People sometimes mistake them for a muzzle, but they do not restrict the dog’s mouth, and are far more comfortable than the collars I've mentioned. 

I started using a Gentle Leader with Brodi, who weighed well over a hundred pounds.  He was all muscle, strong, and stubborn as a mule when he decided he didn’t want to do something.  When we added Sunny to our lives and I was faced walking two strong, willful, hundred pound dogs, I used the Gentle Leader, too.  It should be no surprise that I have started using one with Kassi.  She’s been pretty good on a leash, and we’ve taken her out leashed since day one, so the transition was just a matter of getting her accustomed to the feel of the Gentle Leader, and walking alongside Sunny.  What seemed like a big challenge was made easier with experience and the right tool.  

The weather over the weekend was perfect, and we went out for our first big walk.  Kassi fell in beside Sunny really well (the blue harness helped keep them together, but after two walks, she didn't need it any longer), and proved what I have thought from that beginning that she was going to be a natural walker.  There’s still a lot to learn, and trust me, the moment when I realized that I had two ridgebacks back on the leash and I was walking my old path was a bittersweet moment, but it was an easier transition than I had expected.   

Tools that have worked for us in the past keep us on the path forward, creatively, or when walking the dogs.  It’s natural for me to use character development to propel the plot.  I have always believed that plot was just the footprints that a character left behind, but as a mystery writer there has to be an added layer.  There has to be that interaction between the reader and writer that borders on a game, or a puzzle given to be solved.  Detectives, amateur sleuths, and PIs (private investigators), all have certain traits that are natural to them that automatically advance the plot, but they still need to be original in their own ways.  So one tool, can help create the next. Creating the puzzle is never easy, and the writer has to play fair with the reader—give them all of the information they need so they can solve the puzzle just like the main character.  One defines the other, and honestly, without the solution of the crime, or a puzzle, a mystery is not a mystery.  The puzzle is a tool that has to be used honestly and with care and restraint to move the story, the plot, and the character from the beginning to the end.

Monday, January 25, 2016


Ridgebacks are swatters.  They use their front paws frequently to box with other ridgebacks (they go up on their hind legs and bat at each other), to hold bones while they chew, and to express themselves.  Kassi will frequently paw at us when she wants something.  Imagine a pack of ridgebacks on the African savanna with a big male lion cornered.  It swats at the pack and the pack swats back. Its offense and defense for them.  Swatting is in a ridgeback's DNA.   So, it should be no surprise that teaching Kassi to shake came pretty easy.  Teaching shake was easy with our other two ridgebacks, too.  I tapped her right leg, pulled it toward me once, put her paw in my hand, and gave her a treat.   I tapped her leg again and motioned for her to give me her paw, and she did.  One time. For the treat. 

Some things just come natural, are easy to teach and learn.  Of course, the more complicated commands will take time.  Writing is like that, too.  You have to figure out what comes easy to you.  Dialogue?  Description?  Pace?  The mystery?  Characters? Whatever it is, learn to use it as a foundation for the other skills that don’t come as natural to you.  I have always been a visual person, that's how I learn, and that's how I create.  Description seemed to come easy to me when I first starting writing.  But my dialogue was stiff and stilted, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a rhythm that sounded true. So, I took music lessons, read a lot of poetry, and read a lot of good writers who had an ear for dialogue.  It took me a long time to feel comfortable with mimicking conversations.

There are always going to be challenges for new writers, but finding your strengths and building on them is a helpful way to grow.  Just don’t rely on those natural abilities too much.  Kassi and I are already on to the next command and skill, and it won’t be an easy one… 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Walking (Part 2)

I should probably take a step back and explain why I chose to have Rhodesian ridgebacks in my life.  After freelancing for a couple of years, I knew I needed a reason to get out from behind the desk.  I was indexing more and writing less in those days and I was spending a lot of time in my chair.  When we moved to the house we live in now, I would be sitting and working, and at certain times of the day I would look up and see a guy walking a big Siberian husky regularly.  Like clockwork.   And I thought, that’s I what I need to do  And so it began. 

Up to that point, I had not been a dog walker even though we’d had a dog, Meggie, a basenji, that lived to be sixteen.  I would even venture to say that I was a sub-par dog owner.  She got a decent amount of attention, decent food, reasonably regular vet visits, but that was about it.  No exercise, no focus on her.  Meg was just part of our house and part of our life.   I learned a lot from her.   So, after some time without her, I started looking into large breed dogs.  I wanted a dog that could handle walking regularly.  Meg had a lot of African attributes that we liked.  Short hair, quiet, smart, loyal, so I started looking in that direction and I immediately found ridgebacks.  Then by happenstance not long after, Rose and I were out at a park walking, and a guy with two big red ridgebacks came our way.  We stopped and talked for a minute, then off they went.  It’s still a vivid memory today almost fifteen years later.  I knew right then that ridgebacks were for me and it wasn’t long before Brodi, our first ridgeback, came into our life.  He was a great dog, and I probably have lot more to say than that, but we did walk every day, three times a day in the beginning and two most other days unless it was just too cold.  After we lost Brodi, when he was almost thirteen, I calculated that we had walked all the across the United States and half way back again.  It wasn’t a glamorous walk, nothing to brag about.  That was never the point.  We hardly ever left the neighborhood.  But in that time, I got out from behind the desk, got some exercise, experienced some sunshine and rain, and worked out a whole lot of plot problems and gained more ideas than I could ever hope to finish.

Walking on a regular, disciplined basis has become an essential part of my writing and indexing practice.  But so has my time with the dogs. After we lost Brodi, Sunny and I walked the same path, and that unbroken routine helped to ease the pain and allowed us both keep going.  Our decision to bring Kassi into the house will help us all walk into the future, which by the way is the basis for Kassi’s name.  Her African name is Kusasa.  It means tomorrow, the future.  Once the weather warms up, Kassi will join Sunny and I on our journey to anywhere…as I solve plot problems and continue to wonder and wander in and out of my imagination. Sometimes the the biggest, most important part of writing happens when you aren't working.

Brodi’s African name was Baruti, by the way.  It means teacher.