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The Great Dogs Behind ‘Coop the Great’

Coop the Great is a fictional story and Coop, the jaded dachshund and lead character, is fictional too.  I’ve never been the guardian of a dachshund, but I’ve been surrounded by dogs much of my life.  As I wrote the book, I felt that they were watching over my shoulder and guiding my hand. In many ways, they became the voice and heart of Coop, and many of the situations he faces are ones they did, too. 

Here are the 7 special and very real dogs that influenced every facet of Coop the Great

How to Write Like a Dog

How does one write like a dog? That’s the challenge I faced when I wrote Coop the Great.  In my story, Cooper is an aging, cynical dachshund who has been through rounds of adoptions and foster homes, and eventually finds a new owner – Mike – who challenges Coop in unexpected ways. I wanted to tell the story in first person, meaning that I wanted to write it from Coop’s point of view, in his distinctive voice as if he was narrating the story.

So how does one write from a dog’s point of view? Here are a few of the approaches I used: 

The infamous Bernie, innocent-looking but ready for action

Dogs have been a big part of my life, and each one had a unique personality. For example, Bernie, a poodle-terrier mix, was full of energy and mischief. As a pup, he ran rampant about the house, chewing everything within reach – potted plants, covers off books, kitchen cabinet doors, and his very favourite delight – underwear stolen out of the laundry basket. He was an eager crotch sniffer, too. Anyone venturing into the house, was greeted with a muzzle in the crotch, not something everyone was comfortable with.  

Coop bears some of those same qualities and habits as Bernie, and I am pretty sure I was inspired by his antics.  But there have been other dogs, too,  Freckles, Roxy, Benji, Molly, Lilah, and Haley to mention a few. Coop is a blend of them all.


What goes on in a dog’s head? What do dogs think and feel? Why do they behave the way they do? To write authentically as Coop, I needed to find out how dogs sense things and why they react as they do. I read several books non-fiction books. Two of the most useful were The Secret Lives of Dogs: The Real Reasons Behind 52 Mysterious Canine Behaviors by Jana Murphy  and Power of the Dog: Things Your Dog Can Do That You Can’t by Les Krantz.

 

 


AT the Joyce Gauthier Centre in the Winnipeg Humane Society, shelter animals work on socialization and behaviour skills.

To find out more about shelters and adoption agencies, I volunteered for a time at Foothills Animal Rescue in Scottsdale, Arizona.  I also toured the Winnipeg Humane Society. Both gave me a better understanding of what these agencies do and how they operate.

 


Jo snaps a photo of a not-so-happy dachshund in Turin, Italy

I wanted Coop to be a dachshund with its characteristic long body and short legs, and I needed him to face obstacles unique to his stature.  On the advice of Suzanne Goulden, a friend and fellow writer, I experimented with Coop’s views. I wanted to see and feel what a small dog might so I crawled on hands and knees. Believe me, that was a revelation. Try it yourself, it you will. You’ll see knees, chair legs, the bases of cabinets, and the floor in new and interesting ways.

 


On the run at the Wiener Dog Races

As I wrote Coop the Great and even afterwards, I saw dachshunds I’d never noticed before. I saw them in parks, in playgrounds, along the streets and in corridors, in my own city and those abroad. Every encounter offered grist for the writing mill.  Inevitably their devoted owners were more than willing to divulge the details of their pet’s habits. One unique opportunity came while I was in Phoenix and heard about the annual Wiener Dog Races held there. Jo and I spent an enjoyable few hours cheering on the runners and mixing with their enthusiastic owners.

 


Coop has a distinctive voice and personality, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to implement it.  For inspiration, I re-read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. It’s a fictional story told from the point of view of Enzo, a philosophical, sarcastic dog who lives with Denny Swift, a wanna-be race car driver. I’d read the book years ago and found it memorable not just for the story line, but also for Enzo’s unique voice and sense of humour. How did Stein accomplish this feat?  Although my story and characters were very different, re-reading The Art of Racing in the Rain set the tone for the book I wanted to write. It helped me discover Coop’s unique voice and purpose, too.

 

 


Here’s a taste of Coop’s voice from Chapter 1:


My last night at Derby Animal Shelter, I couldn’t sleep. Not just because the room reeked of urine, thanks to Buck, my roommate. And not only because the fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered, casting creepy shadows across the cold concrete floor.  

                      Of all the reasons I couldn’t sleep, the thought of morning topped the list. Another open house. Another round of visitors sweeping through the building eager to adopt a dog to suit their needs. Not too old. Not too short. Definitely not fat. Gotta be smart and oozing with personality. The list was endless.

                      Derby Animal Shelter was a no-kill facility. More than a dozen dogs lived there. Some had strayed from their homes and were found wandering. Others, like me, had been rejected by their owners. Across the hall, behind a cinder block wall, lived a gazillion cats. I’m exaggerating of course but judging by the non-stop wailing coming from their quarters, it sounded like an impossibly high number. Probably it was closer to thirty or forty. Too many.

 

Writing ‘Coop the Great’

With each new piece of writing, a writer learns more about the craft and something about him/herself. Having just wrapped up my middle grade novel, Coop the Great – a story told from the viewpoint of an aging dachshund – it’s time to take stock of the lessons learned along the way.

With ‘Coop’,  I knew some of the plot before I started writing.  By some, I mean I knew how the story would begin, and I knew how it would end. The middle was fuzzy, but I figured it would reveal itself once I started writing.

Wrong! I plowed ahead and wrote the first third of the book, then stalled completely.  I didn’t really know how to get my characters to the end. Finally, after floundering for many days, I put the draft away. I realized that I had homework to do if I was ever to finish the book.

Although the problem seemed to be a plot one, I thought it might have more to do with my characters. I didn’t know them as well as I should.  I consulted two books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. In the front matter to their books, Ackerman and Puglisi detail the importance of building characters from the ground up and equipping them with unique personalities based not only on strengths, but also flaws.

Armed with suggestions from the two books, I developed a 4-page character sketch of my protagonist, Cooper. On the plus side, I wanted Cooper to be resilient, curious, and resourceful among other things.  On the flawed side, I needed him to be cynical, anxious, emotionally distant and resigned to his lowly position in life.  Ackerman and Puglisi write about the importance of “emotional wounds”.  These are emotional scars from incidents in the past that influence the present. I dug deep into Cooper’s past to isolate one.

I snapped this photo while hiking in Arizona. Somehow the dog seemed determined to get somewhere despite his short legs, just like I imagined Cooper, my fictional character, would.

Once I had character sketches for Cooper and others in the story, I spent a week plotting a detailed outline that would carry me to the end. I knew the characters intimately by then. I knew how they would react to each other and to obstacles I put in their way. I plotted each chapter in detail, outlining not only what happened, but how it influenced each character.  My outline was 20 pages.

Guided by the outline, I wrote the rest of the story.  It got me through the difficult middle stretch and to the end.  But – and this an important but – I didn’t entirely follow the outline.  As I came to know my characters better, fresh ideas surfaced that altered the story-line. If I thought they strengthened the story, I integrated them into the fabric I was weaving.

The Take-Away:

Some writers – the pantsers – think that character sketches and outlines limit their creativity. They prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and write without planning much or at all.  For me having a map at the start of the journey saw me to the end.  Sure, there were detours, but at least I knew where they were taking me.

Revisiting ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’

Some books are worth a second read.  Such was the case with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

I’d read the book years ago and remember the impact it had on me. Then, a week ago, I spotted it on my ‘special’ bookshelf, wedged between other books that I deem worthy of further reads. I’d been looking for an example of a story told in third person as this one is, and that gave me an excuse to dip into the book a second time.

Boyne’s story tells the tale of two nine-year-old boys – Bruno and Shmuel – who live on opposite sides of the concentration camp fence at Auschwitz during the second world war. Bruno is the son of the German commandant in charge of the camp.  Shmuel is a Jewish prisoner. As the story evolves, the two become friends and meet at the fence almost daily. The conclusion – which I won’t spoil for you – is deeply affecting and memorable.

Although I had viewed the movie version after my first read, I found myself more engaged in the text the second time around than in any scene in the film.  A number of things about Boyne’s writing struck me as I read the book again.  One was its simplicity. Boyne’s writing is sparse and unadorned. Not a word is wasted. The sparseness of the story matches the sparseness of the setting, and it echoes the loneliness and horror facing those on both sides of the fence at Auschwitz.

Another striking feature is the way Boyne immerses us in the thoughts and feelings of his main characters. We see and feel almost everything from Bruno’s perspective. He’s a nine-year-old who is trying to make sense of what is happening around him.  He is curious, asks questions, and when answers aren’t forthcoming, he formulates conclusions that – to him, at least – match circumstances that he doesn’t quite understand. All this deepened my reading experience and had me asking some of the same questions as Bruno.

Some of the best examples of this nine-year-old sense-making come from the names that Bruno assigns to people and places. To Bruno, the Fuher sounds like the Fury and so that is the name he assigns Adolph Hitler. Auschwitz is Out-With. He calls his sister, Gretel, a Hopeless Case and Trouble From Day One. His father’s office is Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, John Boyne writes:  “Fences such as the one at the heart of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas still exist; it is unlikely that they will ever fully disappear.”

With border walls cropping up between countries, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seemed even more relevant and striking to me on my second read. It is a thought-provoking story, not suitable for nine-year-olds, but excellent for more mature readers.

Save the Cat! Save Your Story?

When school reading programs kick into full gear during the winter months, I like to participate in my own way by reading books that I’ve been eyeing for some time.  Usually, there is a middle grade novel in the pile (Wonder, this year), but I also like to dip into at least one book that explores the writing craft. This year that book was Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Why the odd title for this book? you might wonder. Why Save the Cat?  In the introduction, Snyder clears up one mystery. “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”  To show us what he means, Snyder references a film or two, films that introduce the hero and have him/her do something worthy within a few minutes of the film’s beginning. “That’s why the name of this book is Save the Cat!  It’s emblematic of the kind of common sense basics I want to get across to you….”

Snyder lives up to the promise. The book is filled with sensible ideas that can be applied not just to screenwriting, but to other writing forms, too.  He packs the book with film examples like Miss Congeniality  to show how, when and where they’ve been used in popular movies, and he explores the reasons why they work or don’t work. He also writes about his own personal experiences in the film industry, offers marketing tips, and takes readers behind the scenes of the film-making/screen writing business.

One of the most useful features in the book lies in Chapter 4: Let’s Beat It Out!.  Snyder introduces the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet”, a set of 15 points or beats that every well-structured screenplay contains.  The beat sheet is essentially a one-page outline that moves the story along, hitting the essential highs and lows from the Opening Image (1) to the Midpoint (9) and All is Lost (11) to the Finale (14) and Final Image (15).  

The fifteen beats

In Chapter 5 – Building the Perfect Beast – Snyder introduces ‘The Board’.  it’s a planning strategy “for you to ‘see’ your movie before you start writing.”  Although it has many forms, ‘The Board’ boils down to a set of 40 index cards or post-its that chart the major plot points of the story, and the pages in a screenplay where they should appear. 

A sample card

Each card contains a line that describes the action occurring in the scene. A line at the top tells where and when the scene is happening. Symbols, notations and color-codes add other information. The +/- sign, for example, is used to represent the emotional change that should be executed in each scene.  

One version of the board.
Another variation

Not everyone is a fan of Snyder’s method.  Some detractors claim that he’s boiled screenwriting down to a template, a one-size-fits-all formula.  One critic on the Internet even suggested that Snyder has ruined Hollywood by stripping film-making of much of its creativity. [On Story Structure (and how Save the Cat ruined Hollywood)]. 

I chose the book mainly to learn more about plot and character development. These were topics I felt I could apply in my own fiction-writing endeavors.  To those ends, the book – and especially Chapters 4 and 5 – served me well.  ,

Recommended resources:

Tim Stout – Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet – 

Tim Stout – Story Structure in Graphic Novels

 

 

Off to the Weiner Dog Races

In my middle grade novel, Coop the Great, my protagonist is an elderly, cynical dachshund named Cooper. Coop’s a down-and-out dog, adopted and rejected many times. When he meets Mike, a different kind of owner, Coop’s life takes an unexpected turn.

This dachshund, spotted along a trail in Phoenix, was the role model for Cooper and the inspiration for the story that followed.  He seems to be saying: “So I’m different. So what?”

Ever since I started writing the novel, I’ve been eyeing dachshunds. I’d never paid much attention to them before, but suddenly I saw them everywhere, trotting on tiny legs, resiliently plodding after their owners.  When I heard about the 22nd annual Wiener Dog Races while I was in Phoenix, I was intrigued.  The tag line on the Wiener Mania page of the Arizona Adopt A Greyhound website made it sound like fun: Come join us for this great family event where over 200 Wiener Dogs will complete over a 50 yard race track for bragging rights and terrific prizes!” 

Of course, I just had to go.  Lucky for me, my wife, Jo, wanted to go, too.

Crowds swarm Turf Paradise field in Phoenix.  Dachshund owners are an enthusiastic bunch.

Only pure-bred dachshunds can compete in the Wiener Races. Variety is the name of the game here. There were dachshunds of every size, stripe, colour, and attire.

Participants pay a $25 fee to enter, then rally others to support the cause.  The money raised goes to Arizona Adopt A Greyhound in their ongoing effort to find homes for retired racing greyhounds.  

Everyone gets into the act!

With 5 categories ranging from Juvenile Racing Wiener to Senior Racing Wiener, there are races to suit every dachshund.

Setting up
And they’re off – sort of

We had a great time at the Wiener Dog Races, but it seemed to me that the contestants had the most fun of all.

 

Bonding with My Kids Over the Hideous Twits

 

Reading to our two young kids was a nightly ritual in our house, right after baths and brushing of teeth. Read alouds were as regular as sunset, a pattern that the kids loved and so did their parents.

Recently, I asked my now 37-year-old son what books he remembered from our read-aloud times. One book he mentioned was The Twits by Roald Dahl. I’d forgotten much of the plot, but the mere mention of the book brought back a wash of memories. He must have been 8 or 9 at the time, perhaps younger, but somehow, we’d connected over the silliness of the story, the preposterous characters, and Dahl’s twisted humour.

In Dahl’s book, the Twits are a hideous, spiteful husband and wife who hate one another. They play outlandish practical jokes on each other as they try to outdo the nastiness of their partner. Just to give you a taste of the humour, in one scene Mrs. Twit removes her glass eye and pops it into Mr. Twits’ beer mug when he isn’t looking. Mr. Twit downs the beer and discovers the glass eye. His shock delights Mrs. Twit, but also sets him on a path of revenge.  He hides a large, ugly frog in her bed and…. You get the gist – one-upmanship of the hideous kind.

Quentin Blake’s illustrations add delightful quirkiness to the story

Being former circus owners, the Twits try to form the world’s first upside-down monkey circus. They set about trapping animals in bizarre ways, leading to even more dubious acts as the story continues. As with all good stories, villains get their just desserts at the end, and the Twits get theirs in a particularly wacky way.

While children love Roald Dahl’s humour, many adults deplore it.  They find it questionable, and of the bathroom variety that is inappropriate for young readers.  In The Twits, Dahl portrays a couple with few redeeming qualities, wreaking havoc on each other in a broken marriage. What kind of role models are these for young children?  What does the book teach them about relationships?

Speaking for myself, I don’t believe my kids were damaged in any way. The story has a moral component and reading was our time together. We laughed through the silly passages, recognizing that this was a fictional couple. For a real couple, they had only to look at the example set by their parents.

Because we so enjoyed the book, we read others of Roald Dahl’s like James and the Giant Peach and George’s Marvelous Medicine. We balanced Roald Dahl’s strange humour with books by other authors.

Now, thirty years later, talking together as adults now, my son and I once again laugh at the ridiculous nature of the story. We see the book for what it really was for us, and still is – an enjoyable reading experience shared between a father and his son.

For other takes on Roald Dahl’s use of humour, see

Roald Dahl’s Subversive Storytelling | The New Yorker

The Grotesque and the Taboo in Roald Dahl’s Humorous Writings for Children


For other posts in this Raising Readers Series, check out

How Superman Taught Me Story Structure
This Mummy Changed Me: National Geographic
My Intro to Sarcasm & Parody: MAD Magazine
A Lesson in Flexing Language: A Tale of Two Cities
Why I Cheered for August, Via and Other Characters in Wonder
How Truman Capote Gave Me Nightmares: In Cold Blood

 

How Truman Capote Gave Me Nightmares: In Cold Blood

If recall is anything, I believe I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while I was in grade 12. It wasn’t required reading or even recommended reading, but when I spotted the book on a rack in the library, it immediately grabbed my attention.  The reviews on the cover jacket promised great rewards to those brave enough to read the story of murder and violence outside the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. 

“A masterpiece…a spellbinding work” – Life Magazine.

“A remarkable, tensely exciting, moving, superbly written ‘true account’” – The New York Times.

“The book chills the blood and exercises the intelligence …harrowing” – The New York Review of Books

Somewhere I’d heard that with In Cold Blood, Capote had practically invented a new genre.  Using story-telling techniques borrowed from fiction, he’d woven a compelling factual story. In some circles, it was called a non-fiction novel.  Others termed it narrative non-fiction.  To still others, it was creative non-fiction.  Whatever the label, it was a relatively original approach at the time.

Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped here.
  Truman Capote, In Cold Blood –

From the moment, I opened the book, I was hooked.  The story follows two ex-cons recently released from Kansas State Penitentiary – Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock – as they invade a farm house on November 15, 1959.  With calculated precision, the pair rob and slaughter four members of the Clutter family – Herbert, the father, Bonnie, his wife, and two of their children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15.  Smith and Hickock are eventually captured, convicted, and receive the death sentence.

Capote caught wind of the crime through a 300-word account in the New York Times that was published the day after the murders. Intrigued, he travelled to Holcomb to interview locals. Later, after Smith and Hickock were sentenced, he interviewed the pair.  All told, he compiled 8000 pages of notes and spent 6 years writing the book.  By integrating vivid descriptions with quotes from the killers, local residents, and the lawmen involved, Capote created a gripping story. 

Capote’s telling was so captivating that I finished the book in record time.  To say it deeply affected me is an understatement.  The chilling story haunted me for weeks afterwards. Even to this day, when I drive past a lonely prairie farmhouse, I think of the Clutter family, the fear and panic the four must have felt, and the ruthlessness of the killers who committed the act. 

When it comes to non-fiction story telling, Truman Capote set the bar high.  Whenever I write non-fiction stories, I think of the example he set and try to aim high, too.

For more about In Cold Blood and Truman Capote, you might want to check these sources:

Sparknotes: In Cold Blood 

Shmoop: In Cold Blood 

Wikipedia: In Cold Blood


For other posts in this Raising Readers Series, check out

How Superman Taught Me Story Structure
This Mummy Changed Me: National Geographic
My Intro to Sarcasm & Parody: MAD Magazine
A Lesson in Flexing Language: A Tale of Two Cities
Why I Cheered for August, Via and Other Characters in Wonder

 

Why I Cheered for August, Via and Other Characters in Wonder

When February’s I Love to Read Month swings in action, I like to do my bit by reading something new and different.  After seeing Wonder, R. J. Palacio’s middle grade novel, in bookstores across England, Greece, Italy as well as Canada and the United States, I figured it would be a good choice.

Wonder is the story of August (Auggie) Pullman, a 10-year-old boy living in Manhattan who has a rare craniofacial disorder often equated with Treacher Collins syndrome.  Because of his condition and multiple follow-up surgeries, August’s face is disfigured. His hearing also affected, and he suffers other health set-backs. After years of home-schooling, he enters fifth-grade at Beecher Middle School. The novel follows August’s adjustment to his new school, and the impact it has on characters in the story. 

The novel is written from first-person perspectives of several key characters, starting with August himself.  Later, it switches to his older sister, Via, then later to August’s new friend, Summer and then to other characters as the story evolves. It ends with August’s account of his final few days at school that year.

Initially, I had trouble making the switch to other perspectives. August’s voice is so strong, and his telling so entertaining that when the narration switched to Via on page 37, I didn’t see the change coming.  I really didn’t want to leave August either. But Palacio gives each character a unique voice.  She starts transitions by going back to key events to show us how they impacted the character currently telling the story. Then, she adds to the plot and moves the story along before switching viewpoints again.  With each viewpoint, I understood more about the character’s relationship with August, and also some of the problems and challenges they faced.

the first time i meet olivia’s little brother I have to admit i’m totally taken by surprise. i shouldn’t be, of course. olivia’s told me about his ‘syndrome.’ has even described what he looks like. but she’s also talked about all his surgeries over the years, so i guess i assumed he’d be more normal-looking by now…                                                                               Justin, from Wonder

Jacob Tremblay plays August in the movie version of Wonder

The themes of acceptance and friendship ride throughout the novel.  Palacio switches perspectives with ease, giving each voice a personality all its own. She uses humour effectively to buffer delicate situations. Young readers will relate to August’s predicament, that of his classmates, and they might even see themselves in the cast of characters.

Palacio gives readers a well-woven story, rich in details and strong characters.  By embracing a difficult subject with sensitivity, she gives readers much to discuss and weigh.  Wonder is suitable for the 8-14 age group, but there is much here that older teens and even adults will enjoy.  This would be a great read-aloud for home or school, and a valuable resource for classrooms.


From an interview with NPR, here’s what R. J. Palacio had to say about an encounter with a girl with a severe facial deformity. The encounter occurred while she was in an ice cream shop with her two sons, and it became the driving force behind Wonder.   

I was really angry at myself afterwards for the way I had responded. What I should have done is simply turned to the little girl and started up a conversation and shown my kids that there was nothing to be afraid of. But instead what I ended up doing was leaving the scene so quickly that I missed that opportunity to turn the situation into a great teaching moment for my kids. And that got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to … have to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back.

For the full interview, click here.

For more about R.J. Palacio, click here.


For other posts in this Raising Readers Series, check out

 

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