The fourth book in the Paws & Claws series, The Death & Life of an American Dog, is now available. Fourth. Hard to believe, for me at least...
When I wrote the first book in the series, I did not anticipate writing any other books about the Three Dog Detective Agency. It was a project I had long discussed with Levi, but I had never gotten beyond the general concept, and did not actually undertake until 2012, as part of National Novel Writing Month, the process of which I shared here. Had I known then that I would write more than just the one book, I probably would have given it a different title, probably the subtitle, A Three Dog Mystery instead of Paws & Claws. Since then, I have revised the text, added photos of locations and characters, and created a new cover. But I kept the title, mostly because it always annoyed me when I would buy what I thought was a new book, then find out it was one I had already read, published under a new title.
Speaking of titles, when I decided early in 2013 that I wanted to continue telling the adventures of Levi, Sunny and Yoda, I sat down and charted a course, not through outlines or a series of synopses, but by way of a list of titles. I don't know if other writers use this method of stimulating the little grey cells, but it's one that works for me--the title suggests a situation, which requires the right setting, which suggests the best opening and characters, and...well, once the characters get involved, I just write down what they say and do. Of course, it means I'm at the mercy of my characters, and sometimes they do double-cross me, as Levi did in K-9 Blues, where he was supposed to smell one scent but reported something completely different, forcing a complete rethinking of the plot and climax. Back to titles...my Paws & Claws notebook starts with a list of more than a dozen titles, none with any explanation, and the fourth is The Death and Life of an American Dog.
The title suggested a canine veteran, a war dog, and since I had been in the Army, it made since that the dog had as well. The title also suggested a kind of rebirth, a return to life from a deathlike state. It reminded me of The Light of Day, a 1962 book by Eric Ambler about Arthur Abdel Simpson, who finds himself in a very dark situation and yearns to return to the light of day. It also brought to mind Carlos Fuentes' The Death of Artemio Cruz, also published in 1962, in which a corrupt land owner in post-Revolutionary Mexico must journey back in his mind to find a state of grace.
So, I had a war dog who was in a bad place, a dark place, perhaps a prisoner of his own fears, trapped in a trauma-caused dream. But did the danger stem purely from the depths of his own mind? Obviously not, otherwise Levi, Sunny and Yoda would have to open the Three Dog Psychiatric Agency, and I had no plans to write the canine equivalent of Flowers for Algernon. The story needed villains, and they had to come from the land where it all had to start--Afghanistan.
Of course, the setting is a given--Chula Vista, for that is the home of the Three Dog Detective Agency, almost a character itself. From Afghanistan to Chula Vista, with villains following...the back story begins to form, and it's when a back story is revealed, piece by piece over the course of the plot that all the twists begin to straighten, all the puzzling incidents begin to make sense. As for an opening, there are always two in the Paws & Claws series, the prologue and the story itself, and this book was no different. As I thought about the plight of the war dog and how it all might have started, I heard a voice shouting "Iblis! Iblis!" from the midst of flames. I then realized the Army dog was having a nightmare, and the nightmare became the prologue. As for the start of the story itself, I saw Yoda, the impetuous and usually snarky Pomeranian of the group, on a solitary patrol one day and...well there you are.
I hope I have not bored anyone too much with this account of how The Death & Life of an American Dog came into being (and if I did, why are you still reading?), but I'm always interested in how writers create stories, and thought I would share. Of course, this was just the start of the story, for even fiction requires research. A long time ago, Isaac Asimov wrote, "I don't look to fiction for facts, but I don't look to it for errors either." It's a maxim I've always taken to heart, which is why I extensively research, of which only about 10% actually makes it into any book or story. For this book, I researched dog breeds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, military dog training, how pizza is made, the Veterans Administration, PTSD, Islamic mythology, folklore, Battlestar Galactica, herding calls, storm drains, Victorian architecture, and a host of other subjects.
No matter how the book starts, however, no matter all the various bits and pieces poured into it to create an interesting and moving plot, it's always about one thing--the dogs. I always keep in mind that my main characters are not detectives who are dogs, but dogs who are detectives. A subtle note, perhaps, but one which makes all the difference in the world.