I’ve been on the emotional rollercoaster this week. My beloved old dog, Outlaw, died unexpectedly; I finished revising the manuscript of Heart’s Blood; and my new novel, Heir to Sevenwaters, was published. Outlaw’s death completely overshadowed the book milestones, reminding me that while the ups and downs of the journey to publication loom large in a writer’s existence, it’s the joys and sorrows of real life that give us the key to emotional truth in our writing.
Barbara blogged last week about the way writers use and transform real life events to shape a story. It so happened that last week my critique group gave me some feedback on the final chapters of Heart’s Blood. I was provided with a number of suggestions for improving this section, and one was to expand a scene about … yes, the death of a beloved dog. My critiquing buddies thought the dog character deserved a grander, more emotive send-off than the one I had given him. I was still considering whether I would make this change when Outlaw fell seriously ill. There followed three days and nights of confronting sights, sounds and sensations, culminating in a long deathbed vigil.
The thought of trying to put some of that down on the page was daunting. I’ve written dog death scenes before, but this was too new and raw. I hadn’t had time to process it; I was still trying to deal with my shock and grief. However, as anyone who has followed my last two posts here will know, the deadline for this manuscript is the end of November. If I was going to revise the scene, I had to grit my teeth and get to it straight away. I told myself it would make the book better and be a tribute to my brave old boy.
Not everything went into the scene, of course. The dog in the story is not a gentle kelpie but a fearsome fighting hound, and he dies from battle wounds. I did include some of the most powerful moments from the real experience, including the way Outlaw seemed to wake from a semi-coma for long enough to hear me tell him what a wonderful friend he had been over the years. Other parts of it may appear in a later story, in particular the mysterious way in which the old dog, who had been unable to walk for the previous 12 hours, somehow managed to get himself outside onto the chill, dewy grass during the brief time I fell asleep, a distance of at least 30 paces. How did he do this, and why? We’ll never know for sure. My son carried him back inside and we wrapped him in a quilt. He died two hours later.
Well, the manuscript is all finished. My instincts tell me it’s time to stop pruning and tweaking and let it go. I’m taking a short break and allowing myself to read for pure pleasure (I’m currently revisiting Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish novels) before starting my next project. Heart’s Blood has come in at around 157,000 words, which gives very little scope for additional scenes. I’ll have to hope my editors don’t want expansion. More on this in my January post, when I expect to have the editorial report back.
I guess writers don’t dedicate books to their dogs, but a small part of Outlaw will remain in this particular novel, and no doubt he will make a contribution to other loyal and loving dog characters in the future.