Researching Novels: the Border Collie Lesson
Dogs have important roles in my novels, both in the adult and in the young-adult stories. Some of my books have more than one featured dog, but THE featured dog, in every book I write, is a border collie.
I selected that breed for my first novel, The Face of the Enemy, because the story is set in England, and because border collies are natives of the sheep-herding areas along the England-Scotland border. And as most of us know, they are also among the most intelligent dogs in the world. For those reasons, I wanted that particular breed to appear in my stories, despite the fact that I had never been around border collies.
Why feature any dogs at all? Because, as those of you who have dogs know, dogs have a profound effect on the life of a family. Your dog will be glad to see you regardless of the kind of day you have had. Your dog will love you, trust you, want to be with you, no matter what else is going on in your life. I wanted Rebecca and her family members to show that they know this about families, that they value their animals, and that they take seriously their responsibility for loving and caring for them.
Now, back to border collies.
There is a scene in my first novel in which six people enter the room at the same time. I wrote, “Mildred [the family border collie in that first book] ran from cluster to cluster, jumping and exclaiming… pausing to sniff and stare….” In other words, having never been around border collies, I had Mildred behave like the other dogs I had known.
Not long after that book was published, our “rescue” cocker spaniel died of old age. A few months later, we returned to the shelter and there, in the first enclosure, was a border collie. We took her home right away.
Well, we had had our border collie for about two weeks when two couples came over to our home for dinner. Both couples came in the front door at the same time. Four moving objects. Can you picture it?
Our border collie lowered her head into her working posture and immediately began to trot in a tight circle around these four people, seeking to herd them into what she considered a safe corner of our living room. I was astonished. And my first thought was, “That paragraph in The Face of the Enemy is wrong, and it’s too late to do anything about it.”
Well… yes… too late for the hardcover edition, and, to this day, if you go to page 104, you’ll see those same words. However, when my novels became e-books, I asked my editor if I could change anything. She said "Yes," and so, in the e-book version, you can read this: “Mildred, her border collie instincts rising to the occasion, swiftly circled the disordered group with the clear purpose of moving the herd to what she regarded as a safe corner….”
That was a good lesson. When writing fiction, make sure you research every piece of the story. Make the people behave like actual people. Make the scenes look like actual scenes. And make the border collies behave like actual border collies!