A Neighborhood Story

The painting at the top of this post was made for me by a young lady who lives next door and her best friend who lives on the next street.

There is a backstory, of course. 

I have lived in my current neighborhood for 26 years and counting. It has changed over that quarter-plus century from having lots of kids running around to almost none at all to…well, lots of kids again. It’s a better place with the children, who I’ve described recently. One of the reasons is that the presence of children usually puts dogs in the mix as well. That brings us to Sadie. 

I’ve mentioned before in this space that the dogs in the neighborhood have me trained. Felix, the feral cat who I have dubbed “the master of the kitten face,”  still shows up as well. It is Sadie, the dog who lives next door, who has things down to scripted performance art. 

It took a while. Sadie was rescued by my very nice and patient neighbors almost two years ago. Sadie took a short time to adapt to her new and wonderful living situation. Once she did, Sadie seemed to be in constant motion for almost a year, restrained only by the Invisible Fence that her family installed for her. I would occasionally toss her a treat (okay, once a day…well, sometimes, twice a day) and she gradually got used to that when she realized that there was no downside to it. 

Then it got interesting. We started a daily performance that goes something like this. She barks and I come out. I walk over and tell her that I’m not sure if I have anything for her. I pull open my empty pocket, at which point she looks at my other pocket. Did I mention that she is a very smart dog? I then reach into my other pocket, but before pulling the treat out I tell her that it is MY treat, the only one I have. I let her know that she can’t have it but that because I love her I will let her sniff it. I usually only get the treat halfway out before she snatches it (she has never so much as grazed even one of my fingers) and takes off running, with me in pursuit, yelling “Hey! That’s my treat! Come back here!” Sadie gleefully runs around the house, reverses course, bumps me as she runs by, evades my grasp, and in the meanwhile just tears the stew out of her family’s garden, mulch, and the like. They patiently (well, usually patiently) sweep it up and let Sadie (and me) have our fun. The artwork doesn’t just attempt to capture the moment. It nails it perfectly, right down to the grin Sadie would make if she had the right facial muscles to do so.

This activity has attracted an audience among some of the neighborhood children, who laugh as hard the next time they see it as they did on the first. I suspect/hope that, as a result of this repetitive spectacle they seemingly never tire of, they will grow up reading thrillers and maybe even writing them. All of the elements of a good story are there. There is conflict (yes, it’s made up, but it’s still conflict), a McGuffin —I doubt that when Hitchcock coined the term he envisioned that the sought-after object that triggered the action in a dramatic work could ever be a dog treat, but it’s a funny world — some explosions (mulch really goes flying), a sympathetic character (it isn’t me), and a resolution that makes everyone happy (Sadie keeps the treat and eats it). A story at its foundation can be that simple. 

Those of you who count yourselves as adults or grownups (notice that I exclude myself from both categories) might consider this account to perhaps make a great “beginning reader” storybook for young children. I can see an editor sending it back to an author with instructions to “grow” the story a bit. It would be easy, however, to quickly turn this into an adult 1) mystery, 2) thriller, or 3) horror novel. Examples follow. 

Mystery: Sadie comes running back around the house carrying the severed head of a neighbor nobody likes (I have a model for him, too!) Whodunit? Suspects abound. Many suspects.

Thriller: Sadie doesn’t come back. Our intrepid treat tosser starts looking for her, finds her invisible fence collar on the ground, and runs between houses over to the next street, looking for her. Two guys are trying to get her into their car. Fisticuffs ensure. Sadie is rescued, but the treat tosser finds himself in trouble and doesn’t know why. Little does he know that the fate of the world is at stake!

Horror: When Sadie runs around the house, the assembled children run in the opposite direction laughing in delight. Then the treat tosser hears the kids screaming, and Sadie barking and growling. The barking cuts off with a high-pitched yelp and the screams of the children intensify then drop off.  The treat tosser runs around the side of the house to find a one-armed woman holding a dripping machete and advancing toward him at speed. 

I’m so glad that you like animal stories. 

The ultimate lesson here is that you can take just about any situation, no matter how joyful, and turn it into something dark in a heartbeat, setting up a conflict that begs for resolution. 

Do you have any daily rituals — peculiar to your own life — that are seemingly ordinary but that you could use as a jumping-off point? Please share if you wish.

I have two things before I go. Here for your enjoyment is a video of our neighborhood star getting her reward for bringing so much joy into the hearts of all:


The second is that I will be here for the next couple of Saturdays. At some point after Thanksgiving — we anticipate December 5 — we will have a doctor in the TKZ house when physician and author Steve Hooley joins us on alternate Saturdays. I assure you that the wait will be worth it. 

Thanks again for visiting.


This entry was posted in #writers, #writetip by Joe Hartlaub. Bookmark the permalink.

About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

39 thoughts on “A Neighborhood Story

  1. Wonderful, as always, Joe. How about an adjustment for the romance genre. Sadie comes back with a litter of pups.

      • Bless you! You made my day not once but twice. That is my all time favorite commercial. I have watched it a million times already and no doubt will watch it a million more!

        • Mine too, BK. I got to see it in advance because my younger daughter is great friends with Passenger, the singer/songwriter who performed the soundtrack. I got a little misty-eyed (maybe a lot) the first time I saw it and every time since.

    • Nope. In a romance, Sadie brings a young couple together for their happily ever after and is returned to her beloved humans or gets a forever home with them. Unwanted puppies have become a cultural no-no.

  2. Joe, you always bring a smile to my Saturday mornings. Thank you. Finally got to put a voice with the face, too. What a treat! (<– see what I did there? 🙂 ) You're creating beautiful memories for everyone in your neighborhood, young and old. Not many people can say the same. Give Sadie a hug from me. She's adorable.

    • Oh yes, Sue, I saw what you did. You are a hoot. I’m still chuckling. My relationship with the neighborhood is symbiotic, I assure you. I spoil everyone’s children and pets, and they say I haven’t been home in weeks when the high sheriff comes around to serve the occasion warrant.

      Thanks for being here today, Sue!

  3. Next time, Joe, your wife needs to shoot the video so we get to watch you running after Sadie!

    Although we haven’t had our own dog in years, everybody else’s dogs know to gallop into our kitchen and point at the treat cupboard.

    When my neighbor and I walked her two Labs in the neighborhood, and my husband happened to drive by, he always stopped to give them treats (what, other people don’t keep dog cookies in their cars?). They instantly recognized his rig as the Meals-on-Wheels delivery.

    Thanks for the Saturday smile!

    • You’re welcome, Debbie. My pleasure. It’s interesting how quickly dogs know the drill when it comes to treats but can’t lay off of shoes, etc.

      I haven’t owned a dog in years, myself. I just can’t train them. They train me, with disastrous results. The current situation is better.

      Thanks for being here today.

  4. Good morning, Joe

    Wonderful post. Sadie is a lucky dog to have you as a neighbor. Good advice as to taking everyday experiences and turning them into story ideas. I think you already have the cover art for your book cover with the painting your neighbors gave you.

    My Friday afternoons are spent in an endoscopy clinic (colonoscopies and gastroscopies). I have long thought that the setting would be the perfect place for a multitude of nefarious activities. In fact, I have a half written thriller that will probably never be published, in which all sorts of objects are placed deep within the bodies of enemies. Maybe, when I finish my middle-grade fantasy series, I should dust off that story and work on it.

    Have a great weekend.

  5. Yet more proof that we are well-trained by our furry and feathered masters. And why a pet of some sort makes almost any story better. But put that pet in danger, or, God forbid, kill it, and the reader will call John Wick on your sorry ass.

    John Wick, by the way, has become the brutal Patron Saint of Endangered Dogs among the youngish and many of us wish he isn’t fictional.

    • Maybe someone can explain to me why, in fiction, it’s ok to put human beings, who have moral standing, in all kinds of danger and risk and subject them to hideous harms, but not animals, who, at best, have much lower moral standing? Is this pure sentimentality?

      BTW, doesn’t one of the best-selling novels of all time (Black Beauty) involve cruelty to the horse?

      BTW, I love animals. I think there have been two dogs in my life I didn’t get on with. One was my aunt’s chihuahua-sized dog, who lived next door and was the only dog to bite me. The other was on my paper route and only posed a menace when i had to collect.

      • Thanks, Eric. I take your point, but might quibble with the “lower moral standing” classification.

        I attended a panel where the editor of a mystery magazine advised potential authors not to “kill the cat” in their stories. I get it.

      • It’s human nature to be more upset about a child or pet, aka an innocent, in fictional danger than an adult human. That’s the reason why a save the cat/dog/child scene is a fast way to get the reader on the side of a character.

        BLACK BEAUTY was written to show the cruelty that horses lived with daily. It’s the LES MISÉRABLES or UNCLE TOM’S CABIN of the animal cruelty movement of England, and it’s one of the biggest reasons that England had some of the first anti-cruelty laws in the world.

      • For me it’s simple. A dog is completely innocent and trustworthy (and if it’s not, human manipulation was involved) and humans of all stripes are ready and willing to do harm. So yes, it is easier to accept wrong-doing to humans in fiction than to animals.

    • Marilyn, I totally relate to John Wick. I love the scene in Parabellum where Sofia goes off on the assassin team. She explains to Wick why she slaughtered them —they killed her dog — and he responds, “Believe me! I get it!”

      I have expended entirely too much time attempting to identify and locate Sadie’s former household. Purely as a research exercise, of course.

      Thanks for coming by.

  6. That’s an excellent idea, Garry. Thank you. I, unfortunately, can’t do that. I simply could not make up my mind.

  7. Happy Saturday, Joe

    Such a wonderful post! Love the video. Made my day. Sadie is indeed a smart dog, and man, can she dash 🙂

    My urban fantasy scenario would have Sadie returning with an elbow-length midnight black leather glove, covered with silver runes and still smoldering.

    Have a great day!

  8. Thank you, Dale, and happy weekend to you!

    I love your scenario! Maybe…have Sadie drop the glove at your feet, and then say, “Please get Milk Bones next time. Arf!”

  9. That’s a smart dog, Joe. My parents had a dachshund who had a favorite green rubber ball. He’d bring it to me, and when I tried to take it he’d growl and pull away. Finally, he’d let me have it to throw and the game would start again. If it had been laying somewhere, a slipper would be left in its place. That was a lovely little drawing. You and Sadie are making good memories for the children. I remember The Thin Man of mystery fame had a dog named Asta. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • Thank you for sharing, Suzanne. Re: Sadie and I, even the jaded middle schoolers find our act amusing.

  10. Loved this post, Joe!

    We walk our German shepherd, Hoka (the smartest dog alive), every morning in the orchards which surround our house. She can hear (massive ears) a gopher or a mouse tiptoeing through the grass at fifty yards. Many times, while she digs (and digs and digs), we think we should bring our lawn chairs with us so we can sit down while she unearths the little critters.

    What if? Love that question…

    What if it wasn’t a gopher she had between her teeth when she popped up? What if it was a child’s index finger? And then another…

    • Thank you, Deb. I love your idea about setting up the lawn chairs to see what Hoka unearths. I hope that little creatures are all that she finds! Child’s index finger indeed. That’s great!

  11. Loved your story and Sadie, Joe.

    It’s a good thing you didn’t hear a blood-curdling howl followed by a spine-rattling snarl just before she came back around the house–twelve feet tall, running on her hind legs, and snapping at your pocket with slavering jaws. WereSadie!

    • Or Zombie Sadie. That’s what was always waiting for on Walking Dead when I watched it. Zombie pets or zombie spiders. Thanks for sparking the reminder, Suzanne.

  12. How about: Bad guy, wanting to dognap Sadie, tries to duplicate your snack trick. But pup is too smart, barks angrily, spooking bad guy and bringing kids on the run, who make another drawing that shows Sadie barking at the bad guy’s car and his license plate number.

    • I like that, Eric. What the artists lack in fine line development they more than make up for with their eye for detail. They’d nail that license plate number right away. Thanks for the idea!

  13. Thank you for making my day with that wonderful story & the video. What this world needs right now is more light-hearted dog stories. 😎

    And you are so right about how the simplest thing, the most light-hearted moment in life, can easily be translated into another genre such as mystery or thriller or horror. I can think of several normal every day life examples but don’t care to dwell on it too much.

    That’s why I’m amazed not everyone writes stories. Sure, we may get blocked from time to time, but it’s hard to not have story ideas come to you while just living and breathing on this planet. Yet I hear tell there are a people who can go through this life without writing a single story. Amazing.

  14. Joe, looks like to me you have a playmate with four legs. I’ve lived in an RV park for six years, before that ten in a sailboat in the flat. Keys. All we folks have is dogs, or maybe someone has grandchildren visit., always glad to hear them playing, bikes, or skates. Did I mention all our streets are resurfaced? When they replaced the rock sites I imagined what all might be buried there before the six inches of concrete was poured. then they extended our park out in the rear with fifty more sites with all the niceties, Cable, picnic tables, grills, and nature walks. I openly asked several people including the manager if they’d heard of the hundred plus year old cemetery that had been there? Seems some removeded the head stones for buildings down on the river between Alabama and Georgia. Have to admit it got their attention. We could use also any nationalities as the buried parties. Even German POW’s held here back during the big war. Stay well, and let your brain parts flow.

    • Thanks, Gerald. I have days where it seems as if my brain parts are flowing right out of my ears.

      The subdivision where I live was all farmland going well back into the 1700s. I am sure that there were at least a few family graveyards where homes now sit. It would explain a lot.

      Sadie is not the first four-legged friend I have had, alas. I would say more but it would be uncivilized.

      Thanks for stopping by, Gerald!

  15. Love this blog, Joe. We live in a condo and our car is parked in a rather dark section. I open the unlocked trunk . . . .
    By the way, our neighbor’s young son calls our shelter cat a “used cat.”

    • Thanks so much, Elaine. I LOVE the trunk plot. Anything could be in there.

      A used cat? I would call that cat Lucky-Lucky-Lucky.

      Is the neighborhood urchin old enough to come up with something like that on his own? Or did he hear it from a parent? You could get a two-bagger by responding to him, ever-so-sweetly, “No. He’s adopted, just like you are. And that makes you both very lucky.” Of course, when he goes running to his parent, you can say that he must have misheard you.

      Yes, I am terrible.

      Several years ago I was walking past a neighbor’s driveway where her son and his friend were playing. As I approached the son said, “My mom says you’re a bad guy.” I stopped, looked at him, and said, “Your mom is right.” The two boys looked at each other and ran into the house, the one boy yelling “Mooom!” “Mooom” wouldn’t look me in the eye for months!

      Thanks again, Elaine. I hope you are enjoying your lucky cat.

  16. Thanks for this wonderful story and video, Joe. That Sadie is one quick little critter, and I love the idea of beginning a story with an innocent pet romp that turns dark.

    Your neighbors — both the 2- and 4-legged ones — are fortunate to have you in the neighborhood.

    • Thank you, Kay. Actually, I am the lucky one. Truth be told, we are all lucky to be on this street. Not everyone is friends, but we’re all friendly. Not everyone is so fortunate, but any means.

      Be well.

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