A Feel-Good Story

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Pretty Girl (black and white dog) in transit

 

After the past six months, raise your hand if you’re ready for a feel-good story.

Yeah, me too.

The following is a true story—the journey of one stray dog from certain death to happily-ever-after with plenty of bumps along her odyssey. It encompasses important elements of story structure that are necessary in both fiction and nonfiction. It includes many heroes who embody a never-say-die spirit of determination. The inciting incident introduces a daunting mission with high stakes. The antagonists take the form of plot reversals and seemingly insurmountable hurdles. All these elements eventually lead to a satisfying climax and conclusion.

Recently, I was privileged to participate in this story as an assignment for Montana Senior News.

The protagonist is Pretty Girl. No one knows her origins. Her age is estimated at three years. A guess at her lineage is pit bull-boxer cross. Pregnant and starving, Pretty Girl is abandoned on a Beaumont, Texas road by a villain who is never identified.

Enter hero Gary Pelt.

Like Pretty Girl, Gary’s life has not been easy. Born with congenital developmental disabilities, he nevertheless works hard and supports himself with city and county jobs including maintenance of school buses as well as a lawn service business on the side. When his wife of 39 years dies in 2015, Gary is adrift and lonely, even with his large extended family nearby.

He takes in the skinny, sickly stray and calls her Pretty Girl. Two thousand dollars in vet bills later, she is cured of heartworm, puts on weight, gives birth to her puppies then is spayed. All pups find homes except for one, which Gary keeps and names “Remy.” Mother and daughter become Gary’s steadfast, loyal companions.

Tropical Storm Imelda flooded Beaumont, TX. Photo credit: Jill Carlson, CC license

In 2019, they undergo a plot reversal when their safety is threatened by Tropical Storm Imelda that drenches Beaumont. Gary’s home is flooded. Rescue workers find him, Pretty Girl, and Remy atop his bed, surrounded by nearly three feet of water.

They survive, recover, and rebuild. But Gary’s health declines and relatives urge him to move into assisted living. He refuses out of loyalty to his dogs. If Pretty Girl and Remy can’t go with him, he isn’t going.

Then a catastrophic plot reversal upends Pretty Girl’s life. Gary dies this past July at age 70.  Pretty Girl and Remy lose the only home they’ve ever known. Remy is adopted but, despite Pretty Girl’s sweet, loving temperament, she remains a homeless orphan who misses not only her human but also her daughter.

Enter two heroes in the characters of Gary’s sister, author Debbie Epperson (my longtime friend and critique partner), and her husband Nathan who agree to adopt Pretty Girl. But that introduces a whole new obstacle: how to transport a 63-pound dog from Beaumont, Texas to Kalispell, Montana more than 2100 miles away.

They face daunting hurdles: Airlines won’t fly pets during the summer. With COVID-19, Debbie’s health doesn’t allow a road trip.

Enter more new heroes, strangers who don’t know Pretty Girl or the Eppersons but are united in a commitment to help animals in trouble.

Dozens of emails fly over the Milk Bone Grapevine, reaching out to volunteers and rescue groups, asking for transportation help.

Meanwhile Pretty Girl is temporarily boarded. Every ride in a car means a trip to an unknown, unfamiliar destination: sometimes a vet’s office, other times to foster care. Strange people, strange dogs, and uncertainty surround her. Yet she retains her sweet personality. Her only flaw is food aggression toward other dogs, not surprising given her rough beginnings.

After several weeks of planning and coordination among different groups, Pretty Girl’s itinerary is finally set. Family friend Sissie Breaux drives her 85 miles from Beaumont to Houston.

In Houston, she is handed off to Rescued Pets Movement (RPM). The nonprofit group founded by Cindy Perini has saved the lives of more than 55,000 homeless and abandoned animals that face euthanasia in city pounds and shelters. In addition to providing medical care and rehabilitation, RPM transports animals to reputable rescue groups in far-flung areas where there is a demand for pets.

Pretty Girl joins 126 dogs and seven cats for the 1000-mile trip from Houston to Denver that takes 24 hours.

In Denver, Pretty Girl meets another hero, Edie Messick, founder of The Animal Debt Project (ADP), a nonprofit no-kill shelter located in Wellington, Colorado that also focuses on transporting animals. Every other week, Edie drops off and picks up dogs throughout Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

Pretty Girl spends eight days at Edie’s shelter waiting for the arrival of rescued strays from the streets of Tijuana, Mexico. They will be her traveling companions on the next leg of her trip.

Thursday morning, Pretty Girl and 27 other dogs, including a diabetic requiring shots and a three-legged pup, are loaded into Edie’s van, turning the vehicle into a combination day care and nursing home on wheels. They travel on I-25 and I-90 for another 1000-mile journey from Denver to Missoula, Montana.

Early Friday morning, Nathan Epperson and I drive 120 miles from Kalispell to Missoula where we rendezvous with Edie to pick up Pretty Girl.

Pretty Girl is panting and understandably anxious since she just spent a day and a night with two barking Chihuahuas in a crate above hers. But her tail wags as she licks our hands, excited and happy.

She doesn’t yet know this is the final leg of her long journey and the climax of her story. But we humans know she’s destined for a new home with a loving family.

In Nathan’s truck, she tries to climb on his lap, making driving impossible. So I sit in the back seat with her, holding her leash. She leans against me and, soon, her panting stops. She’s calm and affectionate. Unlike many dogs under stress, she’s not afraid to make direct eye contact.

When she looks in my eyes, I think she must be wondering: “Are you the one I finally get to stay with?” After weeks of loss, upheaval, strange surroundings, and strange people, I tell her she’s on the way to her forever home. I hope she understands.

Taken with my cell phone cam while holding onto a struggling 63 pound dog in a moving truck. Action photography is not my specialty.

She also quickly bonds with Nathan and continues to try to climb in the front with him. I pull back on her leash until she finally settles for resting her head on his shoulder as he drives.

We arrive at the Epperson’s rural property west of Kalispell where Pretty Girl checks out unfamiliar smells of deer and wild turkeys. She meets Debbie (Gary’s sister), two Golden Retrievers, and a cat with whom she’ll share a home.

Pretty Girl explores her new yard.

But there’s one last hurdle to conquer: Kemah, the two-year-old Golden is rambunctious and overwhelms Pretty Girl, who growls but doesn’t snap.

Fortunately, Debbie and Nathan have experience wrangling multiple dogs. They know how to ease the adjustment between Pretty Girl and Kemah.

Now it’s time for the denouement of the story. When I start to leave, Pretty Girl looks distressed, as if to say, “Oh, no, another human is abandoning me.”

My heart wrenches.

But I’m consoled later that evening when Debbie emails to say she and Pretty Girl are curled up together on the love seat, watching “Murder She Wrote.”

A new crime dog in training.

And they live happily ever after.

On a hot summer day, Pretty Girl relaxes on cool rocks in the shade of her new home.

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True Crime Thursday – Police Stop

Photo credit: dwights ghost, wikimedia creative commons

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Today’s True Crime tale is set in Detroit, dateline 2009. This three minute video chronicles a harrowing police stop with charges that include speeding, grand theft auto, and murder.

As a bonus, it offers a master class in storytelling by author Dan Yashinsky of Toronto.

Here’s Dan!

 

TKZers: Did you learn any techniques from Dan’s video to use in your own work?

~~~

 

 

Last day for introductory price of $.99 for Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff. Here’s the buy link.

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Storytelling Saves Lives

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

001-scheherazade-and-shahryar-theredlist

Once upon a time there was a king of Persia who witnessed his wife’s clandestine infidelity. Distraught, the king cried out, “Only in utter solitude can man be safe from the doings of this vile world!”

He then had his executioner dispatch the queen. And he swore an oath that he would ever after take a virgin as wife, abate her maidenhood that night, and slay her the next morning. This plan was to “make sure of my honor. For there never was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of earth!”

Too bad there was no Xanax back then.

Anyway, the king’s project proceeded apace, until the supply of local maidens began to dry up. One day the king tasked his chief wazir to bring him a beautiful bride-to-be, but the poor counsel could not find one … except his own, beloved daughter.

Her name was Scheherazade.

To save her father’s life, Scheherazade insisted on being delivered to the king. Her resolve was a wonder to her father. What he didn’t know was that the clever Scheherazade had a plan of her own.

She was going to tell stories.

It was midnight when Scheherazade arose from the marriage bed and asked the king’s permission to spin him a yarn. And so she began … told a mesmerizing tale … and left off with a cliffhanger!

The king was so pleased by this that he gave her another night to finish the story. She did, then started a new one, and left off at another page-turning moment. So the king spared her again!

And so it went, for 1001 nights, as Scheherazade extended her life by the power of her storytelling. Included in the tales were the likes of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp.”

After the whole cycle, the king was thoroughly smitten (about freakin’ time!), and decided to spare Scheherazade and make her queen.

Storytelling, you see, saves lives.

As I was working on this subject, writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch shared a most interesting post. She wrote about the days following the 9/11 attacks, the despair, the feeling that “we were all waiting for another, equally horrible shoe to drop.”

She needed to escape.

Thank heavens for J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. I had never read Harry Potter, and frankly, I wasn’t planning to. But I had the first book, and since nothing else was holding my attention (besides the tragedy), I started to read.

And escaped. Harry’s world is different enough from ours to shut out the horrors of the real world, and heal. I will forever associate those books with that need for healing.

I also credit them for teaching me about the value of fiction.

***

I had forgotten that fiction got me through a dark, bleak, and lonely childhood. I had forgotten that stories were the only thing that bonded me and my cold, unhappy mother. I had forgotten that stories got me through tragedies and injuries and losses. I had forgotten just how important escape was, how essential it is to rest, relaxation, and gearing up to go another round in the fight—whatever that fight is.

Dean Koontz makes much the same point in his book, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction. “I write to entertain. In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape.”

My friend, the late Stephen Bly, once told a group of writers why he wrote the kinds of books he did. First, it was for “Jannie-Rae,” his beloved wife (the writer Janet Chester Bly). Then, he said, it was for that single mom who has put in a hard day at work. She picks up the kids from day care, brings them home, feeds them, gets them washed and in bed. And now she has a few moments to herself before falling asleep, and picks up a book.

If it was to be his book, he wanted it to carry that mom away and give her the fictive dream and the uplift of an inspiring story.

Isn’t that all to the good? Stress relief can extend life. Entertainment can make the present life better. Sure, we can have challenging fiction of various kinds, but the real power comes from the “lostness” of a reader inside a compelling narrative.

That should be the goal, anyway. Just ask Scheherazade.

Have you ever had a book take you out of a dark time? Provide solace? Make you glad to be alive?

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Story and Structure in Love

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back in November, TKZ commenter Dale Ivan Smith talked about a major challenge he faced.
Here’s the key paragraph:
 
The big challenge … is not taking forever on the pre-writing and outlining. How do you impose deadlines on yourself for outlining and still create a solid, damn good novel outline? My fear of drafting a bad story has to a big extent been replaced with the fear of outlining a bad one 😉
 
I answered him, in part, this way:
 
Dale, you’ve asked a great question. I think it really comes down to fear. 
 
There’s an easier and better way to find story, IMO: it’s to play BEFORE you write. Play on the monkey bars built of structural signposts. You actually can be more creative this way because you’re not drafting. Thus, it’s much faster, too. 
 
You can also play in the actual writing. But you’ll be playing a game that readers can make sense of. 
 
It’s the best of both worlds. Freedom AND focus, and a lot less frustration. The people who’ve been writing to me about Write Your Novel From the Middle have been having epiphanies on this. Which is cool. I’ll have more to say on writing this way in the months ahead. 
 
This “best of both worlds” combines the playfulness and creativity of the pantser with the beautiful form of the plotter, all with that most important person in mind—the reader! 
 
If you want to sell books and not just feel good about your writing, you need more than pure freedom and more than mere outlining. 
 
You need a guide, a map, a blueprint, but one that is flexible and freeing, not cold and ruthless. 
 
Which is why I’ve written a new book called Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story.
Story LOVES structure, because structure translates story into a form that enables reader connection…and those are the stories that sell.
 
And don’t let’s confuse structure with outlining, which causes pantsers to break out in the cold sweats. This is a common error. Any writer of any temperament can utilize structure principles, even if your approach is the seat-of-the-pants variety. To be aware of structure is not the same thing as writing a 40 page, single-spaced outline. Which is a perfectly legit thing to do. Just ask James Patterson. Or many fine writers of the past. 
 
But outlining is not a requirement. Which is one reason I wrote this book. It’s for any type of writer because it stresses the idea of “signpost scenes.” There are fourteen signposts scenes, or beats, in Super Structure. It’s culled from the best and most popular novels and screenplays of the past, as well as my own research and development of writing principles over the last 25 years. 
 
The material in this book greatly expands upon the chapter on structure in Write Your Novel From the Middle. Super Structure can be considered a companion to that book, but it also stands alone in its treatment of the elements of a solid and pleasing plot. 
 
Recently, the longtime literary editor for Playboy, Alice K. Turner, went to her final review at age 75. Her obituary in the New York Times talked about how she championed literary fiction for 20 years there, bringing a measure of respectability, ahem, between the folds. And she truly did, publishing some of the best writers of our time and discovering new talent.
 
I love what she said about her preference for a solid, well-structured plot: “If you’re good enough, like Picasso, you can put noses and breasts wherever you like. But first you have to know where they belong.” 
 
Super Structure will tell you where story elements belong. Then you are free to do what you like, experiment all you want.
 
But when your story isn’t working, and you don’t know why, Super Structure will be there to help you find out! It is very friendly that way. Say hello to it today. 
 
 
 
 
 
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