Adding (Your) Life to Your Writing (by Sandra Murphy)

A freelance editor and a writer of both nonfiction and short stories, Sandra Murphy won a Derringer Award in 2020 for her short story “Lucy’s Tree.” A collection of her stories, From Hay to Eternity, was published in 2017 by Untreed Reads. The St. Louis author’s first story for EQMM, “Sit. Stay. Die.,” was coauthored with Michael Bracken and appears in our current issue (July/August 2022). As you’ll have deduced from that story’s title, it centers around a dog. The real dog who served as inspiration for the story is mentioned in this post—along with other colorful pets who have come into the author’s care. We have another of Sandra’s stories, “What’s the Holdup?”, coming up in 2023.

The real dog behind Finn in the story “Sit. Stay. Die.”  by Michael Bracken and Sandra Murphy.

Write what you know. It’s common advice for writers, but Taco Bell mild sauce has more spice than my life. Since my genre of choice is crime and mystery, I write about blackmail and bribery, capers and car chases, heists and hit men, larceny and lewdness, mayhem and murder.

To know more about crimes, I’d have to become a familiar face, seen in every crowd, the woman who hovers behind the yellow tape and ducks out of sight when a sharp-eyed cop looks her way. I’d soon find myself in an interrogation room, face to face with Good Cop and Bad Cop. “It’s research,” I’d say. “I’m a writer.” The conversation would further deteriorate when I segued into “How big would you say this room is? Is that two-way glass? What do you call this paint color, or should I say pea soup green?” I’d either be released or held for observation.

I found a better way to bring my stories to life than chasing crime scenes. It turns out, my life is spicier than I first thought. There’s that time I flashed a cop, for instance.

For a short time, I made flashy jewelry for stage actors whose performances changed faster than their costumes. It wasn’t a money maker, but it was fun and an educational look behind the scenes. One night, in lieu of an autograph, I talked dogs with Jimmy Vaughan after his concert. He had a Westie then. I have one now.

When Michael Bracken, my sometimes writing partner, emailed and said, “Here’s an idea, a pet sitter, female, is hired to stay at the house with a dog while his owner travels. When she arrives, she finds an envelope of money for her fee, but his suitcase is still by the door. She looks for him and finds a body. What do you think?”

I emailed back and said, “Do you know what I do when I’m not writing? I’m a pet sitter and have been for years.”

Michael’s reply was to the point. “That will save time on research.”

The result is “Sit. Stay. Die.”

Over the years, I’ve cared for dogs, cats, Guinea pigs, ferrets, chinchillas, a rat, turtle, bunnies, fish in a bowl, tank, or koi pond, and birds from parakeets to parrots. I’m known as the Sitter of the Last Resort. When other sitters say no way, I say sure, why not? Those jobs are the most fun as I find ways to work with bullies or the fearful.

One of the ferrets faked his own death. A coal black bunny would wait until the food dish was almost within reach, then would shriek, jump, and probably laugh at my reaction. I found if I lay on my side on the floor, Gizmo the chinchilla would sit on my hip and watch television with me.

I’ve met felines of all sizes, colors, and temperaments, from Evil Buster the Biting Cat to Rosie who meets me on the stairs with head butts.

It’s the dogs though who occupy the most space in my heart. Mixed breeds and purebreds, they’ve ranged from Chloe, a three-pound Pomeranian who had to be carried the three flights to and from the condo. Her little legs were too short to manage the marble stairs. At the other extreme was Oscar, a 225-pound Mastiff who lived with his brother, Ralph, who weighed 180, and little sister, Gracie, petite at 160. Over 500 pounds of dog in three bodies, all gentle, all slobbery.

Pet sitting isn’t without its hazards. After all, I am going into what I hope is a people-free house. Dates have been mixed up or owners left later, arrived home earlier, forgot to call. I’ve walked in on them in their jammies or in the middle of dinner. One client failed to mention a workman in the other side of her two-family house. She didn’t tell him about me either. I opened the front door to make my escape and almost walked into him, he with an open boxcutter in hand. No blood was spilled although panic levels were turned up to an eleven for both of us.

Owners have forgotten to mention they have an alarm, so when the blaring noise wakes the neighborhood, panics the dogs, and I have no code, the police are called. Although I generally wear black, I must not have the look of a cat burglar because they always believe me when I say I’m the pet sitter.

Our story’s dog character is based on Finn, a Border collie I pet sit. When I met the real live Finn, a liver and white Border collie, he was just a pup. He lived with two other dogs, Delphi, a medium-sized black mix, and Ari, a huge, white German shepherd. I tried to walk all three at once. Delphi walked dead ahead with the pull of a locomotive. Ari ambled. Finn, well, he had the energy and attention span of a hummingbird on Red Bull and meth. He zig-zagged in front of me, behind me, almost wrapped me in his leash. Arrival back at the house, still upright and alive, was cause to kiss the ground, but not where the dogs might have been.

In our story, Finn knows how to call 9-1-1, can help his person, Betty, if she’s hurt, and knows the names and colors of his toys, all things real dogs can do. This Finn is bilingual and understands basic commands in English and instant obedience commands in German, known as Shutzhund training.

Pets look forward to sitter visits and why not? With a sitter, they’re the center of attention. I know where the treats are and have time to play. I never force a pet to do something he’s hesitant about or refuses. We’ll find a solution. Because of that, I’ve never been bitten.

I’m told it’s weird when I talk to pets like I would talk to anyone, explain what I want them to do, tell them when I’ll be back. I was once told, “Dogs don’t know how to talk!” I replied, “They talk, you don’t know how to listen.”

The addition of a dog to your story, especially for a mystery, brings humor, suspense, and invests the reader into the tale. When it’s time for the main character to rehash the red herrings, alibis, and motives, a dog can be a sympathetic listener. It also eliminates the need for a human sidekick to be on hand, no matter the hour.

There are pet people and dog people. Pet people will enjoy the story and not sweat the details. Dog people will zero in on an error faster than a dog can spot a squirrel and will let you know you’ve barked up the wrong tree.

Write what you know, write what you can research, and write what you can imagine. Take a closer look at your life. It might be spicier than you first thought. Add a dog like Finn to your story. Finn is a Good Boy.

I have one rule I won’t break. I will put a dog in jeopardy, but he’ll never die. The humans? They’re on their own!

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26 Responses to Adding (Your) Life to Your Writing (by Sandra Murphy)

  1. Iris Hockaday says:

    I loved this! So entertaining and engaging and inspiring.

  2. Animals do help to make stories more interesting. I enjoyed reading about your life and getting to know you better.

    • Sandra says:

      Thanks, I remember your story with cats – animals always make things interesting, whether on purpose or not!

  3. Mike says:

    “Write what you know, write what you can research, and write what you can imagine.” Perfect!

  4. Kaye George says:

    I love the serendipity here! Great piece. Thanks!

  5. A pet in a story always makes the whole thing seem more real to me.

  6. A creative take on writing what you know! And I wish you lived close enough to be my cat sitter.

    • Sandra says:

      Thank you! I’m glad you liked it. I’d be happy to sit for your cat but the commute would be expensive. Is you cat more like Evil Buster or Rosie?

  7. Oh, how I wish you could sit for our dogs when we’re away. Loved this post, Sandra. Finn does sound like a Good Boy and love that photo of him. Border collies are so smart!

  8. Wendy Harrison says:

    I love the images of you entertaining such a broad spectrum of animals. I’m guessing there are more stories lurking there, especially in the one about the boxcutter. Wonderful post.

  9. Sylvia Warsh says:

    I loved your post and the descriptions of your experience with animals – my husband and kids are all allergic to everything so no animals! Adorable picture of the real dog behind the story.

  10. sylviawarsh says:

    I loved your post and the descriptions of your experiences with animals. My family are all allergic to everything so no animals! Adorable shot of the real dog behind the story.

    • Sandy Murphy says:

      Actually, I’m allergic to cats but don’t tell Louie, the tuxedo cat who’s lived with me for ten years now.

  11. Also, write what you want to know! Research is so much fun. Congratulations on the story – the magazine is on my couch waiting for me.

  12. Lois Rifner says:

    Love this! And Finn looks amazingly like my border collie female, Tori, who also lives in St. Louis! Congrats on the publication.

  13. Dale Dauten says:

    Can’t wait to read more from the charming Sandra Murphy. More please!

  14. Pingback: Writers and Publishers Network

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