Two questions usually come up during author presentations: Where do you get ideas? How do you create characters? For me, ideas come from daily experiences, sprinkled with a good helping of what if. My characters are usually vague reflections of acquaintances, friends, and relatives, although rarely based on a specific person. Some characters, however, aren’t based on people at all.
Fifteen years ago, we purchased an Australian shepherd named India. To our then six-year-old daughter, she became a reliable, exuberant playmate and companion. To each of us, she provided comfort with unqualified affection. Although the breed had been developed strictly for herding, India found cats and kids unwilling participants, but she enjoyed the romping, scampering, and playing as fully and jubilantly as any child. When left behind, she’d lie with her head between her front paws, eyes on the door, waiting for our daughter to return and the fun to begin again.
We lived in the countryside at the time, where leash laws were considered an infringement upon an individual’s rights (go figure). The neighbor across the street owned a golden retriever with the IQ of a nail and fidelity of a politician. One afternoon, I was hoeing weeds near the street while India waited on the porch where she’d been instructed to “stay.” I was on my knees at the curb, back toward the street, pulling up a stubborn root when India bound past me. I spun in time to see her intercept the retriever in mid-air as the retriever sprang for me. The retriever was easily twice her size, but India did not hesitate to protect me.
I shouted for her to heel, and she immediately responded. The retriever lunged for her. I stepped between them, hoe drawn back to do whatever needed to protect India and me. The owner emerged from her house, screaming as she ran to the street where she grabbed for the dog, breaking its concentration on India and me only to have it snap at her. I jabbed the retriever with the hoe, forcing it to retreat into its yard. The owner and I then engaged in an intense discussion, resulting in the retriever’s confinement inside the fenced backyard. The retriever’s conniving cowardice has since surfaced in several characters in my stories, but more important, India’s brave and selfless nature has served as the basis of some of my most honorable characters.
In recent years, India developed cataracts, muscle spasms, and aching joints. A few months after she turned 16 last year, we found a marble-size knot over her left upper canine tooth that had already fused with the bone. Cancer. Surgery would have removed a good portion of her snout and mouth with no cure or extension of life, while chemical treatment would have proved useless.
Her abilities declined rapidly. When she barked, it was usually only once, more of a grumble than protest. The stiffness in her joints intensified, and on some mornings she could barely move. She slept more. Even so, she always became excited when one of us would arrive home and would experience occasional moments when she felt good enough to chase her ball. By late November, the knot had tripled in size. She’d begun to experience dementia, staring at her food, walking in endless circles, staring and swaying in the hallway. Then the vet discovered a large mass in her belly.
Early on November 30, India stood at the window from where she had watched the neighborhood for years. Moments later, she turned away. She went to the cats, nudged them with her nose. She walked to each room in the house, finally to our sleeping daughter’s bedside. She slipped her head under our daughter’s hand.
Two hours later, India died.
I buried her body in the backyard in a place she favored in the final months of her life, a place visible from where I’m now writing. I spend a good deal of time looking out at that small mound of dirt, especially when I’m developing story characters. I recall how she loped after her ball, tried to herd cats and kids, played tug-of-war with my daughter, protected us from any danger with no concern for herself, and so much more. She embodied the best qualities in fiction’s most endearing and admired characters. Devoted, forgiving, accepting without reservation, reliable, responsible, India exhibited as basic instinct the primary traits we cherish in human beings, the most honorable qualities most of us only wish we possessed.
About the Author: Christopher S. Fuqua’s published books include Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie, If I Were…, Big Daddy’s Gadgets, Trust Walk short fiction collection, Notes to My Becca, and Divorced Dads, among others. His fourteenth book, a second collection of short stories entitled Rise Up, will be published by Mundania Press in November 2012. His short work has appeared widely in publications as diverse as Bull Spec, Slipstream, Pearl, The Year’s Best Horror Stories, Christian Science Monitor, Honolulu Magazine, Naval History, The Writer, and many others. His short fiction and poetry collections have earned several “Year’s Best” honors. For more information, please visit his website at http://csfuqua.comxa.com.