Home is where the dog is: Writing about dogs as the thread that pulls families together
Published on: 12 July 2021 Author: Ros Roberts
Digger and Me is about a boy getting through some difficult times, with the help of his dog. But what happens when the dog falls ill? Author Ros Roberts says it was inspired by a very personal story, involving a Bernese mountain puppy and some giant pom-poms...
Writers have to find the strongest idea for the first book that will find a publisher: an idea that yells to be written, that creates and evolves characters that will last and, hopefully, will not be forgotten. Sometimes those first ideas, those first nuggets of a story can come from the smallest of things and, for me, one of those items was a tatty ball of wool.
My first book, Digger and Me, published by Little Tiger earlier this year, tells the story of James, an incredible 11-year-old boy who is struggling. Life at home is a juggle between his mum’s house and his dad’s. He doesn’t like their new partners. The one constant is his faithful companion Digger the dog but then Digger becomes ill. What a thing for a writer to do to an 11-year-old boy!
The story is a complicated situation but so many of the ideas in this book started to form with a red thread of wool, a concept that became a binding strength of the book. The red thread of wool helped to define the everlasting link between James, his dog, and his divorced parents.
Bond between a grandmother and dog
My grandmother – my nanny – made lots of beautiful things out of wool; hundreds of knitted items to be sent to charities overseas. When my children were young, she made them woollen pom-poms, toys made with wooden discs and wound wool. Giant pom-poms that they used as footballs. They were bashed from walls, kicked down gardens, even take to the beach for a bit of fun.
My nanny became older and frailer. When we visited with Texi, our Bernese mountain puppy, she loved the joy of this furry bundle. As Texi grew and grew to the giant dog that she was, it amazed me how tender she became with my now frail nanny. Texi would play rough with my boys but when she sat with my nanny, she lifted a gentle paw, nestled her head on her lap. It was a joy to see; an inate tenderness from an understanding dog. They had a lovely bond.
The woollen balls did not get quite such gentle treatment! Texi loved them. She chewed them, chased them, gnawed them. The wooden discs couldn’t quite take the strain and sadly they gave way, leaving threads of wool all over the garden. I scooped up the tattered remains and took them away, to sit on a shelf in my writing shed.
Quite soon after, my nanny died at the grand old age of 102. And then Texi died from illness at the tender young age of 2. Devastating. Both of them gone, at such different stages of life.
The ideas behind my book Digger and Me started to form. The way dogs run like threads between us. As I wrote my book, the tatty woollen pom-pom sat next to me, in my writing shed, reminding me of the bond that Texi had given us. The love of this dear dog that ran through my family, my sons. The woollen threads of the ball seemed such a strong analogy. The thread of this dog had bound us together, had been there for each of us, binding us like glue.
Unconditional love of pets
Pets do that in families. They don’t suffer from jealousy or resentment; they don’t judge or bear grudges. They just give unconditional love. Cats, rabbits, dogs; they can all give us a wonderful bond but a dog is something rather special.
Dogs can be empathetic, comforting, super-intelligent. I have lived with all sorts of dogs: mad Boxers who were naughty and exhausting; soppy rescue dogs who can’t believe the luck of this new home and don’t stray from their owner’s side; huge Bernese mountain dogs that are so adorable as puppies that they bring people running out of shops and stopping their cars to meet them. Look them up – you’ll see what I mean!
But all dogs do one thing that gives them that ultimate loving trait; the joy in seeing you. The waggy tail when they hear the key in the door. The mad runs when an owner comes home. The joy and comfort of being back together.
After Texi died, I started to think about a child going through a really difficult time. A child with a dog; a child for whom life is such an easier place with this constant companion. And then I started to think how everyone would cope in that child’s family if that dog became ill. Would it bring new pain, new arguments? Could it heal divides? Could it bring people together?
Finding the threads of a story
It is a joy to be a writer but it can also be incredibly hard because you have to give your characters problems, dilemmas, upset. That is the joy and the challenge of writing about the everyday; the endeavour of trying to paint a picture of reality so that readers know they are not alone, they are not the only people experiencing those emotions, those upsets. With this endeavour in mind, James jumped off the page and Digger became that glorious red thread of a dog that binds a family together.
The tatty pom-pom will always sit in my shed, will always be such an important item in my journey to becoming a published author. Texi’s joy at chewing my nanny’s knitted cardboard hoop gave me Digger, James and Mr Froggatt, his inspiring teacher. I like to think Nanny and Texi are together now – making, chasing and chewing giant woollen pom-poms!
The strong idea that first forms a book – well, that’s a bit like the cardboard disc of a woollen pom-pom. It is often hidden, tucked away in a storyline or a character but from the strength of it, the threads of the story form and unwind, unravel and show themselves, until hopefully it is the nugget of something special.