What do kimonos and dogs have in common?
Unless you’re reading The Kimono Tattoo.
Midway through the novel, protagonist Ruth discovers that the Tosa dog has an intricate and unfortunate connection to the mystery she is trying to solve, namely, what happened to her younger brother, Matthew.
Maybe because I shared my home and life with a sweet rescue dog named Wilson, over the nine years I worked on the novel, dogs began to figure in the work. The appearance of dogs was not particularly sanguine, I’m afraid. The animals played a key role in the work, but the role they played pulled the narrative into some very dark alleyways. I found myself dealing with dogfighting.
I don’t know how I ended up there. I wanted to send my character Ruth away from Kyoto. I ended up dispatching her to the island of Shikoku, to a region formerly known as Tosa.
The minute I thought of Tosa, I was put in mind of the iconic Tosa dog.
I have a small wooden Tosa dog, a trinket I acquired after a trip to the region many years ago. The dog, now sadly a bit faded from his years standing sentry on my newel post, is a handsome, rugged fellow decked out in a sumo wrestler’s apron or kesho-mawashi.
Why a sumo wrestler? The breed comes from a line of fighting dogs. And so, when I sent Ruth to Tosa, she had to learn more about the famous dog and their horrible fighting world. And that meant, I did too.
Most of what I learned and incorporated into the novel, ended up on the cutting room floor. As with other “edited out” sections I’ve presented in this blog, the detail, though perhaps fascinating to some, impedes the narrative flow.
Here are some of the scraps. (Believe it or not, there were more!) We begin with Ruth learning about the development of the breed:
The Tosa breed, I was soon to learn, was started in the late nineteenth century. The originator of the breed took the indigenous Shikoku-ken—a smart, compact little hunting dog known for its loyalty—and bred it to mastiffs, Great Danes, bulldogs, and Saint Bernards. The aim was to produce a bigger, meaner dog for fighting. Fortunately, the heyday of the Tosa breed had passed, and the dogs were banned in most European countries because of their perceived viciousness.
The more Ruth (and I) learned about the massive bullmastiff, the more fascinated I became by this particular working dog. In the section below, Ruth’s research grows incredibly detailed. But isn’t the wrinkle-quotient of the face fascinating? Well, I thought so.
[W]hile I surfed from page to page, I did manage to pick up more information about the breed. For example, bullmastiffs were largely silent. They didn’t sound out an alarm when a thief approached. And they were bred to be a preferred brindle which along with the black muzzle and dark eyes offered a natural camouflage when tracking intruders at night. I especially enjoyed learning that breeders paid attention to the wrinkle-ability of the dog’s brow. Back in the old days gamekeepers would patrol in silence, keeping a sharp eye on their dogs. A wrinkled brow alerted the keeper that trouble was afoot. If the brow thus maintained a constant furrow, the dog was of no use to the keeper and would not be retained for that purpose. I wondered what happened to the poor pups that suffered excessive wrinkling.
This editing of the novel happened sometime after I lost my companion, Wilson. Needless to say, losing him was much harder than losing the details about muzzles and brows.
Gosh, what a gorgeous dog Wilson was and such a marvelous companion. I did like the paragraph on reading the signs of the dog’s wrinkles. You bring up an intriguing aspect of fiction writing–the idea that the author does research to present stories credibly and sometimes that means learning about things you’d rather not think about. I guess that’s especially true in writing about crime. Fascinating post!
Wilson was a beauty! He was a rescue dog. They told me he was 8 when I rescued him. Four years later, when I took him to a different vet, they told me he was 8. I wish he’d been 8 forever!
Mystery/crime writers joke that if anyone ever investigated the search histories on their browsers, it would be hair raising! “How to kill with poison.” “Best knives for murder.” All kinds of ghoulish stuff!
Great post Beck. I enjoyed reading about the Tosa dog and Wilson.
I was fascinated by the face wrinkles! I bet Lucy would be a good watch dog with her brindled coat!