It turns out it’s difficult to find a novel in which the phrase “Somewhere a dog barked” or something similar does not appear, as novelist Rosencranz Baldwin reports in Slate:
Having heard the dog’s call, it seemed like I couldn’t find a book without one. Not The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Not Shadow Country. Not Ulysses. Not Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, or Monica Ali’s Alentejo Blue, or Stephen King’s It or Christine. Not Jodi Picoult’s House Rules. If novelists share anything, it’s a distant-dog impulse. Picture an author at work: She’s exhausted, gazing at her laptop and dreaming about lunch. “[Author typing.] Boyd slammed the car door shut. He stared at his new condominium, with the for-sale sign in the yard. He picked up a pistol and pointed it at his head. [Author thinking, Now what? Gotta buy time.] Somewhere a dog barked. [Author thinking, Hmm, that’ll do.] Then Boyd remembered he did qualify for the tax rebate for first-time home buyers, and put down the gun.” If a novel is an archeological record of 4.54 billion decisions, then maybe distant barking dogs are its fossils, evidence of the novelist working out an idea.
Think you’re immune? Search your own publications or drafts and report back. I love to think of Baldwin on this search–I hope he spent an engrossing Sunday afternoon pulling book after book from the shelf and leafing through them until he found the culprit dog in each one. And if dogs barking are the novelist pausing for thought, what of that sneakier (and smarter) but quieter familiar, the cat?