The author and her dog

The author and her dog
Karen L. Cox and her dog, Phoebe
Me and my best girl, Phoebe. 2015

We are pack animals. Authors and dogs. Dogs and authors. It doesn’t begin or end with memoirs like My Dog Skip or Marley and Me.  My Facebook and Instagram feeds are filled with photos of the dogs owned by my fellow writers, mostly historians because they’re my tribe, and I regularly post photos of my dog companion, Phoebe.

Phoebe. Pheebs. Pb. Sweet Pheebs. My gray girl. My boo who I often greet with “Hey, woo.” This is what happens to dog people. They invent language and terms of endearment to communicate with their four-legged companions.

Dog and cat
Even the cat loves Phoebe. 2016

Phoebe is pushing fourteen.  She’s been with me since June 2003. I mentally prepared for her arrival for weeks, knowing that it was a great responsibility.  I met her at the county animal shelter where they had given her the name “Ash,” because of her coloring.  It really is gray and not black.  They had also listed her as a chow mix, maybe because she was a chunky and fluffy ball of fur. But as she grew, and grew, it became clear that she is more of a lab mix than anything else.

Phoebe, 12 weeks. 2003

I brought her home and thought about her name. She was a gassy puppy. I teasingly referred to her as “fart blossom.” That became FB for short. And in trying to pronounce “FB” it became Phoebe. Despite this slightly embarassing beginning to her name, Phoebe, more than anything else, connotes sweetness.

With Phoebe, July 2003.

She grew fast and her legs got long and she has always been able to make wonky shapes with them. In her youth, she greeted people by jumping on them–not the best manners–and now that she’s an older lady, she can’t jump, so she makes a high-pitched yelp when guests come to our house as a way of saying “pay attention to me first.”

My career would not have been the same without her.  She has given me a work/life balance. And as much as I’ve invested in her wellness over time, she has matched it with unconditional love, companionship, and contributed to my own well-being.  More recently, she has been the only being that has made the monasticism of writing my most recent book bearable.   Whether it was a sigh, a yawn, or a nudge to stop the tap, tap, tapping on my computer–she reminded me that I was not alone and breaks for fresh air and a walk are healthy.

Always a lady
Always the lady. Phoebe in 2007.

So, it may come as no surprise to many of my fellow authors who often dedicate their books to their human companions that I decided, this time around, to dedicate my book to the companion most tried and true, Phoebe.  This will not make a difference in her life, because hers is one of routine–feeding, walking, and the search for the next good scratching of her hind end.

But it means the world to me. It’s an acknowledgement of her steadfastness and the unbounded joy she’s given.  It’s also been an honor to have her by my side for so many years.  We should all be so lucky.

Phoebe, December 2016. Photo credit: Logan Cyrus
Phoebe, December 2016. Photo credit: Logan Cyrus



Exploring the Land

Exploring the Land

Whenever I begin new writing projects, I do so not by heading directly to the archives, but by going to the place where events happened.  There’s usually something about the geography, the architecture, street patterns, and even the climate that helps me better understand the places I write about.

Burwell School, Hillsborough, NC
Burwell School, Hillsborough, NC

I’ve been doing this ever since I wrote my first serious undergraduate history paper.  The place was Hillsborough, North Carolina, and I wrote about a female seminary called the Burwell School that operated there beginning in the 1830s.  I went to Hillsborough, once the colonial capitol, to familiarize myself with the place. Fortunately, the building that housed the seminary was there, too, so I spent time in and around what had also been a large home.  In fact, very often such schools operated out of peoples’ homes–a fact I learned by going there.

Sarah and I had a very entertaining tour guide at Dunleith

More recently, I’ve spent time in Natchez, Mississippi, where it all began with an exploratory trip with a fellow historian from Mercer University, Sarah Gardner. We flew into New Orleans, rented a car, and made the 3 hour drive to the little town on the bluffs. Had I done a better job of looking at a map, the closer airport for reaching Natchez is in Baton Rouge, less than an hour and a half drive away.

It was a great beginning to a new book project.  Seeing the town, walking its streets, touring some of its mansions, and going to the edge of the bluff on which the town overlooks the Mississippi River helped me gain a better perspective of the town’s historical importance in the antebellum era.  Over the course of several visits there, I continued to learn more about the town through its streets and geography.  So well, in fact, that I have even given people directions when I’ve been there on a research trip.

Mississippi River from the Natchez bluffs
Looking at the Mississippi River from the Natchez bluffs

It’s not always easy to get to the place one studies, especially for students.  Still, I think it’s a worthy goal to encourage them to go if they can, and find ways to assist them when they can’t, by encouraging them to study maps or even go on Google Earth to “see” the landscape for themselves.

Cypress bog in front of Melrose
Cypress bog in front of Melrose, a suburban estate in Natchez

Exploring the land–both the natural and built environments–is a wonderful way to get to know the places we write about.  It also adds to our historical perspective.