Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why Ever Did You Go Into That Dark Barn Alone?

My advice to anyone about to write a mystery series: don’t (!) Just kidding. But do think twice before you choose an amateur sleuth as a protagonist. As the author of ten mysteries featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, I’ve become all too aware of the perils of such a choice. Its not a problem when it comes to the first book. No, its quite believable that a poor innocent vet might stumble upon a murder victim. These things happen, you know. Its not even stretching the bounds of credibility too much to think that she might get involved in another such situation in her lifetime. But lets see, how many horse vets do you know that discover a body a year? And would you want such a person to come out on a call to your place?

You see my dilemma. I’m now writing book number eleven in my mystery series, and I’m wracking my brain to come up with yet another way poor Gail can get involved in a murder investigation. Believe me, I’ve tried em all. Stumbling on a body in the course of a vet call, family member caught up in a problem, neighbor murdered, best friend a suspect in a murder investigation, another friend the object of a stalker, horseshoer murdered in Gail’s own barn…etc. Unfortunately, in the end it becomes rather ludicrous, if you take a step back and survey her life. Sort of like the Angela Lansbury character in “Murder She Wrote”. Would you want to invite that lady over for dinner?

Poor Gail. She hasn’t exactly had a quiet life. Besides finding all those bodies and being drawn into all those investigations to help friends and family, she’s been shot at numerous times, warned off by bad guys more often than I can count, tied up, bashed over the head, had to escape on horseback at least once in almost every book, and captured a few nasty villains single-handed. Is this believable, I ask you?

Well, no, its not. However, we who write amateur sleuth mysteries are taking advantage of the conventional suspension of disbelief that is routinely practiced by those who like such stories. Ever since Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, we are allowed to pen these tales of the amateur who becomes involved, over and over again, in murder and mayhem, and incidentally, escapes virtually unscathed every time.

I do think that most writers who begin writing a manuscript about a character (just as I selected Gail, the horse vet, as my protagonist roughly fifteen years ago) don’t give a lot of thought as to how that character will work out over the course of many books. I know I didn’t. I somewhat envy my friend, author Laurie R King, whose two series protagonists are a cop and the wife and partner of the famous Sherlock Holmes. Of course these two women will be involved in numerous murder investigations. Its their business, for heaven’s sake.

But in my own case I must keep stretching the bounds of what’s credible. Not only must my poor horse vet keep finding bodies and enduring a lot of rough and tumble, she also must do things like poking around the dark barn where the murderer is sure to be lurking in the middle of the night, all by herself. Over and over again my editor, or someone who was reading one of my manuscripts, would point out to me that Gail wouldn’t do this, not if she had half a brain. I, of course, would reply that Gail had to do this, in order to get to the thrilling horseback chase scene finale, and after all, she was an amateur sleuth and what’s believable about that, anyway?

The truth is that I work like a dog to come up with reasonably believable reasons why Gail might go down into that dark barn. Since she’s a vet, I frequently give her a call she has to make there. (Though this begs the question of why she wouldn’t take someone with her if she’s a bit suspicious of the owner of said barn.) In my latest book, Chasing Cans, just out this spring, Gail once again traipses into yet another dark barn, innocently unprepared for an ambush, despite the fact that she knows that two women have been victims of suspicious horseback wrecks there recently. I mean, I ask you (!) Yet, in the context of the story, it comes off quite believably (or so I’ve been told). I’ll certainly welcome any input from those of you who have read this book, or any of my other books.

Yes, the perils of writing an amateur sleuth mystery series are a bit greater than they appear as one blithely begins the first manuscript. Do give serious consideration to a private investigator, cop, or any such person who has a reason to be involved in the regular melodramas of life. Medical professionals, arson and insurance investigators…the possibilities are endless (and have all been used before, I know). Anybody have any new ideas? Perhaps I can start another series.

As for the book I’m working on, though, I must once again concoct some believable way for my horse vet to get involved in a drama (and I’ve thought of one, too—I just can’t give it away. After all, I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for anyone.) And since horses are integral to this series, I also need to create some thrilling horseback scenes and quirky equine characters. These characters are the easy part—the horses in my life give me plenty of material. Since I’ve owned and trained horses for over thirty years, and currently own eleven of the critters, you can see that this isn’t a challenge. As for the horseback scenes, well, once again poor Gail doesn’t lead an easy life. The number of times she’s had to gallop flat out to escape a villain on horseback, often bareback, sometimes by the full moon, occasionally through rough country, oh, and did I mention jump a few gates and fences along the way? (Though as a western rider, she doesn’t know anything about jumping.) Well, it boggles the imagination.

At times, it boggles mine, as when I think I can’t come up with even one more thrilling horseback finale. But I always do. And the reason is standing in my corrals, a stone’s throw from the house where I’m typing this blog. I can always bring to mind some exciting moment aboard one of my own horses that I can use as a springboard for yet another wild ride. After all, its not as if I haven’t had a few gallops over the years (not quite as wild as Gail’s adventures, perhaps). In the end, what gives my amateur sleuth some degree of believability (I hope) is that the books are based on real life. Real adventures I’ve had with my own horses are the underpinnings for Gail’s life. It’s the horses that bring my books to life (or so I feel), even as its my real horses that bring magic into my own life.

Here’s horses and the joy they bring us.

Laura Crum

PS—NY Times bestselling author Laurie R King will be posting a guest blog here on equestrianink this Friday, May 2nd, on the subject of quirky equine personalities in her fiction. Don’t miss it!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Books About Horses

As writers of horse fiction, we are also readers of it as well. So, I wanted to tell you about a book that I just finished. It isn't fiction. It's actually a memoir titled CHOSEN BY A HORSE. If you haven't read this book, do yourself a favor and read it. I know anyone with a horse will be able to relate to the relationship and the emotions that the horses in this book avail to their owner Susan Richards. It is a story of growth, hope, love and life.

Susan saves an abused Standardbred mare from the killers at auction and brings her back to her farm where her Morgan mare Georgia rules the roost, and her two geldings do what geldings tend to do--whatever the mare orders. However, as the story unfolds a beautiful love affair takes place between the Standardbred named Lay Me Down and one of the geldings. Georgia never does come around to give Lay me Down the time of day, but it doesn't seem to bother her too much.

Like Lay Me Down, her owner Susan comes from an abusive background and through her mare who is the most gentle, loving animal Susan learns to let go of her own demons and love her life again.

I don't want to give any spoilers away, so I will only say that this book touched me and I loved every page of it. It's a testament to the horse as a thinking, generous, wonderful animal. Lay Me Down had one of the biggest hearts I've ever read about.

I wish so much that we had more horse related books available to us. I think there is a huge market for these books. Whenever I see a cover of a book with a horse on it, I always buy it. I haven't read Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, but I have read her horse books and loved them too. Of course everyone here writes wonderful equestrian fiction and I am happy to be a part of this group.

How about all of you? What are your favorites in horse fiction and why? Was it the relationship the character had with the horse, the animal itself, plot, theme? In your opinion as a writer I'd like to know what readers thhink work when they read our type of books. And what doesn't work for you?

Have a wonderful week! Hug a horse!


Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Touch of Whimsy

One of the best aspects of a life lived with horses are the unexpected moments of laugh out loud fun. I’m currently working on a novella celebrating the whimsical side of the horse world. In this work I’m vastly enjoying creating two central characters: Jennifer, a horse crazy eleven year old and her Aunt Susan, who adores Jennifer as much as she fears horses.

When an opportunity comes to gain lessons for Jennifer and a free lease in exchange for working in a local trainer’s barn, Susan gathers her courage and faces her fears. Along the way she makes a few turnkey mistakes, including standing too close to the ring on a muddy day, turning her back on a mischievous lesson horse while a muck bucket is in front of her and trying to convince a mulish mare to move when the horse in question has something else in mind. Of course, the incredibly handsome man boarding at the facility happens to run into her when she has the scent of her misadventures wafting off her and bits and pieces clinging to her hair and clothes.

In creating this story I spent some time thinking about my mother’s role as horse mom. She loves me very much but is definitely not a natural horse person. Although the fear is real her heart is in the right place, as when we were shopping for a horse one cold day. We were considering one who didn’t have a blanket. Mom wanted to go out and buy him one whether we purchased the horse or not. In fact, she fretted about him all evening. For all her warmth and generosity, she was terrified when she was up close and personal with horses. My horse Topper used to love to nuzzle her if he was on the cross-ties and she was sitting on a tack box near enough. Her response was generally “Umm…good boy,” as she scooted out of reach. Since my husband and I didn’t have children at the time, I tried to convince her Topper was sort of like a grandchild, which earned him presents and an occasional pat from a very nervous hand.

Still, love came first and she hung in with me through all the years with horses. One day when I was about eleven I approached a jump from an impossible angle and my poor horse stopped at the base. I, unfortunately, did not stop but managed to grab his neck on my way off. I hung on and careened in a perfect one-hundred eighty degree arc to land on my feet facing his chest with my arms still wrapped around his neck! I figured Mom would be biting her nails, but when I looked over she was sitting on the hood of her car laughing her head off. Of course, so was everyone else at the sight of my long skinny legs sailing through the air and the bewildered look on my mount’s and my faces as we stood facing each other. If he could speak the horse would have said “Dear, you’re supposed to face the other way.” My fictional Jennifer and her aunt have the same experience—I just had to put it in there.

To further the touch of whimsy, the novella takes place on St. Patrick’s Day, which fits in perfectly with the wonderful myths and legends about horses. Of course, for fun I added a leprechaun and some lovable witches, one of whom owns the facility. A talented horse trainer, she keeps her magical interests to herself until one fateful evening. When Susan and Jennifer, along with the very handsome boarder who has his eye on Susan, are trapped at the farm during an ice storm, they encounter this cheerful magical crew planning their Spring Equinox celebration. The chaos is enhanced by a power outage and a thief conspiring to steal a rare Faberge egg. The results are romantic and hilarious!

Now all I need is a great title—not one of my strong suits. In fact, if anyone would like to suggest a title, just put your suggestion in the comments area. I'll pick a winner one week from today and give an autographed copy of A Dangerous Dream away as the prize.

Happy riding.

All the best,

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Party Central . . .

by Kit Ehrman

Yep. “Party Central.” That’s the best way to describe downtown Louisville as the first Saturday in May approaches.

There are over seventy Kentucky Derby Festival events, beginning with the spectacular Thunder Over Louisville (North America’s largest, annual pyrotechnic show). Other events include the Pegasus Parade and some wacky events like the Run for the Rose’ in which servers from area restaurants race around an obstacle course balancing glasses of wine. And these events, along with the actual horse racing, draw over 1.5 million visitors to Louisville.

In TRIPLE CROSS, I was putting Steve in the middle of all this, so I had to check out the party scene myself, for accuracy’s sake, of course. One of my favorite Derby Festival events is the air show and Thunder, the official start of the whirlwind Derby party.

Fairly early in the book, Steve is invited to a Thunder Party by Rudi Sturgill, a wealthy young man who has a runner in the Derby. After the fireworks wind down, Rudi decides to move the party to 4th Street Live! Louisville’s entertainment district. They settle on Sully’s Saloon, and this is where Steve gets his first hint that events have gone horribly sideways.

4th Street Live's pumpkin-colored, steel lattice supports a glass roof that covers an entire city block.

Colorful lighting and an elevator's exposed gears are some of 4th Street's unique touches.

Only in Louisville: Portable commercials in Sully's Saloon! If you can't tell from the photo, that's a laptop screen suspended above the guy's head. He wore a powerpack around his waist.

Later, in TRIPLE CROSS, Steve takes a friend to Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge. I just loved this restaurant. Very trendy.

Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge's fabulous 58' bar.

Red-tiled pillars, sheer curtain walls, honey-colored floor.

During my research forays, I was frequently struck by the dissonance between the late night party scene and the early morning work taking place in the barns at Churchill Downs. The men and women who care for and worry over the horses’ health and wellbeing, well, their lifestyle and routine and focus is so far removed from the partying and the money funneling into the town, I couldn’t not think about them.

In any case, I enjoyed my time in Louisville. The party atmosphere was overwhelming and seemed to permeate every aspect of my visit, and I loved discovering the fancy restaurants and party spots, but one of the side benefits of writing is learning about unusual, unexpected places. Once of those places is Wagner’s Pharmacy.

The grill at Wagner's Pharmacy.

I first heard about Wagner’s from an adorable, elderly woman whose husband had been a racehorse trainer. I met her at a book launch for DERBY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, a collection of short mystery fiction revolving around the Kentucky Derby. At the time, I had no idea that I’d ever write a Derby book, but she was so enthused, I couldn’t help but remember her recommendation. And, I’d been curious. What could a pharmacy have to do with horse racing? She’d told me that backstretch workers and racehorse owners hung out there. I had to admit, I was intrigued.

Then I visited Wagner’s. The place is amazing.

Every inch of wall space is covered with racing memorabilia.

Directly across from where I sat at the counter hung a photograph of Secritariat, and I have no doubt that it was carried across the street some thirty years earlier.

If you're ever in Louisville, and if you love horses, don't miss Wagner's. It's located on 4th Street, right across from Churchill's Gate 5. And the food's great, too.

Of course, Wagner's is mentioned throughout TRIPLE CROSS because any backside worker with a pulse would have eaten there. So, here's an excerpt featuring a scene set in this amazing landmark. Steve's trying to avoid the police when he slips inside.

Wagner’s Pharmacy was a misnomer, really, because it was part cafĂ©, part sundries, part liquor store, and one-hundred percent unique. The glass door eased shut behind me, efficiently dampening the street noise while jumbled voices and the sounds and aromas of sizzling food flooded my senses. I’d been inside once before, and I swear, the place was straight out of a forties movie. I looked for an empty seat. Booths lined the wall on my left. Tables and chairs filled the center of the room. A Formica counter stretched down the right-hand wall where customers sat on barstools upholstered with pumpkin-colored vinyl and watched the cook fry up their eggs. I stepped down the sloped floor and slid onto an empty stool at the end of the counter, planted my boots on the runner.

Wooden plaques hung above the grill and featured seriously dated paintings of eggs and bacon, coffee and toast. The damn things had to have been tacked up there before my mother was born.

First impressions are often flawed by preconceived, erroneous notions, and my initial look inside Wagner’s had taken me by surprise. The establishment that so many people talked about and patronized, backsiders and the wealthy alike, was a dump. But it had an irresistible charm, mainly because it could not have existed anywhere else in the world. Everywhere you looked, on every square inch of wall space, hung period photographs of horses and jockeys and the men and women who owned and trained them. Directly across from where I sat hung an eight-by-ten glossy of Secretariat after he won the Kentucky Derby in unbelievable fashion on May 5th, 1973, and I had no doubt it was an original that had been carried across the street and had decorated that space for thirty years.

Pure and simple, Wagner’s was a walk backward through time. And the food was damn good, too.

I ordered bacon and eggs and biscuits and gravy and was halfway through my meal when my cell rang. I wiped my fingers on a napkin and flipped the phone open. “Cline.”

“Coast is clear.”

I smiled. “Who’d they talk to?”

“Mr. K,” Jay said, referring to Kessler. “Bill Gannon and his employees, couple Hispanic stable hands, me, the guy Kessler was talking to.”

“Know who he is?”

“From what I heard, guy’s an owner. Maybe a potential client.”

“Did the cops interview with the press around?”

“Used an office. Even so, the reporters were buzzin’ round like flies on shit.”

“Apt description, there, Jay.”

He grunted. “Get your ass back here, and bring me something to eat.”

I closed my phone and was scraping the last bit of egg and biscuits and gravy into the center of my plate when someone stepped alongside my shoulder and placed a hand on the countertop. A small, feminine hand. I turned my head.

Detective Bonikowski stood at my side in her fashionable suit--this morning’s choice, a charcoal gray herringbone--paired with a pink silk blouse with the buttons left undone at her throat.


“Mr. Cline.” She swept the room with a practiced glance before her gaze returned to my face. “What are you doing here?”

“Taking a break.” I gestured toward my plate. “Eating.”

“You take breaks in the middle of walking a horse?”

I smiled. “Not usually.”

“Did you think we were coming to hook you up?”

“It crossed my mind.”

“And now?”

I glanced at her and sighed. “No. Your shoulders are relaxed. Your hands are nowhere near your weapon or cuffs, you’re unbalanced with most of your weight on your left foot . . . and you’re alone.”

Her mouth twitched. “I wouldn’t need backup to handle you.”

I swiveled around on my stool and squinted at her, wondering if the implied meaning was simply a case of wishful thinking on my part. “How’d you find me?”

“Driving past. Looked in the window . . . you know? Advanced police work.”

I grinned.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Trails Along the Ridge

By Laura Crum

Its interesting how our "horse passions" change as time goes by. When I first began to write my mystery series about equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, I had been competing regularly at cutting horse events for many years on my horse, Gunner. So, naturally, my first mystery, Cutter, published by St Martin's Press in 1994, dealt with the (excuse the pun--and the cliche) cutthroat world of cutting horses, nefarious trainers, and double-crossing rivals.

That was many years ago. In the ensuing time, I've spent lots of hours in the saddle, practicing and competing at team roping (these stories made their way into my novels Roughstock and Roped ), long days horse packing in the Sierra Nevada Mts (faithfully described in Slickrock ), and plenty of time trail riding here on the California coast (see Breakaway and Forged ). I trained several young horses during this period and these experiences are distilled in Hayburner. Then followed a break from intense horse action while I was pregnant with and nursing my son; I've chronicled that period and the emotions surrounding it in Moonblind and Chasing Cans. For the last few years, my main "horse passion" has been teaching my little boy to ride.

Sounds pretty tame, I guess, after all those years of cutting, roping, ranching, horse training and horse packing that came before. Strangely enough, however, I'm finding this time as rewarding and exciting as any, something I'm sure other "horse moms" will understand. And perhaps most interesting of all, through teaching my son to ride, I've re-discovered an old passion--exploring the landscape where I live on horseback.

It seems I've come full circle. When I was a teenag
e girl, I remember staring wistfully at the western ridge that was visible from my father's house, longing to ride the trails I knew were out there. At the time, my only access to horses was at the family ranch, where my uncle, a part-time rodeo cowboy, raised and trained Quarter Horses. But though there were pastures at the ranch, there were no real trails there. My father's home, on the other hand, lay near a state park with miles and miles of trails running through the oaks and redwoods down to California's San Lorenzo River. When, at fourteen years of age, I was finally allowed to keep a horse of my own, I immediately arranged to board him with a neighbor, and began riding those trails.

For the next couple of years I rode Jackson through the Santa Cruz Mountains, mostly by myself. When I think back to the busy roads I rode along and crossed to get to the trails, the tricky routes I traversed through the steep and often slippery hills, the days I would swim Jackson in the river, all alone, I wonder what my parents were thinking. As non-horse people, I suppose they weren't really aware of the dangers. And Jackson, by the way, was no proper mount for a kid, even the fairly experienced rider that I was. Though overall he was phlegmatic, he was prone to unexpected vertical rears when he didn't wish to proceed and equally unexpected bouts of lashing out with his hind feet. (He kicked me in the head once when I was saddling him and I was out cold for awhile; I have no idea how long, as I was, once again, alone. When I came to I resumed saddling him and went on with my planned ride.)

Eventually, right about the time I turned sixteen and could drive, the trails lost their allure and I began to be more interested in breaking colts for my uncle, training his team roping horses, and competing in reined cowhorse events. I sold Jackson and bought Hon
ey, a well-bred unbroken four-year-old Quarter Horse mare that I intended to turn into a great stock horse (now that's another story). But I still remember those days when I was fourteen and fifteen and endlessly wandered the trails on the ridge I could see from my house, alone on my horse.

And today? Today from my front porch I can see another ridge. Like the ridge of my childhood, it is wooded and criss-crossed with trails. Though I've always known those trails were there and occasionally rode them, it is only since my son graduated to riding Henry (who is a well-broke, reliable mount, unlike Jackson) and we have started going out on the trails together, that I've become obsessed.

I sit on my porch and look at the familiar "landmark tree" (a huge dead pine snag on the ridge that towers above the trails) and envision the singletracks that wind between the oaks, pines, and redwoods with their particular casts of sun and shadow, their unexpected flurries of brilliant blue forget-me-nots, their earthy spring scents and unbelievable views of Monterey Bay. I long to be horseback there, moving through the green landscape, watching my little boy's face light up with delight as we successfully negotiate a new trail, enjoying the changing seasons and weather. It feels, in a way, as if I've been returned to my teenage self (though I do not in the least look like my teenage self, I hasten to add).

Its all been quite the revela
tion to me and I find myself wondering what "horse passion" will come upon me next. Perhaps my son will take up one of the events I've left behind and I'll find myself, once again, at the cutting pen or roping arena, waiting to compete. Who knows? For the moment, it's the trails along the ridge that fill my mind and will no doubt make their way into my next book.

Happy trails to you!

Laura Crum

The Genesis of a Kentucky Derby Book . . .

by Kit Ehrman

After I finished writing the third book in the Steve Cline Mystery Series, COLD BURN, which is set on a thoroughbred breeding farm in Warrenton, Virginia, and the manuscript went off to the typesetters, it was time for me to come up with a story idea for the next book in the series. I have to admit, a novel set at the Kentucky Derby was not my first choice.

After wrapping up COLD BURN, I spent three months plotting and researching the fourth book, only to have it rejected on synopsis. So, I had to come up with something, and fast, especially if I wanted to maintain a book-a-year schedule. A schedule I’ve since demolished, I might add.

Anyway, while casting around for a story idea, I considered all the people in Steve’s life, and my focus settled on his father, racehorse trainer Chris Kessler. I decided that Kessler finally had a horse capable enough and talented enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. I pitched the idea to my editor. She loved it, so Steve and I were off to Churchill Downs!

View from the Backside

The Backside

After getting permission from the powers that be at the storied track, I set about researching Louisville and the Derby Festival Events and the backside of Churchill Downs.

Riverfront Plaza

A Gallopalooza Horse on Main Street

I came up with the “horse mystery” quickly, but it didn’t feel substantial enough to carry an entire novel; plus, I generally like to layer a second mystery into the story when possible, anyway, so I came up with another mystery that would complicate the plot in a big way. I started my research online, amassing hundreds of pages of detailed notes that would later filter into the story itself. Then, it was time to visit Louisville and Churchill for onsite research.

Morning workout

Afternoon sun winking off Humana Building

Meanwhile, I had to think of a way to get Steve involved in the mystery I’d designed for him, and it had to be believable. So, I turned to real life. I had taken a Private Investigations course a while back, and one of the topics that we studied dealt with the Public Information Act. Essentially, we learned about the amazing amount of information that is available to the public. And we were given a final assignment: to learn everything that we could about a person unknown to us. Our instructor’s parting words were: “Whatever you do, don’t follow your subject.”

He didn’t want to be called by the police when we screwed up.

Well, those words have stuck with me over the years. I had it in the back of my mind that I could use his sentiment somewhere down the line in a story. So, I decided that Steve would take the same PI course. (He loves working with horses, but he’s interested in investigations, as well.) Steve’s course is wrapping up just as he heads to Louisville. While there, he decides to complete the assignment so he can turn it in when he returns to Maryland.

Unfortunately for Steve, the person he chooses to investigate winds up missing under mysterious circumstances, and the race is on . . .

TRIPLE CROSS: A sinister plot of deceit and revenge unravels beneath the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.

Here’s the opening to TRIPLE CROSS:

The assignment was simple enough. Pick a random subject and learn as much as you can about him. Name, address, phone number. DOB, mortgages and property taxes. Car description and plate number. VIN if you didn’t mind being obvious. A simple assignment if I’d been in Maryland. But I was six-hundred miles from home, standing within eyeshot of the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. Logistics would be complicated, but nothing I couldn’t overcome.

First and foremost, I needed to select a subject. But on the backside, with all the “Slims” and “Ricos” and “Willies,” figuring out someone’s real name was a tricky proposition at best. Track employees were supposed to keep their photo IDs displayed at all times, either dangling from straps around their necks or clipped to their shirts, but most backsiders found the practice cumbersome and ended up slipping them under T-shirts or stuffing them in back pockets. And whomever I chose needed to have at least a tenuous tie to the community. On the backside, that could be a problem, too. Of course, I could have picked a jockey or a trainer or a local celebrity, but I wanted someone who wasn’t in the news. Someone ordinary. Normal.

Yet I suspected there was nothing ordinary or normal about this place or time. Not in the town of Louisville, and certainly not in the barn area at Churchill Downs. Not fifteen days before the running of the Kentucky Derby.

Even before the sky had brightened, and the lights illuminating the Twin Spires lost their brilliance to the new day, traffic on Fourth Street had increased until the whine of tires on asphalt pushed through the chain-link fence that separated the backside from the rest of the world.

Today, it seemed like that fence wasn’t doing any damned good.

Also, don’t forget the Kentucky Derby documentary that I mentioned in an earlier post. If you’re interested in viewing it, and it’s playing near you, please try to catch it early because twenty-five percent of the box office from the opening week will be donated to the worldwide leader in equine research – The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. If you can, please support the film the week of April 18th. To learn more, visit:

Monday, April 14, 2008

My Misadventures with Gayliena

First of all, I'd like to thank Marilyn for guest blogging with us yesterday. I hope all of you will check out her book and her website.

I promised last time that I relate some of my trials and tribulations with my first warmblood and a mare, at that. I bought Gayliena, AKA Gailey, as a barely broke 3-year-old with an attitude. She didn't haul in a trailer but we managed to get her in and haul her straight to a trainer's. After a recent injury on a horse, no way was I breaking a young horse, especially a HUGE young horse.

Six months later, I brought her home. She still didn't load. In fact, her trailing issues had turned into a full-blown phobia. Even worse, the only way I could ride her without her balking and threatening to go up, was by begging my daughter-in-law to stand in the arena and hold a lunge whip. As long as Cindy held the whip near my mare, she'd move forward. So that's how our summer went.

I couldn't haul her to lessons because she wouldn't load. To make matters worse, she'd chase me around her paddock with her teeth bared or turn and try to kick me. Yes, it was the summer from hell. I can't tell you how many times I sat down and cried regarding my supposed dream-horse-turned-nightmare. I couldn't even sell her because how can you sell a horse that won't load? I'd ridden horses all my life, but they'd always been dead broke and safe about about 4-5 inches smaller. This mare was way beyond my abilities at the time.

Realizing I wasn't getting anywhere on my own, I enlisted the help of the first in a long line of cowboys (horse whisperer types) to help me. After a year of working with the first cowboy, I had a mare that no longer chased me around, and was actually quite personable and sweet under her alpha mare exterior. We could "join up" and trot and canter safely around the arena.

One problem, she still didn't load. He tried everything, then conceded that he didn't know what to do. So he referred me to his mentor, a man who was a disciple of Buck Brannaman. Off she went to Greg's place. In two weeks he had her loading.

Life was good. I was hauling to lessons. We were finally on-track. In fact, I learned a very important lesson that summer from my dressage trainer. The mare was a bluffer. If you called her bluff, she'd back right down. She was also a little lazy and bucking and rearing were way too much work. Once I realized that she was actually quite safe under saddle, things improved in leaps and bounds.

Until the day that I hauled her to a horse show with an undetected wasps nest in the manger area of the horse trailer, and we were back to the drawing board.

To be continued...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"You're Writing a Novel About What?" by Guest Blogger--Marilyn Fisher

I'm very happy to introduce our first guest blogger, Marilyn Fisher. Marilyn is the author of "The Case of Three Dead Horses."


My critique colleagues in Virginia were shocked. “About horses that get killed,” I told them. I had good reason. In my home state of New York, where I learned to ride, I had read an article by a vet that still resonated with me. What that anonymous man or woman said was the starting point for my first novel, The Case of the Three Dead Horses, thus turning me into a novelist. Writing the novel, in turn, led to my horse protection web site.

The vet’s story was short, its message brutal. Writing immediately after finishing a necropsy, the anonymous vet said that the horse had died in such a way that its murder could not be confirmed. The killer would have had to have a veterinary’s knowledge of equine anatomy to perform the murder. Because nothing could be proved, the owner would get a large insurance settlement. The tone of the article was tired, bitter. The vet had seen too many murderers rewarded when the method of killing was hard to prove. An insurance company somewhere was on the hook once again. What must have been maddening was the necessity for anonymity. Whistle-blower vets lose clients and may be in physical danger.

Slowly I accumulated evidence about the crime of killing horses. I discovered that no one likes to talk or write about it. On a research trip to Kentucky, I strained to hear the words as a woman whispered a sad story; back home in Virginia, a man wanted me to write an article about horse abuse but his veterinarian friend, who had told the man about it, refused to cooperate with me.

Like all equine fiction writers, I wanted to tell a horse-centered story, in this case, a mystery, with an entertaining, fast-paced plot and characters the reader would have strong feelings about.

Eventually, my novel took shape, the leading character, equine insurance investigator Connie Holt, who has her first experience with the crime of killing horses. Since I lived in beautiful Virginia, I set the story in horse country there. As the novel unfolded, I found myself inventing a lustful state cop, a wealthy, arrogant client, a vet who doesn’t return Connie’s love, and an assortment of other characters, all of whom play a part in her investigation to discover how the horses were killed, why they were murdered, and who ended their lives. One of the joys was creating the horses in Connie’s community, both valuable, highly-bred horses like Woolwine, Quicksilver Magical Pete, Finn Maccumhail, and Ali Ben Bahir, and less prestigious but equally lovable horses like George, Sam and Suzie.

Here’s an excerpt. Connie Holt is on call. At a breeding farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a horse lies dead in his stall and there are other complications. Read on:

When the phone on her bedside table rang, waking her out of a deep, dreamless sleep, insurance agent Connie Holt groaned. She’d spent the day visiting three farms to discuss complicated insurance claims the owners had submitted to the McCutcheon Equine Insurance Agency. Since the farms were widely separated from each other in Bedford, Amherst and Nelson counties, she’d been in her truck too many hours. She’d gone to bed around eight o’clock that night, her back and head aching. Now she remembered that it was her turn to be on night duty. The caller was probably her boss, Cary McCutcheon. A horse must be injured, sick or dead somewhere. It would be her job to examine the horse at the site and write a detailed report. Sighing, she put on her glasses.

“That you, Cary?”

“Sorry, Connie.”

She mouthed a silent “Hell!” into the darkness of her warm, cozy bedroom.

“It’s Rod Payson’s horse Woolwine,” Cary continued. “Dead.”

“That marvelous stallion? Poor Rod. First Donna’s death and now this.”

“And to make it worse,” said Cary, “there’s a dead man in the stall. Rod said he knew him. Police are on their way. Rod called them first, then his veterinarian, Jase Tyree, then us. Be careful driving up there, the roads are terrible. Ice storm.” Both of them knew it would be a hard trip to Payson’s isolated horse farm in Amherst County. The hilly roads would be slippery and treacherous.

My horse protection web site at is “dedicated to the well-being of horses, dream animals who live side-by-side with us.” I’d love it if readers would visit, and drop me a note about anything you see there or read in the novel.

I’m again writing about Connie Holt, with some of the familiar characters from The Case of the Three Dead Horses and new ones, among them, a trainer and jump jockeys. This time, the main plot will be about Connie’s involvement in the International Gold Cup Races of Virginia in which Cary’s fabulous black horse named Darkling Lord is running. She’ll also be unraveling the mystery of two valuable oil paintings, and her personal life will again be affected by the investigation.
I’ll close with some nice words from Shakespeare that I’m sure every rider feels are true: “When I bestride him I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.” Remember them as you ride down those spring trails in the coming weeks.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jumping for Joy


When I was in high school and considering different college programs, I remember my father saying “Whatever you do, make sure you like it, because you’re going to be doing it for a long time.” This was some of the best advice I’ve ever received, and I use it to this day. Writing is challenging and frustrating at times, but when everything comes together to create an exciting story, writing is absolutely wonderful.

I was lucky that both my horses loved their job as well. My first horse, Spencer, was never happier than when he was sailing over a course. He used to be turned out with two aged Morgans named George and Martha. He would gallop around them, away and back again, trying to get them to run and jump with him. George would occasionally lift his head, chewing slowly, with an expression that said ‘Spencer, you have to be kidding. Our running and jumping days are over, son.’ So Spencer would go off and do the jumps in the field on his own. The owner of the facility would sit on his back porch to relax and watch the turned-out Spencer jump for the sheer joy of it. His form over fences was very good, which told me where the talent was in our partnership. It was obvious he didn’t need me in the saddle to be a great jumper, but he loved me anyway, and we had the best time jumping together.

My second horse, Topper, used to be turned out in the indoor ring in the winter, and he did some breathtaking turns and jumps in there. He would probably have had a great time doing some jumper courses if he didn’t have a less than daring rider in the saddle (Ahem…that would be me). Being a kindhearted gentleman, he would instead take me over my comfortable hunter and equitation courses and never yawned once.

One year Topper had a leg injury. I went to an away show with my barn and rode my trainer’s old retired Grand Prix horse, Tron. He was a sweet, wonderful fellow who lived to jump, but arthritis was starting to keep him from the big fences. Occasionally my trainer would feel sorry for him and take a few big jumps to make him happy, but the next day Tron would come hobbling out of his stall. Given this, I thought he’d enjoy my small equitation fences, and he did seem quite proud taking me around my little course, although my husband mentioned Tron was finding the course challenging because he was trying to jump the fences instead of step over them. I ignored this probably accurate statement and listened for the class results to be announced. I was delighted to hear we’d won the division.

My husband and trainer both insisted that if I took Tron in any more classes I should gather my courage and try some higher fences, which would still be small from Tron’s perspective. I was pondering this option as I rode Tron back to the tent where he was stabled. We were relaxing, just plodding along on the hot summer day when suddenly Tron started dancing and sidestepping under me. His whole body was quivering. Startled, I looked up to see we were in front of the gate to the Grand Prix ring. He wanted to go in! He definitely had the wrong rider in the irons for a Grand Prix course. Gently, I urged him on and my heart broke when his head dropped disconsolately. Here, clearly, was a horse who loved his job and jumped for the sheer joy of it.

Now that Topper is in well deserved retirement, he’s still jumping, too. He lives on my in-law’s farm and one day my sister-in-law went to bring him in. She was reaching for the gate when Topper decided to save her the trouble and leaped over the gate to meet her on the other side. At five foot three, my sister-in-law ducked, but only barely needed to. After she got him in his stall, she went out and measured the fence he cleared. Five foot jumps was apparently still well within his abilities and he just wanted to let us know it!

On the days when writing is more like pulling teeth than a generous flow of words, I remember some of the amazing, talented horses I’ve ridden. Their dedication and love of sport run through my head with my father’s words “Do what you love.” I love writing and I love horses. I’ve been truly blessed.

Here’s to a wonderful week for everyone. Happy riding!



Tuesday, April 8, 2008


by Kit Ehrman

I spent the afternoon in Louisville today. The magnolias, daffodils, and tulips were in bloom, and naturally, my thoughts turned to the Kentucky Derby. As hard as it is for me to believe, the big race is only twenty-five days and counting.

Time flies.

Statue of Aristides, winner of the first Kentucky Derby.

Considering the fact that my latest mystery, TRIPLE CROSS, is set in Louisville for the running of the Kentucky Derby, you’d think that I’d be a huge horseracing fan when, in fact, I’m not.

I am most definitely drawn to racing, but this is solely a byproduct of my love of the horse, and I have to admit, after Barbaro, my feelings about horseracing are even more conflicted.

Racing is hard on horses, but so are all the equine sports at the upper levels. Let’s face it; as soon as humans are thrown into the mix, our natural competitiveness (and sometimes, greed) causes us to push our horses. So, it’s up to us to do the best job we can to ensure their safety and continued health.

Some will be critical of how we “use” horses, but the truth of the matter is: many of the top equine athletes love what they do.

What happened to Barbaro was tragic, and it broke my heart. But it was an accident. I have admired Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz, for decades, having become familiar with him as he competed on the Grand Prix circuit, rode in the Olympics, and later, saved several children when Flight 232 went down in an Iowa cornfield. He is a horseman in the truest sense of the word.

Michele brought up the topic of equine movies in an earlier post. If you haven’t heard about it yet, THE FIRST SATURDAY IN MAY, an independent documentary about the 2006 Kentucky Derby, filmed and produced by two brothers, will be released nationwide later this month, on April 18th. Here’s a clip from the movie:

Banner 2 Banner 1 go!

To learn more about THE FIRST SATURDAY IN MAY, visit:

I found this wonderful clip on YouTube (from the movie) of Michael Matz introducing Barbaro to his son. It's very sweet and really highlights Matz's temperament and horsemanship. Click here.

So, while I'm not a big racing fan, this excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS, sums up how I (and Steve) feel about racehorses:

There’s something about being on the backside of a racetrack just before dawn that is truly magical--standing along the rail when the light’s just coming up, watching the horses move fluidly across the damp earth, their dark shapes silhouetted against a rainbow sky. You stand there, breathing in the clean air, listening to the steady primal rhythm of a galloping horse, and the rest of the world simply does not exist.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

My Love Affair with Horses

I've loved horses for as long as I can remember. Some of my first memories are of playing with my plastic horses and sitting on a rental horse named Jughead. By the 3rd grade, I'd read all the Black Stallion books. In fact, my early love of horses probably played a large part in my becoming an avid reader. I read every horse book I could get my hands on. To this day, I have an extensive fiction and non-fiction horse library.

In jr. high and high school, I wrote a series of stories about a race horse (my own version of The Black Stallion). I drew countless barn plans and mapped out elaborate farm designs for the fictitious farm in my stories. And like every other horse-crazy kid, I drew countless pictures of horses. I had a large model horse collection and went the model horse showing route. I even attended some "live" model horse shows.

In my teenage years, when most girls discover boys and forget about horses, I still longed for a horse. I didn't get one until my senior year of high school. The horse was so barn sour, I couldn't ride her anywhere and sold her within a year. That still didn't dampen my love of horses.

In college, I started taking weekly lessons with a local dressage trainer and continued those lessons until I graduated. A friend of a friend of my sister's gave me an Anglo-Arab mare. Felice had been an event horse and had developed navicular at an early age. She'd been nerved in front. As long as she was shod correctly, she stayed perfectly sound. That mare loved to jump. If she could find something to jump, she would, even going out of her way to do it. Of course, I tried to avoid jumping her because of her front legs. Eventually, the cost of having a horse and going to college became too much. I gave her back to her original owners.

After graduation, I continued to take dressage lessons. I bought a thoroughbred who was the sweetest thing on the ground and on the trails, Ram Ruler. Unfortunately, Ram's poor brain had been fried from too many years of racing and "cowboy" polo. If you put him in an arena, he would get tense and literally freak out. He was not dressage horse material. A few years later, I sold him as a trail horse.

Then came Moses Malone. I leased Moe from a pregnant teenage girl for a year then purchased him. He was a five-year-old Morgan/QH cross, a chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail. I love that horse. We did everything together. I showed him in western and English pleasure, jumped him, and eventually took him to Prix St. George in dressage. He was the world's best trail horse. You could loop the reins around the saddle, and he'd just saunter along. Moe is still going strong at 29. At 23, I leased him to a couple of nice men who rode him once in a while and mostly have him for a pet. He's living the good life on their little farm.

That brings us to Broker (bad choice of names). I bought Broker from a 'friend.' The third time i got on him, he proceeded to dump me and broke 2 ribs and my collarbone in 2 places. This horse had serious problems that didn't come out the first two times I rode him. Needless to say, he went down the road. The horse bucked and reared like a professional. Three different trainers tried to cure him with no luck.

Last but not least is Gailey. Next time I'll post about my trials and tribulations with my first warmblood. She's been a challenge, but I love her, and she'll always have a home with me.

Friday, April 4, 2008

What a Character!

by Toni Leland

The second most-asked question a writer hears is, "Are your characters real people?" OR, "Am I in your book?"

Any author in their right mind would answer a resounding "NO!" and dodge any further fishing expeditions but, I for one, have to admit that my characters are based on real people, albeit composites that I sculpt to fit the story. And I'm reasonably sure that even the person or persons I use in the formula would not know themselves. Human nature being what it is, though, close acquaintances are always positive they'll see a clue to the identity of my story people. Therein lies the perfect setting for either a lawsuit or a family feud!

Quite a few years ago, a writer published a book that was set in one of the big-breed industries. The writing was not stellar, but the industry itself was fascinating and, of course, anyone connected with it had to buy that book to see if they were in the story. At the height of the book's short-lived popularity, at horse shows it was such fun to lurk around groups of trainers and owners to eavesdrop on their conversations about who, exactly, the author was describing. And, in truth, this author hadn't camouflaged the "real models" very well, so everyone had it figured out within a few months of the book's release.

Writing a fictional tale requires, first, an excellent plot that will keep the reader turning the pages. Then, interesting and engaging characters must make the plot come alive. When Avid Reader begins a book, he or she wants to identify with the hero or heroine ("protagonist" in writer speak). As authors, we must build a character with a believable background, a believable personality, and believable goals. And we have to effectively present this story person to Avid Reader in the first few pages, or we've lost our audience.

Here's another version of the characters question: "Is your main character really you?" This one's tough because every writer puts a little or a lot of themselves into the story line and the characters. For instance, I'm terrified of large dogs, allergic to bee stings, and always on a diet. These tendencies or quirks do often show up in some of my characters. They just appear—I don't plan to use them. But the fact I've loved horses all my life is the biggest "me" trait that I instill in my characters, and I do that on purpose!

What kinds of story people do YOU enjoy most?

'Til next time....

Read an excerpt from DEADLY HERITAGE now!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Real Horses Behind the Books

by Laura Crum

In my latest mystery novel, Chasing Cans, just out this month, Gail McCarthy, my equine veterinarian protagonist, acquires a pony for her child. This particular plot device never would have occurred to me were it not for the fact that several years ago I acquired a pony for my little boy. I had never owned a pony before and Toby was an education to me. I found the little critter so endearing that I just had to write about him, and Toby our pony is faithfully described in Chasing Cans, though the way in which Gail acquires him is rather different than the way in which I came by the real Toby.

This is often the case with my equine characters. Over the course of my ten mystery novels, I’ve based virtually every horse that Gail encounters, owns or rides on real horses I’ve known. Gunner, who is Gail’s main mount through most of the books, is modeled on my own horse, Gunner. He is accurately portrayed as to appearance (a fifteen-three hand Quarter Horse gelding with white socks, a blaze and a blue eye), personality and quirks (the real Gunner is a big spook, as is Gail’s “Gunner”), but the living horse’s history is a bit different from the fictional one.

Gail acquires her horse Gunner when a veterinary client refuses to spend the money and time it would take to allow the horse a chance at recovering from severed flexor tendons. (This occurs in my first novel, Cutter.) Gail takes the horse to save him from euthanasia. (The story is also based on a real horse; it just wasn’t Gunner.)

The real Gunner’s life history is rather different. I acquired him as a three-year-old, just as Gail did her Gunner. I was twenty-five years old and working for a prominent reining/cowhorse trainer who shall remain nameless. As his assistant, I rode a string of eight horses every day; these were horses that, for whatever reason, he didn’t care to ride. Some he considered less talented, some were in the barn just to be broken and the owners weren’t interested in showing them, some had a bad attitude (poor me)…etc. Gunner was in my string because the trainer wasn’t collecting training fees on him; the horse was just there to be sold. Gunner was a well-bred and talented cutting and reining prospect, and the trainer thought that not only would he collect a fat commission when he sold the horse, he might also be able to place him with one of his own clients who would then pay the trainer to ride the horse and enter him in the major cutting and reining futurities. Needless to say the price tag on this horse was high. He was probably the best colt I had in my string; he was also a very likable horse.

Just as he is described in my books, Gunner had a friendly, clownish personality, a willing and cooperative nature, and tons of athletic ability. He came to me with about thirty rides on him, and I took it from there. He was always an easy horse, never prone to bucking or other negative behaviors, other than his penchant for unexpected sudden twenty foot sideways leaps whenever he saw something worth spooking at, which was often. He never dumped me (and never meant to), but it was a near thing more than once.

Despite the swerves, I loved riding Gunner. It amazed me how quickly this colt came on and how much “cow” he had. As the months passed with no buyer coming up with the purchase price, I grew fonder and fonder of this horse. I began hoping desperately that no one would buy him; I dreaded his removal from the barn or seeing him placed in the trainer’s string (by this time I’d had lots of experience with the well known trainer’s rather harsh methods and didn’t want to see this kind, willing colt subjected to them.)

Eventually the day came. A prospective buyer was due to arrive, one who would surely buy Gunner. He was a rich man; the purchase price would mean nothing to him. He was known to be looking for a good futurity prospect and to like Gunner’s breeding. The trainer was very keen to make the deal. I gave Gunner a bath with tears running down my face. That morning, despite the fact that I had no idea where I would get the money, I told the trainer I would give him the full price for the horse and wrote and handed him a deposit check.

I’ve never regretted this decision. I borrowed the money to buy Gunner and I left that trainer’s employment almost immediately thereafter. I trained Gunner myself and showed him at some of the reining and cutting futurities as a three and four year old, winning some very minor awards. Gunner became an accomplished cutting horse over the years and I won many events on him eventually. Later I trained him to be a team roping horse and competed on him for several years at ropings. I still own Gunner; he’s twenty-eight, sound, and retired in my sixty acre pasture. He’s been my friend the whole time.
Photo: Laura Crum and Gunner winning the cutting class at the Santa Cruz County Fair.

Gail’s Gunner is given a slightly different history. She never uses him as a cutting horse, but does compete on him at team roping in Roped, my fourth mystery novel. In Slickrock, the fifth book in the series, she rides him on a major pack trip through the Sierra Nevada Mts of California. Though this pack trip is based on many pack trips that I made over those same mountain passes, the mount that I used on those trips was Flanigan, a horse I also rode for years and loved dearly, just as I did Gunner. Flanigan loaned his skills as a team roping horse and his quirky personality to Burt in my third novel, Roughstock.

Photo: In the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California

So the horses in my books are real horses, although almost all of them are in some ways combinations. One horse’s personality and appearance grafted on another’s history, so to speak. (This is the way I create my human characters as well. ) And though I give Gail some of my own life experiences, her responses are uniquely her own. Thus my mystery series is a tapestry of fact and fiction, which I hope will engage readers in much the same way that the real horses and life changes have engaged me.

Here’s to the three “Rs”—reading, writing and riding!
Laura Crum