Writers of Equestrian Fiction
Ride with us into a world of suspense, romance, comedy, and mystery --
Because life always looks better from the back of a horse!
Monday, March 31, 2008
I typically don’t have a plan for the blogs, and it worked the same way today. I started with a question, just like I do when I begin writing a new book. My book question is always: What if…. For today’s blog, I thought about what do horse people love as far as entertainment goes, and guess what—duh—we love the same thing in our entertainment as we love in our world—HORSES! There are some great books out there that incorporate the horse world, and I personally am going to toot the Equestrian Ink authors here, and say that we are some of the very best. But not only do we as horse people love to read about our worlds, they love to watch them, and that started me thinking about great horse movies.
I remember my first horse movie. I was ten-years-old or so, and my mom took me and another friend to see International Velvet with Tatum O’Neil. I loved this movie, and it actually started me on my first horse book, which turned out to be about sixty hand written pages in a notebook about a girl who had lost her parents and went to live with her aunt on a ranch and fell in love with the horse world and her major goal was to become and Olympic champion (I know it sounds just like the movie, but come on—I was ten). I still love this movie and was delighted to see my daughter watching it the other day. I bought it for her for Christmas along with National Velvet, which of course is such an all time classic—no horse lover should be without.
How about The Black Stallion? Has there ever been such rich and beautiful cinematography? I wanted to be Alec Ramsey so badly and ride that amazing animal. That movie would still bring tears to my eyes. Not only did I love the movie but read every Walter Farley book I could get my hands on growing up. Ah—those were the days.
We recently watched the updated version of My Friend Flicka, which made both my daughter and me cry. We saw it at the theater and then when it came out had to go and get a copy.
Has anyone seen Back to the West (think that’s what it’s called)—about the Irish gypsies and the kids who is fortunate enough to have a magical horse enter their lives? This movie was amazing in scenery and the love the boys felt for the horse is exactly the same type of love most all horse people I know feel toward the animal. If you have not watched this movie (it was made in the early nineties) then do so. You will not be disappointed.
And, who can forget The Horse Whisperer? Okay, there is something extra special when you combine Robert Redford and horses!
There are so many wonderful horse related movies out there that I can’t think of them all, but I’d love to hear from all of you so I can add to my list. Tell us your favorites and why.
Have a wonderful week.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Springtime with horses
Spring is in the air. Well, some days spring is in the air and other days snowflakes are, but I’m trying to be optimistic. These days with the change of season I think about the kids’ wardrobes and planting the garden. When I was riding competitively springtime had a whole different meaning. On one hand, it was lovely to work ride without freezing and having Topper jump a mile in the air as ice slide off the roof of the indoor. While riding outside I would love watching flowers bloom and trees turn a lovely fresh green.
On the other hand, Topper had an adrenaline rush his first few times outside each season that turned him into a wild thing. That part of springtime I used to dread. There was one day in particular when my trainer decided to slow him down by putting a bigger obstacle in front of him. Big mistake. He took off like a Grand Prix champ and cleared a 3 foot fence by another foot. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for this astonishing ride and promptly fell on his neck—which was entirely my fault— and then sailed off Topper to land on my head, which I suppose was the fault of gravity with a healthy assist from me.
Still, Topper and I would work through our excitement about the coming of spring in our own ways and come out as a team again, ready for another show season. I try to remember those moments when my deadlines get tight and my plate seems impossibly full. Life has moments of challenge, and a new season or a new project always has its interesting moments. Of course, life always looks better from the back of a horse, but it’s possible to use the ability to focus I learned as a horse person to plow through the myriad details of a busy life.
Here’s to spring and the changes life brings. Happy reading and happy riding!
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Adventures with Stoney . . .
I purchased my first horse, a big flea-bitten gray, when I was twenty-three. Stoney was a sweet, wonderful guy. He was green when I bought him, but he advanced quickly. He was usually very solid and steady in the show ring and did well in low hunter and pleasure classes, often earning several champion titles in one show. He was also well behaved when I took him to some combined training events. But there was one place where his ornery side came into play—out on the trail . . . alone.
In company, he was great. Stoney preferred to lead. He was bold and confident, and riding him felt like driving a bulldozer. “You want to go up that ten-foot muddy bank out of the river?” “Sure, no problem.” I’d point him, and off he’d go.
“What, no trail?” “Not a problem.” I might get scratched up with briers and gouged by tree branches, but none of this held him back.
And he loved river crossings. He’d stand in the middle of the current while schools of fish swam between his legs. I have no idea what he thought they were, but he’d cant his head and watch them dart beneath his belly. And I’d have to be careful, because he liked to roll, especially when it was hot. I would have loved to have taken him for a swim, though we never had that opportunity.
But when we set off alone, I never knew if I’d be walking home or riding because he had this nasty habit of bucking as we came out of stream crossings or after jumping a log. He didn’t get me off much, but when he did, he’d gallop for home.
I remember this one time when we were out in the woods, and he started bucking after we jumped a log. He put his nose to the ground and pulled me right out of the saddle. I was actually straddling his neck as he continued to buck down the trail, and it was then that I made the decision to bail instead of risk slipping beneath his hooves. I lunged to the side and hit the dirt, and off he went down the trail. I ran uphill and almost caught him as he whizzed by on the switchback. When I’d finally trudged back to the stable, I couldn’t find him and was afraid he’d remain forever hidden in a dense corn field. But, he hadn’t stayed out in the open to pig out. He’d squeezed into the stall we used to store hay and was chowing down on a bale of alfalfa.
We had some adventures in groups, too. My boss was a wild woman in the saddle. She took a bunch of us novices on a cross-country gallop. Stoney was so excited by this barely-controlled, group gallop, I spent much of the run trying to keep his bucking under control. We slowed to a canter when we reached a wooded trail. My boss was an excellent horsewoman. She was riding Pocket, her son's beautiful bay hunter. As he cantered down the trail on autopilot, she was twisted around in the saddle, watching her band of excited students, when I noticed a heavy low branch jutting across the trail. I warned her just in time. Otherwise, she would have been knocked right off.
The land surrounding the horse farm where I worked at the time bordered Maryland’s Patuxent River, and it was extremely hilly and wooded. When I first purchased Stoney, he had no clue how to get us to the bottom of some of these hills except to make a mad dash down them. He’d stand at the top, worried, shifting his weight; then he’d take a deep breath and just go. I eventually got him to understand that he could take his time, and those big scary hills lost some of their menace.
Columbia Horse Center
My fictitional Foxdale Farm, where Steve works, is based on the Columbia Horse Center.
The hours I’ve spent riding, especially cross country, show up in my fiction. Here’s a little excerpt from AT RISK, where Steve has taken a school horse out for a nighttime ride. One of the boarders had noticed a six-horse that resembles the trailer used in a horse theft, and Steve is going to check it out:
Wooded hills sloped upward on both sides of the river, and except for a faint gurgling, where fast-moving water tumbled over a natural dam, the meadow was quiet. I might have found it peaceful except for the night’s objective. I looked at my watch. Seven-fifty-five. I had two hours before the last lesson was over, before Karen would check to see if we’d made it back.
When we came to a stretch of meadow where the footing was safe, I bridged the reins together over the crest of her neck--to act as a brace in case she stumbled--then crouched low over the saddle. She automatically lengthened into a ground-covering canter, the instinct for speed there for the asking. Her body rocked beneath me, her muscles straining, footfalls muffled, breath coming faster, louder, filling my ears. I pressed my knuckles into her mane and relaxed into her stride. The brisk air stung my face and pulled tears from the corners of my eyes. The ground beneath us was a blur, the speed intoxicating for both of us.
Where the meadow narrowed into a track not much wider than one of the old logging roads, with trees thick on both sides, I brought her back to a walk. Jet swiveled her ears and tossed her head in irritation.
“Sorry, girl. Can’t run here.” I patted her neck. Steam eddied through her coat, curling upward in tendrils, and I could smell her sweat, stirringly primitive. A link to the past. The result of countless years of man and horse working together.
I owned Stoney until his death at age 31. He was a great guy, and his memory lives on in my writing.
Happy reading and riding.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
More Story Ideas
Friday, March 21, 2008
A writer's brain churns with bits and pieces of information, many of which are being processed as potential plot material. My own grey matter often drives me crazy with jostling ideas, each vying for a prominent place in my thoughts. The only way I can deal with the information overload is to jot down each idea or thought so my brain can relax--or fill up with more ideas! At any given time, I'm mulling ideas for horse stories, gardening articles, Miniature horse how-to books or videos, cooking articles, articles on writing, or photography ideas. (I carry a tiny spiral notebook and golf pencil in my pocket at all times so I'll never lose any good stuff.)
Sometimes a news tidbit grabs me and forces my brain to focus solely on that information. A story idea begins, but not without trepidation--believe me.
In 2003, five American Saddlebreds were brutally attacked and maimed in Lexington, Kentucky. Among those horses were Five-Gaited World Champion Wild Eyed & Wicked. The equine community gasped collectively and followed the horrible story for weeks, each of us certain that we'd soon know who could do such a thing. The five horses in question had been injected with a caustic substance that defied identification. Within two weeks, three of the five were euthanized--including Wild Eyed & Wicked. I was stunned, and began to follow the story on a daily basis.
The uproar continued while the investigative powers of the State and the finest veterinarians and equine pathologists struggled with the mystery. In 2005, the Kentucky State Police closed the investigation so that private resources could be used to continue the search for the criminal. My brain screamed, "Write this story!" My heart said, "How? You can't do this to those poor people who lost their horse!" My husband said, "How can you write a story without knowing the ending?"
In early 2006, I couldn't put it off any longer. I needed to write this tragedy into a story line and, by golly, I'd find a reasonable ending, if for no other reason than to give my brain a rest. I spent a lot of time conferring with veterinarians, pathologists, and the good folks at KESMARC Equine Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy center in Lexington (they treated one of the attacked saddlebreds, who later returned to the show ring). I profiled a different breed and set the location in a different state, but the underlying thread remained the same.
Deadly Heritage was released in January of this year and, though my fictitious characters and motives won't bring closure to Wild Eyed & Wicked's owners, or clues to the unsolved crime, at least I can finally file away the 10-inch stack of news articles, pathology reports, court proceedings, and technical information that accumulated over the past five years.
See the beautiful horse that started it all.
'Til next time....
Women's Fiction with Kick!
Love to garden? http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/by.php?user=tonileland
Have Miniature Horses? http://www.smallhorse.com
Thursday, March 20, 2008
A Lifetime with Horses
I will never forget Richie, the barn owner’s old hunter. He was a gentle, very willing fellow who took excellent care of me. Some of my happiest memories are of jumping around on Richie, grooming him until the poor fellow probably though his coat would fall out, or just standing with him in his stall. I would stroke his nose and cuddle the wonderful guy who kept me safe when my whims took us over jumps of a size which make my heart bump in my chest when I think of them now.
What hasn’t changed is the serenity I feel being around horses, writing about them, and sharing the joy of the horse world with my daughter. Life does unerringly move on, and growth and change are inevitable, but I’m fortunate to be able to use my memories and experiences to bring life and depth to my stories. I may no longer ride with the abandon of youth, but some of my characters do. If I’m currently identifying with my more, shall we say, seasoned characters, that’s alright. The flavor of a lifetime of experiences adds its own spice to my day, and hopefully to my writing.
Happy trails, whichever path you and your mount choose to take!
All the best,
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
One Woman's Path to Publication
I grew up riding horses for my uncle (a part-time rodeo cowboy who competed at team roping and raised Quarter Horses), and was breaking and training colts for him by the time I was eighteen. In my twenties, I worked for a pack station in the Sierra Nevada Mts and for a large cattle operation in northern California. This was followed by a period where I worked for some prominent cutting and reining horse trainers and hauled my horse, Gunner, all over California and several other western states competing at reining and cutting events. Eventually I began competing at team roping, and continued to train horses, both for myself and others.
Right around the time I turned thirty I decided I was ready for a slightly less strenuous career. Since I had always been a big fan of Dick Francis (like so many others), I decided to try my hand at turning my background with western horses into mysteries, much as he had used his past as a steeple chasing jockey to create his own books.
So for the next few years I wrote. I continued to train horses for myself and competed at team roping, but my focus began to be on writing about it. I wrote longhand, in a spiral bound notebook, and I can remember writing away in the front seat of my pickup while I waited for my name to be called to compete at various ropings. I wrote in the barnyard while I watched my hosed-off horses dry in the sun. I wrote three book length manuscripts over a three year period before I was able to get an agent to represent me, and when she did agree to take me on she demanded numerous rewrites-this process lasting another year (she was a former editor and it showed). Once she was satisfied with the book, it took her over another year to sell my first novel, Cutter, to St Martin's Press. So the path to publication wasn't exactly easy nor was it a fast track. Still I have very much enjoyed the process of writing about the many aspects of the western horse world that I've been involved with, and I feel grateful that my mysteries have continued to be published regularly ever since that first book hit the shelves.
Cutter came out in 1994 and describes the world of cutting horses. It was followed by Hoofprints, which revolves around reined cowhorses. Roughstock features team roping and endurance riding, and Roped deals with ranching and roping. Slickrock is set in the course of a pack trip in the Sierra Nevada Mts and Breakaway involves Gail in riding the trails of coastal California. Hayburner describes breaking a colt and Forged takes Gail and her horses on a pack trip along the beaches of Monterey Bay. Moonblind features a Thoroughbred lay-up farm on the cliffs above that same bay, and Chasing Cans, my tenth book, which is just out this month, centers on a legendary barrel racing trainer.
I'm frequently asked by readers who want to become published authors what my advice would be to one who is getting started. Obviously you have to be willing to persevere with your writing even when success doesn't happen immediately. (Or doesn't happen for years, which was my own case.) I think this goes without saying. I have also found it helpful to write about things I know intimately. Almost all the facets of the western horse world that I explore in my books are areas that I have participated in for years and years. (The exceptions to this are endurance riding and Thoroughbred lay-up farms, on which my knowledge is second-hand-thank you Craig and Ginny!)
Since I have had horses all my life (currently I own eleven) the veterinary calls and emergencies that Gail deals with are based on things that have actually happened to me and my horses, or to my friends. And the horses in the books are all based on horses I have known (and mostly loved). This helps the books come alive (at least for me; I hope for others).
The books are set in California, primarily on the coast near Monterey Bay, where both Gail and I live, and where my family has been running a ranch for four generations. Though I know some authors can write about places after brief trips to research them (and do a good job of it, too), I don't posess that skill. In order to write effectively about the weather, landscape, and "feeling" of a place, I have to know it intimately.
When I first began writing these mysteries, inspired by Dick Francis as I was, I used a male protagonist. However it wasn't until I re-wrote my third manuscript, changing the male veterinarian into a female version, that an agent finally accepted my work. I believe this was in part due to the particular timing; female protagonists were just becoming very popular in the mystery genre, with a great many of us riding in on the heels of Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. I have come to feel blessed by the chance that gave me a woman to write about; I found that my ability to give Gail life changes that I knew intimately (having been through them) contributed to my ability to keep her "alive" through many, many books (at least for me, again, I hope for readers, too). "Write what you know" has become my mantra.
One of the biggest thrills in my writing career has been to actually meet the man who was my inspiration-yes, I mean Dick Francis. Since our meeting we have had a regular correspondence for the last fourteen years. You can imagine how delighted I was when he read (and praised) my novels, but the the ultimate moment came when he asked to borrow some details of veterinary medicine that I used to further the plot in Slickrock. Of course I said yes. (!) "Borrow anything you like" (though I don't know if he really did). Praise from one's mentor is sweet indeed and I am never happier than when my books are likened to Dick Francis'. (See the comment on the back of Chasing Cans-I'm very touched by it.)
All in all its been a wonderful ride-both the books and the horses. I still ride my horses almost every day, and despite all the hours I've put in writing over the last twenty years (yes, its been twenty years-I started writing mysteries when I was thirty and I'm now fifty), it doesn't amount to half the hours I've spent on the back of a horse!
Happy trails, Laura and Gunner
PS-Gunner is twenty-eight this year, happily retired (still sound) and living in my sixty acre pasture.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Track Conditions . . .
When I began writing the Steve Cline Mystery Series, I knew so little about the publishing industry, I didn’t realize that there was such a huge demand for series books, especially in the mystery genre. But, luckily for me, I wasn’t done with Steve when I wrapped up AT RISK. I still needed to explore the reasons behind his strained relationship with his father, and discovering that answer took me (and Steve) to the racetrack in DEAD MAN'S TOUCH.
Once I decide on a story idea, I begin researching right away because my findings often influence the developing plot.
I had worked briefly at Laurel Park years before, and all the delicious, sensory-filled memories of that experience were firmly embedded in my mind. But I was greedy. I wanted more.
Laurel Park grandstand and paddock area
Laurel Park grandstand
In my search to learn of others’ experiences and impressions of what it’s like to work on the backside of a racetrack, I discovered TRACK CONDITIONS, a beautifully-written, heart-wrenching memoir by Michael Klein.
TRACK CONDITIONS is a poetic, episodic narrative of the author’s five-year stint working as a racetrack groom as he journeys from track to track in an effort to reclaim his lover while battling alcoholism and dealing with the damaging effects of a sexually-abusive stepfather and a mother who suffered from depression.
Granted, this is not your typical equine book, but it is unbelievably moving and lyrical. To give you a sense of Klein’s writing style, I’ve pasted a brief excerpt below:
"One morning, Jewel was gazing into the middle distance after the last set of horses had gone out to the track, a distance lined with momentary hazards: a groom having trouble getting the tack off a horse; a filly not standing still for the blacksmith; sparrows in distress swimming in a necklace of high notes up to the haylofts."
During his time on the track, Klein had the good fortune of being Swale’s groom and the bad luck of being fired weeks before the Kentucky Derby-winning colt ran in the Preakness. The cover photo above, taken by Puff Anderson, shows Klein and Swale.
Ultimately, it is horse who saves man.
Over the years, I’ve read TRACK CONDITIONS twice and will read it again. I can’t say that reading it changed anything in DEAD MAN’S TOUCH, but I suspect that some of the story’s mood filtered into my own writing.
Happy reading and riding . . .
Monday, March 17, 2008
The Billy Dal Gang
This story isn't so much about the horses, as it is about what we would do as kids when we rode. Last week I mentioned there was a group of us girls who rode together. We were about 9, 10,11. There was a core group of four of us, and my dad who was the leader of the pack (made five) fondly named us "The Billy Dal Gang." You probably guessed that Dad was dal--Billy Dal. There was Billy Renee who rode an off the track older Thoroughbred (whose name escapes me), Billy Stacey (rode a gorgeous, but high maintenance grey Arab named Zelle), Billy Laura who rode a buckskin Quarter (cute horse, but again I can't remember the name--God is early Alzhemier's setting in? Maybe I need more coffee this morning). And, then there was me--Billy Shell (my nicname was Shelly or Shell--still is) and I rode my swan that I wrote a about last week--Dandy.
We would have the best time getting out on the trail. My dad is really the one who showed me what you can do with your imagination, and when you get four girls out on a trail with their horses and a crazy dad there is no limit to the imagination. We would play Cowboys (girls) and Indians for hours. Then we would play bad cow girls and the posse was after us, or we would be the posse pretending to go after the bad guys. It was a blast. My dad used to also tell us this story about the hoop snake. He had us going with this one for a long time. He'd tell us when we'd get down onto the flats that we needed to be looking up into the hills because there was the most vicious, poisonous snake ever up there called the hoop snake. His claim was that the hoop snake would stalk horse and rider from up above and when he though the timing was right to strike he'd round his body so that he held onto the back of himself and make a hoop. Once in the hoop he could roll down a hill faster than we could get away and he'd get us--horse and all. So, the game was when someone thought they saw a hoop snake heading toward us, we would haul butt as fast as we could to get away. Oh my gosh--what a rush. You can only imagine how many times us girls thought we saw that hoop snake just so we could put those horses into a full run.
Ah--those were the days. I loved that time in my life--my dad riding with us and keeping our creativity going. It was a whole 'nother world. I know we would love to hear your stories about you and your horse(s).Please share.
I hope you are enjoying Equestrian Ink and our stories. I love sharing them. It brings backs great memories and for me, and that's a fantastic way to begin a Monday morning.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Dressage and Writing
I guess that is the crux of the matter. I never know how to answer the “don’t you know everything” question. Yes, I’ve been doing this for over 25 years. Yes, I’ve taken lessons every week for almost all of those 25 years. No, I don’t know everything. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I do know. Dressage riders NEVER know everything. Believe me, if you meet a dressage rider or trainer that tells you they know it all, beware. Even Olympic-level riders are constantly learning from their horses and trainers. Dressage is an on-going process that can continue into old age. In fact, USDF (United States Dressage Federation) has an award for a horse and rider team whose combined age exceeds 100 years old.
I think that’s why Dressage is one of the fastest growing horse sports in the nation. You can do it anywhere with any kind of horse at any age. When I started doing dressage years ago, you could compete and do well on any old backyard horse. Warmbloods were rare in the Northwest. Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and various other American breeds dominated the dressage scene. If you had a well-trained, obedient animal, you could go far. Today’s competitions are very different from those of 20-plus years ago, but that’s the subject of another post.
I fell in love with dressage when Betty Tukey, my first dressage instructor, put me on her daughter’s retired dressage mare, Countess, almost 27 years ago. That moment is forever engraved in my mind. It was the most profound, moving experience I’ve ever had (again, the subject for another post), but ever since then, I’ve been hooked. I’ve veered off-course and tried other horse sports, but I always come back to dressage. I always will because when everything is just right there is this connection between you and the horse that goes beyond what a mere mortal would feel. I know that sounds a little out there, but if you’ve ever felt it, you know what I mean. Tami Hoag, a dressage rider and NYT Bestseller, described it in one of her books. If I can find the quote, I’ll add it here.
It's not for everybody, anymore than writing is for everyone. I love to trail ride and am very fortunate that my property borders thosands of acres of timberland with lots of logging roads. Riding those roads with just me and my horse is another moment in time that I cherish. There are lots of ways to communicate more adeptly with your horse, and no matter what you call them, most of them are grounded in classical dressage principles handed down through the centuries.
It’s that type of extraordinary experience that I try to portray in my equestrian fiction books. “The Dance,” which comes out in late 2008, has a heroine who can make horses dance. She just has the “touch.” I sincerely hope I do an accurate job of conveying those once-in-lifetime feelings of being one with a magnificent animal.
Dressage and writing are very similar as they require discipline and perseverance. Lots of people claim they want to write a book or ride dressage. Both endeavors require a similar commitment and the ability to enjoy small triumphs and slog through many setbacks. You can’t just dust off your manuscript or saddle up your horse once a month. You have to ride and write on a regular basis, no matter what else is going on in your life. No excuses. It’s easy to give up along the way, but we keep going because we’re driven by something we just can’t explain. Then when everything is right and you’re “in the zone,” you know that you’ve managed to achieve what you set out to achieve, and all the trials and tribulations along the way were worth it.
Do you have any experiences to share regarding you and your horses?
Friday, March 14, 2008
This may not seem like a big thing, but for me, the phenomenon comes close to obsessive. Imagine a family member's reaction when I groan about a story I'm reading: "Why did the author do that? It's not in character!" Or I turn and smile knowingly at my husband: "Did you see the way the screenwriter used foreshadowing?" or "Right there--that was the second turning point!"
But this is not a bad thing. The very fact that we as writers recognize the structure, symbolism, and end intent of another's work proves that we are growing--absorbing the sweat equity of those who have clawed their way to the top of the cliff and hoisted themselves over. A reward, if you will.
Every craft has its weirdness, and it takes a certain amount of "hermit-ness" to stay the course. But behind the drive to become published, a thought hovers in the back of every writer's mind as he or she reads a bestseller or watches a great movie--I can do this.
And do it, we do. At a full gallop! Romance and horses? You bet--horse people fall in love just like everyone else. And it takes a special kind of person to understand and absorb the routine and the dedication to caring for our beloved horses. Perhaps taking a backseat to this passion is the true test of a prospective suitor's mettle!
Horses and mystery. What a fabulous combination of forces that opens up endless possibilities for intrigue; suspense and edge-of-your-seat thrillers flourish in high-stakes areas of the horse industry. Just look at Dick Francis. Think those are only mysteries? Not on your spurs! I held my breath through every one of his books, always too close to the danger.
Add to these genres any one of the many issues that horse owners face and you have unique plots and characters that appeal to even the reader with only a passing interest in horses.
We write horse fiction because we love horses, we have to write, and we believe the two are a match made in heaven.
Tell us--what are your favorite romance, mystery, or thriller plots where horses reign? (no pun intended) What did you love? What "caught" you and held you captive through the story?
Until next time, keep those heels down.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Training to Ride and Training to Write
Often when I sit down to write, I am thankful for the years I spent riding and showing because those experiences give me the ability to immerse my reader in the world of horses. It is also true that many of the qualities necessary to work with horses are the same qualities that make a good rider: patience, perseverance, dedication, and love of the craft.
When I was competing, I rode five or six days a week. My husband would see the endless no-stirrup work, basic dressage, and cavalettis and ask "Aren’t you bored? Wouldn’t you rather go on a trail ride?" The answer was always "Of course not." I was honing my craft, giving my horse the best chance to succeed and training to be the best possible partner for him.
The feeling of nailing the distance and sailing over the fence made all the hours in the saddle worth it. Pulling a course together so it just flowed was even better. Of course, my horses Spencer and Topper, made sure to keep me on my toes. Topper was a thoroughbred and Spencer a thoroughbred cross. If they were bored, they would entertain themselves by spooking at just about anything. They provided great inspiration to keep concentrating on the job at hand!
These are all the qualities I bring to my writing. Success as a writer requires learning to create believable characters, fast-paced plots, and of course, a wonderful setting. When I first began writing fiction I realized with an equestrian setting I was all set, but characterization, dialogue, and plotting was another matter. Just as I spent hours doing 10 and 20 meter circles with my equine partners, I wrote and rewrote scenes until my characters leapt off the page and the pace was designed to keep my readers turning pages. Of course, just as my trainer looked with a critical eye at those circles I was doing and almost invariably have additional suggestions, my critique group looked at those rewrites and helped me keep refining them.
Now my bookshelf is groaning not only with books on riding, but with books on writing technique and of course, my favorite equestrian authors like those here at Equestrian Ink. Of course, since I’m currently writing a contemporary fantasy with an equestrian theme, I also have a shelf dedicated to mythology, magical creatures, and witchcraft, including The Element Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells!
Over the years I’ve spent with horses and horse people I learned a great deal about hard work and dedication. Little did I know that besides the joy of being part of the horse world, my instructors—both human and equine— were teaching me skills I would take with me to every aspect of my life. Well, just as I always had to get back to that all-important flat work, it’s time to get writing.
Have a great day and Happy Riding!
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Heroes and Horses
The protagonist or hero of a story is one of the most important elements a fiction author must deal with, one that deserves a great deal of forethought and consideration.
When I set out to write my first mystery, AT RISK, on July 22, 1996 (yes, I actually remember the date) I already had the opening scene in mind. What I needed was a character to tell the story. A hero.
First off, I decided that my hero would be a guy, in part, because I like guys and, secondly, because much of the fiction that I’d been reading featured male protagonists. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and George Bagby, and later, I fell in love with Dick Francis’s equine novels. And my perception at the time, flawed as it may have been, was that guys had a lot more freedom, took more chances, and were more exciting than . . . well, me.
Then there was the fact that I wanted a lot of freedom writing this character. I didn’t want him to resemble me too closely because I suspected I might feel inhibited if I thought the reader was thinking: this is who the author is.
So, I took a chance, bucked the tradition of women writing female protagonists, and developed barn manager and amateur sleuth Steve Cline. Without realizing it, I bucked another tradition by writing a very young protagonist at a time when older sleuths were the norm. His youth (he’s 21 in AT RISK) was actually trickier than nailing the guy thing.
While I was working through the first drafts of AT RISK and the opening chapters of DEAD MAN’S TOUCH, I took two writing courses offered by Writers’ Digest magazine’s Novel Writing Workshop. Both times, I requested a male instructor and was lucky to be paired with Steven Havill and William G. Tapply. Havill writes a police procedural series set in New Mexico, featuring Undersheriff Bill Gastner, and Tapply’s series features Boston estate attorney Brady Coyne. Both men, along with my husband, were a tremendous help and quick to point out when I got it wrong!
So, who is Steve? To make him more complex and interesting and real for the reader, I gave him personal issues to deal with along with the story problem. He grew up in a wealthy but emotionally distant family with two older siblings. He attended a private school and spent many of his summers “at camp” because his parents were too busy to parent. Despite the excessive wealth, his relationship with them was damaging, and eventually Steve becomes estranged from them when he leaves college to work in the horse industry. Many of the choices he makes, including his penchant for risk-taking, are linked to his strained relationship with his father and a subconscious need to prove himself.
Steve has been so much fun to write. He’s young, reckless, flawed, but also principled. At times, he seems real.
Speaking about real, many of the horses I’ve known and loved, or have just worked with, have found themselves in the pages of my books. A troubled horse in AT RISK, Cut to the Chase, a.k.a. Chase, is modeled after a horse who used to be boarded at a hunter/jumper farm where I worked. The real Chase, whose official name escapes me, was an open jumper: a huge seventeen hand, coppery chestnut gelding with a lot of white on his legs. The barn crew used to affectionately call him “Jaws” because he loved to nip his handlers. What fascinated me about the real Chase was the fact that, though ornery when handled from the ground, he was a sweetheart under saddle. He was a gorgeous, fluid mover and a truly gifted jumper.
What has surprised me most about my fictional horses is the way they magically come to life, seemingly on their own. One of my favorites is Russian Roulette. He’s a character in DEAD MAN’S TOUCH and TRIPLE CROSS.
I didn’t intentionally model him after any horse from my past, but he came to life nonetheless. Here’s a brief excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS when Steve is getting ready to go talk to the police and wondering whether he'll be free to leave once he meets them:
I gathered my trash together, left it sitting on the tack trunk, and walked over to Ruskie’s stall. He poked his head over the stall guard before curling his neck around to nuzzle my waist. I hooked my arm across his neck and smoothed my hand down his face. Resting my forehead against his mane, I breathed deeply, inhaling the indescribable blended odors: his skin, his sleek chestnut coat, the sweet smell of his breath, all combined with the mix of straw and hay, and I was reminded of the generations of horses who had passed through this barn. Derby runners, most of them.
Ruskie was uncharacteristically still, and I wondered if he sensed the tension fizzing in my nerves and pressing against my skull like a bad headache.
I had no guarantee I’d be here tomorrow. None at all.
He lipped the thin belt keeper at my waist, then smoothed his muscular lips along my belt. Knowing that a nip was likely next on his agenda, I straightened.
I stopped at Storm’s stall and patted him, told him to be a good boy, and when I turned around, Jay said, “What? No hug for me?”
I grinned and told him to wish me luck.
Here are a couple photos of the actual Derby Barn at Churchill Downs that I took while researching TRIPLE CROSS:
This is the Derby Barn. Note the press. They are everywhere.
“The horse: friendship without envy, beauty without vanity, nobility without conceit, a willing partner, yet, no slave.” ~ Anon
Monday, March 10, 2008
My First Horse Story
When the trailed rolled up to the house I grew up in and the man unloaded my birthday present, I can remember the gasp my dad let out and the words he said were, "That is the ugliest damn horse I've ever seen." My dad wasn't thinking at the moment because I was standing right there and I immediately jumped to her defense and said, "No she isn't. She's beautiful." Frankly, I was ten and any horse was beautiful. My daughter's instructor says that I still think that way.
I loved that mare and I named her Dandashell and called her Dandy. I combined my nickname of Shell with Dandy. She didn't have the pretty spotted blanket so many Appies do. She was a roan with about two spots on her rear, and she was gangly and gawky. But she actually grew into herself and was over sixteen hands high. Even my dad to this day will tell people that she was an ugly duckling who became a swan. I don't know that she actually ever became a swan, but she was a great horse, who was also the fastest horse I've ever ridden. I used to ride with a group of little girls growing up, and we called ourselves "The Billy Dal Gang," (another story for a future blog), and my friend Stacey owned this little Arab named Zelle. When my dad wasn't with us, we'd take those horses down to the river bottom and our friend Renee would clock them. We always wound up in arguments over who was the fastest horse. To this day, i think Stacey and I would still argue that, but I know that Dandy was the fastest. LOL.
Dandy was also the inspiration for my first horse story. I wrote a story for a magazine about my favorite horse. It was all about how my dad called her an ugly duckling and how I thought she was beautiful. I went on like little girls do about my pretty horse and then I submitted it to the magazine. I can't remember the magazine, but I think it was called Horse of Course. Does anyone remember that magazine? There was a section for kids in it with stories about their horses. I checked every month for about a year and my story was never published, but I didn't care (not too much anyway). I still had my swan of a big roan mare. I had Dandy until she passed away, just like Charlie and Ivan in my previous post. I swear my parents' place could be full of equine ghosts at night. There are six horses buried out there and quite a few dogs too. I have nothing but great memories from my swan. She was smooth and even-tempered. She was trust worthy and willing--she was simply a great horse to grow up with. She never was much to look at in hindsight, but that didn't matter to me, because I always thought she was the most beautiful horse in the world. Little girls and horses--sigh--perfect fit. Dandy happened to be the perfect fit for me, and I finally am "publishing" her story (thirty years or so later than expected).
How about any of you? I think all of us here at Equestrian Ink would love to hear your "favorite" horse story. That's what we're here for--to share the love of our animals and our writing. Feel free to share yours.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Welcome to Equestrian Ink
A little about me:
I was born loving horses. I can't remember a time when I didn't love horses. I think that's true for a lot of people. You get the bug and you either outgrow it, or it's with you for life. My mother was afraid of horses and prayed I'd outgrow it. That didn't happen.
I didn't get my first horse until I was almost 18. I bought her with my own money and kept her at a friend's. She was the most barn sour thing I've ever seen. If I couldn't get someone to ride with me, I wouldn't be able to leave the barn unless I led her miles down the road and road her home. Needless to say, I didn't keep her long. During my college years, I got my horse fix by taking dressage and jumping lessons once a week. While I dabbled over the years in western pleasure and jumping, dressage was and still is my passion.
My other passion is writing. I've been writing since I was old enough to string words together. I still have a book in my attic written and illustrated when I was about 6 years old called "Wildfire," about a horse, of course. Many years later (too many to mention) I decided to try my hand at writing professionally. Just this year, I sold two books to Siren Publishing. The first one, "Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed," will be out this summer. The second, "The Dance." will be out in the fall. In "Who's" horses make a cameo appearance, but "The Dance" features an Andalusian with a sense of humor. The book I'm currently working on is titled, "The Gift Horse."
Which brings me to my next topic. "The Gift Horse" is inspired by my own Hanoverian mare, Gailey. I bought Gailey when she was a barely broke 3-year-old. Looking back, I wonder what I was thinking. A year before, I'd broken my collarbone in two places and two ribs after being dumped from a horse I'd only owned for three days. After that I'd only ride my safe, geriatric Morgan/Quarter Horse, having lost my nerve.
My trainer convinced me to try out this mare. He said he wanted the horse in his barn and if I didn't buy her, he'd have to. Well, after a month of convincing, I agreed to try the horse. She wasn't really advertised for sale yet, but the owner (also the breeder) had mentioned to my trainer that she might sell her. Well, even green-broke and going around with her head in the air, Gailey was heaven. It was like driving a Mercedes after spending your life in Chevy Vega. I knew I'd never be the same.
After months of agonizing, I bought the mare. This started a journey that has been full of ups and downs, countless thousands of dollars spent on natural horsemanship and dressage trainers, and three horse trailers (because she has a major trailering phobia). She grew from 16-2 at three years old to over 17 hands of massive warmblood. Once we got past the rocky part of our relationship, she's become a dependable partner (if not a little quirky and a bit of drama queen at times). She's a charmer and has a fan club. She's such a couch to ride that everyone who's ever ridden her asks if she's for sale as soon as they dismount.
We are currently showing 2nd/3rd-level dressage and hoping to do a little 4th level later this year. I'll keep you up-to-date on us and tell you a little bit more about my journey with my first warmblood.
Anyway, welcome to Equestrian Ink. We hope you'll return often and let us know what you think via the Comments section. We'll have a new post by one of our writers or guest bloggers every 2-3 days, along with contests and freebies
Friday, March 7, 2008
Keeping the Dream Alive
From the fourth grade on, I'd yearned for a horse. That dream became especially painful when my best friend received a wonderful old Quarter Horse gelding for her eleventh birthday. From then on, I began begging my parents, promising to do anything if I could have a horse of my own. My stern father grew tired of my pleas and announced that the subject was closed--I could not have a horse.
On family outings, I'd lean my head against the car window and gaze at the magnificent rolling foothills of the Cascade Mountains, drumming a galloping beat with my fingers and picturing myself racing across the fields, leaning into my steed's whipping mane. At home, I'd curl up in the window seat with my horse books. King of the Wind. The Black Stallion. National Velvet. Keeping the dream alive. And I began to write fantastical stories about "my horses."
By the time I turned thirteen, I'd given up hope that my dream would ever come true--I was destined to watch from the sidelines. My friend had joined the local 4-H club and, occasionally, I'd be allowed to go with her. It was my only chance to be near the creatures that made my heart thump and my breath come in tiny puffs. The club leader was a wise old horseman who enjoyed being surrounded by horse-crazed kids, and he always made me feel like I belonged to that elite group.
One Saturday, he took me aside. A friend of his had a horse that needed a good home. Was I interested?
Hope and sorrow--what a combination. I could barely speak the words to tell him I'd been forbidden to bring up the subject at home. He gazed at me for a minute, then smiled. He'd take care of it. And he did. Two weeks later, Sonny backed out of a horse trailer and swung around to survey his new home.
Undoubtedly the homeliest horse ever foaled, the rangy 16-hand Tennessee Walker had lop ears, rafter hips, and a nose that must have been the model for Roman. But in the eyes of a horse crazy fourteen-year-old girl, he was as magnificent as Black Beauty or the Godolphin Arabian.
From the day Sonny stepped off the trailer, I was determined to convince my father that letting me have a horse had not been a mistake. Twenty years later, he shook his head in amazement as he watched my small band of Arabian mares grazing on the hill.
"I guess you were serious."
Yes, I was.
I haven't owned horses for many years now, but back when I was mucking stalls and carrying water and sleeping in the hay during foal-watch, my imagination was still astride a galloping horse racing across the hills. It was only a matter of time before I had to put those imaginary rides on paper, give them plots and people and loves and troubles.
Thanks to those dreams, I always have a horse in my heart and a story in my head.
Enjoy the ride while you're here!
Women's Fiction with Kick
at Romancing the Horse
Thursday, March 6, 2008
On Loving Horses
I’m so excited to be part of Equestrian Ink. I have never been able to resist a good novel about the horse world and I’m delighted to be in the company of the incredibly talented writers who create these stories!
When I began writing fiction, the advice I kept hearing was write what you love. For me, the choice was crystal clear. As a child I spent every possible moment at our local hunter/equitation barn. I took two lessons a week and in between mucked stalls, tacked and untacked, fed, and did anything else I could think of just to be around horses.
While I was in graduate school I was finally able to buy my own horse, Spencer. He was an equitation horse who had competed in Medal Maclay and was retired when his owner went to college. A barn near my school bought him and tried to use him in a lesson program, but after being turned out for three years he was taking the students on some pretty wild rides!
With the confidence of a young woman who had only ridden calm lesson horses and knew not what she was getting into, I decided to buy him. I spent the next six months landing in the dust & getting right back on. He even spooked at a large yellow butterfly flitting by his nose.
One day, I asked my husband to put up a small vertical for me in the indoor ring. Being new to horses, he didn’t know what I meant by small and put the rail up well over three feet. Spencer’s ears perked up like radar and he was off and running. We sailed over the jump, out the open door of the ring and across the road before I stopped him. At this point, I concluded I needed help and got a good trainer to work with us. After some reschooling, Spencer’s talent began to shine again.
Eventually, my beloved Spencer taught me to ride well and kindly. When he was too old to compete and I tried to give him well deserved retirement, he went into an equine depression and we had to put him back to work! He spent the next few years happily teaching beginner riders and took many of them to their first shows. He trotted around the ring in short stirrup classes with his head arched and tail flowing like he was still on the A circuit.
When not in the saddle I spent years in medical research and public health, which involved quite a lot of scientific writing, but I always had a secret yen to write fiction. I wrote my first novel, an equestrian romantic mystery titled A Dangerous Dream, while on bed rest with twins.I may not have been too mobile but my characters were having adventure, mystery, and excitement on the Grand Prix show jumping circuit. In A Dangerous Dream my heroine, Melissa, has a dream job working at a world class equestrian facility specializing in hunters, equitation, and show jumping, but her future is threatened when an attempted murder takes place at the farm. She must decide who she can trust and if her long-held dream is worth the risk of her life. I’m currently happily at work on my second book, a story about a beautiful horse trainer who also happens to be a witch. She is being hunted by a murderer and must decide if she will be honest about her legacy with the man determined to help her.
The horse world comes alive in the pages of my books because of the wonderful education I’ve received from some very patient trainers and my good fortune in being able to ride amazing, talented horses. Whether I’m writing romantic mystery or contemporary fantasy, horses inevitably wind their way through my imagination and into the lives of the characters I create.
I’m glad you stopped by Equestrian Ink and hope you’ll come back and visit us often!
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
A Chance Discovery
Welcome to Equestrian Ink, your place on the web for exploring what's new and exciting in the world of equestrian fiction. I'm thrilled and honored to be here with these talented writers and to be a part of this ground-breaking endeavor.
Actually, my journey in becoming a "horse person" and a writer happened because of a work of equestrian fiction.
I was twenty-three at the time, and working for the government, when I took a week off to stay at my parents' house while they were on vacation. My husband was out of town for a training seminar, and I was bored, so I looked around the house for something to read and found a Readers' Digest Condensed Book edition of Dick Francis's IN THE FRAME. The main character was an equine artist, and I got enough of a feel for the horse world to know that I wanted to read more of Francis's work, not to mention that fact that the man writes an excellent mystery, to say the least. Afterwards, I tracked down every title that Francis had written at that time and was hooked. Titles that I read soon after I read IN THE FRAME, and two of my favorites were: DEAD CERT and FOR KICKS. I fell in love with the fictional horse world he portrayed and decided I wanted to experience it for real.
I quit the government job, exaggerated my experience (none) to get a job working on a hunter/jumper show farm, and ended up working in the horse industry for twenty-five years. My first horse was a six-year-old Quarter horse Arabian cross. A big, fat, flea-bitten gray with black points and a black mane that stuck straight up after the previous owner had roached it. He reminded me of an ancient war horse from the Middle Ages, so I named him Stonehenge (barn name "Stoney). I've also had the privilege of owning several thoroughbreds who've retired from the track and an adorable Appendix Quarter horse mare named Flare:
Over the years, I've worked a variety of horse jobs. I worked briefly at the racetrack. I've worked as a barn manager, groom, vet tech, and I delivered foals on the night shift. That was my all-time favorite job. I've shown over fences, did some low level eventing, and eventually switched to dressage. Though I enjoyed riding, barn chores and caring for the horses interested me more.
I've always been a mystery fan, and when I decided to try my hand at writing, it was only natural that I would combine both loves: horses and mystery. There are currently four novels in my equine-oriented mystery series featuring barn manager and amateur sleuth Steve Cline. (Check out Steve's Myspace page at www.myspace.com/stephen_cline.)
The stories are traditional mysteries with a touch of romance, highly suspenseful, and fully entrenched in the horse world. The books have been well reviewed in The New York Times, Denver Post, Chicago Tribune, etc., and have collected multiple awards. The latest release, TRIPLE CROSS, takes place in Louisville and on the backside of Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby.
I've been lucky. Lucky that a chance discovery of a work by the master, Dick Francis, came at a time in my life when I was young enough, and naïve enough, to drop one career for another, riskier one. And I've been lucky that I've met with such success now that I've switched careers again, by trading in a set of reins for a pen.
As any horse enthusiast knows, we horse lovers are constantly on the lookout for fiction set in the horse world. Here at Equestrian Ink, I'm looking forward to discovering new authors, learning about equine-related fiction that I've somehow overlooked, and discussing books that I've read and loved. Plus, we're going to have some exciting guests, too. Bookmark us and drop by often.
Monday, March 3, 2008
I'm really excited to be a part of this great group of writers. I think horse fiction is something readers want, and to me being a part of this group makes me feel like we are on the cusp of some really great things to come in horse related fiction.
So, who am I, and how did I start writing about the world of horses? I'm Michele Scott. I am a writer, wife, mother, daughter, friend, and horse woman (might not be in that order--but you get it). I started riding horses when I was six-years-old, and I started writing when I was about nine. Both of these passions run deep in my soul. I knew from the time I was a kid that I wanted to write, and there has never been a time since I was little that horses have not in some way been a part of my life. My first horse was a huge seventeen hand half draft, half Quarter horse named Ivanhoe. We called him Ivan. This guy was LARGE, but was a total gentle giant. He was the kind of horse you could put any beginner on and totally trust him to do what he was supposed to, or you could put an experienced rider on him and he'd also do what he needed to. Thing was, my dad decided he was too big for me, and he went out and bought a pony. I know what you're thinking. He did what? Now there are some wonderful ponies out there--Charlie was not one of them. Sure he was sweet when I wasn't on him, and he was gorgeous. He was a Shetland--sorrel in color, and mane down past his neck. He may have been a pretty boy, but ornery. And, Charlie took it upon himself to buck me off pretty much on a daily basis for about a year until I got my seat and wouldn't take it any longer. Now my dad likes to say that he does not kow if buying that pony was the stupidest thing he ever did, or the smartest--because I did learn to ride that little sucker, and maybe it was that kind of determination that has helped me as a writer. Becoming a published author has not been easy, but I love what I do and I again was determined. I wrote for twelve years and finished several manuscripts, worked a day job and had two kids (now three) while trying to sell a book. I have had many rejections over the years, but just like getting back up on that pony, I was not about to give up. I stayed loyal to my dream. I also stayed loyal to my horses. We had Charlie and Ivan until they passed on. They are buried, along with three other horses that I grew up with at my parents' place. Horses in my family come to stay for a lifetime.
How did I start writing horse mysteries? Well, my other series is a wine lover's mystery series, and it was sold as a series back in 2003. I wrote all three books before the first one hit the shelves (that was part of the deal), and then there was a waiting period to see how they would do. I am happy to say that I am now writing book 5 in that series. But a writer always needs to be prepared to write something new, if they want to keep selling, and I knew that I wanted to do something with the horse world. So, I pitched a mystery series about nine months after selling the wine series. I wanted to base the stories on a horse trainer (a reining and working cow horse gal) and my agent liked it, so did my editor and there you have it. They picked up three of those. All of them are currently available, and I am again in a holding pattern to see if there will be more in that series. Fingers crossed because I really love writing my heroine Michaela Bancroft. In the most recent book out, Michaela has the misfortune of being involved with the murder of a polo player. (She didn't do it, but it looks like it to the cops).
That's a bit about my writing, my life, and my passion for the horse. There is truly no other animal like the horse. They are majestic and in my opinion soulful creatures.
I hope you enjoy our blog and will visit reguarly. Please look for upcoming contests and announcements as we will be having some great guest bloggers as well in the future. And, of course--please pick up our books and support horse fiction.