Wednesday, October 29, 2014


by Laura Crum

My apologies to those who regularly read this blog--I've been overwhelmed lately and have no time for the computer. I hope to get back to posting soon. And for today, here is the next installment in the story of my own little horse property.

            So much went into choosing this land. To begin with, I had hoped to build my home on a much loved family property in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But I have a strong sense of place, and also a hard-headed practical streak, and the cabin in the mountains failed these tests. Somehow those mountains did not feel like home, and I wanted a place that felt like home to me.  I also wanted to live somewhere that seemed isolated, but was a convenient drive from town. Not to mention that I had learned my lesson about what could happen with family-owned properties when the family ranch was sold off—against all my wishes.
            So I began to search for a property that met my needs. I began this search in a very pragmatic way. There were only a couple of areas in the county where I really felt at home. The villages of Soquel and Aptos, and the country around them, were somehow “right.” The slant of the light, the feel of the air, the gentle, comfortable look of the land…this was where I wanted to live.
            When I thought about it, it made sense. The Ranch had been halfway between Soquel and Capitola, and Capitola was completely developed by this time-- no place for horses there. And Aptos, well, I had lived by Aptos Creek until I was three years old. It was my parents first home as a married couple. Both Aptos and Soquel were side by side in the hills a little south of Santa Cruz, and north of Watsonville. Aptos Creek and Soquel Creek both drained right into Monterey Bay. And I knew it was in one of these two drainages that I wanted to live.
            It was and is odd, but I dislike the cold lonely light of Santa Cruz proper, particularly the harsh ocean glare light of the west side. I found the San Lorenzo River Valley stifling and claustrophobic. I didn’t care for the industrial/agricultural atmosphere that predominated in the south county, and I thought the mountain areas were too inconveniently remote, as well as inclined to not-useful steepness and unfriendly-to horse-trailer twisty roads. Those gentle smiling creeks in their pleasant hills rolling down to the protected shelter of the bay—Soquel and Aptos-- that still carried their Native American names—my home would be there.
            I refined my thinking further by considering, of all things, freeway exits. Yes, you have that right. Freeway exits. Highway 1 is the main route through Santa Cruz County and each exit/onramp has its own dynamic. Some are very crowded and congested, others more rural. Eventually I settled on the Freedom Blvd exit, what used to be called Rob Roy junction. In the old days, it was where Freedom Blvd connected to Soquel Drive (pre-Highway1). Few people still remember that old name, but it seemed auspicious to me. It is a fairly rural, wide open place to get on the freeway. Very horse trailer friendly—something that was on my mind. And so I began my search for a small horse property in the vicinity of Rob Roy junction.
            I rather rapidly realized I would not be buying a “horse property.” I would not even, it seemed, be buying a house. Because I could not afford a house, let alone a horse property. I was going to be very lucky if I could find a piece of land that could possibly become a horse property. Real estate in Santa Cruz County is very expensive. But I persisted in my search.
            I quickly grew exasperated with real estate agents. They seemed not to hear what I said, and kept showing me properties that cost more than I had told them I could spend, and were nothing like what I had described. After awhile I just drove around, looking. One day I decided to think about exactly where I would like to live if I could pick. And as I drove through that area, I spotted a real estate for sale sign—lying flat on the ground.
            The sign was at the turnoff for an unnamed road. I followed the road up the hill, between a couple of rather standard looking suburban houses, and came to another for sale sign at the very end of the road, leaning crookedly into a shaggy bush. Next to this was a gate, closing off a dirt road that led further up the hill. The gate was not locked. Nor was it attached to a fence. Nor was there a “No Trespassing” sign. The gate appeared to simply block vehicular traffic up that dirt road/driveway. It seemed to me that the “For Sale” sign was referencing the property beyond the gate.
            I walked around the gate and up the sketchy dirt road. The ground was sandy, and the road/drive, such as it was, wound up the gently sloping hill, through a grove of young live oaks. I could see by the light that there was open space ahead and above me. So far I could see no house. I kept walking.
            The road rounded a bend and abruptly died. I was facing a little hollow in the hills, like a cupped hand. This hollow was maybe an acre or so in diameter and floored in gently waving grass. In my memory it is May, and the grass has that silvery sheen that it gets when the seed heads are ripe. In another moment I became aware that in the center of the bowl was a small group of deer bedded down in the grass—including a very majestic buck with a large rack. The deer lifted their heads at the sight of me; a couple of them stood up.
            I froze. Everybody held still. Slowly I turned my head, surveying the bowl-shaped hollow, surrounded by brushy hills on three sides. There was no house in sight. Merely this little deer park hidden in the hills. The deer watched me cautiously.
            The place had an intensely private feeling. Despite the fact that I knew the suburban houses were not very far away, I could not see them—screened from my view as they were by the oak trees on the lower slope. The brushy hills that surrounded the hollow blocked out whatever houses were beyond them. From where I stood there were no people or houses to be seen. The place felt remote and wild—though I realized that this was an illusion, created by the unique topography of the land.
            After a minute more I turned and began to walk back down the hill. The herd of deer remained where they were. When I reached the gate I wrote down the phone number of the real estate office listed on the crooked sign. I was pretty sure I had found the right place.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Achieving the proper balance

By Gayle Carline

I always think of horse riding as a Zen-like activity. Horses like balance. They like their riders to be balanced on their backs. Too much weight on one side makes them move to that side, to get the human back in the middle.

Writing about a subject as specific as horses also requires balance, especially in fiction. Consider a mystery set around horses. Too little detail about the horse world and non-horse mystery lovers will be confused, close the book, and perhaps toss it across the room. Too much detail will explain it all to the non-horsey people and make the horse folks bored, close the book, and well, you know.

I know you can't please everyone, but balance is good.

In Snoopy's memoir, FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH, I could put a lot of detail in, because the book takes Snoopy from his birth to his adult years, so he has to learn about being trained. The trick with his book was to describe training from his point of view. How does a horse see our methods?

Maybe like this:

* * *

Even when I was staying with Uncle Snowy, or with Johnny and Tucker, my humans came every day and taught me things. Either Hilde or MomToo took me out of the pen and led me to the barn, where they brushed me and cleaned my hooves. Miss Tina talked about it being part of my training, but I don’t know what I was being trained to do except stand still.

Before they taught me to be brushed and cleaned, they had to teach me to wear a halter and follow them on a lead rope. At first, I liked the halter and wanted to follow them around. Then, when I was four months old or so, I had a better idea.

Every time MomToo tried to put my nose in the halter, I would throw my head backward, then side to side and keep her from putting it on me. I thought this was a fun game. For about forever one week, we spent a long time wrestling with the halter. I thought we were having fun, even if her face was red and she looked kind of mad afterward.

Then one day, she put her arms around my neck and held the halter out in front of me. I was curious, so I pushed my nose forward. Suddenly I was haltered and our game was over.

MomToo was smart.

* * *

For my romantic suspense, MURDER ON THE HOOF, I couldn't rely on a horse's eye view of the L.A. Equestrian Center. How do you convey the information without a data dump from the mouths of your character-experts?

I solved the problem by making my main character a beginner in the horse show world. She has some knowledge about horses and riding, but her inner dialogue explains what she's doing and how she feels about it.

Here's an example:

* * *

As they passed Emily and Tyler, she heard her trainer say what she dreaded but knew was coming.

“Go ahead and lope her.”

Loping was a gait that seemed faster than it was—it could be choppy if the horse couldn’t keep their rear end pushing forward while their front end contained the energy. Willie took a deep breath, then put her left leg on Belle’s ribs, made a kissing sound with her lips, and hoped for the best.

As before, the horse responded. Willie felt the push of the mare’s rising back end, then the upward roll of her shoulders. In a few strides, Belle settled into a gentle rocking-horse rhythm. Willie kept her butt digging into the saddle, her left hand trying not to pull up on the reins, and her right hand trying to stay on her leg. Every four strides or so, she reminded herself to breathe.

It takes a lot of work to look this relaxed, she thought.

* * *

Writers, do you worry about your readers' level of knowledge in your subject? Readers, do you need a writer to guide you through unknown territory, or are you just interested in who done it?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reasons We Ride

by Linda Benson

We ride horses for many reasons. Some of us like to compete in shows. Some like the kinship and relationship that we develop with our equine partners. For some, training a horse is a thrill.

I haven't been riding much recently, but on a recent camping trip, I hiked with my husband on a gorgeous trail through the northernmost grove of Redwood Trees, in Southwest Oregon. And I realized that the most joy that I have experienced on horseback, and the main reason that I like to ride, is to experience wild places.

Because everyone needs a little wilderness.

Even as a girl with a horse (although I did my share of barrel racing and showing in other classes) my main place to ride was away. Gone for the day, into the mountains, up trails that only my horse and I knew about.

These experiences come out in my writing, too. In my short read called The Summer Cat, fourteen-year-old Hannah rides her mare on the hundreds of acres of forest land behind her house. She has names for trails that she uses, like the Wild Rose Trail. (Have you named the trails that you ride the most? I always did.)

"I pushed her up the Wild Rose trail. We trotted straight up the steep slope which opened onto an amazing view of the valley and the forest and mountains behind our property. Those show horse people never get to see this stuff . . ."

The most fun I ever had horseback was a three-day camping trip with a girlfriend, riding the 100 mile Tevis trail (several weeks prior to competing in the actual race) but doing it in thirds, camping along the way.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for the day. I hope in all of your riding, training, and bonding with your horse, you are able to use that wonderful creature to take you places you might never otherwise see.

Wishing you all a little wilderness.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Where I Live

       by Laura Crum

Some readers expressed an interest in a series of posts about the way I found and developed my little horse property. I'm going to attempt this series now. I fear it may be boring to most people, and you can feel free to tell me so. I am writing this more for myself than anyone else, and I don't need to put it up on this blog. So feel free to vote yay or nay on this subject.

Also, these posts may have a bit to do with horses, but they also will have lots of passages that have nothing to do with horses or writing about horses. Designing houses and gardens and landscapes, my own whims, my feelings about land and the particular sort of flora and fauna that are found here in these coastal California hills....all this will come into the story. Again, let me know if you find this boring.

So here goes.

                                       This Place
            Here is the story of this place that I live, that I call home.
There are so many strands woven into this little hollow in the hills-- my past, the past of the land, the magical wild world that surrounds me here. I want to braid the strands together and make a plait that shows the whole. Just for the delight of doing it, putting it down in words.
Creating this place, where I hope to live until I die, has been one of the most joyous experiences of my life. And so I begin with my past, the experiences which formed me and caused me to want to live here and to shape this place the way I have shaped it.

                        The Past

            The Ranch. This simple phrase was the magic in the child’s world. She did not live on the Ranch. She lived in a quiet, upper middle class, suburban neighborhood on a golf course called Pasatiempo. As suburban neighborhoods and golf courses go, Pasatiempo was pleasant. Both the course and the neighborhood were older and graceful, with big established trees, and when the girl was young, there were still many undeveloped areas left. But the child found Pasatiempo boring.
            From her earliest memory, she had lived to go to the Ranch, where there was magic. Ordinary magic, to be sure, but magic nonetheless, in her eyes. There were horses, and barns, and barn cats, and piles of rusting junk, and orchards, and crumbling dirt roads, and old wood and glass greenhouses full of plants, and little shacks covered in rambling roses, and everything was ragged and a bit messy. The Ranch was wild, where her home seemed tame.
            The girl could not explain why she felt this way—she just did. Perhaps it was mainly the horses. Her uncle lived at the ranch and had horses, and from as far back as she could remember, horses had moved her as nothing else did.
            The Ranch was a family ranch. Four generations of the child’s family had lived and worked there. Her great grandfather had purchased the land at the turn of the century, coming to California from Indiana, to start a new life. Her grandfather had been born here, and so had her father and his brother. And now her uncle lived here with his children, her cousins. The girl was deeply envious of her cousins, who lived in an old adobe house on the ranch that had been built by her grandparents.

            Both her grandfather and her father still worked at the ranch, but they had moved away to the more upscale environment of Pasatiempo to live. The child’s father would (sometimes) take her out to the Ranch on Saturdays when he went to work, and leave her there to ramble around all day. And she lived for this.
            It wasn’t that she was never bored at the ranch. She often wandered aimlessly, wondering what she should do. It was just that she didn’t mind being bored there—the air always felt alive with potential, as if something interesting might happen next. In contrast the air of her suburban neighborhood seemed still and stagnant. And so she wandered the dirt roads of the Ranch and went in and out of the barns and sheds, and picked fruit from the neglected orchards and wild berry vines, and stared wistfully at the horses—for hours.
            Nobody paid much attention to her. She was quite young, maybe five years old, when she was first allowed to “play” at the Ranch, and the various people who lived and worked there cast a benign eye on her, and would certainly have helped her had she been in trouble, but nobody felt any obligation to entertain her. She was (mostly) left to her own devices.
            In her memory of the Ranch, she is always alone. Wandering and exploring, and later when she was older and had learned to ride, riding her uncle’s horses through the fields. In truth, she was not always solitary. She played with her cousins, and her uncle let her ride with him when he wasn’t too busy, and sometimes she was with her brothers and sister. But in her mind, she was always alone there. Aloneness was part of the magic.
            Besides the magic of the horses, there was the magic of the place. Those particular fields and barns and dirt roads, the hundred or so acres of good flat ground on the edge of the little town of Capitola, itself on the edge of Monterey Bay, which swept out into the far Pacific Ocean—this ranch which had always been her family’s ranch. The girl located herself by the Ranch. The tallest local mountain, Loma Prieta, was visible from the wide plain of the Ranch pastures, and the girl would memorize this landmark—this is my home, she told herself. Just here.
            When she was a teenager and could drive, the Ranch became more of a refuge than ever. She had a part time job out there, packaging flower bulbs, and she fell in love with a succession of boys who lived and/or worked there. She spent as much time as possible out at the Ranch. Warm summer evenings talking horses at the barn while eating apricots and plums, plucked from the trees. Gathering the cattle on horseback, laughing with the young cowboys, with the breeze bending the fields of grass and lifting her hair. Innumerable foggy mornings, huddled in a jacket, walking to the faded red barn to begin another work day. She loved it all.
            She would have been happy to live on the Ranch forever, and often imagined this, but it was not to be. From the beginning, her family had been entrepreneurs, more than ranchers. Her great grandfather had first sold buggies, then farmed strawberries and flower bulbs, and next began a dairy. The dairy of purebred Guernsey cows, producing high quality milk, was the mainstay of the Ranch for years, and then, when high fat milk went out of fashion, the main business of the Ranch became growing and selling tuberous begonias. Under her grandfather, the family began importing all sorts of flower bulbs from Holland and reselling them, and by the time she was born, it was a “bulb ranch.” The horses and cattle were incidental; the cattle kept to provide the family with meat, and the horses because her uncle loved horses.
            Her grandfather and her father, like her great grandfather before them, were not sentimental people. They saw the Ranch as a way of making money. From even before she was born, her grandfather had determined to sell the Ranch at an enormous profit—when development came its way. He had planned for this. And so, when the first shopping centers and banks and housing developments grew up around the Ranch, the writing was on the wall.
            As far as she could tell, the girl was the only one who was saddened by this. Piece after piece of the Ranch was sold off; soon it was just a small cluster of remaining buildings, and a few acres of pasture. Next door was the beginning of a huge mall—the land purchased from her family. The girl, a teenager now, hated this from the bottom of her heart, but even as a teenager she understood that there was no point in fighting and arguing. She had nothing to say about it, and her father and grandfather and uncle were quite determined to sell the Ranch.
            And so, little by little, her beloved Ranch disappeared. The fields and barns and roads were demolished and swallowed up and paved over and built upon until she could not even tell where the horse barn had been, or the old adobe house. It was all gone, completely gone, as if it had never been. All that was left was a giant shopping mall, indistinguishable from any other shopping mall.
            The girl learned quite a bit from this. About not trusting people and not falling in love with a piece of land that did not belong to her, principally. Also about understanding that one could NOT control what happened on the land next door. And these lessons came in very handy later.
            The girl was in her twenties now, and lived in a small house in town, and kept her horses at her uncle’s new horse ranch. She was ready to find a home. The Ranch was gone forever. Her uncle’s little horse ranch was HIS place, not the family ranch, and she did not feel welcome there. So she began to look for a place of her own. And so begins this story.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Three Pages!!!

By Alison Hart

For the past five months, I have been researching and writing  Murphy Coal Mine Dog, which is book three in the "Dog Chronicle" series published by Peachtree Publishers. I have been working on the first draft since the middle of August, it was due Oct. 1, I got an extension, and tomorrow, I will finish it.  All writers who work under deadline know the INTENSE PRESSURE to deliver a solid first draft on time.  I have two other 'jobs' as well as family, dogs, horses, chores--lots of chores--so deadlines can be very difficult.  They are also difficult because of my tendency to do anything that distracts me from sitting butt in chair.  These include:

Tidying up my desk.  Sorting Socks.  Picking burrs out of horse manes.  Patting the cat.
Hunting for treasures on Ebay.  Grading papers.
Sweeping the garage.  Walking the dogs.
Digging weeds . . .

You get the idea.

Finishing a book is especially difficult. I developed my writing skills writing Nancy Drew mysteries-- a dozen of them  Chapters had to end with cliffhangers and tension needed to be created throughout.  They weren't literary masterpieces, but I learned how to plot, plot, plot.

But how to end a story about a dog and a disaster in coal mine?  How to finish it with a satisfying, poignant and realistic conclusion?

I wake myself up at night with ideas.  Some good, some horrible.  Tomorrow, I have to put those ideas on paper, three more pages that will end my book with a bang.  Am I ready?  Nope. Hopefully, the unconscious part of my brain that writes without me realizing it, will suddenly pop out a fantastic finale.  I'm counting on it.

How do you handle endings?  Do they come to you when you are least thinking about them?  Do you procrastinate until you have no choice?  Do you have the ending before the beginning? Please share!