Friday, January 27, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Horse as Plot Device

Horses as a plot device are seriously underutilized by most writers, especially those unfamiliar with the beast from day-to-day exposure to them. This is a shame, because societies that depend heavily on equines of all types in daily life are as exposed to their problems as we are to our cars breaking down. The most common equine plot problem is someone stealing the hero's horse, but that makes the action dependent on the juxtaposition of two groups of people that might actually not be plausible (not to mention that this is way overused). So, let's look at some other plot mayhem that can arise from your fictional horses, and how it could plausibly occur.
Travel delays: Just as when your car won't start, your hero can be disastrously or fortuitously delayed or stranded due to:
  • Illness: Colic is common when feed is irregular or strange/moldy or the horse doesn't get enough water. Horses also catch colds, and certain diseases can run like wildfire through a whole stable overnight. A sneezing, coughing horse might be treated like a leper by a prudent innkeeper.
  • Soreness: Unfit horses get sore backs, saddle sores, and go lame just like unfit people want to die the morning after they start their new exercise regimen. A kind rider will take this into account; an uncaring rider will make the problem worse and discover himself stranded on the trail instead of in town where he could have found himself a different mount.
  • Lameness: In rocky country a horse can easily stone-bruise a hoof, twist an ankle among the rocks, or pull off a shoe. Really bad trails or rutted roads might cause stumbling, falls, and injury, especially at higher speeds (which is all that Hollywood ever shows. When's the last time you saw the hero walking his horse anywhere?)
  • Shoes: Throwing a shoe is a perfectly legitimate reason to delay a traveler somewhere. If the shoe doesn't come off cleanly it can twist on the hoof, leaving the poor beast hobbling along with the equivalent of a broken high heel nailed to his foot. The caring rider will end up leading the horse if he values it, and look immediately for the nearest blacksmith. This, of course, slows the chase/flight considerably!
  • Stupidity: Your rider failed to tie up his horse properly, let it eat too much/too little, let it eat poisonous but yummy plants, or fell asleep with the reins in his hand and woke up to find the horse departed for parts unknown.
Death and injury: Both horse and rider are flesh-and-blood creatures, not machines. If the horse spooks and dumps the rider, any number of bad injuries can occur, from broken bones to broken skulls requiring lengthy delays or alternate forms of transport. It is also a fine excuse to introduce new characters to attend the hero.
  • Bad roads/weather: Rider is too stupid/arrogant/impatient to wait out the darkness, ice, driving rain and lames the horse, falls off a cliff, drowns in the river, etc. (Or causes poor horsey to do the same.)
  • Horse takes exception to unexpected boogeyman (bear, llama, cow, birds, charging warriors, anything strange-looking arising under its nose) and bolts over a cliff, off the road, through the trees, scraping rider off in the process. This is also a good way to get your rider lost, with consequent plot merriment.

    I love Charles M. Russell's work because he always got it right. I've been on trails just like this, and had/seen unexpected stuff happen that instantly induced terror. This painting says it all. The bear, the rocks, the panicky horses, the steep drop... ick.
  • Horse falls with rider: slick cobblestones, ice, rocky footing. Half a ton of horse landing on your leg hurts. Trust me.
  • Horse is only half-broken to start with. Unwary rider buys the beautiful beastie and discovers to his sorrow the critter bucks/bites/kicks/throws itself over backward/bolts or otherwise is unmanageable. This also works for the hero who tries to put an improperly-trained horse between the shafts to pull his wheeled conveyance. The wreck in this case is that much worse. There is no stronger bit of advice in horse trading than caveat emptor.
Economic distress: What happens when your horse/donkey/mule is your only means of earning a living? Who does this affect?
  • Farmers whose fields don't get plowed and have to wait until the kind neighbor is done with his own, which puts him late into the fields, or he struggles to pull his own plow because he can't afford a replacement. Will his family starve?
  • Carters who can't move their merchandise without a beast between the shafts. Suppose some illness ran through all the local equines? It would certainly make oxen very expensive. What is the downstream ripple effect of this guy not making his rounds?
  • Knights errant, mercenaries, cavalry of all types. Running off the enemies' stock is a great way to tip the scales in your favor, but overdone as a plot device. The sheer economic disaster of losing half the remounts can put a serious crimp in a campaign. If the ships carrying your horses to war or on some exploration of the New World sink, then what? (Aside from the sheer ghastliness of trapped horses going down with the ship.)
Many writers don't consider the "horse in the background" quietly plowing the field, packing goods to market in its panniers, or nursing foals in the fields that will go on to fuel the economy of their world. But remove them from the scene and what happens? Your traveler gets stranded, your commerce grinds to a halt, and war becomes a matter of foot soldiers with entirely different tactics, moving at a whole different pace. Even the lowly donkey is an economic driver in some parts of the world, putting its lucky owner one up on the guy who doesn't own one. Will said owner hotly pursue some jerk stealing it? Probably. Personally, I would laugh very hard at the notion of a hero stealing a horse unopposed and riding merrily away. There's a reason horse-stealing was a hanging offense in the Old West.

Horses are perfectly capable of causing massive plot mayhem all by themselves without anyone laying a hand on them, bad guys charging from ambush, or other unlikely meetings of human beings at awkward times. It is really satisfying when a writer uses a horse's natural proclivities to inconvenience his hero or put one over on the enemy. Hopefully this has given you a few ideas.

'Til next time!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Time Travel and Misplaced Objects

Broad Universe is an organization dedicated to promoting the work of women writing science fiction and fantasy. Every month it hosts a podcast discussing some aspect of those very broad genres. This month it was Time Travel, and yours truly was part of the discussion. I also read from my own time travel story, "Misplaced Objects," in which a pregnant time traveler finds herself with a real dilemma on her hands. . . one of her twin sons was born in 1842, the other in the 24th century! How to get these two misplaced objects back together? And will either of them believe the truth?

You can find the lively podcast discussion here.

I have also made the entire story available on my website, since it hardly seemed fair to leave listeners hanging!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Horses in Fiction: The Winter Horse

Ever read something that makes you want to just throw the book across the room? How is it that so many writers honestly don't seem to have the imagination to realize that cold and heat might have the same adverse effects on horses and other animals that they do on humans?

Reading just now about an intrepid hunting party trotting their tireless nags through knee-deep, drifting snow triggered a strong urge to say bad words and throw things. I value my walls (if not the book) and refrained. I won't even get into the effect of such weather on the hunting and restrain myself to the image of horses trotting merrily through snow up to their knees. I have news for this author. Not even the high-stepping show ring beauties like Saddlebreds can manage this trick for more than a few strides, even in the lightest powder snow.

Let's examine how snow and ice and cold really affect the equine and the rider. Those of you not from snowy climes, be aware that the quality of snow varies, from super-dry in very cold conditions to wet, mushy masses the closer to freezing you climb. Dry snow squeaks underfoot and is wonderful for skiing and miserable for walking or riding. It clings to everything and is like wading through sand. As it warms up and settles, it gets worse. Try wading through it and I guarantee that in a few feet you will be panting, in a few yards you will be sweating, and after that you'll be wanting very much to be at your destination, however far that it is.

Horses wear out very fast in this. Four years ago we had an extremely hard winter here, with 3-4 feet of snow on the ground for months. Something spooked my two in the night (my guess is neighbor dogs). The mare plowed over a gate and Beau, my 16.3 Saddlebred, broke the wire fence and fled about 60 feet into the open. And stalled. And stayed there until I came down in the morning. He was belly-deep in it, and I sank so far I could not touch the ground and had to wade/swim out to him. He was eager to follow me home, but had a really hard time floundering through it, even following his original trail. We were both breathing pretty hard just in that 60 feet.

Note from this very old hunting picture how quickly even a few horses can trample down an area. This makes easier going for the horses in the rear, but look at the lead horse. He's in it up to his knees. The man leading it (probably my dad) will be the one breaking trail, and the hunters/horses will trade off to rest and put someone else in the lead.

Snow that packs well into snowballs also will ball up in the soles of a horse's hooves. Shod horses are especially prone to this, as the shoe itself holds the snow. I have seen them teetering along on a buildup 6-8 inches tall. Digging it all out only lasts a little while if they are out moving around in the paddock.

Ice is a killer for horses. My sister's mare shattered a leg playing in the pasture, a ghastly tragedy brought on by an excess of equine exuberance after days cooped up in the barn against an "Arctic Express" bringing -50 wind chill. Shoes with cleats or corks may help with traction but these type shoes can also cause tendon injuries if they stick a fraction of a second too long and over-extend the leg. A horse's hard-surface hooves don't have a lot of natural traction, and slippery shoes just make it worse. Leave off the shoes in the winter for your casual horsemen. If they are travelers in your book, then you need to take into consideration the state of the roads. Are they icy? Frozen into miserable ruts the horses will stumble in time and again? A half inch of powder over ice is a lethal combination.

Extreme cold is dehydrating, so your horses will drink more. They will paw through the ice, or breath on it until they have a tiny little hole just big enough for their muzzles, but they drink less when the water is really cold. This makes them more prone to colic, so make sure your fictional horses have access to lots of water, and have your grooms break out the ice. Please don't try to make your reader believe the poor beasts can survive long on licking frost off the trees or eating snow. They just won't do that, let alone survive.

Being aboard a horse in the winter can be exhilarating but oh so cold. The saddle leather is chilly, the reins are unkind to bare fingers, and your toes freeze if you don't let them dangle out of the stirrups and work them every so often. The wind of your going can freeze your ears right off, so those flapping cloaks in the movies? Nice image. Not so much in practice.

Frost accumulates on a horse's whiskers from its own breath, and they often develop little ice balls in their manes or tails if left outside and ungroomed. Hardy, shaggy ponies will do well, but stable-bred purebreds will have a harder time staying warm and knowing what to do in tough conditions.

Stop and think when putting your fictional equines into a winter scene. If your hero will be slipping on the ice, so will your horse. The "thunder of hooves" on snow is muted, but certainly not soundless, so depending on snow cover to muffle your passage is iffy and makes a whole host of different problems for horse and rider. Travel times will go down, maintenance will go up. Plan your winter journey accordingly, and for Pete's sake, think about the pure mechanics of snow and cold on living critters before merrily trotting off to hunt in the blizzard.

'Til next time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Daemon Prism: Terrific End to a Terrific Series

I posted a review of The Daemon Prism over at Science Fiction and Other Oddyseys today. Carol Berg is one of my favorite writers, and the Collegia Magica series has been consistently entertaining and addictive. This third and final entry makes me sad that the journey is over, and happy to report that it offers a satisfying conclusion, which so many series don't.

Check out the review, and then check out the book! I highly recommend Berg's work. Her characterization is truly a cut above the average cut-and-paste heroes so prevalent in the genre.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Resolutions for Writers

I must apologize for being absent for so long. December was spent in heavy last-minute revision of Windrider, which was due to the publisher on the 31st. I am happy to announce I made my deadline and the book will be out this spring sometime. Whew!

In a way, all that jamming is what led to this particular post. Yes, it's New Year's, and I wish a very happy and prosperous 2012 to everyone. And, it being a new year, it is, of course, time to make resolutions. I prefer to make a few rules to live by as a writer rather than post goals for any particular year, so here they are, good forever:
  1. Write. You want to be a writer, so, duh, write. Every. Single. Day. Develop the discipline to put words on paper even when you don't feel like it, have a jillion other things to do, and people whining at you to come away and do something else. You are entitled to be you and indulge yourself for 5 minutes a day. If you want to be a writer, I guess you know how you should use those 5 minutes. Lock yourself in the bathroom if you have to. Take five!
  2. Finish. You cannot submit an unfinished piece. You can propose anything you want, but you still have to actually write the thing if you expect to sell it. Stop with the hound dog pursuit of every interesting scent and focus on the thing you started first. If it is hopeless, abandon it only after a careful, reasoned look at it that determines a) it is unmarketable, b) doesn't express things you want to say anymore or c) requires so much rework that it would suck the life out of your writing year and still be nowhere when you're done. Perseverance pays. Write your ideas down in a notebook and keep at your project, even if you have to break it up occasionally with dips into other, shorter projects to keep your brain fresh.
  3. Be professional. This should be a no-brainer, but guess what? It doesn't seem to be. Meet your deadlines. Quit fighting over every comma. Understand that a rejection doesn't mean the work is stupid, you're stupid, or the editor is stupid. It means the piece didn't meet his/her slant, was too similar to something else he just bought, caught him on a bad day, wasn't quite polished enough, or any of a thousand other reasons. That editor doesn't know you, has no reason to personally inflict hate and doom on your day, and will only remember you for one of two reasons. The first is that you sent her an irresistibly fantastic story she had to buy right now! The other is that you acted like a total two-year-old by snarking back when your story was rejected. Grow up, suck it up, say thank you for the response and move on.
  4. Send stuff out. Well, yeah, but as the queen of Stuff It In the Drawer, I can speak to this one personally. I have over 120 short stories in the drawer, nearly all of which need work. Some are unsaleable because they're simply not that good. Others would have a chance if I could excavate more time from my day to get to them. Remember #2 above? Yeah, I have contracts to fulfill. But all of us, me included, need to make time to market the stuff. Clean it up. Research the markets. Find it a home. Send it out. Repeat as required when it comes back until it sells.
  5. Market. Yes, Virginia, the era when publishing houses actually promoted your work is pretty much over. The do-it-yourself era of book promotion is here to stay. Don't be as dumb as I was and wait until you have a product in hand to start your marketing. You don't need to have a book in hand to join forums, get involved in workshops, and start contributing to online discussions within your genre. If you write fantasy and SF, find those forums and dig in. That's where the fans are, that's where you need to start letting people get to know you, and that's where you need to start establishing yourself as someone interesting, with something worthwhile to say. Then when you announce you have a new book out, your new friends might just buy it. And you might meet other authors whose work you want to read. At any rate, you'll have made new friends, educated yourself on what's hot in the market and (more importantly) interesting to the fan base, and gotten yourself out of the basement and helped a few people learn your name. Those people have friends. Their friends have friends. Say something useful about the market, the genre, or other things they want to hear and they might repeat it. Then a lot more people know your name. See how this works?
  6. Read. Yeah, read. This is the oldest piece of writing advice there is, and it is still gold. How can you tell if your wonderful idea has been done a thousand times before if you don't read within your genre? How do you know what the current trends are and what the markets are buying if you're not paying attention? How can you grow as a writer if all you ever do is read the same 5 favorite books over and over and never expose yourself to new authors?
  7. MAKE THE TIME. This is the answer to 1-6 above. Turn off the TV and turn on the laptop. By all means, relax with friends, have a life, get out of the house and discover what there is to write about. But quit justifying to yourself why you're not writing and just do it.
  8. Be yourself. Quit trying to imitate writers you admire. You're not them. They're not you. You haven't lived their lives and they haven't lived yours, so why are you selling yourself short by not informing your work with your own experiences? Stop trying to please everyone else, whether it is with the proper political slant, the cool, "edgy" writing style, the slouching, seen-it-all, jaded characters, or the boy wizard. Write what moves you to write. Be the break-out trendsetter, not the guy trying to cash in on the latest sure thing. You might get published faster following the market, but no one is going to remember your name. And if, when it's done, nobody wants it, don't beat yourself up for having written it. Maybe it was part of the million words you have to write to learn the craft. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Maybe it is just one of those things that speaks to your heart and needed to be said in your own inimitable way. You said it. And you're a writer.

That pretty much covers Sue's Rules for writing. They look pretty much like every other writer's rules, but they work for me. Maybe they'll work for you.

Happy New Year!

If, in the course of your reading this year, you want something a bit different, try Firedancer, my first novel, about fire that thinks and the people who must fight it.