Sunday, September 30, 2012

Summer, Short Stories and Writing Motivation

September is down to a few hours, which seems impossible given that yesterday it was June. Or something like that. It has been a lovely summer since it finally quit raining in July, and it seems to want to linger, which I don't mind at all. Because my back is still hurting and I was awake several times last night, I had occasion to note that the air coming through the open bedroom window was not at all cold. This is good! It means I don't have to think about splitting wood for a while longer. It also means I don't have to say goodbye to summer just yet.

I love the change of seasons, though I always hate to see summer go. It always seems so long until the next year and the start of my favorite of all seasons. But this in-between time before the fall rains set in has its charms as well. I appreciate the daylight because it is getting shorter every day. I appreciate the cool evenings to ride in (as do my horses) and the colors starting to burn through the mask of green in the woods. And I appreciate the leisurely feel to autumn, which always seems to slip quietly by, unlike the frenetic summer when we're all trying to seize every moment before it's gone. You resign yourself to autumn being here, and quit worrying about mowing the grass (mine is done for the year), and just sit on the deck and breathe air that is not quite so dusty, a little bit crisp, a little bit laden with the tint of the coming cold. It shakes you out of the August doldrums and reminds you that life is out there, waiting to be captured onto the page.

My writing group, the Other Worlds Writers' Workshop, does a series of Short Story in a Week challenges twice a year, in March and September. The September challenges for this year just finished on Friday, and while I had little time to write for fun this time, I did get four stories in (usually I try for and get eight). Each time they were written on Friday, beginning sometime in the afternoon and finishing usually an hour or two before the midnight deadline. Every week I would look at the mandatory word lists and get...nothing. Only once, in Week 1, did a complete story jam itself into my head full-blown from one of the words (dollhouse). The rest were a matter of staring at the page waiting for an interesting first sentence to shape itself.

That is usually where my short stories come from: the first sentence, which leads to another sentence that intrigues me, which eventually presents a story idea, which eventually resolves itself into a plot and I can see where the story is going. At that point the thing writes itself. Up to that point the story often flounders, however, as sometimes evidenced  by the critiques from the workshop, which complain that the story starts slowly or bogs down somewhere in the middle. Yep, I get that. But sometimes you just have to wait it out, write it, and then figure out where it really starts and which bits are essential to keep.

Once again the challenges reminded me that writers write. Every single week, despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm, as soon as I sat down and said to myself, "I will get a story in", lo and behold, the tap turned on and the words came out. This happens every time I work on Seaborn as well, my current novel WIP. The problem is in wedging writing time in amid work and life obligations, lack of sleep, and the constant, concentration-blowing demand for attention from my back. Writing should not be a matter of inspiration, though it is ever so much more fun to have the words pouring out rather than being dredged up one at a time with a bucket. Motivation is a far bigger determinant as to productivity. Deadlines help. So do fans who let you know they like your books and want to read the next one. But if you don't have those, what gets you going?

For me, it's always been about simply loving to write. I actually love that blank page because it presents endless possibilities. Of late it's harder, though. When you're tired and you hurt all the time, life loses much of its wonder. Working up enthusiasm even for the things you love becomes difficult. I am, therefore, glad of the SSIAW challenges for the reminder that no matter how I feel, the words are still in there. All I have to do is get it done.

And having said that, I think I will take my achy back out onto the deck, into the nice soft chaise, plug in the laptop, and see what my characters in Seaborn are up to today. The stinkbug invasion this year is truly awesome, but the fall days when I can sit outside won't last forever. I will ignore the little monsters crawling on the house and occasionally dive-bombing my head, and write. Motivation. Yeah.

Screw that. Just do.

Seaborn will be the third book in my Masters of the Elements series begun in Firedancer and continued in Windrider Thank you all for the kind reviews thus far! I hope you enjoy Seaborn as well when it comes out next spring.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Horses in Fiction: How Fast Should I Go?

Note, dear writers and readers, that the title of this piece is not "How fast can I go?" but "How fast should I go?" If you can discern why that is crucial at this point, congrats! You've probably given thought to the fact that your poor equine beasties are not machines. If you're scratching your head right now, then read on.

I recently reviewed a decent book that had a good story and, to be fair, was not focused around horsey things, but since it used horses as basic transportation I naturally took note of how well the author did or didn't portray them. Alas, in this case, the author fell straight into the Hollywood trap of the bottomless stamina of the saddle horse. His character had a powerful warhorse (naturally) and never... walked... it... a... step. The poor beast never even trotted in the book. The guy cantered or galloped it everywhere, for miles and miles on end. And the horse never seemed to get tired!

Bleh.

When I pointed this out to the author, he was surprised. To his credit, he was perfectly willing to learn, not being a horse person himself. He said that he had assumed the canter would be easier on the rider and so that's why his character cantered everywhere.

Oh, my. He's right in that the canter is infinitely easier to ride for most people than a trot, especially if you never learned to post (rise from the saddle every other stride in rhythm to the horse's trot). But if you want to get anywhere on horseback and have a horse at the end, the speed is not about the rider but about the horse. Back when shank's mare and the old gray mare were your two basic choices for overland travel, the beast of choice was an ambler, a horse or mule with an easy gait like a pace or what evolved into the running walk or slow gait. Breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse, American Saddlebred, Paso Fino and Missouri Foxtrotter all evolved through conscious search for easy-gaited animals who could offer a comfortable ride for long days in the saddle. For long journeys or inspections of ye old plantation, comfort was wonderful. But rider comfort is secondary in any situation where the horseman depends on his mount. Getting where you're going with a live, healthy beast is more important than whether you get jounced a little on the way.

Running your horse everywhere gets you exactly as far as you get before the horse drops dead under you, which may or may not be your actual destination. For well-conditioned horses, that's a lot farther than the average backyard beast can manage, but there is still that hard limit. Expecting to ride 50 miles a day endlessly is just so not in the cards. Twenty miles in the mountains is a long day (trust me). For well-conditioned horses and riders on decent roads in not particularly difficult terrain, 30 is a good average and still leaves you time every evening to care for your animals. After that, it gets iffy, because rain, snow, mud, availability of grass, group size, and a hundred other factors start to play into the equation. But speed is the issue here, so let's stick to the conscious decision of the rider, who is, after all, the guy controlling how fast his horse is being made to move.

Extraordinary circumstances, such as a military forced march, may necessitate pushing the stock way past what they can handle--and the commander has to accept the subsequent losses as horses break down and fall out along the wayside. This leaves part of your command on foot and the rest with blown, exhausted horses unable to do much at the far end of the march. In normal circumstances, the pace is always set predicated on what the animals can handle for the day, not on how fast Mr. Imperious Rider wants to get there. It really doesn't matter if the road is good and the grass hasn't all been grazed to nothing by all the travelers who've been this way ahead of you. Your horse is simply incapable of running everywhere under your weight without breaks. Even the Pony Express went flat out for just a few miles, then changed horses and sped on again.

A horse's best traveling gait (and easiest on the rider) is a good long walk. Next is a trot, which many horses can keep up for quite a long time. The trot is, however, much harder to ride. The western "jog", which is a vastly slower trot, is easier to sit but, for me at least, induces a screaming sideache pretty quickly and it's not at all speedy. In a natural trot the horse flows freely and carries himself better, which means his back and legs hold up better over longer distances. The rider can help him enormously by not sitting in the saddle like a sack of potatoes, rump banging away against the saddle seat at every stride. Posting puts the rider's weight in the stirrups, evenly distributed across the horse's back through the saddle tree, every other stride. He "sits" just for a second on the second stride, then rises again. This greatly improves the horse's stamina and it's a lot easier on the rider as well. A rider who learns to post does it naturally and can keep it up pretty much as long as the horse can.

If you're in a hurry, trot a couple of miles, walk a while, trot some more, walk, repeat. You can cover enormous amounts of ground this way, much more than if you tried to gallop the whole distance. Case in point: My father once rode his incomparable Saddlebred, Fox, 42 miles in 28 hours in the Cascade Mountains to find help for my grandfather, whose horse had gone over backward on him and broken his pelvis. Fox, being a Saddlebred, had a wonderful natural extended trot, which Dad used to effect on every foot of ground that wasn't straight up and down, and walked the rest to give Fox a breather. He did it in a western saddle, pretty much standing in the stirrups during the trot phases.

So. If your fictional riders and horses are on the move, ask yourself where they're going and when they have to be there. There is no excuse to needlessly push the horses, and if your heroes are in a hurry for a reason, then remember that their poor ponies are not machines. It doesn't matter if the princess is going to be executed at dawn; put your hero a plausible distance away if you are going to have him run his horse into the ground getting there to save her. I don't care how good the beast is, he's not going to cover 200 miles in a night. Overnight forced marches of 50 miles are on record, however. And even then they weren't running their beasts, but likely traveling a good, steady six miles an hour for 10-12 hours, with rest breaks. For the sake of your horse and your groaning audience, give your poor pooped pony a rest now and then.

One good little overview of historical foot and cavalry "standard" march rates is here along with some "notable" marches made by both.

Until next time! I'll be working on Seaborn in between, which I am pleased to report progresseth apace. If you want to catch up on the series, Firedancer and Windrider are both available in print and as ebooks.