Thursday, November 7, 2013

Orycon awaits!

I will be attending Orycon this weekend in Portland, Oregon. I hope to meet up with old friends and a lot of new ones. My complete schedule:

Writing Formidable Women
Hamilton             Fri Nov 8 5:00pm-6:00pm
How to write strong female characters ... and how to make sure they're actually female rather than men who happen to look hot in an evening dress.

Book Burning
Lincoln              Sat Nov 9 10:00am-11:00am
Should you never burn books because of a moral principle, or is it appropriate as a form of protest or to protect people from certain kinds of information?  What if it`s a religious text?  The history and modern context of a controversial, often inflammatory (sorry) subject.

Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading
Ross Island          Sat Nov 9 12:00pm-1:00pm
Join members of Broad Universe--an organization dedicated to women in genre fiction--for a whole bunch of really short readings crammed into one hour.

Sue Bolich Reading
Lincoln              Sat Nov 9 1:30pm-2:00pm
Sue Bolich reads from own works
S. A. Bolich

Female Villains
Morrison             Sat Nov 9 3:00pm-4:00pm
We often speak of writing strong female characters, but what about strong female villains that aren't just caricatures? An examination of characterization that moves beyond the ever popular rape scenario that is often given as a primary motivation for women seeking revenge.

The Marketing of Historical Fiction
Madison              Sat Nov 9 4:00pm-5:00pm
Does it only sell as romance and mainstream?  How might historical fiction be made appealing to a broader audience?

For the Beings, and By the Beings...
Hamilton             Sun Nov 10 11:00am-12:00pm
Governments in fantasy novels - building a workable system of governing in the lands of talking trees and walking dead.

Come on down to the Doubletree in Portland and join the fun!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Seaborn is out!

I am pathetically, awfully drowning in revision, editing, writing, to the point that Seaborn has been out for three weeks and this is the first break I've had to even announce it here. But...drumroll--it's available on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, etc. in ebook format. I don't know when the print version will be available, but hopefully soon.

Check out the tale of Nes Riverborn, whose raw talent for Water is untrained, untested against anything but the friendly waters of the River Melth she has sailed on her family's ship her whole life. But Melth is angry, and the skies will not stop dumping rain on Metrenna since the Windriders forcibly changed the season over the winter. And when the river flings a flash flood at the town of Southbridge, Nes winds up on separated from her ship and family, on a strange journey to find out why Water is so upset. And if all three of the elementals, Fire, Wind, and Water, have joined in rebellion against Earth Mother, where in all the world can mere mortals make a stand?

I do apologize for being uncommunicative. But, the good news is that I am working on an expanded version of my website that will include more maps, background on my books, etc. So stay tuned, and meantime, I hope you enjoy Seaborn.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Inspiration in Fantasy

I'm sitting out here on the deck fighting off yellow jackets and trying to wean five kittens (who are not enthused with the project), recovering from Spocon and working on the revisions for The Mask of God. While my editor thought they would be extensive, they're really not, a matter of clarification, putting back in some already-written scenes I had deleted for length, and emphasizing some characters in a couple of places. I am 3/4 of the way through the little stuff and will soon go back for the bigger revisions.

As I sit here working on the lead-up to the climactic scene, I am reminded of a couple of conversations I had at Spocon over the weekend. It was a fun and fairly relaxed convention here in Spokane, and there was time for leisurely speculation as well as panel discussions. There are always many history buffs among fantasy readers, and of course, being a history major myself, I'm one of them. There will be no doubt in the mind of anyone with even a passing knowledge of medieval European history as to the origin of the big battle in The Mask of God, but I'm not tellin'. Half the fun of reading fantasy is trying to guess what inspired the author.

This book had a lot of influences, from recent Middle Eastern history to not-so-recent Middle Eastern history to the Dark Ages to Anne McCaffrey's Pern series for the notion of an Earth colony long cut off from Earth. My mythical colony, however, remembers its origins, and you see signs of the colonial Founders everywhere even though their tech is no longer usable. It reminds me (as does every power failure at my house) of how dependent our society is on our power sources, and how much would be lost if our digital knowledge goes down along with the power. That is my only objection to ebooks and the mad rush to digitize everything and get rid of paper. A flip of a switch and it's gone. We have already seen how readily governments embrace the idea of censorship, and how few qualms even the U.S., the supposed bastion of freedom, has about spying on its own citizens. Denying knowledge to the citizenry on the pretense of "national security" is only a short step once all the knowledge depends on public power sources and data banks.

So. The plausibility of a colony fallen from starfaring technology to swords and armor (even if not the type of armor we'd normally think of), is actually even greater today than it was 24 years ago when I set the first words of this series to paper (yes, it's a series now, not a trilogy, being so long). I have a very clear vision of the monks in my Mt. Sinon monastery squinting at their precious digital reader, transcribing the works on disc by hand to paper....

And now, I suppose, it is time I went out and read "A Canticle for Liebowitz", a classic with which I have, alas, but a passing familiarity. My inspiration for the work at Mt. Sinon was The Book of Kells, that glorious icon of medieval calligraphy.

Okay, five kittens who are missing their mom sitting in my lap all at once is at least four too many. It would so help if I could catch the mother (like, four months ago). They're so cute but I really don't need more cats! Anybody need a kitten??

Off now to gently point them at the food bowl, which at least they have figured out...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Of Dread and Hope

I have been working on revising my very ancient trilogy, "Fate's Arrow", which it looks like will be published as six books instead of three. Written almost 25 years ago when I was happily learning my trade, they are really, REALLY long in their raw form, the kind of books that pull you in and leave you walking around for days thinking you're still in that world. They are very long, politically complex tales in a huge story arc that still takes less than three years of subjective time to complete. And, uh, I took 110 thousand words out of the first one before I subbed it. Heh. Long indeed.

My goal back then was to create a new world from the wreckage of an old one: an Earth colony that had been overrun by zealots worshiping a new god (think Mohammed forcibly converting the Middle East back when). Rebellion inevitably followed, and societal fracture directly thereafter. Earth is forgotten but not the stars, because remnants of Founder tech are everywhere--just not usable anymore. And in the chaos, all sorts of things shifted, from language to mores to customs of every sort. That was the world I wanted to--and did--create.

My editor admits it is an intense read, total immersion in this world. But, judging from the moans of anguish (I've yet to see the edits), all the rewriting I did over the years has left the poor reader floundering in new terms, names, and concepts. Ergo, I foresee much work to bring back in all the bits I axed in an attempt to bring the word count down to something publishable even in two volumes.

It is a reminder--and a grateful one, I might add--that the books we see on the shelves, that we so easily sink into and enjoy, did not start out as such seamless reads. Rare is the author who can get a rough draft published. Just about everybody needs editing, which is why so many self-published tomes are so bad, and so rightfully panned. We can't see our own mistakes. We can't see when we know the world so well that what lands on the page is only half of what is in our heads--and not the most essential half the reader needs to know. That takes other eyes: a workshop or an editor who knows what she's doing. Assuming your work makes senses is a big assumption. And sometimes, a fatal one with regard to sales, your reputation as an author, and any chance of developing a fan base of people who love your work.

I do feel very sorry for my editor for having been the one to have to wade through this heavily revised, overhauled, rewritten, umpty-umpth draft. I promise it is a good book under the new stuff I bury the reader in. My trick now is to retain the best, let the little stuff go, and keep the flavor I want without losing my readers. Because it IS a good book, and the next two (or four) in the series are even better. I love these characters. They taught me to write. And I so want to bring them to readers who will appreciate them--all those fans of high fantasy, SF, and odd mixtures of the two. And the cover! You should see the concept art Bill Warren is coming up with. I am in awe.

Don't sweat the small stuff. That's what one of my old bosses used to say, and he was right. Change a name from something complicated to something a reader can remember? Sure. Lose a bit of linguistic shift if it doesn't come trippingly off the tongue? Ok, I can do that. Remove the heart of the story and what I wanted to say? Nope. That's where I push back. Fortunately, I've never been asked to do that. Irene Radford is a terrific editor, and I look forward to seeing what she has to say, even though, deep down, I also dread it. It may hurt. But I know I'll get a better book out of it.

And little Ms. Perfectionist here wants the best book I can create. Isn't that what it's all about?

The Mask of God is scheduled to be out this fall. I'm not sure exactly when or I'd give you a date to watch for. I daresay it will depend in part on how much rework is required. But I look forward to the challenge!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hollywood Horse Peeve #747

You know, I can only assume that most Hollywood directors who use horses are either so totally horse-clueless themselves, or else assume their audiences are so clueless, that they really don't care what stupidities they commit (I daresay this applies to more than horses). But honestly, if the script says "mare" ... why the &*#) can't you put a mare on screen?

The most egregious case of this I can recall offhand is the Hellbitch from Lonesome Dove, the horse ridden by Tommy Lee Jones' character. It was supposed to be a young mare, but it was a very nice gray ... gelding. Obviously so. The other night on Longmire, an otherwise really good show, the "mare" dashing across the prairie with dead body in tow looked suspiciously like a gelding. It could have been part of the saddle dangling on the off side in a strategic place. Or not. Given Hollywood's track record, let's just say I was really surprised when a character, Henry, referred to the horse as "she."

The sex of a strange horse is one of the first things a horseman looks at, and it's sort of hard to get wrong from most angles. Note that Beau's sex is pretty obvious in this picture, spotted right up there at the arch between his belly and his hind legs. I can often tell a mare at first glance even without looking for male equipment, though not always. There is something about the refinement of the head, sometimes the way she stands, a slight delicacy of her body, just super-subtle clues that we have here a female of the species. Now mares can be as clunky and graceless as any of their male counterparts, but sometimes...there is that twinkle. You just know.

I can sympathize, somewhat, with the Hollywood dilemma of using mares. They are notoriously nastier and harder to work with than geldings, who have lost most of their aggressiveness, don't usually care if it is a male or female standing next to them (unless the stud is aggressive or the mare in heat), and are just generally less aggravation. Unless, of course, you get one like Kalup, the herd boss who had to demonstrate it every single minute, stirring the rest up just for fun. Mares in heat can really be, uh... demonstrative, chummy, sometimes downright determined to get herself a fella, giving come-hithers to every male in her vicinity regardless of whether he can help her out or not. The rest of the time they can be as dependable and wonderful as you like. But. On a movie set, a mare in heat could definitely be an unneeded distraction. In the manner that all those dogs named Lassie were really males (something about shedding, I seem to recall), directors and their horse wranglers may opt for nice, quiet geldings instead of mares.

But in that case, couldn't you change the stinkin' script? Such a little thing. And we would love you for getting it right for once. Just sayin'.

I am working on the revision of my Fate's Arrow trilogy, the first of which, The Mask of God, comes out soon. The hero is given a very fine mare as a gift and rides her whenever he is not forced to ride a warhorse. It occurs to me that I have not had beautiful Azram come in heat anywhere in these books. Hmm. I wonder what slight mayhem I might cause with that? Some nice, well-timed kicking and striking, horsing down in the picket lines, a sharp nicker at a bad time? Oh, the possibilities....

I shall now go away and think about this. Expect changes!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Horses in Fiction: The Forest Horse

I am back to riding, after an interminable month and a half in which the doctors worried exceedingly about what would happen to my spine if I did. Did I mention how much I hate cancer? But the new MRI/CT says I should take care, not quit altogether, so I am inspired again to drop another post on you poor unsuspecting folk.

Horses in the woods... that's a ton of fun in reality and on the written page. Horses did not evolve in thick forests. Their eyes are set on the sides of their head for maximum visual field on wide-open steppes. They are designed to catch any movement, which means that all those waving branches, fluttering birds, and nodding flowers WILL keep the lead horse in a group awake at all times. If you are riding alone, your horse will likely not be daydreaming whilst shambling along the road. He will be trying not only to guess what might be around the next curve or that big rock over there, but attempting to sort out all the sensory input. Movement means potential danger to him, and any sudden flight of a bird under his nose is going to send him leaping the other way. Whether he takes one jump or two has a huge effect on what happens to the rider. One jump you can easily survive. It is the next jump that will get you, because an unwary rider is probably already off-balance and ripe to land on his head if the horse takes another big leap.

There are other hazards to riding in the woods. Yes, there really are snotty horses and ponies that will go out of their way to try and scrape you off on a low-hanging branch. Fir trees have really stiff and sharp needles, and trust me, if the guy in front of you is careless about shoving a branch aside, you can catch it in the face with no trouble. And it hurts. Your hero can cause great havoc and attempt escape from his captors just by letting a branch snap back on the guy behind him. In thick forest you are really busy shoving stuff out of your way, reining your horse around obstacles, keeping him from jumping stuff that looks too big to step over, and generally preventing your kneecaps from getting dislocated on immovable objects like tree trunks. Really good trail horses are a treasure.

Contrary to popular belief, horses are not necessarily naturals on the trail. My Thoroughbred, Gallow, was so stupid, having come off the track, that he would walk over young trees and fall over rocks in his way, never thinking to walk around them. He would balk at the edge of anything muddy or strange, but when urged, would heave a huge martyred sigh, feel around with a forefoot--then go. Sometimes with a huge leap into the middle of it. Thrilling, but not safe. It took a while to convince him this was not socially acceptable behavior. He had never been exposed to hazards like that, and birds drove him nuts. Yet he would stand quietly while a train chuffed and clanked along ten feet in front of him. Man-made stuff he knew about. Nature, not so much.

The hazards to a rider from a green horse on the trail are many, and sometimes nasty. When the trail is narrow and the horse inexperienced, watch...your...knees! You may actually have to push your horse away from a tree beside the trail at the last second because he hasn't learned to judge his width or account for your extra bulk on his body. He also has no clue how tall you are atop his back, so he has no idea that the low branch that looks tall enough to get under is going to catch you in the belt buckle. Pack horses, and often your saddle horse, will try to jam their way between two closely-set trees because a) that's where the trail goes, and b) that's where everyone ahead of him went. Ergo, he must go there, too. Horses ain't long on reasoning ability. That wide-open space to the right of the tree? Huh?? Don't depend on Horsey to find it on his own.

Experienced horses, on the other hand, get very clever at avoiding obstacles. They can judge to a fare-thee-well the space they have to get their packs and riders through, and learn to walk wide around boulders and other unyielding objects. All it takes is a few solid hits that bounce them off-balance when the pack jams against something to teach them that they need to pay more attention. We had canny pack horses when I was a kid that we just turned loose to make their own way up the trail. The contents of the packs take more of a beating that way, though, because invariably the pack horse will stop to nibble at the grass, then jog to catch up, bouncing the packs more than he would if he was led quietly behind the saddle horse. They may also get quite creative in the trails they choose for themselves; they can turn your hair gray kicking rocks into space as they scramble to get to that nice green patch over there.

Despite the drawbacks of the horse wanting to stick to any trail as though crocodiles lurked to either side, there are also advantages to this. Horses can find trails; any old deer trail or faint rabbit path will show up clearly to them, and they will follow it even if the terrain to either side is fairly wide open. This is an advantage, especially if you are unfamiliar with the country or just plain lost. I got turned around on the Ft. Lewis military reservation once; Kalup took me home, in the dark, through a maze of trails he hadn't been on before, sniffing his way back to the stables. I just dropped the reins and let him go. His chances of finding home were at least as good as mine, so why not? And, because he was a great, great trail horse, I did not need to do much steering except to keep branches out of my face. He had his moments, did Kalup.

Wooded country narrows your options in bad situations. When a horse panics in a narrow, rocky, tree-bound patch, it's really not that much fun. In addition to protecting your face and eyes from branches, you'll wonder if he's going to break a leg scrambling among the rocks as he frets and pitches trying to catch up to the other horses, free himself from whatever is frightening him, or, perhaps, just get rid of you as the cause of all his troubles. Mud and water are the two guaranteed bugaboos; it usually takes a while to teach young horses to walk quietly through. Boggy spots are prime for trouble. In your fictional martial encounters, stake your ambush there, because even well-broken horses may panic when suddenly forced into soft spots accompanied by shouting and unexpected excitement. And then the rider will be busy keeping his seat while trying to fight off your villains/heroes. All sorts of mayhem may result.

Naturally, a cavalry charge in thick timber is out. I cringe at the Hollywood notion of swinging swords as a rider chases his foe through the woods. Check. I have this mental image of a sword suddenly sticking in a thick branch or tree trunk, dragging the chaser out of the saddle while the chasee giggles and scampers merrily on his way. Old-growth forest with little underbrush and lots of maneuver room between trees (and high branches) is about the best you can do in this regard. Most long-settled areas no longer have old-growth, though, so your woods will be thick with younger trees and brush that impede passage of horses. Thus, the poor peasants get to watch their year's labor in the fields get trampled, usually just about harvest-time, that being prime campaign season.

Anything falling out of a tree will give Horsey heart failure. Predators on the steppes come at him on the ground; he is equipped to deal with that using teeth and hooves. Something falling on him from above is just not natural to him, and in his blind spot to boot. So don't be surprised if a falling pine cone sets him off; he probably thinks it's a cougar. This is why taking your coat off in the saddle can panic a young horse into conniptions.

Bet you never thought there were so many uses for trees in your equine fiction, did you? Think from Horsey's perspective, and you can inject all sorts of interesting scenarios into your story as soon as you enter the woods. And what medieval fantasy world doesn't have woods?

 Until next time...

Watch for Seaborn, the next book in my Masters of the Elements series, coming in August. And The Mask of God will be out this fall, in which, gasp! I actually get to use horses! Lots of horses!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Horses in Fiction: Jousting

I have been remiss in posting, I admit, but I plead cons, editing, and revision of Book 2 in the "Fate's Arrow" series I just sold to Sky Warrior Books. Plus, I'm on vacation, wallowing in words and actually grateful for the pouring rain that has put the kibosh on all the outside projects I had planned to catch up on. To make up for abandoning you all, I am oh so pleased to present another guest blogger and horse authority today, Darragh Metzger. In her own words, Darragh makes her living in the world's two lowest-paying professions: acting and writing. While her resume includes stage and screen credits, she's spent the last several years wearing armor, riding horses, and swinging swords with The Seattle Knights. Get that? Knights. Jousting. Hands-on experience with a lance in her hand.

Listen and learn, O ye wonderful folk trying to get your horses right:
I can't say I'm any kind of expert on the ancient and noble sport of jousting. Okay, yes, I spent about ten years jousting in a professional capacity, but strictly as a performer, not competitively. There's a good reason for that. I decided at an early age that I wanted to live, and I also decided that I'd prefer to live independent of wheelchairs and machines designed to force-feed me or keep me breathing. And I like my teeth.
So I'll skip the long, erudite overview of the various types of jousting popular in particular time periods or geographical areas. If you're curious, look it up. A short list of really excellent books on the subject is at the bottom of this post.
Such a wide variety of forms and equipment were in fashion at various times in various parts of the world that most fantasy films that depict jousting get at least something right. No one would refer to the Heath Ledger movie "A Knight's Tale" as historical by any means, but it did pretty well at depicting what jousting was all about and the frenzy it generated in the popular imagination. The mini-series version of "Game of Thrones" has a quite spectacular jousting scene, which includes the death of one of the competitors as well as a taste of some of the pageantry and spectacle that was very much a part of the actual sport. And the classic film "Ivanhoe" has a great formal duel between Bois-Guilbert and Ivanhoe, even with the obviously rubber weapons. As for fantasy novels, few go into sufficient nit-picking detail to display flaming gaffs. We won’t even mention those recent reality shows featuring jousting. They weren’t seriously trying to be authentic anyway.
A lot of the technique of jousting is dependent upon the equipment. If your hero/heroine is wearing maille and a Great or Barrel helm, s/he is probably going to be jousting in one of the Frankish styles, which means using a lance and shield. Most of the other styles require some form of plate armor. Very possibly, s/he will be "free-jousting", which means without the use of a barrier between his/her horse and the opponent's.
If, on the other hand, s/he's in the equivalent of full gothic plate in the late medieval or renaissance style, you're going to have a lot more variables to deal with. For one thing, instead of a spear and shield, you'll have a "heavy" lance with a blunted tip or a coronal, possibly rigged to blow apart (if this is in a tournament, not a duel). Yes, surprise: knights sometimes cheated in order to win.
Take it as a given that most knights were better riders than any of us will ever be, even in our most fervent imaginations. They generally started younger, did it a lot more often, and their lives depended on it. If you're writing about a culture that corresponds to our medieval or renaissance eras, the same rules apply. Your hero/heroine has superb balance even in full armor and helm, can steer a horse with just weight shifts and simple leg aids, handle a lance and shield on a galloping horse without accidental mis-cues, and can, while fully armored, leap onto his charger from the ground without assistance.
I'm going to interrupt myself right now to address the single biggest beef I have with the way I too often see warhorses and jousting depicted in movies and novels: KNIGHTS DIDN’T RIDE DRAFT HORSES. Draft horses as we know them today didn’t even exist. The average warhorse was about 14.3 hands, and a lot of them were smaller. A horse 15.2 hands – average-sized by today’s standards – was considered large. It was a big deal when the Spanish bred Andalusians that reached 16 hands in the late 1500’s. I originally wrote a long paragraph to prove my point, but I'll skip that; if you're curious, I'll send it to you.
But what was true then is true now: unless your horse is a trained warhorse with actual jousting experience, the chances of being able to successfully get down the list are about 1 in 10. Most horses will turn and run when they see another horse charging at them. Younger horses will almost always yield to older ones. How do they know? They just do. It's a horse thing. As I say, only about 1 horse in 10 can become a jousting horse. But even those with the right mind and disposition for it require training and a great deal of practice before they can charge down the list at another horse and hold their ground.
I've had other jousters tell me that mares will always yield to a stallion. This is, as far as I can tell, what may be politely referred to as "a load of crap." Which horse yields to which depends entirely upon the individual horse. Just as with race horses, jousting horses can learn how to out-bluff one another, and the tricks to make the other horses flinch or veer so their riders miss. Smaller horses learn when to brace themselves for impact against bigger horses. Faster horses learn when to pour on the speed and when to reserve it. Of the horses that become successful jousting horses, some get competitive about it; others are just doing their jobs and could care less; still others honestly love it and enjoy "playing the game."
And by the way, if your stallion is sufficiently well-trained, he should ignore a mare, even one in heat, while under saddle. He has a job to do, and he knows it. Work now; play later. Mares are the same way (and there are mares who are just as difficult to handle when in heat as any stallion), though how much her hormones affect her work ethic and concentration is entirely dependent upon the individual.
Up until good ol’ Henry VIII’s time, winning at the joust did not really require size or physical strength; skill, aim, speed, and superior horsemanship were far more important. There is plenty of documentation to prove that women did, in fact, sometimes participate, most often (though not always) disguised as men. Male jousters hated this, and protested it vociferously, but it did happen. That being said, all things being equal, the heavier opponent has a better chance of staying in the saddle. That’s just physics.
I've jousted with lance (a 10-to-12' hickory or oak pole with a rounded tip) and shield, and with just a "heavy" lance (false tipped balsa or foam),as well as the massive, carved wooden lances that weigh 15 lbs or so which are used by some jousting troupes for competition jousting. All of these hit with a lot of impact, even the false-tipped ones, and armor doesn't keep you from feeling it, just from getting hurt. At least, that's the theory. I've had bruises, dislocated ribs, bloody lips, and broken fingers that told a different story. The horse's weight and speed add a LOT of "oomph" to a blow. Historically, death in the joust was not all that unusual; broken necks or splinters through the eye slits happened all the time.
It just occurred to me that someone might want to write a modern story with jousting, such as in a renfaire or something. In which case, anything goes. I have yet to see a joust troupe in the U.S. that is actually 100% historical, although there are some that try, and some that do a pretty good job of at least getting the flavor.
Because I’m a bit obsessed with horses (gee, can you tell?), I tend to write jousting scenes with a heavy emphasis on the horses and how their performance affects the outcome. But, truthfully, a better approach would probably be to treat a jousting scene as you would any other action scene: remember that too much detail tends to slow the action. Brevity, lots of active verbs, short sentences, and sketchy but telling details speed it up and add tension and excitement.
For an excellent overview of the development of the horse, especially medieval war horses, I recommend The Royal Horse of Europe by Lady Sylvia Loch and The Conquerors by Deb Bennett, Phd. For reference works that deal with jousting, you can't go wrong with The Medieval Warhorse From Byzantium to the Crusades by Ann Hyland, and, first and foremost: The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting, and Knightly Combat, by Dom Duarte (the King of Portugal in 1438).
Thank you, Darragh! It is always a pleasure to hear from someone who's been there and done that.

Darragh is a fellow writer whose publishing credits include plays, novels, non-fiction articles, and short stories, one of which made The StorySouth Millions Writers Award Notable Stories of 2005. She has written seven novels and two short story collections, all of which are available from TFA Press. She is working on the last book of THE TRIADS OF TIR NA N'OG series and a non-fiction project. If she had free time, she'd spend it with horses. She is married to artist/fight director Dameon Willich.

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Word About POV

I just came back from MisCon last weekend, and holy smokes, what a blast that was. MisCon is one of the most congenial science fiction conventions anywhere, and it has a great writers' workshop. I critiqued several manuscripts and I hope the writers got something useful out of my comments. I occurs to me, as I sit here going through a couple of old manuscripts I am now incented to work on again (they're sold, they're sold!), that perhaps those writers and others could benefit from looking at old and new examples of my own rewriting.

I am working through the latter books in a series I wrote quite a long time ago and just now sold to Sky Warrior Books. I am a better writer now than I was then, and one passage in particularly sort of leaped out at me as a way to illustrate one of the greater mysteries of writing that often baffles newbies to the craft: point of view, or POV.

POV, in all its bewildering glory, is the viewpoint from which you are observing the scene with the reader. That can be godlike, loftily “telling” us everything that’s happening; first person, which locks you into one character’s head and the only thing the reader can know is what that character knows; or third person, in which you refer to everyone has “he” or “she” and you can widen the view a little. I like third person myself, though I have written many short stories in first person, even second person (but you have to be realllllly good to pull off a second person story, and there’s not much market for them). My older stuff tends to combine tight third person with a bit of omniscience, as in the first excerpt below, which is the original passage:
Money began to change hands on the sidelines. The King of Sevakand and his heir were fencing together for the first time in months, barefoot and stripped to fighting leathers, an unequal contest to the untrained eye. The King stood a clear hand taller than his brother and was half again as broad across the shoulders, with a tremendous reach, but Alarion was quick and hard to catch as a flea, his blade flickering in and out like summer lightning. The betting grew heavy among the Mreens. The Whites, Alarion's own regiment, slyly prodded the Blacks to lengthen the odds on him. He had been bedridden until two months ago, recovering from a near-fatal wound. This match was the first all-out duel he had fought since. Even so, the Whites were fiercely proud of their prince; they would have died to a man rather than confess doubt in his ability even against his brother, the second-best swordsman in the Citadel.

The Blacks gave odds warily, wondering if the Hav'an's earlier unwonted flinching was a trick, until Treleramon tripped Alarion and brought him crashing to the sand a hair's breadth ahead of the fabled sword of the kings of Sevakand. Alarion rolled desperately away, coated with sand and sweat. The Blacks whooped and slapped down crystals. Treleramon grinned at his brother and took a half step back, gesturing with his free hand for him to get up.

"You are too generous, Majest!" Alarion flipped to his feet in a muscle-straining move that brought a groan of appreciation from every throat in the yard. His sword described an eccentric arc, whipped under the King's blade and ended at his throat. Treleramon staggered back and stopping, grinning, his own point just touching Alarion's naval.


Alarion snorted. "What would your enemies think?"

He hurled himself backward and they began again, circling like dancers under the hot summer sun. They had to get down to knives to finish it, and Treleramon did not have his younger brother's lithe ability with a dagger. He surrendered gracefully in the end, setting the Whites whooping as they moved to collect from the disgruntled Blacks.

S'Bralic, commander of the King's bodyguard, leaned down to give him a hand up. "You're slipping, Majest." His lean face wore a wicked grin under the black turban of his elite service.

Let me hasten to state that there is really not that much wrong with this old passage. I wrote a great deal in omniscient POV when I was younger, head-hopping merrily and often observing the action from a bit of a distance. This was and is acceptable if you do it right; anything that holds the reader’s interest is pretty much okay; damn the “rules” of writing. But (she said), getting close the character is always, always preferable to watching from on high. This is a common problem that I end up pointing out to people whose work I critique in workshops of all types. 

Because I, too, was once prone to the sin of omniscient Telling, I am rewriting a lot of this old stuff to put the reader back into the main character’s head, thusly:
Money began to change hands on the sidelines. Alarion grinned as he spun away from a parry, catching a glimpse of a tall sarjent dangling a pouch in front of a recruit who looked horrified. It must indeed look like an unequal match to an untrained eye; Treleramon was a hand taller than he was and half again as broad across the shoulders. But he has to catch me to use that thing on me, Alarion thought smugly, and danced again out of the path of the fabled sword of the kings of Sevakand, cast centuries ago from the remains of the ship that had brought the Founders to this world. Dimly he heard a White Mreen from his own regiment taunting a Black to lengthen the odds on him. “And wasn’t the Hav’an flat on his back for two months?” drifted over the shuffle of Treleramon’s boots on the sand as the King spun and brought his sword across sideways in a wicked slash at Alarion’s legs.

He leaped clear, panting, enjoying this first full-out match they had fought since last year. Trey was still the second-best swordsman in the Citadel after S’Bralic, commander of the King’s bodyguard, and Alarion wanted badly to beat him, just once. Besides, there was a lot of money changing hands over there. The Whites would never forgive him if he lost.

Treleramon feinted, stepped out of the way of a counter, and tripped Alarion to the sand. Alarion rolled desperately away, coated with sand and sweat. The Blacks whooped and slapped down crystals. Treleramon grinned at him and took a half step back, gesturing with his free hand for him to get up.

“You are too generous, Majest!” Alarion flipped to his feet in a muscle-straining move that brought a groan of appreciation from every throat in the yard. He whipped his sword under the King's blade and up, ending at his brother’s throat. Treleramon staggered back and stopping, grinning, his own point just touching Alarion's naval.


Alarion snorted. “What would your enemies think?”

He hurled himself backward and they began again, circling like dancers under the morning sun. Treleramon attacked, driving Alarion back on sheer brute strength. Alarion ducked, wove, and finally found an opening when Treleramon’s foot collided with his, jarring them both off-balance. Alarion, lighter, quicker, recovered first. He took a quick step sideways, ducked under Treleramon’s arm, and tapped his sword lightly to the back of the King’s neck.

“You can pick up your head now,” he said, as Treleramon wheeled around, a fraction of a second too late.

Treleramon, his broad chest heaving, gave Alarion a sardonic salute and surrendered. The Whites whooped and moved to collect from the disgruntled Blacks. S'Bralic stepped out from the sidelines. “You're slipping, Majest.” His lean face wore a wicked grin under the black turban of his elite service.

Pretty much everything that was in the original is still there in the rewrite, but now we “see” the scene from Alarion’s POV instead of me telling the reader what’s going on over there on the sidelines. If you are a new writer struggling to “show” the scene, think about the differences here and how to really get inside your character’s head. Confine yourself initially to what he can see, hear, taste, smell, and actually know, and you will go a long way toward mastering the intricacies of putting your reader into the scene with your character.

This excerpt is from the second book in the “Fate’s Arrow” trilogy. “The Mask of God,” the first book, will be out at the end of July if all goes well. I am very much enjoying revisiting this world, and I hope you’ll like it, too.

Until next time!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Horses in Fiction: Firsthand Cavalry Experience

As I hinted awhile back, I have been hoping to line up some guests for this series who have interesting horse experiences different from my own. At Norwescon this year I was fortunate enough to sit on a panel with Jim Franklin, a retired U.S. Cavalry officer, the only person I know who has actually used horses on military maneuvers in combat. Major Franklin is a great guy with fascinating stories, and he has graciously consented to share a few with us.

In his words:
"First let me start with a little background. My experience with horses began very young, growing up on a farm and then in the mountains with a girlfriend in my teenage years who owned horses, so I spent much of my youth riding through woods both during the day and night in the Oregon Coast Range and Cascades. Also, as a Boy Scout, I had used pack animals several times in the mountains. So when the opportunity arose to participate in military operations with horses, and having joined the Army as a Cavalry Scout, who would not jump at the chance?
The two biggest periods I used horses involved a period in the mid-1980s, participating in Central America, dealing with both drug cartels and rebel groups. The second was in Bosnia in 1996-1997.
In Central America, we used horses for several important reasons. At first we were given jeeps and dirt bikes, but those require fuel and maintenance, a large support network that takes up valuable space on supply runs, don’t like many of the “roads”, and make a ton of noise, announcing to people where you are for miles. The solution was to use local wranglers to supply horses, which can eat local food, are used to the heat and humidity, make very little noise going up a “road” (read trail!), and give you an extra pair of eyes and ears, which hear much better than you do.
When volunteers were asked for, I jumped at the chance and was the platoon leader for a 25-40 man mounted “cavalry” platoon, which mostly used the horses to get where we needed to and fight dismounted. No sabers (darn it), just M-16s and M1911 Colt Pistols. It took much effort to train people who had never been on horses before and we had about a 50% washout rate, both in people and horses. It’s funny, because just as many people who cannot handle horses, horses cannot handle people. When we started it was a rude surprise to both sides in how effectively we could move and cover an area, and to the “rebel” forces, because they expected noisy Americans to just move loudly and on roads.
There were many logistical problems, from keeping the horses healthy to teaching people how to take care of equipment. Horse tack is not in the military system, so private contractors had to provide the gear, and much of it had to be returned because it was cheap stuff. We had to design and build a special saddlebag to carry the radios because U.S. Military radios don’t ride well on a person’s back.
The funniest thing that happened was that most of our horses were used to being stopped when any firearms were discharged. Most had been desensitized to the loud noise, but I made a big mistake once. While chasing a group I decided to shoot my pistol from the horse at speed. Well, she decides when the shot goes off that she is supposed to be stopped. So, she stopped. I did not. Cartwheel over her head and down the side of the slope. It was funny, much later.
Point of order, horses don’t like the sound of supersonic bullets; something about the wiz of the bullet before you hear the discharge makes them nervous.
In Bosnia--rather, in the Hungarian and Croatian areas that had to be patrolled--the Hungarians use horses to patrol the borders between them and Croatia, and given that the conflict almost brought Hungary into it, the military has a real good handle on the border. Also, the Hungarians have a history of Horse Archers so the country is covered with horse ranches and excellent riders. In my job as the National Support Element Force Protection OIC (sounds important does it not?) I had several opportunities to ride with the Hungarian border units, on both sides of the Hungarian-Croatian border.
James Franklin
Major, US Cavalry (Retired)

Thank you, Jim, for taking the time to share with us a little of the real world of horses in the military. And thank you for your service. It is much appreciated.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sidekicks--Who Needs 'em?

I'm working on Seaborn today, trying to get the final revisions back to my editor. As I watch my heroine, Nes, trying to get through a particularly rough patch, it occurs to me why the whole kickass female thing is starting to strike me as way overdone. Yes, I believe women are as brave, as tough, and as ingenious as men in getting into and out of trouble, each in her own way. And yes, I don't want to read about wimpy females who have to be rescued all the time.

But... there is a limit to what your hero/heroine should be able to manage. What really bugs me about the overblown hero thing is when the guy/gal doesn't seem to need anyone else. The other characters are just there to make the reader feel reallllly good about the hero. The hero's flaws (if there are any) are so miniscule that they really don't matter to the outcome. Their sidekicks may be colorful and fun, but they often seem to exist just so the hero has someone to talk to. Bleh.

Give me a hero (or kickass heroine) with some real flaws, some fears, some character traits that won't win any prizes for congeniality or tact or best team player. Then give them sidekicks who challenge them as well as support them. In Seaborn, Nes, a daughter of the Water Clans, has one paralyzing fear that humiliates her, crops up whenever she least needs distraction, and affects even her relationships with people around her. It's terribly hard to be impressive when you're puking your guts out, and she knows it, which only makes her angrier. She so wants to prove what she can do, but there’s this phobia getting in her way. Haven't we all been there, wanting badly to impress, only to have some stupid fear or flaw or mistake crop up to kneecap us?

This is why I love supporting characters. Friendship is one of the most interesting and basic bonds between people. Watching strangers bond in a story is always satisfying; the hero’s journey, when well done, is built on trust and friendship and achievement by all the members of the party. I really want the hero to fail now and again to give everyone else a chance to shine. I want the lesser characters to contribute to the story and be important in their own right. Having just re-read Stephen King’s homage to friendship, “It,” I realize how strongly I am drawn to stories like that one that depend on a disparate cast of people with real strengths and weaknesses, who are challenged to pull their own weight and step up when it counts. Some will manage it; some will fail. This is the essential story, the one that goes way beyond fulfilling the quest. How boring Frodo would have been without Sam.

This melding of talents and strengths (and weaknesses), I think, is one of the things that makes the Harry Potter series so popular. Harry is not the brightest, most talented kid at Hogwarts, nor even the bravest (that honor goes to Neville). He depends on his friends to help him get through, as they depend on him to lead, to keep fighting, to give them heart in their worst moments. That is his strength, the hero’s strength, that I think many writers of heroic fiction forget. The current popular meme of the kickass loner who doesn’t really need anyone else to accomplish the mission, while fun to write and explore, is less interesting to me than the hero who both inspires and needs other people.

Hmm. Perhaps this is why the cast of the Masters of the Elements series keeps growing! I like watching what everyone else can contribute. Seaborn uses the skills of all four of the talented clans to get where it’s going. My heroes will have been “up the creek and over the mountain” before it’s done. And so will Nes, phobia and all--with a little help from her friends.

You can check out the first two books of the Masters of the Elements, Firedancer and Windrider to see what I'm talking about and to catch up on the series thus far. Firedancer was a finalist for the 2013 EPIC Award for Fantasy.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Horses in Fiction: Ignorant vs. Cruel

You know, it's easy to get incensed about people with horses who clearly don't know anything about how to take care of them, especially in this era of instant information. The horse rescue outfits are dreadfully busy and some people should be horsewhipped (pun intended). But our modern standards of horse care have very little to do with historical norms or the awfulness recorded so well by Anna Sewell in "Black Beauty." The difference doesn't all come from willful neglect, mindless cruelty, or indifference. Bear in mind that simply loving animals does not bestow knowledge. It is possible to do harm with the best of intentions, and no one person anywhere is born knowing anything about anything except how to breathe, eat, and excrete. Our knowledge as horse people comes from hands-on working with horses, learning from others (both the good and the bad), and hopefully, being exposed to mentors who can teach us what we don't know.

My great-grandfather's team at plowing time.
My father's immediate family didn't own horses when he was a child (his grandfather did), though my mother's father farmed with horses throughout her childhood. Funnily enough, it was Dad who wanted horses and Mom who didn't care much for them, though she made an effort (sometimes painful) in order to keep up with her horse-oriented family. Dad bought our first mare, Lady, basically to pack out game when he went hunting every fall. Then a neighbor gave him a champion Saddlebred stallion the neighbor couldn't control, and we happily bred both half-bred and purebred Saddlebreds for years, all of whom grew up to be exceptional horses that would go anywhere and try anything.

Dad became a good farrier, and our horses were well-fed and saw a vet when required, but initially, things like annual worming of our beasts went by the wayside simply because nobody in his horse-owning circle of hunters and farmers knew about such things. The horses seemed healthy enough, so what else was there to know, eh?

When I was six, new neighbors moved in next door with a bevy of Tennessee Walking Horses that they showed at a very high level. Our two families quickly bonded, in some cases becoming inseparable. And, naturally, knowledge filtered both ways. Dad broke out several of their young horses and taught them useful, non-show ring lessons, and some tactful observations from the neighbors' direction led to higher awareness on our part. One result was an annual battle with horses reluctant to choke down the old-fashioned, yucky-tasting powders that used to be the norm for worming (thank GOD for paste wormers). We learned how to bathe and clip our horses for 4-H shows and keep them looking smart. Though all of us kids were natural little centaurs, we learned to be kinder in our control and appreciate that there was a thinking creature at the other end of the reins. And as we grew up, we became conscious horsemen, actively seeking to learn more. I adore organizations like 4-H and Pony Club that teach youngsters not just how to ride, but how to care for and train their horses appropriately.

This evolution of knowledge is natural, desirable, and echoes the long, slow accumulation of horse lore through the ages. The culmination in the 21st century is a vast body of knowledge but also a certain amount of craziness. The oft-times silly coddling of horses kept in stable environments was a revelation to the adult me the first time I was forced to board my horses somewhere besides the pasture. The hairy, hardy beasts of my childhood were a far cry from the shaved, blanketed, wrapped, and neurotic critters in those expensive paddocks.

The majority of horse owners of yore were not likely much more savvy than we were back then, and their treatment of their beasts may have been unintentionally cruel. When the peasant lives in a hovel, do you really think his animals are going to live in the Ritz? Windows in barns and byres just weren't the norm because putting them in involves construction techniques that are not necessarily easy to master for the average do-it-yourselfer. Enclosed stables were safer from predators as well, so the door was the only opening, carefully barred at night. Fresh air and light were therefore not part of a stabled animal's existence for centuries.

While much fiction speaks of grooms mucking out the stable, how often are they shown doing it? And how many readers understand why you need to do it? Do you have any idea how much poop the average 1000-pound horse produces? About nine tons per year. Each. Multiply that by the number of beasts in the stable, and "groom" must have always been an easy job to get. Now add in the billions of flies hatched in horse manure (they settle all over fresh horse manure within a few minutes of deposit). Direct observation of this phenomenon should have encouraged any horse owner to try and stay ahead of the problem. But did they?

Yes and no. They tried. They had to. Think about the enclosed spaces of popular fantasy and historical fiction: castles, walled towns, mews, etc. There is no room for a huge "skip" of used hay and straw. It has to be disposed of before the poop gets too deep to get through the door. In London, lordly stables convenient to the Thames tossed it all in the river. Others carted it out to fertilize the local fields.  For lesser folk, mucking the byre may have depended on the availability of time and hands to do it. You would think that with horses standing in a foul-smelling slime of dirt, urine, ground-in manure, and straw, it would not take long for reasonably intelligent folk to make the connection between sick horses, rotting hooves, and dirty stables. Yet horses were still dying in droves of fly-borne and other communicable equine diseases all the way to the 1920s and the end of the horse era. Enlightened observers may have figured it out--faster, I think, among horsemen who really needed their animals every day than among medical practitioners trying to control "humors" of the body. How long did it take for human medicine to make the connection between typhus and poor sanitation? (Here's a clue: More soldiers died of typhus and dysentery than of bullets in the American Civil War. Yet cavalry manuals called for strict stable management and clean straw.) So go figure. Our ancestors were ignorant, not evil.

There is no excuse for poor stable management in this day and age, and no excuse at all for brutality, but when writing about less enlightened times, try to remember the general level of knowledge, the constraints on the human owner, and the attitude of the times that considered horses interchangeable machines, not beloved (if expensive) pets. Compassion toward animals did not become a concern or a trend until the mid-19th century, which leaves an uncomfortably long stretch of history in which the number of people who thought twice about beating a horse to death was vastly outweighed by the number who didn't. The casual cruelty of the horse owner who was himself one step away from starvation shouts aloud of the age he lived in--and should be reflected in your worldbuilding.

For a pretty good article discussing the problems of horses in urban environments, try this one.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Horses in Fiction: The Muddy Horse

I spent last weekend at Norwescon happily meeting fans and sitting on panels, among which was (gasp!) one about horses in fiction. My fellow panelists were all fun and interesting and I am hoping to beg some guest posts out of them on jousting and what it is really like to take horses into combat, with elephants around, no less. Stay tuned!

After a lovely week of sunshine, the first all year, we are back to sun and rain fighting it out in fierce little contests throughout the day. This makes for, you guessed it, the muddy horse in the pasture and the filthy beast you have to untack and put away at the end of the ride. Funny how rarely you see that in fiction. Historical novels of all stamps that incorporate upper crust characters may loftily speak of handing off the horse to the lowly groom while the hero or heroine goes off to do hero-type things; seldom do you actually see the groom at work (unless he's a handsome fella the heroine has her eye on). Even less often do the traveling heroes stop to scrape the muck off their all-important means of transportation.

This makes me angry both as a horsewoman and as a matter of practicality. Good horse owners take care of their animals, which means you don't leave them standing around in knee-high slop to get mud rot, a nasty condition in which the hair literally rots off their legs and leaves open, running sores. Thrush, another condition often born in mucky conditions, affects the hoof and can leave the horse unsound. Not to mention that if the poor beast is picking his hay out of the mud he's likely to ingest a lot of crud with it that doesn't do his digestive system any good. Then you end up with colic, which is often deadly.

In the spring when the wind is blowing as you're trying to groom, it really isn't that much fun to stand out there grooming horses. Loose hair and flakes of mud end up all over your face, your coat, your hair, in your eyes, and littering your clean stable floor (which is why I try to groom mine outside whenever possible). Yet leaving all that loose hair and mud under the saddlepad is a certain recipe for nasty open sores. Horse hair tends to ball up into clumps with the friction and motion of the horse's movement under the saddle. You will be able to collect great long strings of it from the edge of any surface that touches the horse when they are in full shedding mode. Combine that with mud and salt sweated out by Horsey, and you have, essentially, a pebble grinding against the horse's skin for hours and hours.

It doesn't take long for open wounds to form if the horse is carrying much weight or if the saddle fits poorly. Then you have a sore-backed horse who will eventually object strenuously to the weight of the saddle (and you). Those old Charlie Russell paintings of broncs attempting to unload their riders every morning may have been occasioned as much by sore horses unaccustomed to long hours under saddle as to being only half broke to start with.

The traveler on the road had better thoroughly groom his horse every night, from picking the loose pebbles out of his hooves (one lodged under his shoe or against the frog can certainly make him lame), to removing all the accumulated sweat and gunk from his back and everywhere else. A horse that is really hot and working will often form lather between his hind legs and sometimes across his chest, and he will drip sweat in long runnels off his belly, down his front legs, and trailing back from the rear of the saddle, following the lay of the hair toward its flanks. A small stick with the bark on works admirably for a sweat scraper, just don't press too hard.

If your horse cringes away from the touch of your hand along the muscles to either side of his spine (sometimes they squat right down in pain), you have a sore-backed horse and it could seriously affect the next day's travel if you choose to ignore his pain and push on. "Hot spots" will be perceptible if the saddle has rubbed too hard at any particular place, and often the hair will fall out and grow in white. This is generally a sign of a poor-fitting saddle or a bad rider who slumps in the saddle like a sack of sand, settling his fat bum atop the horse's spine as though clamped to it and not helping poor Horsey at all as he goes along.

Even a walking horse will kick up mud and water that ends up all over his hind legs and tail, and if he splashes through mud puddles and sloppy spots he will be coated above his knees in the front, too. Draft-type horses with lots of "feather" above their hooves are especially miserable to clean up, especially if you let all that stuff dry into mud balls. Those can cling to tails and fetlocks to the point where it practically takes a jackhammer to get them off. And trust me, you really don't want to get swiped with a filthy, muddy tail.

Bear in mind that the practice of body-clipping or "trace clipping" horses in the winter, removing all or part of their natural winter coat to help them stay cleaner and dry off faster after a ride, is a modern invention. Your usual historical and fantasy travelers should be carrying grooming tools (a brush and a hoofpick at a minimum), or be shown improvising such things from grass, leaves, and sticks at night when they stop and unsaddle. If you "show" your reader your riders thinking about the condition of their horses and actually taking care of them at least once in the course of your story, you will establish much higher credibility in the minds of your horse-savvy audience, and educate the rest a little bit.

Okay. I'm off to knock some mud off my nags, for all the good it will do, as they will be rolling to get even more hair off five minutes later. And then they'll stand and look at me, coated in mud again, with that eager "Look, Ma! Did I do good?" prick of the ears. Sigh.

Till next time!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

See You at Norwescon

I'll be at Norwescon March 28-31, sitting on several panels and reading from Seaborn at the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. This is the first public airing of any part of the book, so come on down and let me know what you think!

Here is my schedule for the weekend:
  • Beyond "Tension on Every Page" Friday 1:00pm-2:00pm Cascade 8
  • Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading, Saturday 10:00am-12pm, Evergreen 1-2
  • Autograph Session 1 Saturday 2:00pm-3:00pm Grand 2
  • The Horse in Fact and Fiction Saturday 3:00pm-4:00pm Cascade 8
  • How to Write Vivid Scenes Saturday 5:00pm-6:00pm Cascade 5
  • The Art of Critique Sunday 10:00am-11:00am Cascade 12
I hope to catch up to old friends and meet a lot of new ones. Don't hesitate to say hello!

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Talking Horse

Heh. Further to my last Horses in Fiction post on the noisy horse, my principle of "when your horse talks, listen" was amply demonstrated just now. I stepped out to get a chunk of wood for my woodstove and heard a horse nicker. Since all of the neighbor horses have been well established in their pastures for a very long time, that immediately made me wonder what was going on.

My suspicion was confirmed by the sight of my neighbor's white pony staring up the hill toward my barn. Upon investigation, lo and behold, there was a second neighbor's pinto mare in the pasture with my two. She has visited before, with generally unhappy consequences for my fences (she is built like the proverbial brick outhouse).

I had just started down the hill to see if my neighbor was home when I encountered her out looking for her mare. Happy ending all around, though she did not, I note, offer to fix my broken fence... Ah, well, better that Bailey breaks my fence and gets off the road than that she gets hit by a car in her travels.

The source of her sudden urge to roam? She's in heat, what else?

Geldings are SO much less trouble!

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Alas, although Firedancer was a finalist for the 2013 EPIC Ebook Award for Fantasy, it did not win. However, my short story, "Wolf Dreams" appeared in Wolfsongs 2 from Wolfsinger Press, which did land the prize for best anthology. Woot!

Congratulations to all the authors, to the editor, M. H. Bonham, and to the publisher of Wolfsinger Press, Carol Hightshoe. It is good to see small presses honored for good work. And, of course, it gives me bragging rights!

You can get your own copy of this award-winning anthology in ebook or print format from any major book outlet.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Horses in Fiction: The Noisy Horse

I apologize for being so long absent. Some of you may know I have been fighting cancer since November, which has gotten into my bones and made life sort of miserable this past year or so. I'm better now, ergo, I'm resuming some sort of normal writing schedule.

Photo courtesy of Note that the horse
has to have his head up and extended to really sound off.
Have you ever noticed that any movie or TV show with a horse in it inevitably uses a horsey sound effect of some sort? Usually it's a whinny, sometimes a snort, less often a plausible whicker. Most Hollywood directors seem to assume that the audience cannot grasp the presence of horses without an audio announcement. Either that, or they assume that all horses stand around and make noise all day.

They don't.

The horse has vocal chords with which he can deafen you, oh yes, but it is actually rare for a horse to "talk" without a reason. The friendlier types (like Pilot) may greet the sight of "their" person with a friendly nicker or a "huh huh huh" flutter down the nostrils, and hungry horses may indeed set up a racket when they see the source of breakfast coming. My sister's mare, Lightfoot, was rightfully nicknamed "Pigatha" (her brother, Chief, being Pigathee) because she was one of those nags whose head is constantly down hunting food. She never stopped eating. On pack trips the other horses would go quietly to sleep after we all turned in for the night; Lightfoot would give a hopeful announcement every time someone turned over in their sleeping bag, and really start in toward dawn when she decided she had been patient long enough. There is no such thing as "sleeping late" when camping with horses.

It always kills me whenever someone in a movie approaches a horse and you instantly hear a horsey sound effect. Come on! Those horses running in the herd being driven by the cowboys? They're too busy breathing to whinny. Those guys sneaking around the horse lines looking to turn them all loose or steal one? Those horses will turn their heads and watch with interest, but unless they're hungry, you likely won't hear a peep from them. Nervous stamping of hooves and snorting, perhaps, if the guy smells funny or looks weird to their night vision. Noisy nickering, no, not unless he somehow really scares them and they're anxious to get away. Horses are likely to get squirrelly if you walk out into the pasture at night and they're not used to it, but they still won't squeal or nicker before they cut and run. They will, however, often stop at the far end of the pasture, stare back at the danger with head up and ears glued forward, and blast a snort down the nose that you can hear for miles.

The only time they're likely to get upset enough to whinny in the barn or picket line or corral is when one of their buddies is actually led away, but even that is fairly uncommon. It's more usual for the beast being led away to raise a ruckus. The more herdbound they are the noiser they will be, which then might get the others upset enough to start running and responding, certain that there is some hidden danger around that Herdbound is reacting to. Unusual activity in the barn may upset them as well. I remember once when I was a Pony Club district commissioner my club decided to play a prank on me. Most of the adults were relaxing around a campfire; several of the older kids were moving horses around in the barn, sneaking them out for a midnight ride. The adults in the know were tasked with keeping me at the fire, but I could hear horses snorting and "questioning" in the barn and finally got up to go see about it despite their best efforts. So, your horse-savvy hero is probably subconsciously tuned in to his beast(s) all the time. In the same manner that I can walk out to the barn and instantly tell from their body language if one of my horses has a problem, so any noise from the horse lines will instantly alert the horseman.

Why? Simply because it is so rare for horses to get vocal. Squealing and nipping accompany any get-acquainted overtures by two or more strange horses. That is normal. What is not normal is for  well-acquainted horses to suddenly start snorting and fussing unless one is trying to steal the other's food or otherwise invading his space. The sleeping horse tied to the hitching post does not wake with a mighty bellow, nor are you likely to hear much from the whole herd of horses grazing in the meadow. A mare will cry for her newly weaned foal; the foal will likewise be frantic for a few hours or a day. A lonesome horse will sometimes call to horses he can see in another pasture; he may even run up and down the fence in a frenzy trying to get to them and scream the place down. A ridden horse may call out to a newcomer he senses headed his way. This is herd instinct, an announcement that one of his kind is in the vicinity and they should get together, or a challenge that the stranger is entering his territory. But again, these are all reasons to make noise. The casual whinny as Hollywood uses it just really doesn't exist. Why would it? It would be counterproductive to horsey survival in the wild.

When they do talk, horses make a wonderful variety of sounds, from that soft, questioning huh-huh-huh to loud, frightening squeals and bellows of rage. A good, loud whinny carries a really long way, so it is not implausible to find the enemy camp this way. And, of course, you can always embarrass your hero with a horse that sounds like a yearling instead of a mighty stallion (some horses just never develop a deep neigh). Horse people always crack up when the gorgeous 17hh gelding opens his mouth and what comes out sounds like a pony foal. Horse sounds are somewhat underrated as plot devices. :)

Next time you're watching a show with horses in it, pay attention to the sound effects. I'll bet you will find that scarcely does a horse appear on the screen before you hear a whinny in the background. Movie directors may think this lends authenticity to the scene; in reality, it's not authentic at all. If you are going to have your fictional horses make noise, stop and think about why they would become vocal, and whether it enhances your characters' chances of survival or gives the game away to the enemy. And yes, you can stop a horse from whinnying by forcing his head down toward his chest. He needs his head up to get enough breath and flexibility in his neck to sound forth. Pinching his nostrils together is not a good idea. He's not stupid; he's going to fight you for air and make more noise thrashing around than he might have if you'd left him alone and just stroked his neck or his nose to keep him quiet.

Just remember: horses can be noisy, but they are not noisy by nature.

Until next time...I promise it won't be as long between installments!

If you've a mind to help me pay the medical bills, check out Firedancer and Windrider. If you've already read them, tell your friends! And reviews on Amazon or Goodreads are always welcome. Thanks!