Friday, January 31, 2014

Horses in Fiction: The Bored Beast

Oh, my, are my horses crabby these days. At least, Pilot is. He is a high-energy kinda guy who goes racing off at any possible opportunity just to burn off excess protein (thus, he gets grass hay, not alfalfa). This includes turning him out from the small (3-acre) pasture to the large (10-acre) pasture. Poof! He departs with a kick of the heels and a snort at full speed. With all the snow and ice we've had, despite his permanent access to the 3-acre pasture for the winter he is unhappy and hopes things will be different beyond the fence. Of late, he has taken to waiting until my back is turned gathering up hay and then gives the gate in the barn a good hard shove with his nose. Out he waltzes to explore the driveway. If I'm really lucky, I turn in time to prevent Nellie following him through. Twice I have been too late, and they've gone gallivanting up toward the house at a dead run, fortunately in the snow beside the driveway and not atop the ice in it. Even they aren't quite that stupid. Why not latch the gate, you say? It never used to be a problem. The bar slides hard now and doesn't catch as well as I think sometimes. Pilot always has to try...

He's bored. Bored horses are a problem. They tend to go sour in the pasture and the stall because they have nothing to do. This makes them crabby, often grabby with their teeth, and generally less fun to be around. Spending more time with them helps, and regular riding/work helps most of all, but let's face it, our heroes and heroines have better things to do than stand around petting their loyal steeds all day, and weather conditions don't always allow travel. Ergo, our heroes are likely to discover wooden fences with large scallops in the top boards from bored beasts chewing the wood. They may arrive at the stable to meet flattened ears and pushy demands for food/treats/attention/wide open spaces. Their sweet and loving companions may suddenly take after a stablemate for no discernible reason than that said stablemate is, em, available to be a target. In crowds, lower beasts on the totem pole suffer greatly from higher-rank critters' cabin fever.

How can you turn this to plot mayhem? Easily. My old gelding, Gallow, was an absolute fright every spring for the first three rides after the ice broke up enough to make the footing safe. I made sure there was still enough snow and deep berm alongside the road to run him into if he truly got stupid. Any long confinement will leave your horse champing at the bit (so to speak) and eager to get out and stretch his legs. Exuberant bucking from staid old creatures is not at all uncommon. Picture rabbits suddenly leaping into the air from a standing start, kicking out both hind legs for fun (otherwise known as a capriole). Now picture your unsuspecting hero sitting in utter surprise on nothing six feet off the ground.

This is a lovely thing to do to your hero's enemies. Fine. Give him the best horse in the stable for his getaway. The one that hasn't been ridden for three weeks. Give him the short-attention-span critter who loves to fiddle with ropes. Evil Overlord may be walking the next morning, tracking his mount, who has untied himself and everyone else and departed smartly for parts unknown. Give him the high-energy youngster who has the attention span of a flea and the manners of Godzilla. This child has difficulty concentrating through the saddle-up; after the first quarter mile of boring walking along beside everyone else he is going to be looking for entertainment, tired of having his attention redirected from yummy roadside plants to the trail. He will be lonesome stuck in his own space all by himself. He will start snuggling up to the nearest horse to the front or side, gawking at birds, clouds, large rocks, the tempting tail of the horse in front and pretty much everything else within his view because OMG I am so BORED!

Older horses just put themselves half to sleep shuffling along in the group, content to let everyone else look out for alarming things. Bored beasties look for ways to keep themselves entertained. This includes chewing/grabbing at the bit or shank (making inconvenient jingling noises with the right kind of bit, or sudden mayhem as he grabs it and bolts); playing with dangling bits of harness, grabbing at bushes as he goes by, fretting, dancing, head-tossing, and oh, my favorite, crowding, because he really wants to go somewhere else and everyone is in his way.

Do not be surprised if you come down to feed and your barn has been rearranged by bored Horsey. When Pilot gets out (not possible now that the gate latch sticks), rearrangement includes all of the grooming tools out of the brush box onto the floor, the lid off the dog food barrel and little crunchies all over everywhere, anything on any flat surface swept off in search of munchies, and a nice fat fertilizer deposit on the hay pile. Everyone's a critic. When Kalup got monumentally bored, you could expect to be picking things up for seventy feet in any direction. He didn't just investigate it; he played with it.

Let a bored horse loose in camp if you want a distraction in your story. You will have much fun and cussing trying to catch him, because almost invariably horses who have escaped lose their minds. The excitement of being loose outside familiar environs gets them prancing and snorting and sidling/running away from outstretched hands (even with treats) and suspicious-looking ropes and halters. You will be chasing them until you stop chasing them, at which point they will likely abandon the game and come to you. So a fool will continue to chase, and be delayed for an hour instead of five minutes. And if your neatly ordered camp was quietly torn apart by a nosy horse in the night, why, it gives the opposition all kinds of time to catch up and inflict whatever damage is necessary to your plot.

Bored horses. God love 'em. And keep 'em far away from me.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

And the real In Heaven's Shadow cover looks like...

This! Ta da! The designer and I agree that this is a tough book to illustrate conceptually, because it is not a perfectly round peg to fit neatly into a round hole. After experimenting with sepia and full-color versions of various concepts, she had a brainstorm and came up with this. It captures the Blue Ridge that is the setting, the Civil War that is the backdrop, and just a twinkle of romance in the lettering.

I like it! What do you think? Looking at it, what do you think the book is about?

Better yet, would you "look inside" to find out?

"In Heaven's Shadow" releases February 6th from Taliesin Publishing. It's one of my favorite books, with a heroine at once shy and bewildered and brave, and very magical. It is about the constant tension between who we are and what other people expect us to be--and who gets to decide what is "respectable." I hope you'll like it.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The perils of being different: Illustrating In Heaven's Shadow

"In Heaven's Shadow," my Civil War/ghost story/fantasy, comes out next month (February 6th), and the publisher and I are still trying to figure out the perfect cover that best captures what the book is, as well as that will intrigue and attract readers. Covers are soooo important. You don't want to give the wrong impression and have disappointed readers slam you in the reviews; nor do you want to tailor it so narrowly to one audience that you leave out other people who might be attracted to the subject matter. There are ever so many internet memes going around laughing at classics that have been repackaged under really horrid covers from clueless publishers, or poking fun at old-fashioned covers that nonetheless did their jobs back in the day. The last thing you want is people laughing at your cover, or using it for an excuse to check out some other title.

So what to do? This book, like many books that are finding significant audiences these days, does not fit into the conventional pigeonholes that most publishers use to try and market their offerings. You know: romance, fantasy (pick a flavor!), chick lit, YA, or what-have-you. Cross-genre stuff and mash-ups often do extraordinarily well, but it does leave the cover artist and the marketing team in a quandary. Should they tailor it just to the fantasy crowd? Will too "gushy" a cover turn off the men looking for something new? Will people think it's paranormal romance if you put a ghost on the cover? Aaaagh! It's enough to send the whole team screaming into the night.

I very much appreciate my publisher's efforts to get the cover exactly right. "In Heaven's Shadow" is not a romance but it is a beautiful love story. It is not paranormal, but it has ghosts. It is a highly accurate depiction of the Civil War era but it is not, strictly, historical fiction. It is very much historical fantasy. You could even call it magic realism. Soooo, dear readers, if you were to choose what attracts you to a particular genre, what would you choose on the cover? What would draw you into a particular book if, say, you were looking for fantasy, or something historical, or romantic without the cooties? Would you, the pure historical reader, be turned off by an added fantasy element, or go with it so long as the era is properly portrayed?

Just askin'. I love this book. I want it to do well. But I begin to see why so many agents LOVED the writing and the premise and, indeed, the book, but didn't think they could sell it. Because they couldn't categorize it neatly. Because it didn't "fit" the norms. It wasn't the same as all the other "hot" books out there. And that's a rotten shame, because so many books don't fit neatly into the round holes and yet are great books. Thank you, Taliesin Publishing, for looking beyond the round holes at a slightly square book! Or maybe octagonal...

I hope--I really hope!--we can nail the cover, because I, for one, do judge a book partly by its cover, and have passed by good reads because of rotten cover art. So tell me, folks, what would turn you off? What would turn you on (keep it clean!). What about a cover makes you "look inside"?

Friday, January 3, 2014

In Heaven's Shadow and other cool places

Happy New Year! I had intended to write a reflective post about the past year, but that's a bit egocentric and I doubt that I could add anything particularly new or insightful. I would rather look forward, since a new year is a lot like the wonderful blank page that is the foundation of every new story. I adore that moment when I sit down to write something new. The page is limitless in its possibilities. That perfect white expanse, awaiting the mysterious little black shapes that spell out letters and words and sentences that turn themselves somehow into scenes and fantastic worlds. And the best part is—I never know where the story is going until it's done. That first sentence? I am always clueless what the world is going to be like, how the magic works, or who is going to inhabit my pages. It's a mystery, it is, and so is every new year until it almost imperceptibly becomes the old year viewed in our rear view mirrors.

What do I know about 2014? I know that I am writing Delver, the fourth and last book in the Masters of the Elements series, the most recent of which was Seaborn, released in September. We will all (including me!) finally learn why Fire is in rebellion against Earth Mother, and what the clans must do to prevent the ultimate firestorm sweeping away Metrenna and every living thing in the land. The story is already developing layers I had no idea were lurking in there. The story-within-the-story is poignant and shy and I hope I am good enough to capture it as it should be captured.

I also know that I will be publishing at least three other books this year, through Taliesin Publishing and Sky Warrior Books. The first is In Heaven's Shadow from Taliesin, a Civil War ghost story/fantasy that I wrote the only time I took up the NaNoWriMo challenge. I like this book a lot because it helped me deal with my dad's death, and it is offbeat and let me put on my historian's hat for once while still getting to put in some cool magic. I have a degree in history and I love to research, so this one was fun to write even though the themes of death and afterlife and respectability often hit pretty close to home. Did you know that the American mortuary industry was pretty much born amid the horrors of the Civil War, as both North and South struggled with the aftermath of battles that produced as many as 12,000 dead soldiers in one day? Before the war, most families buried their own dead; as the big battles began, it became necessary to find a way to preserve bodies well enough to ship fallen soldiers home to their grieving families for proper burial. While coffin-building and embalming took a quantum leap forward, the actual shipping was quickly abandoned as logistically impractical. The sad fact is, as the war dragged on, most families got only the word that their loved ones were dead, with no body to bury and only a funeral service to try and achieve closure. And when so many died at once, often torn to pieces by cannon fire, many families only ever got the thin hope of “missing” to cling to. Hope can be a terrible thing, as we will see when In Heaven’s Shadow comes out February 6th.

I am also launching a new high fantasy/soft SF series this year from Sky Warrior Books called Fate’s Arrow. I love the idea that humankind knows so little of what actually may lurk in the vastness of the unexplored universe. It leaves open the possibilities of what we may encounter on foreign planets when, someday, we may finally set foot there. And when unsuspecting humans encounter alien catalysts—well, who can say what is real and what is not when human wishing and human ambition meet the very stuff of Creation? Oh, my.

The first book in the series, “The Mask of God,” is in the last stages of production. The cover is looking awesome and I have only to return the final proof to my publisher. And then a story I started over 20 years ago will finally get out to the world, full of gods who aren’t gods but have all of a god’s powers—and a god’s single-minded purpose; human pawns who refuse to act like pawns; and two royal brothers who really only just want to get through the day without somebody taking potshots at them. These books are about love and loyalty and the deepest desire of the human heart to believe in something...but just what our hero finds to believe in may surprise you. And they’re about magic, that also has its own, inexorable requirements.

I plan to resume writing my “Horses in Fiction” blog series this year as well. I confess that I have not had the heart for it because my own riding was so severely curtailed this last year. It is tough having horses standing around the pasture that you are not medically allowed to get on and ride. But, rather than sit around and whine, I will play with them to the best of my ability and share what I know with you all. Heh, see there? In Heaven’s Shadow, which is set in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, is lingering on my tongue, as I hope the story itself will stay with you.

Have a very delightful new year, everyone. I hope we can share part of the journey together!