Horse Power: a writer’s guide

It’s hard to avoid mentioning horses (or ponies, pack mules, etc.) if you write certain genres. These four-legged beauties are everywhere, leading the charge in a martial battle scene, galloping across the page in those sweeping epic fantasies, or slowing to a gentle walk to allow the romantic pair to gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

So far, I’ve managed to get away with not writing about horses by setting my novels in the present day or the future. The truth is, I know very little about them, and I’m sure I would make endless mistakes if I had to include horses in my work. But other writers have no choice. If you write – for example – certain types of fantasy, or historical fiction, then you can’t really escape using horses for transportation, at the very least.

How, then, can you make sure you get your equine characters right? I asked fantasy author Kerry Buchanan, one of the owners of Fir Tree Farm Stables in Northern Ireland, to shed some light on the subject…

 

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Photo credit: Fir Tree Farm Stables

Juliana: What horse-related mistake makes you cringe the most in fiction?

Kerry: I think the worst, and commonest, is when the writer has horses galloping all day, or even for days on end. Horses are not capable of keeping up a fast pace for a long time, and even trained endurance horses do the majority of the miles at walk/trot with only some cantering. They’re grazing animals, and need to eat frequently to keep healthy, as well as drinking too.

There are a few stories and films featuring a child and a wild or half-wild horse who inexplicably bond, with the horse allowing the child to ride it bareback, communicating (it seems) by some special telepathy. The Black Stallion film springs to mind, and maybe National Velvet. The reality is that the child would probably get nowhere near the horse in the first place, and if it was rash enough to climb aboard, would probably end up as a trampled patch of strawberry jam in the dirt.

I find it’s often the fine details that irritate me. Someone tries to be clever and Googles the parts of a horse’s tack/harness but doesn’t quite get it right. Perhaps a character hauls on the bridle (instead of the reins) to get the horse to turn or stop when they’re riding it. The same goes for descriptions of horses (green eyes? Seriously?). Sometimes I think the author’s only contact with equines has been through My Little Pony….

Juliana: Name a favorite book or movie that features horses accurately.

Kerry: It’s hard to fault Black Beauty. The story is romanticised, but the details were accurate for the era, and the characters of the horses are just beautiful. I still can’t read it without crying when the cart goes by with Ginger’s body in it. I particularly like the early section where Beauty first gets a bit in his mouth, and the way it feels, but how he is reassured by his trust in the man who trained him. Later in the book, another horse, Captain, describes how it felt to be a horse in battle in the Crimean War. The noise and confusion, plus the absolute trust in his rider, and the panic when he loses his rider, seem well-observed and, as with everything Anna Sewell wrote, beautifully done. It was a landmark book from the first day it was published, and continues to be one of the most respected fiction books featuring horses.

For a more modern example, the Green Rider books by Kristen Britain are really well written from the point of view of equine accuracy. Condor, the principal equine character, has quite a personality, and the books are well worth reading. When Karigan, the inexperienced new Green Rider of the title, tries to push her horse too hard, she has to learn that the poor animal needs recovery time, and the journey can end up being slower than it would have been had she paced him correctly from the beginning. I think a few directors of Westerns could learn something from this!

Juliana: You write a lot of mythology-inspired fiction. Are there any horse myths you particularly like?

Kerry: I love the story of Pegasus and have written a short story featuring the flying horse which will be coming out in an anthology in the near future. His birth was dramatic enough (son of Poseidon, sprung from the body of Medusa when she was killed by Perseus), but his exploits with Bellerophon kept me enthralled as a child, and still do now. Bellerophon captured Pegasus using a golden bridle (a gift from the goddess Athena), and then went on to ride the wonderful creature to victory over the dreaded monster, the Chimaera, which was terrorising the kingdom. Bellerophon and Pegasus had many adventures together, but in the end the heroic Greek over-faced himself by trying to ride Pegasus up to the top of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Zeus unseated him and he fell, but Pegasus made it all the way and became a constellation of stars in the night sky.

Another horse myth I enjoy is the story of Bucephalus, the war horse of Alexander the Great. Famously, the young Alexander won the horse in a wager with his father. Alexander realised that the horse was terrified of its own shadow, so he simply turned Bucephalus around to face into the sun and successfully climbed aboard, but not before he’d done a deal with his Dad, Philip of Macedonia, to let him keep the horse if he could manage to ride it without being thrown off.

A version of this story is beautifully told in the book, I Am the Great Horse, by Katherine Roberts.

Juliana: Please share some tips for writers planning on including horses in their work.

Kerry: It’s much the same as any other type of research for fiction-writing, really. Don’t just rely on Google or similar to get your facts, as the interweb is not always the most reliable source. Even if you find a trustworthy article, it can be all about the interpretation.

I’d say to write the story any way you like, but then ask someone who really knows about horses and riding to read it for you, to help you clean up any gaffes. If the horse(s) are a key part of the story, it’s probably worth consulting with a knowledgeable horsey person during the writing phase, too. If you want to get it completely right, spend some time around horses, and maybe learn to ride one. You’ll soon get a feel for them, and you never know: maybe you’ll get addicted!

I’m always happy to help, and will read sections for people if asked. I can also lend out a really cute small pony for equine inspiration. She’s no trouble at all and will settle down happily in your home, watching TV with you. No? Okay. Maybe another time….

Juliana: If you could ride any fictional horse, which would you choose?

Kerry: It really has to be Shadowfax, the grey stallion ridden by Gandalf in both book and film of the Lord of the Rings. Even though I’m not usually a great fan of grey horses (you should try getting grass stains out of a grey coat), I’d definitely make an exception for Shadowfax. Of course, we’d have to get rid of Gandalf somewhere along the way, as the two of them seem to be bonded pretty tightly, but I’m sure that once Shadowfax met me, he’d quickly change allegiance.

Failing that, who could resist riding a flying horse? If Athena would only gift me with a magical golden bridle, I’m sure I could do the rest!

Check out Kerry’s website and Facebook page for updates on her writing, and follow her on Twitter @Cavetraveller.

Fir Tree Farm Stables is located in Ballynahinch, County Down, Northern Ireland. You can find more information at www.firtreefarmstables.co.uk. 

Villains We Hate To Love (Part 2)

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“I am Loki, of Asgard and I am burdened with glorious purpose…You WILL kneel before me!”

Yeah, yeah. I know they’re the ‘bad guys’. I KNOW, all right? Sheesh, stop shouting. It’s just…why did they have to be so darn awesome? The fact is, some villains are too cool for school, and although we know we’re supposed to hate them, we end up loving them instead. I’m not talking about ‘grey’ villains, ones who have redeemable qualities, who deserve understanding even if ultimately they still do All The Wrong Things. I’m talking about characters who are clearly bad to the core, but who we can’t help adoring anyway.

An example is Scar from Disney’s The Lion King. It’s hard to find a villain as delicious as Scar, voiced by the amazing Jeremy Irons. His particular brand of suave yet petty nastiness blew everyone away when the movie first came out. Scar telling Simba that his surprise is “To die for”? *shivers*

I haven’t seen the Lion King musical. But if we were casting Scar nowadays, he would have to be played by Tom Hiddleston. And speaking of Tom: Loki, in Marvel’s The Avengers. We’re supposed to dislike him – rather intensely, I imagine – but come on, that’s hardly fair! The character’s quiet yet supreme arrogance is played so beautifully by Hiddleston that Loki quickly emerged as one of the highlights of the star-studded movie.

Another character I can’t help rather liking is Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter. In part, perhaps, because on-screen she’s played by the inimitable Helena Bonham Carter. But book Bellatrix is also fabulous. She definitely fits in the ‘hate to love’ camp. I think, with Bellatrix, the attraction is her completely unapologetic devotion to evil. She’s not just old Voldy’s right hand lady, she truly enjoys being horrible. With crazed giggling pleasure.

I think it’s easier to find ‘bad guys’ that we love on TV and in movies, than in books. In visual media, a dashing portrayal by a charismatic actor can be enough to make us fall for a villain, however heinous their crimes. (Hannibal Lecter, I’m looking at you.) In books, once an author starts adding charm and depth to an evil character, that character risks ending up in the ‘grey morality’ zone, where we know they’re bad but we understand their motivations and sympathize with them. Which is not really what I’m looking for here: I’m going for characters we KNOW are evil, but can’t help falling for anyway.

Take CW’s Supernatural, for instance. Over the show’s 12 seasons, the audience has embraced outright evil characters such as demon Crowley, played by Mark Sheppard, and Lucifer himself, played primarily by Mark Pellegrino. Both characters are fan favorites, and Sheppard and Pellegrino are for sure the reason behind this. In Arrow, also a CW show, recurring character Malcolm Merlyn is a slippery, self-centered jerk. But actor John Barrowman consistently woos the audience, over and over.

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like for an author or show creator when a villain suddenly takes off as a fan favorite. I imagine it goes something like this:

Fans on Twitter, Tumblr, etc: WE LOVE THIS CHARACTER.

Creators: No, they’re actually the villain, you’re not supposed to like them.

Fans: LOVE.

Creators: I don’t think you understand, see, they’re bad?

Fans: *Fan art everywhere. Make a million gifs. Write thousands of words of fan fiction.*

Creators: But…

Fans: Looooovvvveeeeeee………………..

 

 

 

 

Villains We Love To Hate (Part 1)

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A few great villains from my bookshelf

What makes The Ultimate Villain™? Now, I’m not necessarily talking about the Big Bad in a story; for instance, we all know the Emperor is the puppet master behind everything in Star Wars. (Gaaasp, spoiler alert!) But the Ultimate Villain in the original trilogy isn’t the Emperor, it’s Vader, with the all-black ensemble and the heavy masked breathing. He’s the one on all the t-shirts, the one who sells the action figures and LEGO kits. True, he had his moment of redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi, but for the majority of screen time in the trilogy, he was fabulously and unapologetically evil.

Darth Vader got me thinking about some of my favorite screen and page villains, and what makes them so fun to hate. In Vader’s case, I think his utter calm and coldness, allied with the distancing his black outfit, gloved hands, and mask produce, makes him a frightening on-screen presence from the moment he appears in New Hope showing off his Force choke.

The Narnia series was my childhood passion, and you don’t get any nastier than the witches that C.S. Lewis came up with. The scene in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe where the White Witch throws Edmund into her dungeon was one I always found chilling: Edmund trusted her (okay, he was also partially bewitched. And an idiot), and she treats him worse than dirt until he’s eventually rescued. The Green Lady in the Silver Chair was also a great villain, with her poisonous sweetness and terrible hidden schemes.

Like Star Wars, the Harry Potter series is another where side villains are often more compelling than the Big Bad, Lord Voldemort himself. Take Dolores Umbridge, for instance. (No, really, please take her, she terrifies me!) She’s tremendously effective as a villain, I think perhaps because most of us have come across that particular brand of petty nastiness at some point in our lives. A schoolteacher, a supervisor at work, an authority figure. Not someone with the power of life or death over us, just someone who can make our lives acutely miserable if they choose. The Harry Potter books have many ‘evil’ characters who we can’t help but understand, at least a little (there’s no way NOT to feel sorry for Draco Malfoy by the end of the series!), but Umbridge certainly isn’t one of those. And oh, boy, do we love to hate her.

Children’s and teen books do this sort of irredeemably nasty character very well (look at Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda, or President Snow from The Hunger Games), but even in adult fiction, you can’t have a decent fantasy or sci fi novel without a great villain. Or villains, plural. Sauron may have been the Big Bad in The Lord of the Rings, but I always particularly loathed Saruman for his backstabbing, tree-slaying, self-centered behavior. The sequence where the ents take down his fortress will always have me cheering wildly, no matter how many times I read it.

I know the trend nowadays is to have villains that readers/viewers can understand, with tragic backstories and deeper motivations that place them in a sort of moral grey zone, rather than the old-fashioned black-or-white of older stories. And I’m all for that, don’t get me wrong. It makes for a hugely compelling story. But sometimes it’s just so fun to be handed a character we’re unabashedly allowed to love to hate. So authors, producers, creators: grey zone your villains as much as you like, but please, please, please toss us an Umbridge every now and then? Go on. You know you want to.

(Not So) Bad Boys and Girls

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I recently tore through the entire Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater. This was serious binge reading of the ‘don’t come up for air before you’re done’ variety. I love (Love, LOVE) all of her characters from the first to be introduced, Blue, to latecomer Henry. But my hands down absolute fave has got to be Ronan Lynch.

What is it about those fictional (not so) bad boys and girls? I’m talking about those characters that are all rough and tough on the outside, with a center core of sweetness. The ones who give off all the appearance of a grumpy porcupine to their fellow characters while we sit on the sidelines silently screaming, “Just love them already!”

Take Han Solo. (Put your hands down, I’m not actually offering him!) When we first meet him in New Hope, he’s all, ‘Oh, I’m so bad, I’m the baddest badass smuggler around.’ But by the time the original trilogy is over, we all know him for what he really is: yes, grumpy and irritatingly stubborn. But, at the same time, loyal, caring, and 110% a secret Hufflepuff. (Shut up. You know Han would be a Hufflepuff. Just sayin’.)

The aforementioned Ronan Lynch is another one who’s crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. When we meet him in The Raven Boys, he’s all snark and swearwords, a shaved-head-and-tattooed bad boy supreme. When The Raven King rolls around, we know better. Sure, he’s still a street-racing punk with an attitude bigger than anyone I’ve seen in a while, but he has this amazing capacity for love and for goodness, and if by book four you haven’t fallen for this dreamer, then please, what is WRONG with you?

How about those (not so) bad girls? Like Kate Harker from Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity duology. In This Savage Song, Kate’s all sharp edges and nails you wouldn’t trust anywhere near your eyes for fear she’d gouge them out. A gangster’s daughter on a mission to prove herself, Kate could just be one of those thoroughly bad to the bone girls that crop up every now and then in fiction. And nothing wrong with that, but. But. She isn’t. There’s sweetness, somewhere under all those rock-hard layers, and longing, and a desperate need to love and be loved. I can’t wait for the concluding book, Our Dark Duet, to come out in June.

And hey, let’s not forget Disney. The House of Mouse can (not so) bad with the best of them at times. One of my fave princess movies is Tangled, in part for the creative use of frying pans and for the World’s Best Horse. But a big part of the appeal is bad boy Flynn Rider, especially when we find out that under all that sass and ego, he’s actually the adorable and sappy Eugene.

Yup, show me a character who’s a prickly marshmallow, and I’ll show you me in a molten puddle of goo. Or, well, maybe not, because no one wants to see that. But I do tend to melt for the difficult ones, for the tough guys and girls with all the secret hidden vulnerabilities. They’re so hard to resist. Especially when they tip you a smuggler’s wink and whisper, “I know.”

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“Frying pans. Who knew, right?”

Write Yourself

Yesterday I went to a ‘decades’ costume party. I dressed as an eighties rock girl. I danced until my legs ached. For some reason, this got me thinking about my wedding, almost fifteen years ago.

I loved every bit of our wedding party. We didn’t have the latest trends in absolutely anything. I let my youngest flower girl decide the color scheme. Needless to say, there was a lot of pink!

We danced until 5am, and only stopped because the venue politely told us they needed to close. There was something for everyone: seventies, nineties, and plenty of eighties music. A lot of it was fabulously cheesy and fantastically fun. I danced my first dance to Bryan Adams, and threw my bouquet to Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman.

I’m an eighties girl, through and through. I spent my teenage years watching Back to the Future, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. My romantic ideal was Rutger Hauer riding into a church on a big old horse in Ladyhawke. I wore neon, and legwarmers, and shirts with mahoosive shoulder pads. Lipstick came in red or hot pink. Subtlety, thy name is not 1980’s.

This definitely affects me as a writer. It would be nice to write beautifully elegant prose, as sharp and balanced as a knife’s edge. But you can’t take the eighties out of the girl. I’ll always be a Die Hard kind of person. I like fireballs, and fight scenes, and people crawling through air ducts. I like a touch of John Hughes to my first kisses. It’s just who I am.

They tell you to write what you know. Well, what I know comes with an extra-large tub of movie popcorn on the side. It’s lighthearted and fun, and probably a little silly at times. But it’s me, and I can’t help that. I don’t do ‘dark’, though I love to read it. ‘Write what you know’, in my case, is definitely ‘write who you are’.

And you know what? I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m more than fine with it. I didn’t begin writing ‘for real’ until I realized that the only person I had to please at that point was myself. I was allowed to have fun.

I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of this blog post. Perhaps there is none, except to make an impassioned plea to write what makes you happy. Be it epic battles, or tangled quests, or stolen kisses in the moonlight. Have fun with it; write that thing that makes your heart beat faster.

And maybe toss in a fireball, for me.

 

Neverlanding, One Tale at a Time

I’ve loved Peter Pan since I reread it as an adult and realized what an incredibly versatile tale it is. It’s one story for children, another for teens, and a completely different one for adults. That this apparently simple narrative is actually so nuanced and layered is, quite frankly, amazing.

J.M. Barrie’s classic, published first as a play and eventually as a novel in 1911, has inspired countless other works, from the literary to the cinematographic (and probably everything else between). How can we not be touched by a book that offers us swashbuckling adventure, mermaids, fairytale magic, and a neat sideline on growing up?

It’s no surprise that I love a movie retelling of Peter Pan. Whether a straight-forward interpretation such as Disney’s 1953 classic, or one that twists the theme like Spielberg’s 1991 Hook, starring Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter returning to Neverland, there’s always more magic to be found in the never-ending pixie dust well of Barrie’s words.

I even love the spin-offs, such as Disney’s Tinkerbell movies. Or the ones that only borrow obliquely from the source material, like the fabulous 1987 vampire flick directed by Joel Schumacher, The Lost Boys, where a vampire boss searches for a mother for his tribe of undead ‘children’. And yes, I know, spoilers, but if you haven’t watched this movie by now WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

Two of my current favorites, however, stay close to the original story while adding their own particular brand of magic. The first is the gorgeous 2003 version directed by P.J. Hogan. In Hogan’s Peter Pan, Wendy Darling (played beautifully by a young Rachel Hurd-Wood) is a feisty girl who would rather play pirate than do that terrible thing called ‘growing up’. When she’s whisked off to Neverland by Jeremy Sumpter’s Peter, she’s tempted by precisely both these things: a pirate’s life of adventure alongside Captain Hook or the beauty of her first kiss, even if it means taking a step in the dreaded direction of womanhood.

The second is the recent Pan (2015), directed by Joe Wright and starring Levi Miller as perhaps the most charming Peter I’ve ever come across. This one’s a prequel to the original, and yet it fits seamlessly with the tale we all know and gives Peter Pan new dimensions and a great backstory. It’s a truly enchanting take on the book and well worth watching, even if just for the images of a flying pirate ship evading the anti-aircraft guns during the London Blitz of World War II. And Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard leading his men in a rendering of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was a real laugh out loud moment.

Why does Peter Pan endure so well? Maybe it’s the pirates, or the fairies. Maybe it’s the lure of never, ever growing up. Whatever the reason, the story, in all its different forms and versions, still touches us over a hundred years later. So choose your favorite, set your armchair coordinates for “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning”, and forget the world, just for an instant.

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The famous Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, London.

Into The Woods: embrace the dark

Yesterday we rented ‘Into the Woods’, which I’d already seen with my daughter at the movies, and loved. Now it was time for a rewatch, and to share with my husband and son. After the movie finished, there was some debate on whether spoilery things that happen towards the end should happen at all. Because it takes a turn for the dark, right after all the happily-ever-afters take place. And I like that.

I like that the story doesn’t finish on a sunny everyone-loves-everyone note. Because no one’s story ends with the words ‘I do’, or the cuddly baby, or the fortune achieved. That’s just the start of everything else that comes next. And sometimes what comes next is good, but at other times it’s the breaking storm, the dark cloud, the sweeping wind. Because life is wild and unpredictable, and sometimes Things Just Happen.

That got me started thinking about books with that wild and unpredictable flair, that feeling of ‘hey, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Stories that take what you’re expecting and turn it around. The ride down the rabbit-hole which, instead of following a logical order and reaching a pleasing end, simply gets odder and odder. The journey to dispose of a ring that gets more and more painful, without respite, and then ultimately would face failure if not for serendipity.

In the best sort of stories, my favorites, people die, they get hurt, they falter and fail. I don’t like this sort of story because I enjoy reading about suffering, but because life can be harsh and a good tale needs to reflect the darkness that lurks beyond our sunny spot.

If you haven’t watched ‘Into the Woods’ yet, please do. For the wonderful songs, the fabulous twisting and tangling of traditional fairytales, and the great characters. But, most of all, for the darkness that lingers on throughout, at the corner of the screen, just waiting to pounce.

Into The Woods