A judge in a writing contest I once entered surprised me
when she stated that I needed to do a lot more research if I was going to write
about horses and dude ranches. According to her, I didn’t know anything about
them. I usually send a note to contest judges thanking them for their time and
remarks. For the first and only time, I responded to a criticism in my thank
you note, commenting that since I had owned and raised horses most of my life,
I was curious about the inaccuracies that bothered her so much. I also
mentioned that I had stayed at the dude ranch on which I modeled my story
Obviously, we, as writers, need to get it right—whatever the
topic. Mistakes take the reader out of the story and make them doubt the
author. I see and read so much silliness concerning horses, I sometimes wonder
if the writer or screenwriter has ever even seen an equine. On the one hand,
there is the Disney style anthropomorphism that gives horses human feelings and
reactions. On the other, is the attitude that they are dumb beasts that don’t
think or have feelings. Of course, both of these are incorrect.
Horses definitely do feel and think—like horses. If you’ve
ever dealt with an equine Houdini, you know they can think up with the most
ingenious ways to escape their paddock and get to the fresh green grass or
barrel of grain they shouldn’t have. However, they don’t connect the resulting
belly ache (and vet bill) with what they ate. Horses also get quite upset when
a buddy leaves and mourn if one dies. A recent article in Time magazine
commented on this fact. They definitely have feelings.
|credit: rayzee12 via photopin cc|
So how do you get the right take on horses or any other topic you’re not familiar with? The best way, of course, is to have some real experience. For horses, that means not just getting on a rent string plug and plodding along in a line, but maybe taking lessons and riding occasionally. Reading and researching online can give you some basics, but actually interacting will demonstrate the uncanny connection between horses and riders. If you write about guns in your mysteries, you’d be well advised to get some experience handling and shooting firearms.
Now most people won’t have the time or inclination to go that far, so the next best option is to talk with people with experience. Again for horses, you will undoubtedly get a variety of opinions. A well-known horsemen’s aphorism goes to the effect that if you get five horse people together, you’ll get six different opinions on how to deal with the wonderful, often challenging animals. I’ve sometimes felt like I was attending a PTA meeting, where all the parents were adamantly spouting contradictory ideas on how best to raise kids. In spite of the differing takes, if you consult experts you should get a feel for how real horses behave.
The internet is a wonderful resource these days, but it doesn’t substitute for hands-on experience. And the lack of real knowledge will show in your writing and distract readers who are familiar with the topic. The old adage “write what you know about” really does hold true.
What’s the most interesting subject you’ve ever researched for a story? How did you do it? Were you able to get a real feel for the material?
Here’s a small excerpt from my romantic suspense novel WYOMING ESCAPE describing the first time a new-born foal tries to stand up. The hero Shawn brings the heroine Mikela, a city girl, to see the new arrival.
She stepped closer, peering over the half-door and gasped with delight. “How darling.”
A baby horse lay in the straw near his mother's hooves, his big dark eyes watching his dam as she moved. His brown coat appeared damp and curly and he had a white spot on his forehead.
“How old is he?” Mikela asked, utterly fascinated.
“Only about twenty minutes,” Shawn whispered. “Watch.”
The foal unfolded his spindly front legs and propped them out before him. With a heave, he attempted to stand on trembling legs, but sank back down before achieving his goal. He rested for a few minutes then tried again. He made it part way up before his strength gave out and he plopped in the straw. His mother, a big black, sent him a small whicker of encouragement while he appeared to think about how to get to where he wanted.
Mikela tensed with anticipation as he tried again. He heaved upward and managed to prop his rear legs under him and balance spraddle-legged for a moment. Gravity claimed him once more and he flopped down on his side. This time he didn't wait before trying again. This time he stayed up and Mikela relaxed her clenched hands. After resting for a few moments, he inched his right front leg forward, then a rear leg. He tried with the left front and managed to get his rear end to follow. At that point his mother sidled close to him and his nose twitched as he smelled her milk. Another shaky step brought him near her teats and he twisted his head up to try to find her milk—and immediately lost his balance.
Mikela couldn't help smiling at the disgusted expression on his tiny face. With a mighty effort he regained his feet and again searched for a teat. This time he managed to stay upright, but couldn't figure out how to obtain the food he so badly wanted. He butted his head against his mother's big belly and almost fell over. Regaining his equilibrium, he reached under again, his mouth already making sucking motions. Finally he latched on and began to nurse. To Mikela's amusement, everyone, including her, let out a collective sigh of relief.
You can read more about Mikela, Shawn and the foal in WYOMING ESCAPE.
Two dead bodies. One dirty cop. Is she next?
Two dead bodies. One dirty cop. Is she next?
Kate Wyland is a life-long horse nut who started riding at three years old. After a varied equestrian career, she now has three semi-retired horses and can’t imagine life without them. A few years ago, she exchanged her tech writing bill cap for a fiction writing Stetson. Suspense, romance, horses and sometimes the paranormal are the themes she likes to explore in her books. And she delights in sharing her love of animals and country living.