Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Riding Adventures . . .

I purchased my first horse, a big flea-bitten gray, when I was twenty-three. Stoney was a sweet, wonderful guy. He was green when I bought him, but he advanced quickly. He was usually very solid and steady in the show ring and did well in low hunter and pleasure classes, often earning several champion titles in one show. He was also well behaved when I took him to some combined training events. But there was one place where his ornery side came into play—out on the trail . . . alone.

In company, he was great. Stoney preferred to lead. He was bold and confident, and riding him felt like driving a bulldozer. “You want to go up that ten-foot muddy bank out of the river?” “Sure, no problem.” I’d point him, and off he’d go.

“What, no trail?” “Not a problem.” I might get scratched up with briers and gouged by tree branches, but none of this held him back.

And he loved river crossings. He’d stand in the middle of the current while schools of fish swam between his legs. I have no idea what he thought they were, but he’d cant his head and watch them dart beneath his belly. And I’d have to be careful, because he liked to roll, especially when it was hot. I would have loved to have taken him for a swim, though we never had that opportunity.

But when we set off alone, I never knew if I’d be walking home or riding because he had this nasty habit of bucking as we came out of stream crossings or after jumping a log. He didn’t get me off much, but when he did, he’d gallop for home.

I remember this one time when we were out in the woods, and he started bucking after we jumped a log. He put his nose to the ground and pulled me right out of the saddle. I was actually straddling his neck as he continued to buck down the trail, and it was then that I made the decision to bail instead of risk slipping beneath his hooves. I lunged to the side and hit the dirt, and off he went down the trail. I ran uphill and almost caught him as he whizzed by on the switchback. When I’d finally trudged back to the stable, I couldn’t find him and was afraid he’d remain forever hidden in a dense corn field. But, he hadn’t stayed out in the open to pig out. He’d squeezed into the stall we used to store hay and was chowing down on a bale of alfalfa.

We had some adventures in groups, too. My boss was a wild woman in the saddle. She took a bunch of us novices on a cross-country gallop. Stoney was so excited by this barely-controlled, group gallop, I spent much of the run trying to keep his bucking under control. We slowed to a canter when we reached a wooded trail. My boss was an excellent horsewoman. She was riding Pocket, her son's beautiful bay hunter. As he cantered down the trail on autopilot, she was twisted around in the saddle, watching her band of excited students, when I noticed a heavy low branch jutting across the trail. I warned her just in time. Otherwise, she would have been knocked right off.

The land surrounding the horse farm where I worked at the time bordered Maryland’s Patuxent River, and it was extremely hilly and wooded. When I first purchased Stoney, he had no clue how to get us to the bottom of some of these hills except to make a mad dash down them. He’d stand at the top, worried, shifting his weight; then he’d take a deep breath and just go. I eventually got him to understand that he could take his time, and those big scary hills lost some of their menace.

Columbia Horse Center

My fictitional Foxdale Farm, where Steve works, is based on the Columbia Horse Center.

The hours I’ve spent riding, especially cross country, show up in my fiction. Here’s a little excerpt from AT RISK, where Steve has taken a school horse out for a nighttime ride. One of the boarders had noticed a six-horse that resembles the trailer used in a horse theft, and Steve is going to check it out:

Wooded hills sloped upward on both sides of the river, and except for a faint gurgling, where fast-moving water tumbled over a natural dam, the meadow was quiet. I might have found it peaceful except for the night’s objective. I looked at my watch. Seven-fifty-five. I had two hours before the last lesson was over, before Karen would check to see if we’d made it back.

When we came to a stretch of meadow where the footing was safe, I bridged the reins together over the crest of her neck--to act as a brace in case she stumbled--then crouched low over the saddle. She automatically lengthened into a ground-covering canter, the instinct for speed there for the asking. Her body rocked beneath me, her muscles straining, footfalls muffled, breath coming faster, louder, filling my ears. I pressed my knuckles into her mane and relaxed into her stride. The brisk air stung my face and pulled tears from the corners of my eyes. The ground beneath us was a blur, the speed intoxicating for both of us.

Where the meadow narrowed into a track not much wider than one of the old logging roads, with trees thick on both sides, I brought her back to a walk. Jet swiveled her ears and tossed her head in irritation.

“Sorry, girl. Can’t run here.” I patted her neck. Steam eddied through her coat, curling upward in tendrils, and I could smell her sweat, stirringly primitive. A link to the past. The result of countless years of man and horse working together.

I owned Stoney until his death at age 31. He was a great guy, and his memory lives on in my writing.

Happy reading and riding.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Track Conditions . . .

When I began my writing career, I knew so little about the publishing industry, I didn’t realize that there was such a huge demand for series books, especially in the mystery genre. But, luckily for me, I wasn’t done with Steve when I wrapped up AT RISK. I still needed to explore the reasons behind his strained relationship with his father, and discovering that answer took me (and Steve) to the racetrack in DEAD MAN'S TOUCH.

Once I decide on a story idea, I begin researching right away because my findings often influence the developing plot.

I had worked briefly at Laurel Park years before, and all the delicious, sensory-filled memories of that experience were firmly embedded in my mind. But I was greedy. I wanted more.

Laurel Park grandstand and paddock area

Laurel Park grandstand

In my search to learn of others’ experiences and impressions of what it’s like to work on the backside of a racetrack, I discovered TRACK CONDITIONS, a beautifully-written, heart-wrenching memoir by Michael Klein.

TRACK CONDITIONS is a poetic, episodic narrative of the author’s five-year stint working as a racetrack groom as he journeys from track to track in an effort to reclaim his lover while battling alcoholism and dealing with the damaging effects of a sexually-abusive stepfather and a mother who suffered from depression.

Granted, this is not your typical equine book, but it is unbelievably moving and lyrical. To give you a sense of Klein’s writing style, I’ve pasted a brief excerpt below:

"One morning, Jewel was gazing into the middle distance after the last set of horses had gone out to the track, a distance lined with momentary hazards: a groom having trouble getting the tack off a horse; a filly not standing still for the blacksmith; sparrows in distress swimming in a necklace of high notes up to the haylofts."

During his time on the track, Klein had the good fortune of being Swale’s groom and the bad luck of being fired weeks before the Kentucky Derby-winning colt ran in the Preakness. The cover photo above, taken by Puff Anderson, shows Klein and Swale.

Ultimately, it is horse who saves man.

Over the years, I’ve read TRACK CONDITIONS twice and will read it again. I can’t say that reading it changed anything in DEAD MAN’S TOUCH, but I suspect that some of the story’s mood filtered into my own writing.

Happy reading and riding . . .

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Heroes and Horses

The protagonist or hero of a story is one of the most important elements a fiction author must deal with, one that deserves a great deal of forethought and consideration.

When I set out to write my first mystery, AT RISK, on July 22, 1996 (yes, I actually remember the date) I already had the opening scene in mind. What I needed was a character to tell the story. A hero.

First off, I decided that my hero would be a guy, in part, because I like guys and, secondly, because much of the fiction that I’d been reading featured male protagonists. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and George Bagby, and later, I fell in love with Dick Francis’s equine novels. And my perception at the time, flawed as it may have been, was that guys had a lot more freedom, took more chances, and were more exciting than . . . well, me.

Then there was the fact that I wanted a lot of freedom writing this character. I didn’t want him to resemble me too closely because I suspected I might feel inhibited if I thought the reader was thinking: this is who the author is.

So, I took a chance, bucked the tradition of women writing female protagonists, and developed barn manager and amateur sleuth Steve Cline. Without realizing it, I bucked another tradition by writing a very young protagonist at a time when older sleuths were the norm. His youth (he’s 21 in AT RISK) was actually trickier than nailing the guy thing.

While I was working through the first drafts of AT RISK and the opening chapters of DEAD MAN’S TOUCH, I took two writing courses offered by Writers’ Digest magazine’s Novel Writing Workshop. Both times, I requested a male instructor and was lucky to be paired with Steven Havill and William G. Tapply. Havill writes a police procedural series set in New Mexico, featuring Undersheriff Bill Gastner, and Tapply’s series features Boston estate attorney Brady Coyne. Both men, along with my husband, were a tremendous help and quick to point out when I got it wrong!

So, who is Steve? To make him more complex and interesting and real for the reader, I gave him personal issues to deal with along with the story problem. He grew up in a wealthy but emotionally distant family with two older siblings. He attended a private school and spent many of his summers “at camp” because his parents were too busy to parent. Despite the excessive wealth, his relationship with them was damaging, and eventually Steve becomes estranged from them when he leaves college to work in the horse industry. Many of the choices he makes, including his penchant for risk-taking, are linked to his strained relationship with his father and a subconscious need to prove himself.

Steve has been so much fun to write. He’s young, reckless, flawed, but also principled. At times, he seems real.

Speaking about real, many of the horses I’ve known and loved, or have just worked with, have found themselves in the pages of my books. A troubled horse in AT RISK, Cut to the Chase, a.k.a. Chase, is modeled after a horse who used to be boarded at a hunter/jumper farm where I worked. The real Chase, whose official name escapes me, was an open jumper: a huge seventeen hand, coppery chestnut gelding with a lot of white on his legs. The barn crew used to affectionately call him “Jaws” because he loved to nip his handlers. What fascinated me about the real Chase was the fact that, though ornery when handled from the ground, he was a sweetheart under saddle. He was a gorgeous, fluid mover and a truly gifted jumper.

What has surprised me most about my fictional horses is the way they magically come to life, seemingly on their own. One of my favorites is Russian Roulette. He’s a character in DEAD MAN’S TOUCH and TRIPLE CROSS.

I didn’t intentionally model him after any horse from my past, but he came to life nonetheless. Here’s a brief excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS:

I gathered my trash together, left it sitting on the tack trunk, and walked over to Ruskie’s stall. He poked his head over the stall guard before curling his neck around to nuzzle my waist. I hooked my arm across his neck and smoothed my hand down his face. Resting my forehead against his mane, I breathed deeply, inhaling the indescribable blended odors: his skin, his sleek chestnut coat, the sweet smell of his breath, all combined with the mix of straw and hay, and I was reminded of the generations of horses who had passed through this barn. Derby runners, most of them.

Ruskie was uncharacteristically still, and I wondered if he sensed the tension fizzing in my nerves and pressing against my skull like a bad headache.

I had no guarantee I’d be here tomorrow. None at all.

He lipped the thin belt keeper at my waist, then smoothed his muscular lips along my belt. Knowing that a nip was likely next on his agenda, I straightened.

I stopped at Storm’s stall and patted him, told him to be a good boy, and when I turned around, Jay said, “What? No hug for me?”

I grinned and told him to wish me luck.

Here are a couple of photos of the actual Derby Barn at Churchill Downs that I took while researching TRIPLE CROSS:

Notice the press. They were everywhere!

Morning bath.

One of the last chores: cleaning saddles and tack.

“The horse: friendship without envy, beauty without vanity, nobility without conceit, a willing partner, yet, no slave.” ~ Anon

Until next time . . .

Scenes from TRIPLE CROSS:

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Chance Discovery

It's odd, life's little twists and turns. My journey to becoming a "horse person" and, later, an author happened because of a work of equestrian fiction.

I was twenty-three at the time, and working for the government, when I took a week off to stay at my parents' house while they were on vacation. My husband was out of town for a training seminar, and I was bored, so I looked around the house for something to read and found a Readers' Digest Condensed Book edition of Dick Francis's IN THE FRAME. The main character was an equine artist, and I got enough of a feel for the horse world to know that I wanted to read more of Francis's work, not to mention that fact that the man writes an excellent mystery, to say the least. Afterwards, I tracked down every title that Francis had written at that time and was hooked. Titles that I read soon after I read IN THE FRAME, and two of my favorites were: DEAD CERT and FOR KICKS. I fell in love with the fictional horse world he portrayed and decided I wanted to experience it for real.

I quit the government job, exaggerated my experience (none) to get a job working on a hunter/jumper show farm, and ended up working in the horse industry for twenty-five years. My first horse was a six-year-old Quarter horse Arabian cross. A big, fat, flea-bitten gray with black points and a black mane that stuck straight up after the previous owner had roached it. He reminded me of an ancient war horse from the Middle Ages, so I named him Stonehenge (barn name "Stoney). I've also had the privilege of owning several thoroughbreds who've retired from the track and an adorable Appendix Quarter horse mare named Flare:

Over the years, I've worked a variety of horse jobs. I worked briefly at the racetrack. I've worked as a barn manager, groom, vet tech, and I delivered foals on the night shift. That was my all-time favorite job. I've shown over fences, did some low level eventing, and eventually switched to dressage. Though I enjoyed riding, barn chores and caring for the horses interested me more.

I've always been a mystery fan, and when I decided to try my hand at writing, it was only natural that I would combine both loves: horses and mystery. There are currently four novels in my equine-oriented mystery series featuring barn manager and amateur sleuth Steve Cline. (Check out Steve's MySpace page.)

The stories are traditional mysteries with a touch of romance, highly suspenseful, and fully entrenched in the horse world. The books have been well reviewed in the New York Times, Denver Post, Chicago Tribune, Library Journal, etc., and they have collected multiple awards. The latest release, TRIPLE CROSS, takes place in Louisville and on the backside of Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby.

I've been lucky. Lucky that a chance discovery of a work by the master, Dick Francis, came at a time in my life when I was young enough, and naïve enough, to drop one career for another, riskier one. And I've been lucky that I've met with such success now that I've switched careers again, by trading in a set of reins for a pen.

More on TRIPLE CROSS later.

I'd like to tell you about a new blog: Equestrian Ink, a place where you can discover new authors, learn about equine-related fiction that you may have overlooked, and hear from some exciting guest speakers, too.