Get it right, people! Horses and Fiction

I just finished Diana Gabaldon’s Written In My Own Heart’s Blood. Diana is a darn good researcher; her books are a joy to read, not just for their details, but for their characters. I cried; I laughed; I will miss them until the next one comes out.


There was one tiny error in the book which jarred me out of the world entirely. One tiny little error that didn’t need to be there at all. That could have been corrected oh so easily with one tiny fact-check.

She said that a horse was “a chestnut with a black mane.”

Okay. I know that to most people, this wouldn’t even be an issue because most people don’t know anything about horses. But for us horse people, it’s irksome. It’s a pebble in a shoe. And it could be so easily corrected with the tiniest bit of research!

I remember another book from a long time ago in which two characters were planning to steal a couple of horses to make their getaway, and one character told the other not to pick the white one, because it was an Arabian. When the other character asked how he knew, the answer was, “Because all Arabians are white.” Hmm. Tell that to my chestnut Arabian mare, please — or to my loud half-Arabian Pinto gelding!

If you’re including horses in your book, get it right, people! How would you research anything else in your book? The proper gun for your law enforcement officer to carry, and the proper way for him to carry it? The right way to prepare haddock in the 18th century? What a hospital smells like and sounds like? What the Battle of the Somme was like? You’d research. You’d read up on it. You’d make sure every last detail was right, knowing that if you make even one small error, readers will let you know about it. It’s the same thing with horses!

So I thought maybe I should give a brief run-down on colors and some quick terminology for horses. Just in case.


DeuceChestnuts:  Chestnuts are, essentially, brown in color with a similar-colored mane and tail. In a Western, redder ones will be referred to as “sorrel,” but this is not a term recognized by many breeds, including Arabians. This is my 28-year old mare Deuce.




Bays:  Bays are red with a black mane and tail. alex and bodie 1 - 2They can be “blood bays,” or they can be darker red in color. They can also be darker brown in color. This photo shows two of my guys, Alex and Bodie. Alex is the darker (chocolate) bay on the left; Bodie is the blood bay on the right. Often, bays have black legs that extend up to the knees, but just as often they can have white socks.




tasha and isabeauGreys:  There are no white horses, unless they’re albinos, which is extremely rare. Even if a horse looks white, it is really grey. Greys can be dark, dappled, light, and – like my old mare Tasha, here — “fleabitten,” which means they have flecks of red, roan, and black in their coats. (BTW, the filly with her, Isabeau, went grey as she got older. Grey is a dominant gene.)



Fox2008Paint/Pinto:  Although these terms are often used interchangeably, it’s not accurate to do so. Paints and Pintos are both a color and a breed registry. Paints must be of Quarter Horse ancestry, and be able to prove it; they must also display the typical Paint coloring. Pintos, on the other hand, can be of any ancestry, so long as they have the color and pattern.



Palomino:  Palominos are both a color and a breed. Think of Trigger, Roy Rogers’ famous horse; he was palomino. They are gold in color with a flaxen (lighter-colored) mane and tail. — this is the website for the Palomino Breeder’s Association, and you can see great photos of a Palomino on the home page.

Appaloosa:  Appaloosas are, again, both a color and a breed. They must display the hallmark spotted pattern. There are different patterns — “leopard-spot” Appaloosas have spots all over their bodies, usually on a white field, while “blanket” Appys only have spots extending from the hindquarters forward to a certain point. Some have spots only on the hindquarters; others have spots extending to the shoulders. — this is the website for the British Appaloosa Society, and the page I’ve given you is a direct link to images of the different coat patterns.

There are any number of great books out there with color photos and better descriptions of horse breeds, color, tack, etc. One of my favorites is The Horseman’s Bible by Jack Coggins ( Another great place to look is in the children’s section of your local library. Those non-fiction books are chock-full of great descriptions, good photos, and accurate information. And I think that I will also continue to post small things here about horses — grooming, tack, breeds, etc.

Just as you would with anything else, getting it right with horses is imperative. Especially if horses are an integral part of your story, readers need to know that you’ve taken the effort to get it right. One tiny flaw will ruin the experience — and worse, you WILL hear about it from your readers! Do the research. Get it right. Your horse-owning readers will thank you!

Stay, Summer, Stay

This is a really stranleavesge start to the school year.

For one thing, it’s the first time ever that all of my schools have been using the same learning management system — LMS — for their online components. That’s led to some confusion for the students, and a sense of unreality for me.  For another thing . . . I simply wasn’t ready to give up my summer. Not yet. I want to fight for it. Grab on to every last molecule of every last sunbeam, dig in my heels, and refuse to let go until the first frost arrives.

At 38, I’m finally realizing that the summer is not as long as it should be.

I always teach in the summer. Most college instructors do; as an adjunct, I can’t afford not to. This summer, though, my course load was a little less hectic, a little lighter. I had more time. More time to go running in the mornings, and stop along the way to take photos of all the fuzzy-wuzzies and creepy-crawlies that came across my path. More time to write. To start thinking about the next novel, pulling out scenes to keep and let my subconscious start mulling over the things that have to be created new. Time to research.

I rediscovered my love of rummage sales and thrift shops, and spent an inordinate amount of time digging through boxes and baskets, finding the treasures left behind by other foolish people. Most will end up in my online shop; others will stay with me. I’ve been learning about vintage jewelry, learning once again to trust my instincts and pick the good from the bad — and sometimes, when I’m really lucky, the extraordinary from the ordinary.

swingAnd I spent a lot of time on my first real porch swing, which I dragged into the shade and painted a beautiful shade of not-quite-white — it’s called Swiss Coffee — reading and talking to my friends on the cell phone. Every now and then they’d pause and say, “Where are you? I hear creaking. Are you on the swing?” And I would say yes, I was, and I needed to get some WD-40 for those chains and we’d both laugh because we both knew I’d never do it, because there’s something so comforting and calming and unobtrusive about those creaking chains.

No. I am not ready to let go of summer yet. I am not ready to relinquish the deep green carpet of grass for a deeper slush of snow. I am not yet ready to see the leaves turn yellow and gold and red. Though they will be gorgeous to photograph, they will also be sad.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that I have never known an August that didn’t mean the start of the school year, for me personally. My mom drove a school bus, so even before I went to school myself, I had that rhythm in my life. I went to preschool and kindergarten, and then first grade slammed me upside the head. I went to college, and for most of my adult life I’ve worked for a college in one capacity or another. What would it be like, I wonder, to live a life where August didn’t automatically mean school? Maybe one where August meant . . . preparing to take a trip to the lake? Or England? Maybe August wouldn’t mean the end of summer then, but something else . . . something gradual and good.

I set up for a photo show a few weeks ago at a local library, and I was telling the librarian about everything I do — teaching, the online shop, etc. — and she gave me one of those funny looks and said, “It must be nice to be able to live life on your terms like that.” That struck me as an odd thing to say because the truth is, I don’t feel like I live life on my terms. Is that how others see it, though? I feel like I live my life based on the vagaries of others. Will students enroll? Will the colleges give me classes? Will they give me enough classes? Will people buy the items in my shop? Will they like my photos?

But maybe I do. Live life on my terms, I mean. I haven’t come to a conclusion about that yet. I certainly lived this summer on my terms. Remembered things I’d forgotten I loved.

Like summer.

What do you do with a problem like a beta? (to be sung to “What do you do with a problem like Maria?”)

Okay, maybe I’m a bit biased this week. My betas are wonderful people (and since they’re about half of the subscribers to my blog, I need to be nice to them!). 🙂

A beta — or beta reader — is someone who reads your manuscript BEFORE you send it to an agent or editor, or self-publish it. And if you think you don’t need them, please think again. You have only to go to Amazon and look at the thousands of free e-books, written and published in what must have been two or three days, to know you do. Betas are part of what set writers apart from good writers.

In this blog,, author Belinda Pollard lists the main characteristics of what makes a good beta reader. It’s a great read, as it really makes you think. Even if you already have beta readers, are they really the right fit? Is the new book you’re working on a different genre, that might require new betas? Are they really giving you encouraging, but real, feedback? All things writers need to ask themselves!

This post by Joel Friedlander,, offers more great advice. Everyone’s different. Some will prefer to read your manuscript on their e-reader, others want that hard copy so they can make free with the red pen. And I think the most important point in Joel’s post is this:  never, ever give them a draft. Ever. Not even if your life depends on it. If you think your first draft is good enough, forget it. Put it away for a month. Then come back to it. Don’t be in such a freaking hurry. Trust me, once you look at that MS with fresh eyes, the first words you’ll say will be something like, “What the &%?@!!!# was I thinking?!”

Rule of thumb:  if you wouldn’t send it to an agent, don’t give it to your betas, unless you have a specific reason to do so. For instance, I went through 15 drafts of my latest manuscript before giving it to my betas. Then, a month later, I recalled those copies and did another 5 drafts before giving it to them again. But this time, I did it knowing there were things I didn’t like, but didn’t know how to fix, and I gave them specific instructions to read not for typos, but to see how the plot lines flowed and if there were holes anywhere. The problem is, I know my manuscript too well. I need my betas to read it with fresh eyes and no preconceptions. And that’s exactly why you need betas as well.

I hear you, I hear you:  but what if they — gasp! — steal my idea??? Trust me, they won’t.

I hear you, again:  what if they don’t read it? Yeah. That is a problem. Everyone gets busy. I get that. But you’re waiting for people to read it, because you need to make those changes. That New Year’s resolution of “finish MS and find agent!” is looming, big and red and angry on the calendar. And all you can do is sit back and give them gentle nudges every now and then, and pray that they actually follow through. Nerve-wracking, isn’t it?I know. I’m there. I’ve been there.

Let’s take a look at a few things:

  • Give them a deadline — but not a horrendous one. Ask them what time frame they think they can have it done by. Then, extend it by at least two weeks.
  • Are you going to meet in person, or have them email you their feedback? Either way is okay, but make sure that if you are meeting face to face, that the meeting doesn’t go off-topic.
  • Are your betas really ready to read this? Sometimes, people just aren’t. If the deadline has passed and they haven’t finished — or even started — your manuscript, it probably isn’t priority and you should ask them to be honest. Do they really want to do this right now?
  • Have several betas. Don’t rely on 1 or 2. Join a writing group, where there’s peer pressure to provide timely feedback, or join an online group (links at the bottom of the page!) where you can read others’ works to earn credits towards having your own read.
  • Be a beta reader yourself! Ideally, your own betas are also writers. Be sure you’re willing to read their work as well, and make sure they know that. And if they do ask you to read their work — do it. Be constructive. Be prompt. Be positive. That will also give you an idea of how hard a job you’ve asked YOUR readers to take on. 🙂
  • Move on to the next project. You’ve given them your manuscript and they have a deadline. Now, distract yourself by being productive for the next two weeks or month or whatever.

Now. There are some sites where you can read others’ work and get feedback on your own. Here’s links to some of them: (not only can you ask questions on several different forums, but once you’ve had 50 posts, you can join the Share Your Work forum!) (there’s a link in the article to the group’s Facebook page)

There are probably MANY others, and your local bookstores probably know — or even host — writing groups local to you. So there’s no excuse now to publish something that’s crap! Get out there, find your betas, and get going!

Going . . . and now Gone

History is lost — and found — all the time. Just a few years ago, a Benjamin Franklin letter was discovered, filed in the wrong place, at the British Museum. People find things at rummage sales and thrift shops. Diaries, letters, paintings. vine and window 3

But it’s just as easily lost. And this week, I lost a piece of history that has a lot of meaning to me.

door looking out 1As far as I can tell, this set of buildings once belonged to a stone company that tried to have a quarry where there just wasn’t a place to have one. They were then allowed to fall into ruin — along with the old Plymouth — and they quickly became one of my favorite places to run away to, and photograph. So quiet and peaceful.

When I started writing my young adult novel last fall, I knew that Nicky’s partner in crime needed an out-of-the-way place for his moonshine operation. This set of buildings came immediately to mind. And so whatever else they were in real life, to me, they became Simon’s home and still. A small place, but his. Hidden away. Peaceful. And maybe more importantly for a black man in the 1920s, his. And so this place became inextricably intertwined with my novel, and with Nicky’s story. old house snow 2

I haven’t been able to get out and run as much as normal lately, but when I did get out this week, I saw that I could no longer see the buildings. Or the car. I think they are now gone. I knew it would happen, but . . . something in me died that morning, standing with one foot balanced on the barbed-wire fence, trying to see over the grass and down the hill to the spot where the walls should be visible. Knowing that now, the only place they exist is in my memory and in these photos.

window in snowAnother piece of history lost. Forever.old house snow 4