So you want to start an Etsy store, eh?

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Open an Etsy shop. Watch the money roll in.


I’m approaching my fourth anniversary on Etsy with my shop, CatNip Collectibles ( I sell vintage accessories – hats, gloves, scarves, jewelry, and men’s accessories like tie clips and cuff links, mostly. And it’s a lot of fun.

But it’s also a lot of work.

Every year, thousands of people start shops on Etsy, and every year, thousands of shops shut their doors – some without ever selling a single thing. Most of them come to the Etsy forums asking the Same Exact Questions Time After Time. So I thought I’d put a few things together as a bit of a FAQ for Etsy.

1.) How does Etsy differ from eBay? I’ve sold on both venues. Etsy is often described as a large mall of individual shops, owned by individuals across the world. Items are offered at a fixed price, no auctions. Currently, there are over 1 million shops on Etsy. eBay, on the other hand, is an online auction site where you can sell almost everything except live animals and your excess liver tissue.

2.) What can I sell? You can sell anything handmade and anything vintage. Vintage is over 20 years old. That means you cannot clean out your closet and sell off last year’s stuff. Put that on eBay instead. Here’s a link to the Etsy Seller Handbook:  (There are restrictions on certain things, and Etsy will remove items deemed to go against their rules.)

3.) When can I expect my first sale? Depends. I sold my first item within the first 30 days of operation. I sold two more in April, 3 in May, 1 in June, 4 in July . . . get it? It takes a lot of time to become a trusted seller. It was October before I had 10 sales in a month. It takes a lot of time to get the right feedback, to create your brand and ‘look’, and to get your inventory listed. There are some people on Etsy who’ve been open for a year without a single sale. There’s a rule of thumb, though:  the more items you have in your shop, the more likely it is you’ll be found. Many claim 100 items is the ‘magic threshold.’ (And OMG, please, please, read up on SEO before you start posting!)

4.) I want to make things of fabric. Can I use anything? NO. NO, NO, NO, NO. I know what you want to do. You want to make cute little things out of all that Disney-themed fabric you see at Walmart, don’t you? You think it’ll sell like hotcakes. YOU CAN’T. Disney has all their stuff trademarked. You can’t make a profit off their images and designs. The same thing if you try to hand-paint anything with a Disney image – they’ll nail you for infringement. They’ll send a cease and desist order to Etsy, who will shut you down. They might even sue you. Just don’t do it.

5.) Wait. What’s infringement? Infringement is when you take someone else’s stuff and try to make a profit on it. That’s not the technical, legal definition, but that’s basically it. You can’t use ANY trademarked logos, images, or names. That goes for all professional sports teams, Disney, Marvel, Warner Brothers, anything movie-related, etc. The only exception is if you’re selling a legitimate item and it’s vintage (for example, a vintage movie poster). So you can’t embroider Micky Mouse on a shirt and sell it. You’d have to get a license from Disney first.

5.1) So how do I know what’s trademarked? Good question! Here’s a link to the US Patent Office’s website, with a search engine just for trademarks – And here’s the link to the US Copyright Office: Keep in mind that even certain terms, like ‘fairy dust,’ are trademarked now . . . so is ‘onesie’ and a host of others.

6.) But everyone else is doing it! So what? Are you a lemming? Just. Don’t. Unless you’re ready for a massive lawsuit from the parent company.

7.) So . . . then what CAN I do? You can produce  your own artwork and designs, your own photography, your own purses, handbags – the sky’s the limit! Just be sure it’s YOURS.

hat-88.) Hmm. Well, that vintage thing sounds good. How easy is it to sell vintage? If you’re asking that, just go away. Seriously. Selling vintage is bloody hard work. You have to love vintage. Adore it. Live with it every single day of your life. You need to be able to tell, within a few seconds, if something is vintage or a knock-off. You need to be able to accurately describe not only the item, the maker, the colors and materials, but all flaws in the items you’re selling. Can you tell I sell vintage? It’s also difficult to store properly – right now, my bedroom is stuffed full of plastic storage tubs full of vintage hats. Ideal? No. But you can’t store vintage outside. It needs to be in climate-controlled areas. You also have to be willing to do the research –  A LOT OF RESEARCH. For instance, do you know what style hat this is – and what era it’s from? I do.

9.) How much money can I make? Depends. How much work do you want to put into your shop? There certainly are people who make a good living from their Etsy shops. There are many more of us who have it as a ‘side gig’ – we make a few hundred a month. There are many, many more who maybe have one sale every six months. It also depends on your overhead and how much your items sell for.

10.) How do I get started? Easy. The best thing to do before you ever start a shop is visit the Etsy forums ( and read the Seller Handbook. Decide if this is really right for you. It takes time to photograph and list items. It takes time to promote on social media. You need to develop a shop name and a brand. This is just like starting any other business – it is a business. Look at other shops doing what you want to do and see 1.) how many there are, 2.) how many sales they have, and 3.) how well their items are made. Had I looked at how many vintage shops there were before I started, I might not have! But there are shops that specialize in just one thing, too – glassware, handmade jewelry, vintage movie posters. Find your niche. Then, you’ll just sign up to become an Etsy member, click on the little “open shop” icon, and get started.

I don’t want to sound crabby and bitchy, but the fact is, this isn’t something to undertake lightly. So many people come on the Etsy forums with the same questions, usually about “I opened my shop last week and no sales! Why?!” I hope some of this might answer a few of your questions, and that the links prove useful.

If you do decide to go for it, good luck! 🙂


The Adjunct Files: What’s in a Classroom Policy?

So last week we looked at basic building blocks for your syllabus – what to include and why. This week, I want to take a closer look at your own policies – because let’s face it, that’s probably what you have the most control over. You can’t change the college’s policies; you can’t change the textbook; but:  your classroom, your policies.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene:  different colleges offer instructors, especially adjuncts, differing levels of leeway in setting your own policies. Some departments may require you to do things their way; one college I applied to required instructors to use ONLY the course material they provided, in the course shell they provided, with the exams and assignments they set! There was absolutely no leeway there whatsoever, and even when adjuncts pointed out inaccuracies in the textbooks and quizzes, they refused to listen. So before you start to write your policies, double-check with your department chair or lead instructor.

Your policies are not going to be perfect out the gate. I promise that you will not be able to cover everything the first time out. What you need to decide first is what are you willing to enforce, every single day, in class?

My personal polices cover the following areas:

  • Late work
  • Making up tests (for my athletes who might be gone on an exam day)
  • Attending when ill (DON’T!)
  • Cell phones
  • Plagiarism, Cheating, Academic Integrity
  • ‘Helping’ others (teammates, significant others, etc.) with class work (it’s cheating, according to my school)
  • Best practices for contacting me (just to reiterate it)

For this blog post, though, I want to focus on cell phones and late work.

Cell phones. For some, students using cell phones in class is the biggest pet peeve there is:  it’s rude, disrespectful, and a barrier to learning. Just last week, I had a student who was playing on his cell phone, not listening as I spent 15 minutes talking about what would be on their first exam. Imagine what grade he got. (He did have the grace to scribble on the last page, “I didn’t know there was an essay.”) For some, however, if students choose to play on their phones rather than participate and take notes, that’s up to them; they’re presumably adults and if that’s how they choose to do things, they’ll have to live with the consequences. Still others have found ways to incorporate phones into their classrooms. Decide how you want to structure your course and what your policy will be when you see the texting begin.

Late work. I’ve seen the gamut. I knew an instructor who, in her online courses, opened all the assignments the first day of class and left them all open until the last day of class. No late work, no problem. Your college may frown on this. Mine certainly does. There’s a lot of options here, and you need to decide what works for you and your students. Can you offer a three-day grace period once for credit? A coupon for a missing assignment? I’ve seen both of these.

A lot of instructors offer a grace period with a set percentage taken off the total score for the late work. For instance, up to three days late, a 10% reduction; 5 days, a 25% reduction; after 7 days, not accepted at all. If you’re willing to take the late work and figure out the reduced points (and most importantly, stick to it!) this can be effective.

My personal policy is quite simple:  you get a week to do an assignment. If it’s late, it’s a zero. I will only reopen assignments in cases of extreme emergency, and those, I evaluate on a case by case basis. Your computer crashed at 7pm Saturday night, four hours before the deadline? Not good enough. I take into account when the student lets me know, the severity of the crisis, and what their previous work has been like. I really think you have to have a loophole of some sort. A small one, but a loophole. Bad things happen. I’ve had students hospitalized, students lose their parents (and children), students left without power by hurricanes and students flooded out of their homes. All that? That’s an emergency. That’s why, whatever policy you choose for late work, it should be fair to both you and the student – but it should also hold them accountable for their actions. I firmly believe it’s our job to not only teach them a subject, but also responsibility – and to be honest, this may be the first time in that student’s life that they’ve ever been responsible for their own actions!

Okay, I lied. I want to do one more thing:  The Unprepared Student. What about students who come to class unprepared? Let’s say you’re teaching Literature, and on Thursday you’ll be discussing “The Rocking Horse Winner” in class. You expect the students to have read the story by then and be familiar with it. You’ve told them this in class. You’ve sent them an email about it. And then – half the class shows up without having read the story. What do you do?

There really should be repercussions. You can choose to punish those who aren’t prepared in some way, or to reward the ones who are – and really, you’ll probably do a mix of both. Did you require them to answer questions about the reading? Can you give them a pop quiz? My guess is that you can’t waste a class period for them to read the story – you’ve got things planned. Do you excuse them, with the caveat that they can’t have the points for that day’s in-class assignments? It’s up to you.

On that topic, a small sidebar – I love pop quizzes. If students aren’t paying attention, or if I think the material isn’t quite getting through to them, I’ll surprise them with one. I’ve even made them up on the fly – a quick five questions, typed into Power Point and answered in just a few minutes. They can be for points or for extra credit, whatever you want to do. I’ve done both. They do tend to keep students on their toes, and it’s a great way to check for understanding on complicated (or boring!) topics.

My policies have changed dramatically over the past 12 years. Yours will, too. In fact, I guarantee they’ll change from semester to semester as you find new things to include, things to tweak, and items that the college may start policing on its own. But hopefully, this will give you some things to think about as you get started.


Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

The Adjunct Files: The Syllabus: Your Contract With Your Students

dIt occurred to me, finally, that although the blog is called “Kansas Writer & Teacher,” I don’t focus very much (at all, really) on the teaching side of things.

But today’s world of education is changing fast. More and more, universities and colleges can’t afford to replace full-time faculty; they’re hiring adjunct instructors instead, or relying more and more on graduate teaching assistants to teach the 100 and 200 level courses so the professors can focus on the higher levels. They want adjuncts that have ‘real world experience’ in areas like business or technology as well – but there’s more to teaching than just knowing your particular subject. Online teaching seems great – no set hours, check in with the class in your pajamas or from the local coffee house (BTDT!) – but there’s also a very steep learning curve.

So I thought maybe I’d offer a few blog posts about some teaching basics. Just in case you’re a GTA without a lot of oversight, or a new adjunct trying to figure it all out – hopefully, you’ll find something useful. This week, I want to look at the most basic building block of all – the syllabus.*

I cannot emphasize this enough:  the syllabus is your contract with the students. Once they have it in their hands, they have no excuses. But, it’s more than that. The syllabus is your way to protect yourself in case of confusion, or worst case scenario, a grade appeal. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that it contains everything you need your students to know, including:

  • Your contact information (and, if you’re crazy enough give them your home or cell number, when NOT to call!)
  • The name and course number of the class
  • Textbook information (title, publisher, edition, volume, and if any other readings are required, list those as well)
  • If it’s an online course, you need to set parameters for online attendance – how many times to log in per week, when discussions, etc. need to be posted, when assignments open and close. Your college may have these set already.
  • Computer requirements, including what browser works best with your learning management system (you probably have Blackboard or Moodle). If the course requires students to have any online engagement (submitting assignments via drop boxes, or doing online quizzes), include that information as well.
  • The college’s policies. Usually, these will be given to you via email and often include the college’s policies on academic integrity/honesty, attendance, credit hour definitions, tutoring and academic support, counseling and support systems, etc.)
  • Your policies. This is where you get to set the ground rules in terms of late work, attendance, homework, extra credit, and cell phone use in class. (Note: if your college has rules in place regarding any of these issues, you’ll have to defer to those.)
  • Grading schemas. What assignments are required, and how many points will each be worth? No, you do not get to make it up as you go; this needs to be established before your first day of class! Not to say that you can’t add in assignments as needed – I’ve certainly done my share of video papers and pop quizzes – but the big ticket items like required papers, exams, chapter quizzes, etc. need to be here.
  • Likewise, it’s helpful to offer descriptions of each kind of assignment. You can go into detail on papers and such later, of course, but a brief overview will suffice here.
  • The semester schedule. Week by week, what are you doing? Which chapters, what readings? When are things due? If you’re teaching Literature, for example, this schedule will need to include when students need to have read X short story for class.
  • And perhaps the most important thing of all: “Syllabus is subject to change at the discretion of the instructor.” This way, if you do need to change the schedule (or anything else), you’re covered. (Just make sure the students get the updates!)

Remember:  this is your contract with the students. If your expectations of their behavior are there, they can’t file a grade appeal later and claim they didn’t know X or Y (“I didn’t know we couldn’t use a cell phone to look up stuff during exams!” “But it’s right here in the syllabus – no cell phones in class, AND ‘no notes, books, study aides, or cell phones during exams!’”)

So how do you structure a syllabus? Your college probably already has a template. But if not, here’s a basic outline of my own:

  • Course Name/Number
  • Office Hours/Contact Information
  • Textbook information
  • Computer information
  • Grades – schema, and a description of/expectations for assignments
  • My policies
  • The college’s policies
  • The semester schedule

I can’t tell you how many times my syllabi have ‘saved the day’ in grade appeals. Just last semester, a student claimed she didn’t know how a particular paper was supposed to be structured and written. However, not only was it discussed online, but that particular assignment was given 1 ½ pages in the syllabus. She lost. It doesn’t matter if students read it or not; they have the information. Students who are serious about the course will read it and ask questions if they don’t understand something.

If you do end up needing to use the ‘safe word’ – “Syllabus is subject to change at the discretion of the instructor.” – do it judiciously. Do it because it’s the only way. Do it because there’s no other choice. Especially if you’re teaching a class for the first time, you might not quite understand how long a particular chapter or unit will take; you may schedule a week for something and end up needing two weeks instead. Every class is different. Some will move faster because the students understand the material already; others will drag because you’ll have to go back to basics. You may have to cut a chapter or two from the schedule (I did the first time I taught Philosophy. And the second. And the third, come to think on it.) because you overestimated what you could do.

AND, most importantly, if you do need to change the syllabus, tell the students and post the revised version ASAP. It’s the only fair thing for them, and the safest thing for you.

Next week, I’ll offer some examples of sections of the syllabus I talked about this week. But hopefully, if you were a bit lost on the syllabus, this will give you a better idea of how to structure one – and why it’s so important to get it right.

* If your college has a specific format for syllabi (and many do), including specific information to include and structure, please follow that above all else!

Photo Challenge: Against All Odds

I live in Kansas. Rural Kansas. Backwater, backwoods, back of nowhere Kansas. You’ve got Fords and Chevys and that’s it. I mean, I drive a Mini Cooper and no one even knows what that is! Which is why this story is definitely Against All Odds:


I’m a Top Gear fan to the max. Lambos, Porsches, McLarens, Bugattis – the lot. One day a couple of years ago, I was driving home and – zoom. Right past me. No time to see more than an angled hood and bright orange, but . . . I KNEW. I called my best friend – “I SAW A LAMBORGHINI!” He was dubious, to say the least. I think he laughed, in fact.

A week later, on a run for milk . . . I see it. In my home town. Sitting. Unattended. Well. Sort of. Let’s say I was a bit surprised to find I was not the only admirer! So against all odds, in my rural neck of the woods, there’s a Lamborghini. And, against all odds, the camera on my cell phone was actually working (who thinks they’re going to encounter a Lamborghini sitting unattended on a milk run? Seriously?), so I was able to get some shots. Not great shots – but enough to show my friends. 🙂

(Sadly, the Lambo does not live here. It was only visiting. I miss it.)




The Flawed and the Vulnerable: why characters need to be both

Have you ever read a book and about halfway through – for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on – you started to feel bored?

There’s a lot of reasons for this:  lack of forward momentum, too much backstory, poor writing, not enough tension, nothing big for the characters to do, no important stakes. But there’s another reason that could underlie all these things:  boring characters. I don’t mean characters that do nothing, or have boring dialogue. I mean characters that are too perfect.

In writing, there’s an axiom:  give your characters flaws. Or more accurately, give them vulnerabilities. No one wants a hero that can’t be stopped. Where’s the fun (and tension) in that?

Imagine if we’d known Harry couldn’t be defeated by Voldemort. Would anyone have bothered to read the last book, let alone 8.3 million of us in the first 24 hours? Nope. The tension lies in the not knowing. If the reader has doubt your hero can really pull it off – whatever ‘it’ is – then they’re invested. They’re rooting for your hero. They want to see him succeed – but it’s up to you to make sure the reader is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, turning the pages long past the time they should have gone to bed.

I’ve been reminded of all of this in the past week through my new favorite TV show, Lucifer, as well as the latest installments of two of my favorite book series.

luciferIf you’re not familiar with Lucifer, it’s a fantastic show, and the main character, played by the devilishly handsome Tom Ellis, is Lucifer. In the flesh. Got bored with Hell and decided to go to Los Angeles and get a life. Though truthfully, it’s much more complicated than that, and the writers really should get Emmys for how well they’ve done with this material.

Lucifer is a tortured soul, mischievous and charming, the consummate bad boy – but beset by his own demons (both literally and figuratively). As an angel, he can’t be harmed, except by a heavenly weapon – but then he meets Detective Chloe Decker, and for some inexplicable reason, if she’s around . . . he’s mortal.

This instantly raises the stakes.

Add in the fact that he’s always with her on cases and in shootouts and the stakes are raised even higher. Let’s face it:  a hero who can fall off a ten-story building without a scratch is, well, a bit boring. Put him in proximity to Chloe, though, and suddenly there’s tension, because there’s real danger.

51gpkfudefl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Now. If you’re not familiar with Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series, you’re in for a treat. Charley is a private investigator, but she’s also the Grim Reaper. She’s shiny and bright and spirits from all over not only see her, but cross through her to the other side. She was born that way. She’s also smart, sarcastic, and funny as hell even when the situation doesn’t call for it. For instance, in this book she went to rescue a client, got caught, and now they’re both about to die:

“He must be returned to the earth,” she said. “He must learn from his mistakes and be allowed to grow again.”

“You’re going to replant him?” I asked.

“And you as well.”

“Can I come back as an azalea?”

I love Charley. But I admit, this book is slightly on the boring side for one reason:  Charley can’t die. We didn’t know that until a few books ago. The first few books in the series are fantastic because Charley can’t help but put herself in harm’s way; sometimes it’s to help someone, and sometimes it’s just because she’s That Kind of Person, but we’re always on the edge of our seats because we know something bad is coming. She can heal fast, but she’s not immune to pain, torture, or dying. But now we know she’s a god, and she can heal herself. There may be a few things that can kill her, but not many. So we no longer have the great tension we once did of ‘how will she get out of this?’, because we know she can.

But by this time, Jones has created an entire world of secondary characters that are almost as endearing and fun as Charley herself – and they’re almost all mortal. She’s fiercely loyal to her human family and friends, and will do anything to save them. So we do worry for them, and for her daughter Beep, who is in hiding. But as I was reading the ending of the most recent book tonight, I realized that I was a little disappointed – because I knew Charley could get out of it any time she wanted, really. The tension of that scene was gone.

bjfioefvegrhthtThe other book I’m reading is Feversong, the last book in the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I. Love. These. Books. In the world Moning has created, everything has limits and rules.

Basic premise:  MacKayla Lane can see the Fae. The walls between Fae and mankind have crashed, and Mac needs to put it back up. Not easy, but she has help from the other sidhe-seers, as well as Jericho Barrons and the rest of the Nine. We don’t know exactly what the Nine are, but we know they can’t die – well, there is one way, but let’s not go there. If they do die, they just magically go back to an original starting point, heal, and then come back to Dublin.

The rules:  Mac’s human. To defeat the Fae, she can use one of two weapons that can kill them. She can also snack on Fae in order to gain their capabilities, but if she does, she’s vulnerable to her own weapon. The Nine can regenerate, but it takes a while, and in the interim, they’re gone. Sure, they return eventually, but will it be in enough time? That’s the question. So there’s built-in tension with the rules, especially before Mac knows they come back. They are vulnerable. Plus, we really like them and don’t want bad things to happen to them, either. 🙂

This is why, when you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, or – well, anything – your hero must be flawed and vulnerable. Vulnerable is the key, though. Lucifer is flawed, but without Chloe, he’s not vulnerable on any level. She makes him that way, both physically and emotionally. Charley is flawed, but again, not very vulnerable. It’s the people in her life that are her Achilles’ heel. Mac – and the Nine – are both flawed and vulnerable in certain circumstances.

Flaws make us human. Flaws lead to downfalls. Flaws lead us to make irrational choices, to do things we’d normally not otherwise do. Flaws in your characters do the same thing – they become overconfident, overlook things, get hurt, cut people out of their lives, make mistakes. In a truly good, character-driven book, it’s the flaws that help drive the narrative.

Flaws  and vulnerabilities are what we identify with as readers. Who wants a perfect main character?

That’s just boring. 🙂

What’s in a gait? Horses and how they move.

As I peruse writing message boards – especially those seeking advice on certain questions – I often see some variation on this:

“How long can a horse gallop?” “How long can a horse go without rest?” “I’ve got my hero needing to ride his horse 20 miles in one hour. Is that possible?”

Yeah. NO.

Nothing pulls a reader out of a book faster than finding something that’s Not Right. If I read that a horse is galloping for an hour straight, I’ll chuck that book straight across the room! So I thought this week, I’d see if I could clarify a few things when it comes to horses and their gaits.

The basic gaits:  The way a horse moves is called a gait. Horses have four basic gaits:  walk, trot, canter, gallop. (We won’t get into the gaits that some breeds are specially bred for.)

  • The walk is a four-beat, flat – well, it’s a walk.
  • The trot is two-beat; the horse’s diagonal legs move together as a pair. Human equivalent is a jog. Here’s a link to a short video on YouTube: (There’s also the pace, but unless you’re writing about Standardbred racing, I wouldn’t worry about that.)
  • The canter is a three-beat gait; most horses find the canter easy to maintain, and it’s easier to ride than the trot.
  • The gallop is the fastest gait a horse has. It’s four-beat, and cannot be maintained for long (it depends on the fitness of the horse, the terrain, etc. but it’s like having a person sprint. They can’t maintain that for long.) Horse racing is the gallop. Here’s a video of the most famous match race in history – Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral, 1938. Notice how at the end, Seabiscuit’s legs are nothing but a blur? That’s why horse races only last 1-2 minutes. Horse just can’t maintain this pace for that long.

Here’s one of the most fantastic videos I’ve ever seen – this is Edward Gal and his most famous ride, Moorlands Totilas. This is Grand Prix Dressage. Unless the horses in  your book DO Grand Prix dressage, they won’t be doing any of the movements you see here – but this will give you an idea of the basic gaits and how they differ from one another. Totilas enters at the trot; the walk is at 3:29; the canter work begins at 4:00. Also – most horses who do dressage work, even at the Grand Prix level, don’t make it look this damn effortless. Totilas is in a  class by himself.

How long can a horse maintain its gaits? It depends on a lot of things – are they at liberty? How fit are they? How much does the rider weigh? How much other weight is the horse carrying?

When you see Westerns with the riders galloping their horses hell-bent across the desert – YEAH, RIGHT. Doesn’t happen. Not for long, anyway. The same thing with the stagecoaches and the four-horse teams cantering or galloping down the road – just NO. Maybe for very short bursts, but those stagecoaches were bloody heavy! Mostly, those horses walked and trotted. Mostly they walked. Have you ever seen True Grit? Remember the scene at the end where Rooster Cogburn gallops the pony to death in order to save whats-her-name, the whiny little girl? That’s the reality. That’s what happens when  you gallop a horse too fast, for too long.

It also depends on the breed or type of horse you have. If you’re writing a Western, your horses are probably going to be a mix of several breeds. The cavalry had Thoroughbreds, which often escaped and bred with local stock, producing a tough, smaller horse that was more suited to the environment. If you’re writing a medieval history and you have knights, they would have ridden draft or draft-crosses – horses big and heavy enough to carry a rider, his armor, and his incredibly heavy saddle. Here’s a chart that shows some of the major draft breeds – as you can see, there’s quite a bit of difference between them all!


ALSO – if you research this further, you’ll find that many times, Western riders have different terms for the gaits. They refer to a trot as a ‘jog’ and the canter as a ‘lope’. In point of fact, if you show Western, these are the proper terms. ‘Lope,’ however, is often a four-beat, quasi-gait, and not a true three-beat canter, and the ‘jog’ is often more of a shuffle. To illustrate, here’s a video from the 2008 Quarter Horse Congress: (I’m trying to be fair, but I absolutely despise the way Western Pleasure has gone downhill! When I showed 20+ years ago, proper gaits were still rewarded – ugh.)

I hope some of these videos help illustrate the basic horse gaits, and maybe clarify any questions you might have had. 🙂