Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Great Horse 3: Getting into the horse’s (rather big) head.

Often at the start of a book, my main character is a bit sketchy. I try not to worry too much about this when I’m using a third person viewpoint, as I know some of the quirkier character traits will only occur to me as the story takes shape and it’ll be fairly easy to go back and write them in later. But here I felt I needed to do a bit of fleshing out before I started, because the temptation for a 40-something ex-grammar school girl writing in the “I” viewpoint is that it will come out sounding like a 40-something ex-grammar school girl. Not only did I want my viewpoint character to sound male and strong – Bucephalas being both a stallion and a war horse – but I also wanted to make him sound like a horse rather than a human.

It’s true some animal stories (especially for a younger readership) deliberately humanise their characters, and this can work brilliantly. But with the epic story of Alexander this was not the effect I wanted. On the other hand, writing a totally authentic horse voice would have pretty soon left the reader floundering. So I decided Bucephalas could be fairly human in his thought processes, but not in his actions. Then it would be rather like translating his story from “horse” language into “human”.

Cue first bit of research… yes it had to rear its ugly head eventually! I’ll be posting in more detail about research later on and how I went about it for this book without bogging myself down in historical details. At this stage, I was simply aiming to get the horse viewpoint as authentic as possible, which meant researching general horse behaviour as well as horsemanship in Alexander’s time. I already had a bit of an advantage here, of course. As you might realize if you’ve read my previous posts, I’ve been around plenty of horses and ponies in my time, so I know their ways from experience. But I needed to brush up a little on my facts, especially the historical ones… For example, did you know Alexander and his men fought all their battles without stirrups, because they hadn’t been invented back then? Nor did they have what we would recognize as saddles, riding on a variety of “cloths” strapped to the horse’s back. Fortunately, however, horses themselves have not changed very much over twenty-three centuries, and (consequently) neither has horsemanship. Horse trainers today still use many of the methods used by the ancient Greeks.

Some books I used:
The Man Who Listens to Horses - Monty Roberts
A delightful book by the best known real-life “horse-whisperer”.
The Nature Of Horses: Their Evolution, Intelligence and Behaviour - Stephen Budiansky
Everything you need to know about horse behaviour.
The Art of Horsemanship - Xenophon
An ancient text written in Alexander’s era and translated from the Greek by M H Morgan.

Xenophon’s book has details of ancient harness and also contains this useful description of Bucephalas:
He was of the best Thessalian breed, black with a white star, and very large… some people reckon among the finest horses those with eyes that are not a match; such, they say, was Bucephalas.
“Odd” eyes suggests he had what we would call a China or wall eye – where the iris is milky, which I noted down with interest thinking I wouldn’t dwell on this detail, but in true serendipitous fashion it became more important than I realized… see my next post!

I then let Bucephalas write his own little book, which I had no intention of pitching for publication as you can see from the scribbly state of it, but in which he’d tell me what it was like to be a stallion in Alexander’s time. In true Great Horse character, it’s called “Notes from the Horse’s Mouth” or “Move Over Black Beauty, Here I Come!”


This little horse-authored book was organized into several pages, and at this stage it had a fair bit of blank space. I would add to it as I researched more of Alexander’s story and the horse’s character became more fleshed out. Some of Bucephalas’ quirkier character traits, such as his taste for honey-cakes, only came later on as the story unfolded. But to give you an idea of the sort of things he wrote down for me at this stage, here are a few extracts:

I am the boss, and don’t you forget it.
I have good sound legs and high hooves (Muse note: this would not be so good for shod horses, but the ancient Greeks had not invented horseshoes.).
I can gallop at a speed of 35mph.
I like mares the same colour as my mother (grey).
I have an excellent memory.
I have been taught to curvet – a prancing leap – for battle.
I have been trained to kneel down for my rider to mount (Muse: no stirrups, remember!).
A human clicking their tongue excites me, chirruping calms me down.
Spiked bits have been used to control me – does NOT work!
I remember individual horses and humans by smell.
I drop my dung on top of other horses’ piles to show I’m the boss.
I like mutual grooming (scratching other horse’s withers with teeth)
I should be able to see almost 360 degrees, but I have a blind side… more about this in my next post.
I have excellent night vision.
I can see red and blue, but can’t tell green from grey.
I use a lot of body language – flat ears, lashing tail, raised hoof.
I wear a silly little tasselled cloth for parades, and a much more sensible padded cloth in battle.

I added a couple of ancient quotes to get me in the mood:
“The horse is a warrior and a foreigner.” – soothsayer to King Croesus of Lydia
“He sayeth among the trumpets HA HA!” – Book of Job (the Bible).

From this last quote, I stole Bucephalas’ favourite expression: “Ha!” I then created a small HORSE-HUMAN dictionary, giving Bucephalas certain phrases he would use throughout the story:

HORSE - HUMAN
Dominating - Liberating(according to Alexander!)
Dominating (other horse’s) dung - Showing them you're boss
Girl-filly - Girl
Herd - Gang / army / cavalry troop
Make a foal - Strictly censored!
Man-colt - Boy
Mutual grooming - You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours
Squeal - Threat / yell
Squealing match - Argument / yelling match

This got me sufficiently into the horse’s head for him to sound like a horse. But, of course, not all horses are the same. Mares act very differently from stallions, and geldings act quite differently from stallions and mares. The ancient Greeks did not geld their horses, which meant quite a few other stallions would be travelling with the army, and I was aware Bucephalas needed to be bigger and bolder than all of them. So I made him the most dominant stallion in the herd to reflect the fact his rider Alexander was the most dominant warrior. All the way through the story, I made him do the exact opposite of what I would do if I were a horse. For example, if confronted with an elephant I would turn tail and flee, like most of the other horses in this book. Bucephalas would make himself huge and tackle the elephant head-on. If squealed at by another horse, I’d clap my lips in submission. Bucephalas would squeal back and most probably bite and kick too, until the other horse submitted. This made writing his viewpoint great fun, because for the duration of this book I could have a REALLY BIG EGO without feeling guilty about it. (If you’re ever tempted to think authors are anything like their characters, think again!)

At this stage, armed with my horse-human dictionary, I decided I'd got far enough into Bucephalas' (rather big) head and felt able to start writing chapter one.

Next: Deciding where to begin the book.

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