Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Great Horse 4 – Beginning a book

Where does a story begin? At the beginning, you might say. But the true beginning of a story is harder to find than you might think, all stories being connected with other stories, right back to the beginning of time. Also, the true beginning of your story might be rather boring, in which case this would not be a very good place to start your book - you don’t want your readers to give up before they get to the interesting parts! So maybe a better question to ask would be: “What’s the first interesting bit?”

The most obvious beginning for any character is when they are born. If this book were purely about Bucephalas, I could have started it when he was a foal. Anna Sewell's Black Beauty begins with the horse remembering his early life as a foal in his mother’s paddock. It might have made quite a good story. How did the young colt get his name? Who looked after him? Was he difficult or easy to break in? Who rode him in his first battles? How did he become such a valuable war horse? How did he end up on the ship to Macedonia? What made him so wild that he bucked off the king’s best horsemaster and would let nobody else sit on his back until the young Alexander managed to tame him…? Now, THAT’S an interesting question, and one I knew I needed to answer before going much further. As you can see, the older a character gets, the more interesting the questions become.

As for Alexander, I could equally as well have begun with his birth. Certainly, there was enough excitement in the young prince’s life to make a good story. The omens surrounding his birth… his mother Olympias who famously slept with snakes… his fierce father King Philip, who lost an eye in battle and spent his nights getting drunk with his fellow Macedonians… Alexander's banishment after an argument with his father at a party… go to any history book and you’ll read many fascinating tales about the boy Alexander before he ever set eyes on Bucephalas.

But neither of these beginnings would have been right for my book, because it was not going to be just about Alexander. It was to be about Alexander and his horse, together.

Obvious, then! My book should begin when Alexander and Bucephalas first meet. Anything important that happened to the characters before then could be worked in as back story. Since this first meeting was also the famous story of how the young prince tamed the unrideable horse everyone else was afraid to mount, I knew it would make a fantastic opening scene. This event happened while Alexander was still a boy (actual age unknown, but somewhere between 9 and 13) and when Bucephalas was already an experienced battle stallion (middle aged in horse-years), so I decided it would be a nice touch to make Alexander and his horse the same age throughout the book - twelve when they first meet. A twelve year old boy is just setting out in life. A twelve year old horse has come to his full strength and is starting to get a bit long in the tooth (Muse note: Literally! Horses’ teeth grow with age, which is where we get this saying from). So I had my first scene. But because this scene was also one of the better-known historical accounts of Alexander, I knew I would need to stick fairly closely to the story if I wanted to give my book an authentic feel.

Here is the historical account:
The stallion is wild and fights his handlers. After he has thrown the king’s horsemaster, Philip impatiently tells the trader to take him away because he’s clearly unrideable, and price he’s asking (thirteen talents – a big price for a horse in those days) is ridiculous. But young Alexander has been carefully watching the horse, and noted how he seemed to be scared of his own shadow. Whenever Bucephalas saw it on the ground in front of him, he reared and bucked. So Alexander begs his father to let him try to ride the stallion, whereupon the king laughs at him – he’s just a boy. But Alexander bets his pocket money that he can stay on the horse. If he does, his father will have to buy the stallion for him. King Philip reluctantly agrees to let him try. Alexander soothes Bucephalas, turns the horse’s head into the sun so he cannot see his shadow, and vaults on to his back. It works, and the horse does not buck. They gallop towards the sun, by which time Bucephalas has learnt to trust Alexander, and when he turns him round to ride him back triumphantly to his father, King Philip says Alexander had better find another country to rule, because Macedonia will not be big enough for him.

Whether King Philip actually said this last bit or not, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a great story, and I could have dramatised it from the horse’s point of view almost word for word. Alexander acts perfectly in character, being brave and daring and also clever with his bet in forcing his father to buy the horse for him. But the shadow part bothered me. Bucephalas was an experienced war horse. He must have galloped fearlessly into battle many times to earn his high price of thirteen talents. He was also a stallion. Even if his ego wasn’t actually as big in real life as I have made it in my book, he’d hardly be the sort of horse to mince about nervously jumping at shadows. So afraid of his own shadow? No! I decided something must have happened to the stallion to make him react like that… and at this point the “odd eyes” (remember them from my last post?) nudged their way into my thoughts again.

I started asking questions. What if the horse could not see so well? What if his shadow, moving about on the ground in the corner of his eye, scared him so much because, with his hazy vision, it looked like a predator leaping at him? Losing the sight in one eye is more traumatic for a horse than for a human. They are prey animals, which means they have all round vision with little overlap between the eyes. They are not used to having a blind spot. It’s possible that Bucephalas, not being a young horse, could have been losing the sight in his weaker "odd" eye. But since he was a battle stallion, I decided to give him a more heroic injury in battle. This would also help explain his wildness. A traumatic eye injury, coupled with the death of his rider and subsequent unsympathetic handling, would be enough to turn a spirited stallion into an unrideable beast.

So, in my version of the story, Alexander (after watching the horse carefully as before) notices he has a blind side and handles Bucephalas appropriately, thus winning the horse's trust:
[Alexander] cuts across the riding ground towards me with a determined expression.
I flatten my ears and gallop straight at him. This usually frightens man-colts into jumping out of the way. But Alexander does not move. He stands in front of me, his stocky legs planted firmly in the sand and his arms spread as if to catch me. An untidy pale mane flops into his eyes, which are fixed on mine. His chin tilts up to one side.
“Steady, Bucephalas!” he calls in a shrill voice. “Time to stop running now.”
“Get out of the way, you fool!” yells one of Philonicus’ grooms, not realizing it is the king’s son he’s talking to. “That horse is a maniac! He’ll kill you!”
But Alexander does not move a muscle. He keeps his odd eyes on mine. One is brown; the other flecked with blue. I’ve never seen a human with eyes like that. Nor have I seen a man-colt so determined and with such bright energy inside him.
Something shifts in my head. I forget the grooms chasing me, dig in my toes, and come to a snorting stop, a whisker’s length away from the prince.
One of Philonicus’ grooms puffs up behind me. “Slowly,” he says. “Grab his lead rein. Then we’ll come and get him. He knows we won’t stand for no nonsense.”
Alexander grins. “Don’t worry, I know how to handle horses. I could ride before I could walk.” In one smooth movement, he steps forward and lifts my reins over my ears.
I can feel the blood pounding through his body, so I know I scared him. But he does not tremble like most man-colts when they hold my rein. While I am deciding whether to let him lead me back to the others without a fight, he squints up at the sun and turns me so that the light shines into my eyes and makes the ghosts disappear. Before I know what is happening, he has moved to my shoulder, gripped my withers and vaulted softly on to my back.

You'll see I took the injury a little further here, giving Bucephalas the ability to see ghosts from his damaged eye. I happen to believe horses – and other animals – see things humans don’t. When we used to exercise the racehorses, we’d trot them around a circuit of country lanes, taking the same route every day passing an old bench set on the verge opposite a farm drive. Usually they’d trot past with no problem at all, but you could guarantee that about once a week a horse that had gone past happily every other day would spook at this bench. Some days the whole string would refuse to go past. To human eyes, nothing looked different, and this would happen in all kinds of weather and in all seasons. There was a ghost sitting on that bench at those times, I know it. And a battle stallion would see plenty of ghosts.

At this point, Bucephalas added an important note in his guide to being a horse:
I can see ghosts from my damaged eye.
Interestingly, this is the main “fantasy” aspect to the book, but I didn’t include it just because I’m a fantasy writer and wanted some magic in the story. It arose out of the horse’s character together with the historical account of Alexander meeting Bucephalas for the first time.

Did this mix of fantasy with history work for you as a reader? Did you believe Bucephalas could see ghosts? I’d be fascinated to know!

Next: Research


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