Saturday, 28 August 2010

August Reading

Just in time for the August bank holiday, the Muse is back for our monthly reading post. Since we are on a bit of a horse theme at the moment, the first book I’d like to bring to your attention is a fabulous historical horse story that should appeal to those who liked “I am the Great Horse”.

I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade – Diane Lee Wilson
This book is set on Mongolian steppe at the height of Kubilai Khan’s great empire.
Oyuna, crippled as a baby when a horse crushes her foot, nevertheless has a great love for horses and finds freedom riding on their backs. But her lameness is seen as bad luck, and when her mother is killed by lightning Oyuna and her family are declared unclean by the shaman. She vows to bring good luck back to her clan by winning the long race at the annual Karakorum Festival. But first she must find herself a fast horse – and the old, lame white mare Bayan who “speaks” to her at the horse fair clearly will not do. But Oyuna can tell the mare is miserable so she persuades her father to buy the white horse, and they return to their clan. She secretly hopes that if she can heal Bayan’s leg, the mare will be able to race.

However, the spirits have other plans for Oyuna. One morning the Khan’s soldiers arrive to claim horses and boys for the Khan’s army. When they try to take Bayan, Oyuna disguises herself as a boy to stay with her horse. Thus begins an atmospheric and lyrical story that takes the lame girl, her faithful white mare, and her brave cat Bator across mountains and deserts to the great city of Kubilai Khan, who keeps a herd of 1,000 sacred white mares. There, Oyuna thinks, she is bound to find a horse fast enough to win the long race.

Oyuna’s journey is one of bravery, loss, and coming of age. The author is clearly a horse lover, and this is one of those books that gets under the skin so that, after finishing it, you just want to turn back to the beginning and read it all over again… at least Katherine did! First published 12 years ago, this debut novel was voted an American Libraries Association best book for young adults. It has just been reissued, so if you didn’t catch it last time then make sure you don’t miss it this time around!

Now for something completely different…
Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy
This book starts with a death. When Stephanie’s uncle (a famous writer, but that's not important) dies unexpectedly in mid-sentence, he leaves Stephanie his house complete with secret passages and underground caverns – much to the disgust of his other relatives, who get only a worthless (they think!) old brooch. But there is another person at the reading of the will: a strange man wrapped up in scarf and coat called Skulduggery Pleasant, who knows better.

It’s a great beginning, and with a name like that you can probably guess Skulduggery is not exactly normal. He turns out to be a skeleton detective on the trail of a magical weapon called the Sceptre, to which only Stephanie’s dead uncle holds the key. So begins a thrill-a-page chase through Dublin city, where Stephanie finds herself fighting creatures of magic that lurk in the cracks and shadows of our modern world.

If you’re in the mood for a fairly easy read with plenty of wise-cracking humour, this book is for you. Although it has a heroine, the fight and chase scenes should appeal to boys - in fact, for the Muse’s taste, there were rather too many of these towards the end of the book at the expense of emotional depth. But Skulduggery is a brilliant and unique creation and deserves further stories to fully explore his character… so the good news is there are already another four available! Are you a Skulduggery fan? Let the Muse know.

Last (but by no means least) is a more recent novel involving creatures of ancient darkness, which makes an interesting contrast to Derek Landy’s because this one has plenty of emotional depth as well as excitement:

Devil's Kiss – Sarwat Chadda
It’s a brave book that begins with the teenage heroine setting out to kill a six-year-old child – except, of course, the little boy is actually a demon, one of many that haunt 21st century London in this debut novel shortlisted for the 2010 Branford Boase Award.

Billi SanGreal is the daughter of the Grand Master of the modern day Knights Templar, now a small order based in London, who continue their centuries-old struggle against the creatures of darkness. After one of them killed her Muslim mother, Billi has been raised to fight vampires, werewolves and the unholy wherever they may lurk. She is aided in her quest by her childhood friend Kay (an albino psychic) and her unforgiving father Arthur. But she is also a fifteen year old girl with normal needs. When the handsome Mike helps her see off a gang of thugs on the underground one night returning late from a mission, she falls for his charm, unaware that he is the Angel of Death come to bring the tenth plague on the firstborn of London.

This dark thriller has echoes of Dan Brown and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is not for the faint hearted. With its links to history and multicultural society, as well as cursed mirrors and enchanted swords, the fantasy has a definite edge of reality – in fact, some of Sarwat Chadda’s gorier scenes would give adult horror authors a run for their money! But Billi SanGreal is a great character, thoroughly believable and human underneath her vampire slayer persona, which balances the violence. If you enjoy this one you’ll be delighted to know there is a sequel “Dark Goddess” and a possible third book on the way. More details on the author’s blog.

The Great Horse series continues next post.

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

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Poetic Interlude - by Safiyah Afghan

Before the Great Horse totally takes over this blog, the Muse is going to nudge him aside with his glittery horn to make space for this poem sent in by a young writer inspired by the book…

© Safiyah Afghan

My stallion would be black.
Jet Black.
A stallion of war.
He would run like the wind.
And fly.
He could do anything.
That’s what my stallion would be.

Naturally, both Bucephalas and the Muse approve of this poem! It might be short, but we hope you’ll agree it says a lot in a small space (unlike Katherine’s book, which says a lot in a small forest!) What sort of writing suits you? Do you prefer writing novels or poems?

Young writers are always welcome to share their work on this blog – click HERE for details

The Great Horse series continues next post.

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:

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.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Great Horse 2 - Choosing a viewpoint.

In my last post, you’ll see I knew early on this story would be told by Alexander’s horse, to the extent that I was able to scribble it down as part of my original idea. This is actually quite unusual for me. Quite often the idea for a story will come without any characters, in which case I have to invent a few before I can decide which of them I’ll use as a viewpoint. Or the idea might come with a strong character, but until I start developing the story I can’t be absolutely sure that character will make the best viewpoint.

Muse reminder: For anyone confused by viewpoints, this is simply the character whose eyes you see through when you are reading the story. Quite often a viewpoint character is written in the third person (“he” or “she”), but they can also be written in the first person (“I”) like Bucephalas in this book, or even the second person (“you”).
Tara K Harper has written a useful guide to viewpoints HERE

It might sound obvious, but the viewpoint character needs to be present in all the important parts of the story, or have some clever way of finding out about these - for example, another character could tell them, or they could see it on TV (assuming they have a TV, which of course Alexander the Great didn’t… can you imagine him as an armchair conqueror?). The viewpoint character doesn’t have to be the main character in the story, but it often makes sense to combine the two.

In this case, my main character was Alexander the Great. So the most obvious viewpoint to use for the book would have been Alexander himself. Why didn’t I do this? Well, first of all I knew I had to write a book suitable for a young audience, because my contract was with Chicken House, who do not publish adult fiction. If I’d used Alexander, I’d need to leave out some parts of his story when he starte to grow older and I reached the dodgy question of his sexuality. The death count in his battles wasn’t a problem – publishers of teenage fiction don’t seem to mind how many characters you kill off, or how bloodily you do it – but if I was going to do Alexander justice, I wanted him to be a fully rounded character… and there was no escaping the fact most historians considered him to have had a same-sex relationship with his best friend, Hephaestion. Added to this, I was a bit wary of getting too far into Alexander’s head. Could I, a girl born in the twentieth century who has never fought in a battle or had much desire to conquer the world, really understand Alexander the Great’s innermost thoughts? I know authors are supposed to use their imagination, but with such a well-known historical character, I'll admit I chickened out.

A solution might have been to tell just the first part of the story, while Alexander was still a boy. There is plenty of exciting material even in the first few years of his life. But could I honestly end the amazing story of Alexander the Great halfway through and abandon him and his brave horse on some dusty battlefield in Asia? I decided I couldn’t. What I really needed was a viewpoint that would enable me to tell the whole story from beginning to end, particularly since some of the best-known tales surrounding Bucephalas happened later in his career. So not Alexander.

Another possible human viewpoint who would have been with Alexander and his horse most of the time was Bucephalas’ groom. This seemed a bit more promising. The history books claim Bucephalas would only allow one special groom to ride him bareback, but not much else is known about this person. Being aware that horse stories are mostly read by girls, I decided at this stage it would be a good idea to make my groom into a girl, who could disguise herself as a boy to look after Alexander’s horse. I called her Charmeia (Charm for short), stealing the name from a tiny scene near the end of Alexander’s life where he hugged a common slave boy called Charmides much to the amazement of his generals and friends. No problem getting into her head – having been a groom myself, I understood grooms all right! At least I’ve never groomed a warhorse, but imagine sending a warhorse into battle is similar to sending a racehorse into a race like the Grand National. You bite your nails, watching helplessly, until they return safe and sound (because, sadly, sometimes they don’t). But this girl would grow up, too, as the book progressed. Alexander’s career spanned twenty years from the time he first sat on Bucephalas as a young prince to the time he died in Babylon, so not the groom.

I briefly considered changing viewpoints half way through, starting with my girl groom while she was still young, and then – when she and Alexander grew up – switching to a son or daughter of one of the characters so I’d have another young viewpoint to finish the story. This had possibilities… the Persian king’s son Prince Ochus, perhaps, or maybe a fictional child of Charmeia’s. But switching to a brand new viewpoint character so late in a book is usually a bad idea. OK if you know the character well from the beginning, maybe, but in this case they’d not even be born at the start of the story. So no to multiple viewpoints. To tell the story of Alexander all the way through, I really needed a character who could be with him the whole time, but who would not “grow up” during those twenty years he was busy conquering the world. The only really obvious answer was his horse, Bucephalas, who carried him into all his major battles.

Like most pony mad girls, I’d read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, so I knew a horse’s viewpoint could be done well, and that readers of all ages would accept it. Also at the age of ten, possibly inspired by Black Beauty, I’d written my own little book from the point of view of a pony called Flax, so I knew I’d enjoy doing it. Using Bucephalas as a viewpoint character would allow the reader a glimpse into Alexander’s head when he spoke privately to his horse, while remaining blissfully unaware of anything that went on inside the king’s pavilion. On the battlefield, I decided, even Hephaestion would be discreet. A horse’s viewpoint would also cut out most of the tangled Alexandrian politics, which would have made the book three times as long, believe me!

So I had my viewpoint character. And with him being a black stallion, I saw right away there would be comparisons with Black Beauty so I was determined to give him his very own character from the start. Fortunately, all the history books agree Bucephalas was no mild-mannered beauty. He had a big head, he was getting on a bit in years when Alexander’s father bought him for his son, and he had been in battles before so would have certainly had the battle scars to show for it. Then there was the famous story of the horse being unridable when he first came to Macedonia, so I gave him a temper to match. His “voice” arose from my image of a grumpy old warhorse, impatient with the youngsters but fiercely protective of his friends, both human and horse.

I usually pin up pictures of my main characters above my computer while I am writing about them, so at this stage I drew a sketch of Bucephalas to remind me what he’d act like when threatened…

And with such a big headed character, I thought I’d let him kick his main literary rival out of the way before he got started. Here Bucephalas introduces himself…

My name is Bucephalas, and you should know right away that I’m no Black Beauty.
My coat is the colour of oil-from-the-ground, but that’s where the resemblance stops. I have a big head, a white splodge between my eyes, battle scars, and a brand in the shape of two horns burnt into my backside. I am, however, very strong and worth my (considerable) weight in gold as a warhorse – at least I used to be, until I did the most shameful thing a horse can possibly do and killed my own rider...

I was now ready to begin writing the book. But since I would be using a horse as my viewpoint instead of a human, and a stallion at that, I felt I needed to do a bit of research first to fix his voice in my head so that I would not be floundering around trying to bring him to life when I began the story.

Next: Getting into the horse’s head.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Great Horse 1 – “Where do you get your ideas from?”

This is a question every author gets asked eventually. But it’s never an easy one to answer. We don’t just sit down one day in front of a blank page or computer screen, pluck an idea out of the air and start writing… at least it never works like that for me!

I don’t lack ideas for stories. They come to me all the time, at the rate of three or four a day if my mind is not too busy working on something else. They spring out of everything. Books I’m reading, newspaper articles, magazines, radio and TV, billboards in town, overheard conversations, peculiar things I see while out shopping or travelling, occasionally a dream. I write them all down – just a sentence or two – in a hardback notebook. It’s a bit messy. That’s a picture of it above. (The pieces of newspaper sticking out the sides are newspaper clippings that caught my eye but I haven’t got around to scribbling in the book yet.)

At this stage my ideas are just seeds awaiting the right conditions to grow into stories, and I don’t think I’m alone in having such a lot of them. All the authors I know seem to have plenty of ideas of their own, which is why we always smile when someone tries to give us one of theirs. We’re not too bothered, either, that somebody might steal them. After all, the seedling ideas are out there lying around for everyone to pick up should they so wish. I happen to believe that if you gave the same idea to 100 different writers and sent them away to work in isolation, you’d get 100 different books. The real problem is not finding the ideas believe me! It’s the growing of them into stories that’s the hard part.

One of these ideas, scribbled down in the middle of writing my Seven Fabulous Wonders series, says simply: “Bucephalus – the story of Alexander the Great, as told through the eyes of his horse.” Underneath it I added (at a slightly later stage): “Black Beauty meets Gladiator”, because I’d just seen the film Gladiator and enjoyed the swords and sandals, battles and gore, though of course that one was Set in Roman times a few hundred years after Alexander the Great… history was never my strong point at school! As you can see, it is sandwiched between some other unrelated ideas I had at the time. (The green line I drew across much later, after the book had been written, to remind me I’d used it.)

Most of the ideas in my notebook will never be developed further – there just isn’t enough time in a human lifespan to nurture them all. And not all of them will grow into books. Some would make better short stories. Others might combine to produce something bigger. A rare few demand to be entire series. So the real question for me is not “Where do your ideas come from?” but rather “Why did you choose to write that one next?”

It’s an interesting question for a professional author, because choosing which book to write next is not as simple as choosing the one you’d really love to write. Quite often it comes down to a contract – money, in other words, which is firmly tied to what the market or your publisher wants at the time. But with this particular book I was lucky. I had the dream contract from my publisher Chicken House. It said simply “new novel”. Out of the 13 books I’ve published so far, only two have given me such complete freedom from market forces – my first novel Song Quest (which I wrote while I had another income to live off), and this one with its advance already in the bank. So it’s a good example of the muse having a rare creative freedom.

So why choose Alexander? As explained, I was doing a fair amount of research into the ancient world for my Seven Wonders series, and he kept springing up, razing whole cities and demanding I give him a bit more attention, so that’s where the seed came from. And the horse? As some of you will already know, horses are in my blood. As a child, I helped out at the local riding stables in exchange for free rides. Later, I worked as a racehorse groom, and at the time of scribbling down my idea about Alexander I was exercising up to three spirited racehorses each morning. It was a short leap of the imagination to see one of them as the young king's brave horse Bucephalas and the others in the string as those of his friends - kicking and squealing matches included!

As for why that one next, the twin towers had recently come down, prompting America to invade Iraq and later begin the un-winnable war in Afghanistan. This almost exactly mirrored what Alexander did when he invaded Persia and went on to wage his own un-winnable war in Afghanistan (Muse: the only country that defeated Alexander the Great… did you humans learn nothing?) I’m not a political sort of author – usually I prefer to hide such things in a safe fantasy setting – but the war was in the news, it was in the ether, prompting many books and novels from many different writers. So it was the right time for a book about Alexander. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but I do think the American invasion of Iraq was the trigger that made this one particular idea whisper in my ear: write me NOW.

So I gave in. I took a break from my Seven Wonders series and headed off down the library to find my first book about Alexander the Great. (Today I’d probably Google him, but this was 2003 before the heady days of the world wide web... or at least before it had reached the Welsh border country, where I lived at the time.) As soon as I read the famous story of how the 12-year-old Prince Alexander tamed the unrideable black stallion with a head like an ox, and discovered that the only other person who could ride the wild horse was a lowly groom, I was hooked…

Next: choosing a viewpoint.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

I am the Great Horse - a secret history in (quite a few) blog posts!

Before any book gets published, even before the first word is written, a lot of unseen muse-work goes on behind the scenes. This highly secretive part of an author’s life might explain the recent popularity of literature festivals… authors talking about the inspiration behind their books can be just as entertaining as the books themselves, though this depends on the author of course.

Since Katherine didn’t get a chance to do many talks about “I am the Great Horse” and she is more entertaining on the page than on the stage, the Muse is going to prod her into doing a series of posts on this blog so she can give you an idea of how this book came to be written. The process is similar for all books, though the details may be different, so even if you hate horses and have never heard of Alexander the Great we hope you’ll find this series interesting.

Over the next few months, you’ll be able to follow the book’s progress from the initial inspiration, through the research and writing process, editing and publication, up to its appearance on the shelves of your local bookshop… in the Great Horse's case, a journey of three years. You’ll get a glimpse of the equine artwork that never found its way into the book, the 50,000 words that got edited out, the arguments behind the title, and the scary thoughts that go through an author's head in full creative flow.

We also hope to bring you interviews and guest posts from some of the many other people involved in its publication, such as the dedicated editors and translators who work (a bit like muses) behind the scenes. And since this novel was published three years ago but does not yet have a paperback edition in the US, we’ll continue to chart its progress in the hope of doing a book giveaway for followers of this blog when it eventually comes out. Muse hint: we don’t know yet quite when - or if - this will happen, so follow now if you want one!

At this point, a festival usually puts up a big screen with the book cover on it and someone introduces the author, so let’s start with the blog equivalent of that…

“I am the Great Horse” by Katherine Roberts
The story of Alexander the Great told by his warhorse Bucephalas.
Published by Scholastic US (2006 hardcover), Chicken House UK (2007 paperback), 500 pages, for readers 10 - adult.
See for more details.

In the first post of this series, we’ll go back to the very beginning and ask Katherine where she got the idea for the book...


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