Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Great Horse 9 – Editing, the author’s view

The Muse apologises to those readers looking forward to our guest editor’s post. Editors are VERY busy people, and as in all freelance lives schedules sometimes have to be changed, so Helen's post will now appear next week. In the meantime, I’ve prodded Katherine with my glittery horn, and she is going to tell you about how it feels to be edited first…

The editing process is where your book stops being your book and starts to become your publisher’s book, and I believe learning to work effectively with an editor is the single most important thing that separates a hobby writer from a professional writer. It’s possible (if you’re very lucky and very talented) to get paid for work that has not been edited, but I don't think it's possible to have a long-term professional career without an editor.

My first ever experience of being edited was with a magazine called Visionary Tongue run by a team of professional writers, when fantasy author Storm Constantine worked on a short vampire story of mine called “Rubies” (which you can read on my website). Although at first the edits seemed like extra work (I’d redrafted my story about six times already… what could possibly be wrong with it?!), I really enjoyed working with such a celebrated author and saw an immediate improvement in my work. Even though this particular magazine did not pay contributors, the editing process gave a level of professionalism to the publication, and was valuable experience for me as a new writer.

A few years later, when I’d written my debut novel Song Quest, I had the pleasure of working with Barry Cunningham (editor of the first Harry Potter book!) and Helen Wire, who together made a great team. There was quite a bit of editing to do, but all the hard work paid off when the book won the Branford Boase Award for a first novel for children, which honours both author and editor, thus recognizing the importance of the editing process in bringing a first novel to the shelves.

When I came to write “I am the Great Horse” to some extent I made the author’s classic mistake of falling too much in love with my own book. I had such passion for Bucephalas and Alexander’s story, all I wanted to do was pour these passions into the page. I forgot younger readers might struggle with such a huge book - 200,000 words before editing! So the first thing my editors asked me to do was cut out 50,000 words.

To begin with this seemed a big ask – some entire books aren’t even that long! – but in the end, losing that many words was surprisingly easy. I took out one plot line (the Persian Prince’s story), then condensed the rest by taking out some of my more long winded scenes (such as five pages detailing a charge Alexander made up a ridge to tackle an enemy at the top) and condensing them down to just a few lines. With my first person/horse narrator, this was probably easier to do than with a book written in the third person - do too much of this, and your story can feel as if it is being “told” rather than “seen”, which then starts to read dangerously like a history text book. So where the book started to feel a bit too boring with this approach, I removed the whole scene and skipped to the next. Again, the style of the story helped me with this. If I hadn’t been using a linear plot, cutting whole scenes would have been much trickier (though not impossible).

At the time, every cut I made felt like being slashed by Alexander’s sword, but I can see now I could have taken out quite a bit more without destroying the story. If there’s something I’ve learnt from being edited, it’s that you can always cut. But there does come a point when a story ceases to become worth everyone’s time and expense to publish as a book. The Twitter version: “My name is Bucephalas. I am the untameable black stallion who carried Alexander the Great and conquered the world - HA!” Is fine, but is it entertaining? I’ll leave that up to you!

I actually believe the editing process is just as important in the second, and the third, and the hundred and third book, though it does not always seem to be carried out in such depth later in authors’ careers, particularly if that author becomes a best-seller. Perhaps editors are afraid to destroy a best-selling formula? Or perhaps they are just too busy to edit all the books they publish to the same extent? I only know that for all of my five books so far with Chicken House, my experience has been similar: Barry reads and suggests the larger changes (such as “I don’t understand why they’re doing this” or in the case of I am the Great Horse “FAR too long - where can we cut??!”) Then Helen takes the new version and gets down to more detail, providing me with a sheaf of suggested changes and queries and notes made at chapter level. She also works on the words themselves to correct grammar, take out commas, and makes sure the speech marks pair up, etc. This is called copy editing, and next week you’ll be able to read Helen’s guest post for a fascinating insight into how she approaches her work.

I like being edited more as time goes on, and I begin to see all the flaws in my writing that I was blissfully unaware of a few years ago when I started. Editing makes your book the best it can be for your readers, and the best it can be for the market – which are hopefully the same thing! If you imagine an author sitting in a room creating something beautiful, editing cleans the window so the story can be enjoyed in its full glory by those outside looking in. So if you're new to the process, don’t be scared. Being edited is not as painful as it sounds, and can be enjoyable as well as instructive. The best part is knowing that your book or story will be read after all the hard work – something that is by no means guaranteed when you are writing the book. Without its editors, “I am the Great Horse” would still be a mammoth 200,000-word manuscript with an unpronounceable title lurking in electronic form on my computer.

So I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my editors Barry Cunningham and Imogen Cooper at Chicken House for bringing this book into the world, my American editors over at Scholastic US for the beautiful silver hardcover version, and of course our fabulous guest editor Helen Wire, who should (we promise!) be here next week…

Next: Editing – the editor’s view.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

September Reading - Scottish legends

The Muse has spent this month with his horn deep in some fabulous stories set in the 16th century Scottish faery lands. First is a unique illustrated story / CD guaranteed to delight all ages, based on the legend of the Kelpie water horses that live in the mysterious depths of the lochs…

Mister Stourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift Stuart Paterson with music by Savourna Stevenson
This delightful package consists of a CD with story, music and songs accompanied by an illustrated booklet, which create a lovely atmosphere when heard and read together.
The first part of the CD tells the story of brave young Conran, who volunteers to do battle with an evil monster called Mister Stourworm, that is terrorising Scotland and devouring whole towns. It seems a suicidal mission. But as he lies sleeping by the loch, a fairy brings him a magic bridle that will help him tame the wild water-horse that lives in the loch. Riding the kelpie, she says, he’ll have a chance against the worm. After a terrifying ride to the bottom of the loch, Conran manages to bridle the water-horse. But when he sees how sad the kelpie is in captivity, he lets the horse go again. Only when the horse returns of its own free will can they win the battle against Mister Stourworm.
With atmospheric music performed by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, the CD also contains three beautiful songs with lyrics by Les Barker and music by Savourna, which continue the mythological theme. As its title suggests, this little package would make a perfect gift for those who love enchantment and magic. This copy was generously gifted to Katherine by the owner of the wonderful Atkinson Pryce Bookshop in Biggar (where you should be able to find a copy if you live in Scotland!)

Naturally, the Muse heartily approves of kelpie water-horses, which also make an appearance in the following brand new novel for older readers…

Firebrand – Gillian Philip.
If you’ve grown out of sparkly pink fairies but still enjoy the fantasy genre and are wondering where to go next, then this book is for you! Seth, the narrator, is the half wild son of a Sithe (fairy) lord, banished from the fairy queen’s caverns to live with his father and older brother Conal in their version of the Scottish fairyland. Except the inhabitants of Gillian Philip's fairyland fight, love and brawl more fiercely than mortals, and their feuds go deeper because they live so long.
The Sithe have magic of a sort – healing skills and telepathy, as well as the ability to tame the wild water-horses of the lochs. But when Seth and his brother Conal are banished to the superstitious 16th century mortal world, this magic does them more harm than good. Conal is unable to resist using his magic to help people, and is soon accused of witchcraft and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Only Seth can save him from the terrible agony of death by fire… with a crossbow bolt to the heart.
This harrowing first scene will grab you by the throat, and sets the tone for the rest of the book. Make no mistake, in these pages you’ll find real torture, real pain and real death. This powerful fantasy is published on a teen list, but it would sit equally well on an adult genre list. For this reason, the Muse recommends reading the first few pages beore you commit… if you are looking for a lighter read, you might enjoy it a bit more if you wait a few years. (But if you do like the sound of this book, then the Muse advises buying it NOW and keeping it on your shelf to avoid disappointment later). For readers who loved this one, there is a sequel Bloodstone due out next year, and maybe more to come!

To round off this month’s Scottish faery theme with a flourish, we have two classic titles:

The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss – Susan Price.
Although these books were originally published on a teen list, Susan Price’s unique blend of history and science fiction contains a dose of humour that makes this series an enjoyable read for all ages.

The Time Tube is a brilliant 21st century invention that links the modern world to the troubled 16th century borderlands. FUP, the company who built the tube, are hoping for a return for their investment from mining gold and coal from the past, as well as from tourism. But they haven’t reckoned on the Sterkarms, a family of Border reivers permanently at feud with their neighbours the Grannams.
The Sterkarms think the "21st-siders" are elves from fairyland, and are happy enough to make a peace deal with them in return for the wee magic pills (aspirin) to take away their pains. But nobody has told FUP they should never shake hands with a Sterkarm, who are infamous for their treachery. The Sterkarms are all born left handed, so can shake hands with their right while slipping a blade between the ribs with their weapon hand... the intriguing “Sterkarm Handshake” of the title. Only Andrea, sent to live in the Sterkarm tower for research purposes, really understands these people. To her they are loveable rogues, especially the Sterkarms’ handsome son Per.
When Per is badly wounded on a raid, Andrea takes him through the Tube to a 21st century hospital to save his life. But FUP, furious with the Sterkarms for breaking their promises, have other plans for Per as a hostage for his family’s good behaviour. Needless to say, the Sterkarms are not going to stand for this, and their next reive is against the elves...

By the end of the first book, the Time Tube has been closed down. But it is reopened again in the Sterkarm Kiss into a slightly different dimension, where the elves have learnt their lesson and seek to control the border by arranging a marriage between the Sterkarms and the Grannams. Per is the groom, and to Andrea’s horror takes a Grannam bride. With the elves enforcing peace using 21st century weaponry, all looks good until the wedding breaks up with the death of the Sterkarm and Grannam lords, beginning another feud that Andrea must sort out.
Per is not quite such a loveable character in the Kiss (with his father murdered), as Per in the Handshake (with his father alive), which adds an interesting dimension to these books. Are there copies of ourselves out there in other dimensions, subtly different because of different events that happen in our lives?

The Kiss ends on a cliffhanger, which means the Muse and Katherine (and probably a lot of other people as well!) are chomping at the bit to get their teeth and glittery horns into the third book of the trilogy... come on Scholastic, it's been a VERY long wait! More details on Susan Price’s website.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Great Horse 8 – Endings

Endings are like beginnings – not as easy as you might think, because no creation ever really ends. If you’ve created a world that seems real, and populated it with characters your readers cares about, then your world and those characters will live on beyond the end of the book in the reader’s imagination, and may even (as the number of unplanned sequels on the shelves prove) give rise to whole new books. So how do you decide where to end a book?

In the same way you might be tempted to start a book with the birth of your main character, the most obvious ending is when your main character dies – but, of course, this rarely makes a satisfying ending! Who wants to spend time reading about a character they care about and will hopefully fall in love with, only to discover that character dies on the last page? (Muse: not me!) Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but in general the best endings occur well before this happens.

How much before? Well, I think this depends on the genre you are writing. For example, many romances end with the main characters falling in love and getting married - or at least kissing each other passionately - on the final page. This is an excellent ending for a romance, because in real life marriage is where things start to get more complicated! In genre fantasy the ending usually comes when the final epic battle of Light against Dark is won. In a murder story things get turned around - the death usually comes first, and the ending of the book is actually at the beginning, when the mystery of the murder has been solved. But I was writing a historical novel about a well-known historical character and wanted to complete the story in one book. So, although I didn’t start my book with Alexander’s birth, in this case I did decide to end it with his death.

What?! I hear you say. But you’ve just said this doesn’t make the best ending! Ah, but if you’ve followed my previous posts you’ll see that Alexander is not the true hero of this book. Heroic, certainly, but not a character I expected my readers to fall in love with and care about enough to cast the book down in disgust if I killed him off. Anyway, a glance at any history book will tell you Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323BC, so I’m not giving too much away by telling you the book ends with his death.
At this point my story ended neatly too, because Alexander left no heir to his great empire. When his generals asked him on his deathbed to name the person his empire should go to, he mumbled something historians usually translate as “to the strongest”. As you might imagine, this set off a major power struggle between his generals, who ended up dividing the empire between them and destroying much of what they had achieved. No one person was strong enough to take over from Alexander the Great.
Muse: Roxanne was pregnant at the time, but nobody knew if her child would be a boy or a girl or survive long enough to take over from Alexander – later she gave birth to a boy, named Alexander after his father, who was assassinated along with his mother when he reached the age of 13.

From the point of view of the other main characters… Bucephalas, Charmeia and her friend Tydeos… this ending was actually quite a happy one, because by the end of the book Alexander had become more of a villain than a hero, even to his own men. Killing him off certainly felt quite satisfying to me, after some of the atrocities he had committed along the way. His men might have loved and mourned Alexander, but the fighting was over! They could at last go home. They were also quite rich after plundering the treasure of the fabulous Persian empire, so even common grooms like Charmeia went home with enough gold in their pockets to set them up for life. This enabled me to give most of my fictional characters, humans and horses, a happy ending.

The exception of course was the Great Horse himself. If you read the history books, you’ll discover that Bucephalas was badly wounded in Alexander’s final battle against Prince Porus’ elephants and died in India. Alexander set up a statue to him on the banks of the Indus and named a city after him, called Bucephala, before leading the remains of his army back to Babylon. But since I’d chosen Bucephalas to narrate my book, this clearly was not going to work if I wanted to end it with Alexander’s death! The problem niggled away in the background as I was writing the first few chapters. At one point I even considered ending my book in India before the final battle, or maybe halfway through it. But fortunately I am a fantasy writer, and in the end I shamelessly employed an element of fantasy to get around this.

In a fantasy novel, whenever your plot starts getting tricky you can always add a bit of magic to sort it out. Wave a wand, or better still invent your own magical rules. As long as you stick to those rules throughout your book, your readers should believe in them when you use them to make your plot work later on. In this case, I used Bucephalas’ ability to see ghosts, which you may remember I set up right at the beginning of the book with his damaged eye, and used several times throughout the story when he sees the ghosts of dying men and horses fleeing from battlefields. With this fantasy element firmly in place, fixing up the ending so the horse could continue to tell the story beyond the Indus was simple enough. I won’t give away all the details here, in case you haven’t read the book yet, but suffice to say that in “I am the Great Horse” Bucephalas does not die at the Indus. Instead, Alexander leaves Charmeia in charge of the wounded horse and leads his army back to Babylon, believing Bucephalas – now a ripe old age for a horse – will never carry him in battle again. This proves true enough, since the Indus proved to be Alexander’s last battle.

So I had my final scene. Alexander’s death should be simple enough to write, you might think - and yet this event proved to be one of the most intriguing parts of my book! How exactly did Alexander the Great die? Not gloriously in battle, as he would probably have liked, but slowly in great pain on his sickbed. I believe the historians are still arguing over the exact cause, the most common theories being poison, sickness, or an old war wound. I think the current favourite is that he died from drinking bad water, and what killed him were nasty bacteria in the Euphrates river that runs past Babylon. There are pleasing echoes of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” here… the invincible conqueror defeated by tiny microbes. The war wound theory is also possible, I suppose, since he took many nasty wounds while leading his men into battle and storming cities. But being a writer, I’m on the side of the more intriguing poison. With the number of enemies Alexander made during his short life, I’ve no doubt poison would have been in many people’s minds. But who did it, and how, and – more importantly – WHY? No, I’m not going to give this bit of my ending away, either! But suffice to say I could just as easily have written this book as a murder mystery, and it would have made a good story.
Muse: Katherine did begin to write a sequel about Roxanne’s son as a murder mystery starting with Alexander’s death… but her publisher wasn’t keen at the time, so it’s gone back into her safe for the time being.

And so we come to the end of the writing process... which is only the beginning of the editing and publishing process that brings a book to the shelves so you can read it. At this point, in late October 2004, Katherine had a version of the book that was 200,000 words long and was called BUCEPHALAS (after the great horse, naturally!). This is what authors and publishers call a working title, and the actual title for this book came after much discussion – more about titles in a later post.

Next week we’ll move on to editing, when we hope to bring you a guest post by freelance editor Helen Wire, who worked on Katherine’s words so you could enjoy reading this book… the Muse is very excited!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

A cat story by Ayesha Afghan

Alexander the Great had a horse called Bucephalas and a dog called Perita, but the history books do not tell us if he had a cat. So the Muse is delighted to bring you this story written by a young fan for cat lovers everywhere:

Hokey Cokey
© Ayesha Afghan

One day a little girl was walking past an old oak tree,
And heard a cat meowing, as if to say, “Please rescue me”.
Looking around, she found some ladders beside a garden shed,
Climbing up, “Don’t worry cat, I’m on my way,” she said.
She knew that when she got down, she would be a dirty muck,
There was a crash, the ladders fell, “Oh no, now we’re both stuck!”

She sat next to the cat; she let out an anxious groan.
She put her hands in her pockets and realized she had her phone.
She called the fire brigade, and told them to quickly come.
She sat on the branch, “Well this isn’t much fun.”
It soon became exciting with flashing lights and running men,
There were hundreds and thousands, ok maybe just ten.

The fire engine’s hydraulic lift came up so very high,
For a minute, she had thought that it would reach the sky.
As she was coming down, she was staring up into the clouds,
But when she turned and looked down, she could see enormous crowds.
She saw her mum and dad, when she finally reached the ground,
She hugged them and said pointing to the cat, “Look what I found”.

“Please can we take him home, oh please, please,” she begged.
“Well, I suppose we could keep him,” Mum and Dad said.
“I know what we could call him; we could call him Coke from cat and oak.”
As they walked home, she cuddled him and gave his head a stroke.

The Muse loves a happy ending! Many thanks to Ayesha for sending this one in.

Young writers are always welcome to share their writing on this blog. Click here for details.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Great Horse 7 – the plot thickens

There is a theory that plots for historical novels are easy. Want to write a historical novel about Alexander the Great? Just grab any book about Alexander, and you’ve got the plot more or less ready made. All you have to do is research his battles and dramatise them... well, sort of.

It’s true found this book easier to write than my fictional fantasies. For one thing, Alexander’s world was already quite detailed, so all I had to do was read up on the history. Most of my characters also already existed in fairly rounded form, thanks to the many dedicated historians of the period. The basic plot was, therefore, simple enough: After his father is assassinated, Prince Alexander sets out to finish the war with Persia, gets a taste for battle, thinks he’s the son of Zeus and goes on to conquer the rest of the world. Easy enough (at least on paper!)

Again, sort of.

Having the historical events set in stone certainly made plotting this book easier than plotting an entirely fictional story. As explained in a previous post, I divided up Alexander’s journey into Hoofprints (chapters) and listed all the main scenes, starting with his taming of Bucephalas at the palace in Pella, covering his first campaign to secure Macedonia’s borders, then the audacious journey across the Hellespont into Anatolia, down the coast to Egypt, east into Persia, up into Soghdiana(Afghanistan), across the Himalayas to India where Bucephalas is fatally wounded in battle against the elephants, and ending with the long trek back to Babylon where Alexander died.

But don’t worry if you haven’t read the book yet and think this post is going to spoil the story for you, because of course these events alone are not enough to make a book into a novel. They’re just WHAT happens - dry historical accounts littered with names and places and dates and numbers of dead, and the main reason I hated history at school! (Muse: This is true. Katherine gave up history in Year 9 in favour of doing Art for O level… she says if history had been taught in a different way at her school, concentrating more on the people and children’s lives back then, she might have liked it better.)

The real trick of plotting a novel is to ask WHY something happens. Why exactly did Alexander set out to conquer the world? Was it to prove himself to his men, to escape his mother's influence, his spirit of adventure, his fear of treachery such as that which killed his father, an enormous ego, or maybe even na├»vety in believing himself the immortal son of Zeus? Add to Alexander's story the “whys” of all the other main characters in your story, and you’ve got something approaching a plot.

For example, when Charmeia sees Bucephalas fighting his grooms on the riding ground at Pella, I made her fall in love with the horse and set out to look after him. A girl’s instant love for a horse is believable enough, but being a fantasy writer I decided to make this a bit stronger by giving her a magical “horse bond” with Bucephalas (which Alexander also has). I worked this fantasy element into my historical plot to create conflict between Charmeia and Alexander, and also to make the times when they and the horse were separated more tense. With minor characters, simple revenge or friendship was often enough. Others were more complex. It might sound strange, but I actually found Alexander the hardest character to work into my plot – some of the things he did seemed reckless and unbelievable, and those were areas where I decided the official historian had invented a few white lies.

But just sometimes all the elements of my plot fell neatly into place, all the WHATs and WHYs working beautifully together. There is a scene during the epic battle against the Persians at Gaugamela, where Alexander, after completing a clever cavalry manoeuvre that gets him and his personal guard behind the Persian lines, has a chance to finish the war by killing the Persian king. But he turns back from the chase in order to help the rest of his army, led by General Parmenio, who are in difficulties at the far side of the field. In the heat of the moment, within spear range of King Darius and with the battle madness on him, I did not quite believe Alexander would hear a messenger chasing after him on a slower horse at this point, let alone be persuaded in the confusion of battle to turn back. So I “invented” something that might delay him… his best friend Hephaestion, riding at his side as always, takes a bad enough wound to shock Alexander out of his single-minded chase after the Persian king. When he stops to help his friend, Darius’ chariot draws further away, and by the time the messenger arrives Alexander realizes the chase is doomed. I honestly believed this wound to be entirely fictional until months later, when I read a different account of the battle and discovered that at Gaugamela Hephaestion took a nasty wound to the thigh… it’s these moments of serendipity that send a shiver down an author’s spine.

I should probably say something about battles before ending this post. I love battles. They are very exciting to write with lots of action and look great in films. But again, they are just WHAT happens. A whole book of endless fights and battles would be extremely boring if you didn’t know WHY the characters were fighting and didn’t care who lived and who died. So while there are plenty of battles in my book (the main ones being at the Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela, and the Indus) much of my story concentrates on building conflict between the characters, both human and horse. Conflict between the human characters leads Alexander into battle. Meanwhile, Bucephalas has his own lesser (but to him just as important) battles with the other stallions in his herd, fighting over the mares.

From the feedback I've had so far about "I am the Great Horse", I think part of the reason some readers don’t like historical novels is that the plot is to a certain extent predictable. The closer you stick to a historical figure such as Alexander, the more predictable it becomes. If you write historical novels, the Muse would be interested to know how YOU make your plots come alive?

Next: Ending a book.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Art by Alzrith

Alzrith has dedicated one of her fabulous drawings to me! It’s called CREATURES, and I’m posting it here, since we seem to be having a week of artwork on this blog.

© Alzrith

The Muse bows his glittery horn in awe! Visit Alzrith’s website for more examples of this talented young artist’s work.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Great Horse 6 – Characters

Characters make stories worth reading. A book can have the most exciting plot in the world, but if the reader doesn’t care about your characters then there’s not much point worrying about its plot, because chances are nobody will read as far as the end anyway. Many readers (especially younger ones) seem to prefer their characters to be larger than life – feisty heroines, handsome heroes with bravery to match, or evil villains guaranteed never to perform a single kind act so everybody can cheer when the hero defeats them. But real people are not like that – at least, most of them aren’t. This makes writing about real people especially tricky.

Historical characters
Well known historical figures such as Alexander the Great might be larger than life, but they seldom fit neatly into your typical hero or villain category, and don’t usually make a very sympathetic character for readers to identify with. More or less everyone agrees Alexander counts as a hero of sorts, but he also did some questionable things that would rival any storybook villain. After spending some time in his company, I was by turns amazed, horrified, and full of admiration for his ambition and vision. In the end, I didn’t try to make Alexander into either hero or villain. I just let him be himself... a complex and fascinating character.

Although Bucephalas counts as a hero (Muse: dare you to suggest otherwise!), my book needed a human character readers could identify with a bit more easily than Alexander. Charmeia the groom fit this role nicely. She isn’t “feisty” in the way of popular heroines, but in the context of this story I think she is amazingly brave! A slave at the start of the book, she runs away (even though the penalty for this is death) to bring poison in a mule’s hoof to Pella with the intention of avenging her mother’s death. When she sees Bucephalas fighting his grooms on the riding ground, she pretends to be a boy so she can stay with the horse and protect him from the horsemaster, who becomes the horse’s sworn enemy after Bucephalas loses him his job. Later, in her efforts to protect Bucephalas from battle, she stands up to Alexander on several occasions, and struggles to return to the horse’s side even when it puts her own life in danger. As a girl travelling with the army, I hoped Charmeia would be sympathetic enough to make the kind of character my readers might care about. Her being a fictional character was also an advantage... anything that happened to her should create more tension in my plot than Alexander’s historical exploits. More about plot in my next post.

As for minor characters, the historical ones alone run into the hundreds. I knew I’d have to simplify them somehow, for my own sanity as well as for young readers. Since this is a story of war, I divided them into two categories: Them and Us.

Them (people who fought against Alexander):
King Darius – Persian king.
Bessus – Persian leader who seized power after King Darius fled from Alexander.
Prince Porus – Indian leader.
Princess Roxanne – Afghan princess who became Alexander’s wife.
Us (Alexander’s friends and allies):
General Parmenio – leader of King Philip’s army.
Hephaestion – Alexander’s best friend.
Philotas – Parmenio’s son.
Alexander’s Guard - eight of his boyhood friends.

As to whether these secondary characters were heroes or villains, I’ll let you make up your own mind! Much depends which side of the story you are telling. To the Persians, King Darius was certainly a hero to meet Alexander in battle, and Bessus a villain on both sides for betraying his king. Was Roxanne a heroine? Maybe since she agreed to marry Alexander as part of a peace treaty, maybe not since she might well have poisoned her husband at the end to avenge her people - more about the mystery of Alexander's death later.

Fictional characters
As you might imagine, with so many historical characters to fit into the book there wasn’t much room left for fictional ones. But I couldn’t resist adding a few:
The old horsemaster – enemy of Bucephalas and Charmeia.
Tydeos – Charmeia’s friend in the horse lines.
Demetrius – one of Alexander’s Guard.
Queen Penthesilea – the Amazon queen (mythical rather than historical).

Unusually for a book published on a children’s list, you’ll notice many of these characters are adults. Even though Alexander and Charmeia begin the book aged 12, they grow up before the end. With a story spanning 20 years, this was unavoidable, and in my second post I explain how their growing up was my main reason for choosing the horse’s viewpoint. With the readership in mind, however, I added a few younger characters as the story progressed. In fact, I developed a near-fatal soft spot for the Persian king’s son Prince Ochus, taken by Alexander as a hostage after his first battle against the Persians. As one of the more sympathetic characters, the Persian prince was in danger of taking over the entire book, and accounts for many of the missing 50,000 words my editors sensibly advised me to remove. (Muse: Prince Ochus’ story would make a whole book of its own!) I also made Roxanne younger than she is normally portrayed, so that when Alexander marries her she is still a girl, accounting for the fact she does not become pregnant until the end of the book.

Horse characters
In much the same way Tolkien’s hobbits are substitutes for children in his epic “Lord of the Rings”, I hoped my horse characters might provide a way into this book for younger readers. Adult horses are different from adult humans, and not just because they have four legs and a tail. They are more like loyal friends and servants than heroes or villains. In some ways their relationship to their riders and grooms is like that of child to parent... trust, dependency, love, and either willing obedience or outright rebellion, according to what they are being asked to do at the time!

Obviously the horse characters in this book would be more important than the humans as far as Bucephalas was concerned, so I needed them to have their own characters, and had a lot of fun naming them and drawing them all. I gave Bucephalas a special mare to care about from the start – a dapple grey called Aura – and a special stallion friend called Petasios.

I let Hephaestion ride Petasios, and gave the rest of Alexander’s friends horses to reflect their characters. They changed around a bit later on, as some got wounded or their riders died, and later in the book Aura had some foals - a colt called Hoplite and a filly called Electra, both of whom Alexander eventually rode into battle.
Putting the horses and humans together, when Alexander leads his first skirmish on the Thracian border we have:
Bucephalas carrying Alexander – dominant stallions!
Petasios carrying Hephaestion – best friends
Aura carrying Demetrius – gentle faithful companions
Psylla carrying Hector – first casualties in battle
Harpinna carrying Ptolemy – good tough fighters
Apollo carrying Perdiccas – vain but strong and brave
Borealis carrying Leonnatus – big and strong
Zephyr carrying Philotas – small and with divided loyalties
Hades carrying Iolaus – carrying the shadow of death
(Muse: Bucephalas says “horse carrying” rather than “rider rode” to reflect the horse’s viewpoint.)
These horses became Bucephalas’ special herd, and to keep track of them all I ended up with sixteen different lists on my noticeboard as the book progressed. I sketched them all too, but there isn’t really room for all their pictures here.

There’s just space for Zoroaster, the sacred Persian horse of the sun captured from the Persian camp, about whom Bucephalas makes this comment, having never seen a gelding before:
I have already smelt him. He is tethered at the end of our horse line near my usual spot. He is white all over and nearly as big as me, though he is fat and soft, not hard and muscular like us warhorses. His mane has been braided with silver threads, and his tail has little bells in it that tinkle whenever he flicks away a fly. He smells of flowers and he looks ridiculous.
I make myself huge and squeal at him. But the white horse doesn’t squeal back. He simply turns his big dark eyes on us, pricks his ears and stares at me. Then he gives a big sigh and goes back to his hay. This is MOST confusing. He is a male horse, but he acts more like a mare.

Some questions for you:
1. Do you prefer human characters or animal characters in books?
2. What is your view on heroes and villains… should they be larger than life and feisty, or act more like real people?
3. Which character in “I am the Great Horse” did you care about the most?

Next: Plot.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Driftwood Horses

We Muses often draw inspiration from other forms of art – poems, songs, paintings, and sculpture. So visiting Open Studios, when local artists open their studio doors to the public, always makes my horn glitter!

There are so many talented artists living in this area I haven’t room to mention them all. But here’s one that fits with our current horse theme… fabulous life-sized sculptures created out of driftwood by Heather Jansch.

If you’re near Newton Abbot this month, you have a rare opportunity to see these horses galloping around Heather’s garden – and there’s a unicorn hiding in a corner of her studio, too!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Great Horse 5 – Research

Of course I had to do some research. All historical novels require a good amount of research if they are to feel authentic, and my knowledge of Alexander the Great when I started this book was sketchy to say the least. The things I knew about him could be counted on a horse’s hooves:

1. He rode a large black stallion called Bucephalas, a horse nobody else could handle except for one groom.
2. He defeated the Persians and built an empire stretching from Macedonia to India.
3. He had a best friend called Hephaestion and married an Afghan princess called Roxanne.
3. He died in Babylon, aged 33, leaving no heir.

The bits between were a hazy mixture of battles, plots and politics. The historical characters were simply exotic names to me or as yet unknown. And I’d never travelled to any of the countries Alexander conquered. So I needed to research the story on two levels: historical and geographical.

Fortunately, there is a mass of historical information available about Alexander the Great, so I had my pick of the history books. Purists would probably recommend going back to the “primary sources” (i.e. the first written accounts), but I decided that in this case a random selection of secondary sources would provide an accurate enough picture of Alexander for my purposes. The Persian side of things required a bit more imagination on my part because history is obviously written by the victors – dead men cannot talk (or write!) Alexander even took an official historian along with his army, no doubt guiding the man’s pen through the more questionable aspects of his campaigns in the way any politician would do today. But if you read the official accounts closely enough, you can sometimes peer through the gaps to where a veil has been pulled across the truth, and it is these areas of history that provide the most fertile material for a writer's imagination.
I decided that Bucephalas should tell Alexander’s story as accurately as possible, even the less flattering parts, which meant filling in some of these gaps myself.
In the prologue Bucephalas makes this quite clear:
People may tell you some of this story isn’t true. But Alexander’s royal historian was paid to write lies, and he never ventured down to the horse lines anyway, so what could he know? Climb on my back, if you dare, and let ME carry you into the battles that changed the world.

For the geography, I needed a book with lots of photos because I didn’t intend to travel in Alexander’s footsteps to take my own. If you’ve read my first post in this series on my inspiration for the book, you’ll see I had a good excuse – war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But travelling in those parts today would not take me back 2300 years, so much of the atmosphere would be different. The ancient city of Babylon where Alexander died lies in ruins today, and the Persian Gulf is a different shape. More practically, I did not have time to travel if I was to meet the delivery date for this book and my advance would not have funded such a journey… though it’s one of my wilder dreams to ride a horse in Bucephalas’ hoof prints when circumstances allow! So, even though it doesn’t sound very glamorous, for this story I became an armchair traveller.

These are the books I chose:
Alexander of Macedonby Peter Green (my bible, now covered with notes scribbled in the margin!)
Alexander the Greatby Robin Lane Fox (who advised on the film version)
The Greek Alexander Romance(written in Alexander’s time)
In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great– Michael Wood (for the geography)

This last book proved especially useful because it accompanied a TV series of the same name, which I was also able to watch. And in addition to these main texts, I read up on specialist subjects such as warfare in the ancient world, battle tactics, Greek myths, the Iliad (Alexander’s favourite book, which he carried with him on his campaigns as bedtime reading), and – of course – horses.

Here’s a selection:

So how did I go about organizing all this material? Normally when I’m researching a book, I’ll do most of it before I start the writing because it's surprising how many background details you need to know to get the atmosphere right even if you include very few of them in your book. You can always tell if a writer has done their research, because page one has the smell and taste, sound and feel of the period, as well as the visual scene. I don’t know if I succeeded, but my first scene alone required knowledge of: the location of Alexander’s home (Pella, Macedonia), its climate (dusty riding ground), method of horse transport (ship), horse harness (spiked bit, cloth), minor historical characters (Alexander’s father King Philip, his mother, the horsemaster, his young friends), weaponry (javelins), and some background about the war with Persia, as well as all the more obvious stuff about Bucephalas and horses in general.

The second aim of researching a historical novel is for plot.
Ah ha! I hear you say, so writing historical novels is easy… the plot is all worked out for you, right? Well, sort of.
History is like life. It does not usually make a neat and satisfying plot. Also, sticking too closely to the known events can make it boring because your reader will already know the outcome. The best way to dramatise history is to take the known facts and expand on these, filling in the gaps with your own plot twists and characters. But with Alexander and his carefully chronicled life story, it was more a case of deciding what to leave out! I left out quite a lot – anything the horse would not know about, such as Alexander’s sexual life, went straight into the bin – but even so I ended up with a first draft of 200,000 words, which I had to cut down to 150,000 words following screams of horror from my publisher. (Muse: and even that proved too long for a children’s list… more about this later) To simplify things a bit, I decided Bucephalas’ story would take a linear form – starting with Alexander taming the horse and working through to when Alexander died in Babylon – which meant the details could wait until I needed them. All I really needed at the start of the book was a brief outline of the main events, including anything about Bucephalas and all Alexander’s major battles. I listed these events as chapters, which I later decided to call “Hoofprints” to reflect the horse’s viewpoint, and wrote them in the margins of my reference book to remind me which bits I had to read later on.

Note: At this point I pretty much assumed Alexander's story would ALL be battles, and it worried me that Bucephalas (not a young horse to start with) would be getting older all the time, ending up in India an ancient nag of 30 plus, in which case how did he cope with the long journey and all the fighting? But in the end I discovered there were surprisingly few big battles, and Alexander spent the months and years between them sorting out all the other details of building an empire, as well as besieging a few cities and leading minor skirmishes mounted on other horses. So Bucephalas had time to rest, which gave me plenty of scope to add fictional characters and glimpses into the other side of the story – that of the Persian hostages and the plots against Alexander by his own men disillusioned by years of war.

I then drew a rough map, later tidied and beautified by professional artist Brian Sanders for the book itself - this is an early sketch by him, which became a full-colour map in the UK paperback:

(Muse tip: If you’re writing a fantasy book or historical novel set in an unfamiliar location, ALWAYS DRAW THE MAP FIRST. It will save you a lot of rewriting later on!)

Finally, I felt ready to plunge into my first bit of uncharted territory… what happened after Alexander tricked his father into buying Bucephalas? And at this stage I needed to know a bit more about the other characters in the story, both human and horse. There were going to be a lot of them, I knew that! But how many should I include, and who would be the main ones in Bucephalas’ story?

Find out in my next post: Characters

Not read the book yet? I am the Great Horseby Katherine Roberts


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