Authentic Settings: So You Want To Write A Horse Book, Part 2

For me, writing horse books is rooted in authenticity.

(This is the 2nd post in the series, So You Want To Write A Horse Book. Read the first post here.)

This can get tiresome for a writer, when you’re trying to follow a plot thread and find that it leads to a dead end, or a “that wouldn’t happen in real life” situation, but it’s the price we pay for writing for the pickiest group of readers in the universe.

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A casual viewer sees a beautiful horse in a field of wildflowers. An equestrian wonders what kind of flowers they are, if they’re poisonous, zooms in to see if that’s a manure pile in the background, and starts wondering when that horse last had a fecal exam for parasites. Horse people. Think. Differently.

(You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Here is an excerpt from an actual review left an Amazon:

“I tried, I really did but I couldn’t get past chapter 3. Chapter one was bad enough where the supposed “expert” horse trainer expresses his concern that the horse has injured its ANKLE (seriously????).”

Now, this was my first book, and I’d slaved over the details, and I was selling it on the virtue of its details, so this review felt like more than just the usual slap in the face sensation I get from your regularly scheduled bad reviews. So I broke a major rule of writing and responded to the bad review with an editorial example of using the word “ankle” in horse-racing circles:

‘The “ankle” issue is a verbiage commonly used in horse racing. For example: “Havre de Grace Retired With Ankle Injury” (The Blood-Horse, April 25, 2012: http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/69168/havre-de-grace-retired-with-ankle-injury). The term “ankle” is generally used when speaking of the fetlocks and lower-leg issues. Again, that’s a horse racing quirk; it might not be true of everyone’s equine experience, however.’

I’ll never know if the reviewer forgave me for using a word she wasn’t familiar with, but I would assume not. And there you have it, an example of writing for equestrians.)

I guess a very real question a potential writer might have right now is, “Why would you do this to yourself?”

We just do.

Authentic settings: this is a decision you have to make before you begin typing your first paragraphs of your book. It’s not just about using the right brush on your horse; it’s also, it’s a a lot, about settings. You have to decide: will your book reflect the real world like a window, or like a mirror?

It’s easier to make your own rules when you’re dealing with show horses, to set up a kind of looking-glass version of reality, with your own divisions and point systems, and avoid wading into the sea of mysteries that is double-A rated shows and Marshall & Sterling points and getting qualifications for entering an Advanced level Three-Day Event, unless you are incredibly comfortable in that environment.

By incredibly comfortable, I mean, you’ve been riding, training, and showing in those divisions for years. You can fill out an entry form with your eyes closed. It’s part of your normal daily life.

The need for this precision is real. Most people might not notice if you get a couple of show-ring details wrong, although if you call a fetlock an ankle, watch out! (…kidding…) But there are people who will, and they will call you out on it. There will be A-circuit kids reading your A-circuit novel, and you’re going to say something that annoys them.

It’s just a question of keeping those annoyances to a minimum.

Everyone comes up with a different solution to the window/looking glass problem. Here are three examples:

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Choosing real vs. fictional locations is all about your comfort level. Photo: Natalie Keller Reinert

Reality for the Setting; Fiction for the Close-Ups:

I use real governing bodies (The Jockey Club, The United States Eventing Association) and real championships/stake races (The American Eventing Championships, the Kentucky Derby) along with fictional competition. My horses run in races of my own invention (The Mizner Stakes) and in made-up events (The Sunshine State Horse Trials). For locations, I only write about racetracks I’m very familiar with, like Saratoga (the setting for Other People’s Horses), or Aqueduct, Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream Park, and a few others. I write almost exclusively about Florida and New York because I know those places so well. I wouldn’t be able to write a compelling, authentic story about a barn in Arizona, or California, or even Illinois, because I just don’t know those places at all.

I do make sure my timing is right as well. If I’m running a horse in a fictional stakes at Gulfstream, it’s when Gulfstream would actually be open for racing. But I make up the races to avoid A) stealing glory from horses who have actually won those races; and B) to avoid getting caught up in the pesky details of condition books, qualifications, weights, etc., which is just way too much effort to put into a novel, however correct I’d like it to be. I would consider this the middle-road for authentic settings.

Keep it Real:

Fellow racing writer Mara Dabrishus isn’t afraid to get completely into real-life competition in the Breeders’ Cup and other major stakes races, and she does a great job of depicting American racing without feeling the need to spend a lot of time explaining what the hell she’s talking about. She spends more time on the actual backstretch of actual racetracks than I do. When I have Alex retreat to a rented barn or back to the farm, Mara’s characters are still slugging it out on-site at Belmont or Gulfstream. I have a lot of admiration for her discipline in this regard. I also find that when I’m reading her books, my eye is drawn to the details of places I recognize and know intimately. I’m always testing her descriptions against my memories. Be aware that when you use a real locale, you will have readers who know that place inside-out, possibly better than you do. This style is a gutsy move.

Create a Fictional, but Believable, Setting to Support the Story:

My friend Jessica Burkhart went with entirely fictional lower and collegiate-level organizations for her series Canterwood Crestwhich features secondary-school competition. Rather than get wrapped up in different sports, governing bodies, and the intricacies of Young Riders Championships and the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, she simply developed a series of district, regional, and national championships which her characters could compete in, with the end-goal being the real United States Equestrian Team. The wisdom of this approach: it gives you so much more time to concentrate on story, and it allows riders (and hey, non-riders) of all disciplines to enjoy the series without needing technical explanations of how the discipline is run. Your story has plenty of room to shine.

What’s Right For You?

I think I can speak for anyone reading this when I say we’re all on a quest for authenticity. That’s what our readers tell us they love, over and over again. Even this one-star review for my first novel contained this caveat: “Writer was good with the horse terms and nailed the references to the life of a rider.” (The first part of the review, of course, was that it was a terrible story.)

So I believe it goes without saying that we’re all going to write the truest thing we know when it comes to our horses and our riding. We will never be allowed to gallop out of the arena after a jumping class without severe consequences; we will never feed our horse a celebratory pizza on his birthday; we will never put our neighbor’s kid on our Grand Prix dressage horse that we adopted from the BLM when we were 12 years old and had in the Olympics by the time we were 15; we will never wear a red coat to a short stirrup class, or a shadbelly to show-jumping class. I don’t have to actually point that out because we all know better. I just do it to point out what we’ve been reading all our lives, and why we’re so excited to change all that.

One good way to decide on your commitment level is to write (or think aloud in the shower, whatever works for you) the general plot-line of your book. And we’ll talk more about that in the future, but in the meantime, think of it like this. You say to yourself, “And then Michelle finds out she has a shot at the Young Riders Championships.”

You pause and think about the Young Riders Championships.

-How much do you know about it?

-How much research will you have to put into accurately portraying the Young Riders Championships?

-Will this present obstacles to your timelime? Maybe you’re writing a story with a big Christmas climax or a new foal is born at some point, but the Young Riders Championships is in July and that would throw everything off. Do you really want to change the entire story because now it needs to end in July instead of January?

-If any of these things feel problematic, consider how easy it be to simply make Young Riders into something else plausible. Why not just make up a championship called the Eventing Youth Nationals? Boom, done, easy. Your problems are solved.

Deciding on the level of authenticity in your story’s setting has much to do with your comfort level with the topics you’re tackling. If you feel at all in over your head, back away and do some serious soul-searching about how important that setting really is to your story. It might be everything. Or it might make more sense to just wave your fiction wand and make a new, more suitable setting come to life.

If you choose this route, you are not giving up your equestrian street cred. You’re actually cementing it by committing to the details you know — the nitty-gritty of equestrian life, the ins and outs of the days we spend with horses — and not compromising the knowledge level you’re presenting to your also-knowledgeable readers by winging it with some of the things they know by heart.

What are your thoughts on this subject?

 

So You Want to Write a Horse Book, Part 1

I’ve been writing horse books for the past six years, and every year I get emails from readers asking for advice on getting started in the genre. Now, to be fair, it’s a pretty new genre. What we’ve started calling Equestrian Fiction didn’t used to exist, and if you ask a big book retailer, it still doesn’t exist. That’s why Equestrian Fiction dominates non-fiction categories like Horse Care, and Equestrian Sports on Amazon. We have the most popular books for equestrians, but no real category.

That’s a gripe for another time.

Equestrian Fiction is growing by the month, with 2016 seeing a true explosion in titles. Established writers are continuing their series, and new writers are showing up with fantastic reads. Do you want to join in the fun?

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Let’s talk about horse books.

I’m going to write a blog series on Writing Horse Books — the good, the bad, the downright terrible. There are a handful of highs and a truckload of lows when you write your first novel (and your second, and your third, and your fourth…) and when we’re marketing our books directly to our readers, we have no choice but to face the criticism head on. While some writers with major publishing deals can say lofty (and probably untrue, but whatever) things like, “I never read the reviews,” if you’re an independent writer sharing good reviews to try to drum up good press, you’re going to have to read the reviews.

All of them.

And some of them will make you cry.

That’s okay, your dressage (hunter/jumper/western pleasure/fill-in-the-blank here) trainer has made you cry and you still ride, right? We’re equestrians, we’re used to pain equaling gain. We’re used to falling down, dusting ourselves up, and mounting again. Maybe that’s why we’re hanging on, growing, and actually thriving in such a difficult industry.

It’s just really hard to mash down a determined equestrian.

Writing for any audience is tough, but writing for equestrians is exceptionally challenging. In 2012, I interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley for the equestrian lifestyle site, Dappled Grey. Jane Smiley stormed into the equestrian scene with her massive racing/showing novel Horse Heaven, and became as common a barn name as any big name trainer. I remembered working at the Ocala, Florida Barnes & Noble when Horse Heaven was at its height, selling copies one after another to well-known hunter/jumper riders in town for HITS. I was actually star-struck by some of the luminaries who walked in and asked for the book by name.

But Horse Heaven didn’t get a follow-up. Instead, Smiley began a children’s series, beginning with The Georges and the Jewels, which taught excellent horsemanship, but didn’t get into the complicated and very adult lives of modern riders, trainers, and owners in the racing and showing business–something I loved because it reflected the world I lived in so beautifully.

So I asked Smiley, why did she stop writing equestrian novels for adults, when Horse Heaven was such a hit with her own crowd?

Here’s what she told me:

“The horse audience will toss the book out of the window if the voice isn’t expert. The audience isn’t big, and they’re critical, although they’re enthusiastic when they’ve committed. Sometimes you can make it work and sometimes you can’t. It’s not an easy audience to write for.”

Imagine writing huge multi-generational trilogies, imagine winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and having your novels turned into movies, and then finding equestrians too picky an audience to continue writing for. That’s what you’re up against when you decide to write a horse book.

But that’s okay. There are ways around this. There are ways to find your voice. There are ways to prove yourself to your audience. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this blog series.

I’m currently getting ready to start the edits on my eighth equestrian fiction novel, Courage. This seems like both the best and the worst time to get into the hows and whys of writing for the genre. So I decided to go with “best,” and just jump in. Watch this space for a post each week on writing horse books. Feel free to chime in, comment, and ask questions. Send me an email if you don’t want to go public with your writing aspirations; I promise confidentiality. Let’s talk about writing. Because honestly? I want to read your books. I write for this genre because six years ago, sitting at my computer, I realized that all I wanted to read was more Horse Heaven. And no one was writing it.

So I wrote the book I wanted to read.

I’ve come a long way since my first novella, The Head and Not The Heart. I’ve made it through bad reviews and good, vicious emails and heart-warming messages, and even found myself in Lexington, Kentucky accepting runner-up at one of America’s richest book prizes before flying to Pimlico for a festival-day book-signing. This fall, I’ll be speaking about the horse in fiction at Equine Affaire in Massachusetts. I love my writing life; I’m grateful for my writing life, which readers grant me every day when they choose to read my novels, and I want to encourage, nurture, inspire, and help new writers join the ranks in any way I can.

Let’s talk horse books, and writing them, together. I think this is going to be a good time.

What a year for horse books!

I’m so excited, I have to blog about it.

Today two of my favorite authors announced they have new books coming out this fall. And another favorite of mine just dropped the latest in a fast-paced serial which has “next weekend’s read” all over it. While there are always awesome new books to read, I’m really excited that these titles are all equestrian fiction.

How did that happen, anyway? Five years ago equestrian fiction as we know it did not exist. There were plenty of thrillers with horses in them, and lots of younger reader-to-young adult titles. But what we have now goes deeper than “a story with horses in it.” We have amazing and talented equestrians writing for equestrians – of all ages – with a modern contemporary voice and realistic, relatable plots.

I’m so excited. Did I say that already?

Anyway, now is the time to catch up with these authors before their new books come out. Here’s what we are looking at:

Mara Dabrishus is releasing the sequel to her gorgeous Saratoga story, Stay the DistanceIn case you were wondering what a perfect book cover looks like, it’s this one:

From MaraDabrishus.com
From MaraDabrishus.com

Wouldn’t this look great on merch? I’m thinking tote bag. Tote bag, Mara! Let’s make this happen!

The next one I’m psyched for? Mary Pagones’ Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion, a sequel to Fortune’s Fool.

Pagones Tweet
From Mary Pagones’ Twitter today!

I’m not surprised this cover is totally unique — so are Mary Pagones’ completely original approaches to equestrian fiction. I am so excited to get back into Simon’s head. I wonder if he still listens to The Killers all the time. I have so much respect for his musical taste.

(And this title is amazing.)

If you haven’t read Fortune’s Fool or The Horse is Never Wrong, I have a review of these books here.

So all of this to get excited for, and I’m still pumped for this weekend when I’m going to spend some quality time catching up with Loxwood, the delightful eventing series from British author Grace Wilkinson. I haven’t reviewed Loxwood or A Perfect Stridethe first two books in the series, because I’m behind on everything… but I can assure you they’re fantastic. Her new book, Between the Flags, picks up on a cliffhanger from A Perfect Stride. Let’s do this, weekend!

The latest from Grace Wilkinson promises more eventing delights.
The latest from Grace Wilkinson promises more eventing delights.

I know this isn’t even close to all the new horse books for the second half of 2016, but all of these coming at me at once have me kind of giddy! So if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of reading to catch up on…!

Get Free Horse Books from Amazon Prime

If you’re looking for a way to get free horse books (and I know you are, because I see my books turn up in Google searches like “Natalie Keller Reinert Free Download” ALL THE FREAKING TIME) I know a better way for you than going to some questionable site and downloading a PDF that may or may not destroy your computer’s insides.

You can get free horse books directly from Amazon, and you can do it one of two ways:

  1. Amazon Prime, which has lots of other benefits, or
  2. Kindle Unlimited, which is just for free books (I see no downside here)

All of my books are in the Kindle Select program. That means that Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited subscribers are eligible to download those books for free.

And unlike when you download them from ScaryFreeBooks.hackmycomputerplease.bz, no one’s computer gets eaten and the author gets paid. That’s right, we get paid. It helps us keep the lights on and make up for the fact that we have no social lives and no hobbies because all we can do is write books as fast as our fingers can type.

So you can see there’s a very nice benefit to this if you enjoy horse books, or any kind of books. The more you read, the more pennies flow into our meager accounts, and thus the more we can write. And you’re just paying a subscription fee for this access.

So not to sound like a shill (although I have an affiliate link because pennies, meager account, keeping lights on, candles are dangerous, etc.) but Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited have so far been very helpful to me as an author. The borrows help me afford to spend more time on writing novels and less time on freelancing. In fact, I only freelance for a select few companies now, and I spend most of my writing time on Alex and Alexander and Jules and Pete and all their horses.

Here’s how you can tell a book is a free download for members:

Kindle Unlimited titles are marked above their covers - easy!
Kindle Unlimited titles are marked above their covers – easy!

Very easy: it says right above the title. You can still also preview the first section of the book with the “look inside” feature, so there’s no reason to download a book you’re not already hooked on.

(By the way, maybe if we keep asking nicely, Amazon will give us an Equestrian Fiction category so our books don’t have to be in the Horse Care section. Maybe.)

As you can see, just on this one page there’s more than my books available on Kindle Unlimited, there’s also fellow Horseback Reads author Kim Ablon Whitney, who is getting rave reviews, by the way, for her Show Circuit series.

Kindle Unlimited offers free downloads for $9.99 a month, with the first month free.

Amazon Prime offers one free download per month in addition to things like free two-day shipping, unlimited streaming with Prime Video, unlimited photo storage, ad-free music, etc. You can get a thirty-day free trial of Amazon Prime here.

Oh, and one more thing: if you like having the physical copy of a book as well, there’s a program I’m also enrolled in called Kindle Matchbook. When you purchase one of my paperbacks from Amazon only, you automatically get a free download of the Kindle edition. It’s like when you buy a record and get the MP3 download code included inside. It’s the least I can do for my readers.

Are you using Kindle Unlimited? Is the program working for you? Keep reading!

Autographed Books: Turning For Home

I’m often getting requests for autographed copies of books, but since I rarely keep any stock at home, it’s usually something reserved for book-signing events. Well, I don’t have anything planned before this November’s Equine Affaire, but I do have books in stock!

The paperback of Turning For Home - complete with book award sticker!
The paperback of Turning For Home – complete with book award sticker!

If you’d like a signed copy of my award-finalist novel Turning For Home, now is the perfect opportunity. I have a limited number of paperbacks in stock. Just email me at natalie at nataliekreinert.com to order yours!

The cover price is $14.95, plus $5.00 for shipping anywhere in the United States, payable via PayPal. Shipment outside of the U.S. available upon request.

You’ll get a nice message and the book signed to you (or whoever you like)!

I’m happy to offer this service since so many readers have asked. Are you looking for another of my books with an autograph? Let me know!

Pictures from Pimlico

A few quick pics from the road, as we are in Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes! 

  
We had an amazing spot on the inside rail, thanks to a table in the Turfside Terrace. It made for intimate looks at the turf races.

  Black-eyed Susans – orange juice with vodka and Maker’s Mark? Something like that. These were served from a pre-made jug but they were still delicious so that says something about a successful recipe! The awesome glasses were only $10 with the drink – that’s a very economical price for such an iconic souvenir.

  
The start of the Black-Eyed Susan  Stakes. Everything was pink. Even the starting gate.

  
I brought along Ambition for the book signing event and sold out! Turning For Home was popular too. I was so lucky to be with Eliza McGraw, author of the new racing history Here Comes Exterminator! We had so much fun meeting fans and doing a little celebrity-spotting (trainers and jockeys edition).

  Crossing the course after the racing day ended. It was such a beautiful day of thoroughbreds and sport!

Preakness Week Book Signing Event at Pimlico

Are you ready for the Preakness Stakes?

If you’re in Maryland this weekend, add Pimlico Racecourse to your plans on Friday. That’s because it’s Black-Eyed Susan Day, a celebration of all things Maryland horse-racing. There’ll be barn tours, giveaways, live racing (the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, plus more!) and book signing events with some equestrian authors… like me!

Turning For Home coverI’ll be signing copies of my horse racing and Thoroughbred retirement novel Turning For Home, the recent finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. I’ll also have a few copies of my eventing novel, Ambition, on hand for anyone who wants them. You can also feel free to bring along any other titles by me you’d like signed!

I’d love to meet readers and talk horses and books with you, so please come out!

There will be several other authors there as well: Eliza McGraw will be signing Here Comes Exterminator!  and Joanne Beusch will be signing Brightly Shining: The Horse No One Wanted.

Find the horse books by the grandstand from 12 PM – 2 PM! Proceeds from our books will benefit the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and Maryland Komen.

Preakness Day Credentials and book award stickers!
Preakness Day Credentials and book award stickers!

We’ll also be at the races on Preakness Day. This is my first time at Pimlico, and my first Preakness! After four or five Belmont Stakes, I figure it’s time to diversify my Triple Crown portfolio. No word yet on when I’ll be adding the Kentucky Derby to the mix.

Follow me on Twitter (@nataliekreinert) and Facebook — I’ll be live-tweeting from the races for as long as my phone signal and battery hold out!