The Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Horses

A guide to horses for writers, especially those writing fantasy or historical fiction. Ever wonder how far a horse can travel in a day, or how people in the middle ages cared for their horses? Do you know the difference between a nicker and a neigh? Find out and write horses more realistically in your story! If you write fantasy, you probably have a horse or two in your story. Especially if you’re writing medieval fantasy. Or, maybe you’re writing historical fiction. Whatever you’re writing, if there’s a horse in it and you don’t have a clue about horses, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve created this writer’s guide to horses just for you!

I’ve been in love with horses ever since I was a kid. I took riding lessons for years and read way too many books about them, both fictional and non-fictional. When I started writing my first fantasy novel, you had better bet I had horses in it!

But not every writer is a horse person. They always say write what you know, and I knew horses so that was what I wrote. But if you feel confused or lack confidence when writing scenes involving horses, don’t worry! With a little bit of research you can write about horses so well that your readers will think you’ve been living in the saddle your whole life.

Ready to arm yourself with some horse knowledge? Let’s do this.

Physical Description

  • Here is a chart of the parts of a horse (the ones you will likely reference most in your writing will be the flank, hoof, hock, withers, and crest).
  • Here is a guide to horse colorings, and another to markings.
  • Horse genders: mare (female), stallion (male), gelding (neutered male), colt (baby male), filly (baby female).

Care and Needs

  • Keeping a horse was expensive, so most peasants didn’t own one. Sometimes peasants would chip in together to buy a horse and share it.
  • Horses were usually kept in barns, and sometimes peasants just kept them out in the fields with the sheep, cows, etc.
  • Horses were fed hay, oats, and sometimes bran. The amount of food they were given depended on the amount of work they did. They also grazed in pastures in the summer.
  • Horses will forage in the woods for food, eating shrubs, foliage, moss, and even bark.
  • Most horses wore shoes during medieval times, which were made of iron.
  • Horses were groomed with a handful of straw bound together, or a coarse cloth. Metal curry combs were also used. (Modern metal curry comb for comparison).
  • Horses drink 5-10 gallons of water a day. They can only survive 3-6 days without water.
  • Horses cannot puke. So if they eat something toxic, they can’t puke it back up.
  • Horses live to be 25-30 years old.
  • Horses can swim, but some are afraid of water.
  • Horses only sleep for 2 hours a day, and only a few minutes at a time. They usually sleep standing up, but sometimes they will lie down. This is because they are prey animals, so they must be ready to take flight at the first hint of danger.

Behavior

  • Horses are sort of like big dogs. They all have their own personalities and quirks. However, they’re less loyal/protective than dogs–if your character is thrown on the battle field, his horse will likely bolt. It’s their fight or flight survival instincts. However, there are stories of horses protecting their owners, though it’s rare. It might depend on the rider’s bond with the horse and whether the horse sees the rider as part of its “herd.”
  • Horses are herd animals, which means they’re social and prefer to live in a group. If they are being kept on their own without other horses for company, they will often befriend other animals like donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, etc.
  • Horses communicate using snorts, nickers, whinnies, squeals, and neighs. (From softest to loudest). A whinny is similar to a neigh, but a neigh is a little deeper. For more information on why and when horses make certain sounds, click here.
  • Horses communicate mostly through body language, and are pretty quiet animals. (Again, prey animal instincts). For more details about horse body language go here (scroll to the bottom).
  • Every horse is frightened by different things, whether it’s a predator, an unfamiliar object, a loud noise, an unexpected movement, or water. When a horse is frightened or “spooked”, he might shy away, buck, balk, or bolt.

Riding & Traveling

  • Medieval saddles are pretty similar to modern saddles. “War” saddles were a bit “deeper” to offer the rider more security, with the front and back parts rising higher. “Riding” saddles were more slender. However, sometimes war saddles would be used for riding and vice-versa.Click here to learn the parts of the saddle (the ones you would use most in your writing would be the cantle, pommel, seat, and stirrup). Also, this video shows you how to saddle a horse.
  • Medieval bridles are also similar to their modern counterparts. To learn the parts of the bridle, click here.
  • It was common for women to ride astride in medieval times (one leg on either side of the saddle). Side saddles were rarely used, and only by noble ladies.
  • It was common for women to ride horses during travel, and noble women also rode horses during hunts.
  • Horses have four different gaits (the term used to refer to a horse’s speed). From slowest to fastest: walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
  • At a gallop, a horse can reach a speed of 25-30mph. A horse can gallop for a couple of hours before losing steam. So unless your character is riding Shadowfax, avoid epic days-long gallops.
  • The distance a horse can travel in a day depends on the weight and skill of the rider, the age/health of the horse, the weather and terrain, and how much equipment the horse is carrying. A horse could cover 20-40 miles a day and can be pushed beyond this if need be, but will need a day or more to recover afterwards depending on how hard it was pushed. Remember horses aren’t furry motorcycles, they get tired!
  • If your character is riding a horse for the first time or for a longer period of time than they’re used to, they will be sore after. This is often called “saddle sore.” Riding a horse looks easy, but you’re not just sitting there! You’re actually using a lot of muscles in your body. Saddle soreness is something better experienced than described. Which brings me to my final point…

I would highly recommend riding a horse at least once for research, whether it’s a trail ride or lesson. There are things you experience in real life that you can’t learn from a book or article.

Pay attention to your senses. What does the horse and stable smell like? What sounds do you hear? How do the horse’s coat and mane feel? How does the horse move beneath you? If you can’t get on a horse, here’s a video of a rider’s eye view from the saddle.

Even if you’ve never been on a horse you can write scenes involving horses well as long as you do a little research 😉

Have more horse questions? Post them below!

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How Your Hero’s Goal Shapes Your Plot

How your hero's #goal drives your #plot, and how you can use it to your advantage. Let me ask you a question: What is your hero’s goal? What is he trying to achieve in your story?

(Okay, technically that was two questions, I lied). If you’re not sure about your answer or you’re sitting there scratching your head, you have some work to do!

It’s crucial for your hero to have a goal. If he doesn’t, you have no story. “Well why not?” you ask?

Because your hero’s goal is what drives the story. It’s the story’s purpose. Like a ripple effect, it influences your entire plot.

What is Your Hero’s Goal?

A novel is essentially a story about a character who wants something and sets out to get it, faces challenges along the way, and either fails or succeeds to attain his desire.

So, what does your character want?

  • Frodo wants to destroy the ring.
  • Katniss wants to win the Hunger Games.
  • The Pevensie siblings want to end the rule of the White Witch in Narnia.

If your character doesn’t want anything, there’s no point in telling his story. Actually, without a goal you don’t have a story–just a string of random events. Your hero’s goal is what unifies events into a plot.

Be sure to make it clear as soon as possible what your character’s goal is. Of course you’ll spend time in the beginning setting up your characters and plot, but don’t wait until halfway through your story to clue readers in to your hero’s goal.

If readers don’t know the goal, the story will feel pointless and random, with no clear direction. They might even begin to wonder if you know where you’re going with this thing. And you do know, don’t you? 😉

What are the Stakes?

What happens if your hero doesn’t achieve his goal? These consequences are called stakes.

  • If Frodo doesn’t destroy the ring, Sauron will take over Middle Earth, destroy his home, and enslave or kill his friends.
  • If Katniss doesn’t win the Hunger Games, she will die and there won’t be anyone to provide for her mother and sister.
  • If the Pevensie siblings don’t defeat the White Witch, Narnia will be trapped in eternal winter and they will either be killed or stuck and unable to return home.

Stakes give your character a reason to fight. When creating your stakes, make it personal to the hero in some way so the fight is his. With your goal and stakes clearly presented in your story, the reader will be able to pull for your character and it will give them a reason to keep reading.

What Obstacles are in the Way?

Every scene should move your character closer to or further from his goal in some way. What is keeping your character from getting what he wants? What does he have to overcome?

  • To destroy the ring, Frodo has to evade wraiths and orcs and travel all the way to Mordor.
  • To win the Hunger Games, Katniss is faced with killing other opponents, which goes against what she believes in.
  • To defeat the White Witch, the Pevensie siblings must battle her army.

There are tons of obstacles in a story, some large and some small. Some may be physical and others may be internal. But always your character should be facing some sort of opposition. That’s what keeps your reader reading–to find out if the hero will overcome the challenges and win!

If your story feels off-track or meandering, consider your character’s goal. You may have lost sight of it, or you may not be letting it drive your story.

Use Goal When Plotting

Now that you understand how your character’s goal shapes your plot, take advantage of it. Whenever I have ideas for a new story and I’m trying to come up with a plot, I start by asking myself what this character wants.

I used to create plots by stringing together scenes I thought were cool or exciting, with just the vague idea that in the end my hero would defeat the villain. This worked okay, but I ended up with a lot of unnecessary scenes, the story would wander, and the hero didn’t have a personal reason for saving the world (Really, he could have just saved himself all the trouble and stayed at home and let someone else do it!).

Starting off plotting with my character’s goal has helped me tremendously. It has made my plots clearer and tighter and has helped me to develop a plot much faster. This strategy may not work for everyone, but whether or not you start planning your story with your character’s goal you will definitely need to give it attention.

Do you know what your character’s goal is in your current story?

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10 Tricks for Coming Up With Endless Story Ideas

Helpful strategies for coming up with #storyideas. Plus, keep track of all your ideas with a FREE organizer! Coming up with a story idea is a strange process. Sometimes inspiration may slap you in the face.  But most times…well, you’d be lucky for inspiration to give you so much a poke. Usually you have to coax little nuggets of inspiration from deep within the dark recesses of your brain.

What’s hiding in your mind-palace? Here are some tricks for luring out the plot bunnies.

#1: Look at Photos

I draw a lot of inspiration from photos, and they really help to get my creative juices flowing. Pinterest is an excellent source for photos. Simply search “story inspiration” (or something similar) under boards, and you will find great visual resources compiled by fellow writers.

I have created some story inspiration boards myself, which I organize by story topic. When you look at photos, ask yourself: what is the story behind it? What happened before? What will happen after?

#2: Brush up on Your History

If you love history this is a great place to find story ideas and inspiration. Choose an event or time period that interests you and read up on it. You’ll be surprised what cool facts you’ll uncover that would make an awesome story!

#3: Explore Mythology

Mythology has a wealth of ideas waiting to  be harvested. I use mythological inspiration in nearly all of my stories. A great starting point for finding interesting myths from all of the world is Encyclopedia Mythica.

#4: Writing Prompts

Writing prompts can be a good way to get you in a creative mood. I’ve written a couple stories from prompts lately myself. For ideas, check out my writing prompts board on Pinterest.

#5: Listen to Music

When I’m in the midst of a creative dry spell, I love to listen to music. In my case I love epic scores–they arouse a variety of emotions and I try to picture a scene to fit with the music (I highly recommend E.S. Posthumus if you like epic music). Songs with lyrics are also great as you can imagine stories that fit the lyrics.

#6: Daydream–Ask ‘What If?’

Take some time to just brainstorm. Look at the world and ask ‘what if?’ What if Hitler had won WWII? What if we could breathe underwater? What if your boyfriend turned out to be an alien refugee?

#7: Travel or Explore

Getting out in the world exposes you to different ideas and cultures and offers a wealth of inspiration. But you don’t have to go across the globe–you can explore your hometown. What would be different or unique about it to an outsider? Become a tourist in your own city and discover adventures you can take without leaving home.

#8: Get out in Nature

Humans have a deep connection with nature, whether we realize it or not. Exploring nature can help you relax and give you inspiration for settings.

#9: Browse the Titles of Other Books

This one is kind of weird, but it’s one I really like. I’ve actually written a short story using this method. Get on Goodreads or Amazon and look for books with interesting titles. When you find one that draws you in, try to imagine a story that could go along with that title.

#10: What do You Want to Say? What are You Passionate About?

A good source for inspiration is passion. Are there any issues, topics, or interests you’re passionate about? How could they inspire a story? For example, I’m passionate about horses and my first novel heavily involved them. I’m also passionate about the issue of human trafficking and want to write a story about this topic in the future. What do you feel strongly about?

Keep Track of Your Ideas!

Most importantly, be sure you keep track of all your fantastic story ideas! Always write everything down–don’t rely on your memory to keep track of ideas! A Word doc or journal are both good options.

Personally, I prefer to have a physical copy of my ideas for two reasons: 1) I brainstorm better with a pen in hand, and 2) I don’t trust computers. I always keep hard copies of my stuff because you never know when your hard drive might decide to go kaput and send all of your hard work into the abyss of nothingness. Yeah, no bueno.

So be sure to properly care for your ideas so they don’t get lost!

How do you come up with story ideas? Comment below, I would love to hear from you!

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How to Write an Opening Line that Will Hook Readers (and a Publisher!)

post4The first sentence of your story is the most important you will write. It will determine whether the reader (or publisher) decides to keep reading or toss your book aside.

Think of it this way: when you meet someone new you decide from your first impression whether or not you like the person and are interested in continuing a conversation. (Or if that Hitler stache is just too creeptastic and you want to hightail it out of there first chance you get).

The first sentence is your story’s first impression to a reader. So you need to make it brilliant.

The first thing I do when I pick up a book at the store is read the opening line. If it catches my interest, I’ll examine the book further, maybe even buy it. If not, it goes back on the shelf. So how do you keep a reader from putting your book back on the shelf?

Let’s look at some examples of opening lines. On a scrap of paper, jot down which numbers make you want to read the rest of the story.

  1. “I’ve been locked up for 264 days.”
  1. “The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living.”
  1. “She killed him in the darkest part of the night, before the dew had settled on the grass.”
  1. “Around midnight, her eyes at last took shape.”
  1. “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”
  1. “Laurel’s shoes flipped a cheerful rhythm that defied her dark mood.”
  1. “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”
  1. “Chauncey was with a farmer’s daughter on the grassy banks of the Loire River when the storm rolled in, and having let his gelding wander in the meadow, was left to his own two feet to carry him back to the chateau.”
  1. “After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point.”
  1. ““Four-ball, side pocket.” Aislinn pushed the cue forward with a short, quick thrust; the ball dropped into the pocket with a satisfying click.”

Which of these books would you like to read? Which opening lines arouse your curiosity and make you want to know what happens next?

The odd-numbers are examples of excellent opening lines; the even-numbers are examples of weak opening lines. I’m willing to bet the odd-numbered examples were the ones that made you want to read the rest of the story.

And guess which books are on my bookshelf? That’s right–the odd-numbers. They aroused my interest enough to make me want to buy the book, which is exactly what you want as a writer.

So what makes the good lines good?

  • They arouse curiosity: Why is she locked up? Why did she kill him? Why would she kill her true love? Why is she surrounded by wolves? How did she become a slave?
  • They present conflict: Will she escape prison? Will she get away with killing him? Will she really kill her true love? Will she be killed by the wolves? Will she escape slavery?
  • They start near the action—things are happening or about to happen. There is the feeling of forward momentum from the combination of curiosity and conflict. You want to plunge your reader into the heart of the story as quickly as possible—start in the middle of the action.

What makes the weak lines weak?

  • They don’t arouse curiosity or present conflict.
  • #2 tries to be profound but just ends up being confusing.
  • #8 is description, which slows down the story before it even starts.
  • The problem with opening with dialogue as in #10 is it’s somewhat jarring–we haven’t been introduced to the characters yet and we don’t know who’s speaking.

In case you’re curious, here are the books whose opening lines were used in the example: 1. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi 2. Eldest by Christopher Paolini 3. Claire de Lune by Christine Johnson 4. Fallen by Lauren Kate 5. The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater 6. Wings by Aprilynne Pike 7. Shiver by Maggie Steifvater 8. Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick 9. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas 10. Wicked Lovely by Marissa Marr

The purpose of your opening line is to hook the reader by arousing curiosity and/or presenting conflict and action. Give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages! Are you up to the challenge?

Go to a library, bookstore, your own bookshelf, or even amazon.com, and browse through some books examining the first line. Which ones draw in your interest? Which ones don’t? Share below!

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