How to become an equestrian writer
IF YOU WERE a bookworm growing up, you’ll remember some much-loved equestrian fiction heroes and heroines. How about Jinny and Shantih, Jill and Phantom; Carole and Starlight or Ken and Flicka? Those of us who grew up on a rich diet of equestrian novels, courtesy of writers such as Patricia Leitch, Bonnie Bryant and the Pullein-Thompson sisters, may have also read classics like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. If you did, Ginger’s sad demise probably haunted you for weeks. Many of these titles went on to be televised, a testament to the appetite for an equestrian tale. The same readers that devoured these narratives probably moved on to more adult-oriented fiction as they grew older. Jilly Cooper’s Riders for instance, with its racy twists, attracted a mass audience that extended beyond the world of equestrians. Similarly, prize-winning page-turners, such as Nicholas Evans’ The Horse Whisperer, have gripped adult readers for decades now. The Horse Whisperer is still one of the best-selling novels of all time and was adapted by Robert Redford for the silver screen, much like the real-life story of 1930s underdog racehorse, Seabiscuit. But then, the regularity with which equestrian-themed books hit the shelves seemed to diminish. According to Michelle Charman, a former publisher for Penguin, the thirst for pony stories abated. “Fashions changed. For a number of children especially, being seen reading a pony book just wasn’t cool anymore.” It appears to have been a relatively short-lived change though, as it seems horsey reads are experiencing something of a comeback in recent years.
New wave of narratives
Michelle spent 30 years working for the UK’s biggest publishing houses, eventually setting up Forelock Books when she recognised the gap in the market for what she calls ‘family equestrian fifiction’. She says people are putting pen to paper again as a result of equestrianism’s newly-widened recognition as a tough and challenging sport. “Riding takes guts and has an element of danger associated with it, so children are not only reading more pony adventure stories now, but they’re proud to be seen reading it. Having a pony as a child, or even not having a pony, has such an impact on a person too, that often adults are compelled to write about a personal adventure from their youth or a pony that gave them joy.” Two such people are British actress Sue Jameson – best known for her roles in popular TV dramas such as the BBC’s New Tricks – and PR worker, Lucy Johnson. Both Sue and Lucy have backgrounds in riding and writing but the books they’ve released with Forelock are their first ventures
into the world of novels. Sue’s Pony Tails is a collection of short stories, each centring around a native breed. “We have a real love of hairy ponies in our family. The first story was inspired by one we rescued from Ireland. My daughter and I decided to go riding while there, and this little pony was not in a good way. He was very thin and conditions were inadequate. We couldn’t leave him there. When he was finally delivered to us and turned out in the field, I recall the man who brought him saying, ‘he must think he’s died and gone to heaven’. We called him Scruffy and the Connemara’s story in Pony Tails is a dramatised version of what happened to him. The horse world is rich with characters and stories. I do a lot of work with charities for instance, so the next story I have in the pipeline relates to the work of the RDA.” For Lucy Johnson, a search for fiction books about racing for her eight-year-old son lead to her decision to write her own. “I’d grown up with hundreds of stories about girls galloping across moors and leaping five-bar gates on their feisty ponies,” she says. “I really wanted to find something to engage my son in the same way, and so I had the idea to write Pony Racer, which tells the story of troubled nine-year-old Tom, his bond with a pony named Leo and his fifirst steps towards becoming a jockey.”
A recipe for success
Stories of years gone by, and more recent publications from new authors like Sue and Lucy, all have certain elements in common: a central character with an incredible bond with a horse, and a theme of competition, adventure or triumph in the face of adversity. But how diffifficult is it to get busy writing? “The first hurdle is to stop prevaricating,” says Sue. “You really must get sat down and have a beginning and an end in mind. Once you’ve ‘placed’ your story like this, just see how it goes!” Lucy Johnson agrees that it’s important to have an aim and a deadline to get you to knuckle down and write. “Pony Racer is only about 30,000 words long. It was hard to find the time to write while juggling work and being a mum, but once I started to write every single day, it was complete in about four months. Be prepared for your story to change and never be too proud to delete sections of your work. It’s hard to delete chunks when you’ve invested time in them but go with your gut. If it’s not working, delete it.”
Inspired to try?
The old adage is that everyone has at least one book in them. So what steps should you take to see your story realised in print? Lucy Johnson says that rejection is to be expected but don’t give up. “Buy a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, which lists contact details of publishers and literary agents. Getting an agent can be as hard as getting a publisher and an agent’s fees can be expensive, so use the handbook to find out which publishers you can approach as an independent writer.” From a publisher’s point of view, Michelle Charman advises doing your research. “Talk to readers, tell them your story and gauge their response. Or, set up a social media account and post snippets about the star of your story to build an audience. The first question a publisher will ask is ‘who is going to be interested in this story and how big is the potential audience?’ It’s crucial to give a publisher an opening and synopsis that’ll grab their attention and make them want the story, so it’s imperative to believe in your story, and be patient.”
The horse world is rich with characters and stories
set Michelle Charman up Forelock Books
The key to writing is… to get writing!
The fifirst Pony Tails book, written by Sue Jameson, was inspired by her own rescue pony