Guest Post: Author Alison Hart on Writing about Horses

By Alison Hart

I’ll admit it: I have been horse crazy since my first Steiff pony and Billy and Blaze picture book by C.W. Anderson (1936).

Decades later, I still ride, continue to read horse books (try Chosen by a Horse, a memoir by Susan Richardson (Mariner, 2007)), and now I have added writing about horses to my passions.

Under my real name, Alice Leonhardt, and my pen name, Alison Hart, I have written over fifty books about horses.

Many are contemporary, including books in the Nancy Drew and Thoroughbred series, my own Riding Academy series, and Shadow Horse (Random House, 2001), an Edgar nominated mystery, and its sequel Whirlwind (Random House, May 2010).

Most recently I have combined horses with history to create suspense-filled historical fiction. The two meld perfectly because human and horses have been intertwined as early as 3500 BC when horses were raised for milk and meat in Kazakhstan (see the fascinating March 2009 article in National Geographic).

Since then, horses have been used (and exploited) by humans in all parts of the world. In America, horses became extinct about 10,000 years ago and were then reintroduced by 16th century Spanish Explorers. That gives me centuries of history to write about.

My current books focus on the 1800s when horses were necessary for transportation, farming, commerce—and war.

During the Civil War, both the Confederate and Union armies depended heavily upon horses. The animals were needed to pull wagons, cannons, and ambulances to and from battlegrounds. The horses also carried cavalry soldiers and officers into battle. About 1.5 million horses and mules died during the Civil War.

–from “The History Behind Gabriel’s Journey” by Alison Hart

Writing historical fiction means I have to know the facts. The Racing to Freedom trilogy (Gabriel’s Horses (2007), Gabriel’s Triumph (2007) and Gabriel’s Journey (2008), all Peachtree) took over two years to research. I have notebooks and file folders of notes and photos from visits to Lexington and Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and Saratoga, New York; magazine articles, old maps, and scrawled notes from over two hundred books and online sources.

My job as a writer is to use the facts to write a compelling story for young readers. Take for example, a scene from Gabriel’s Journey–which is about an African American cavalry unit that fought at the Battle of Saltville, Virginia–that I created around the statistics on the number of dead horses:

I lead Sassy and Hero up onto the road. In front of us, a bulky mound lies in the center of the lane. The horse that was shot is dead. Blood oozes from its neck and shoulder. Already someone has stripped it of bridle, saddle, and gear. Soldiers lead their mounts around it or step over it. No one but me pays it any mind. I remember Jackson’s words when we first visited Camp Nelson and saw the broken-down remounts: Horses don’t choose to fight, and they sure don’t get no enlistment fee.

And no glory neither, I see now. The body will be left for vultures and varmints. My eyes blur. I lead Sassy and Hero around the fallen horse and say a silent prayer.

Whether it’s a pony on the prairie during the Blizzard of 1888 (Anna’s Blizzard (Peachtree, 2005)) or a Morgan horse helping a runaway slave in 1850 (Bell’s Star (Random House, 2009)), each novel I write must be filled with vivid scenes that not only convey our history, but bring it to life for readers.

Cynsational Notes

Alison Hart is a Virginia author of over thirty books for young readers.

Upcoming books include the re-release of Shadow Horse an Edgar-nominated mystery from Random House, along with the new title Whirlwind, its much anticipated sequel (May 2010.)

Emma’s River (Peachtree), a historical fiction chapter book about a plucky girl and her pony and their adventures on the Missouri River is coming out in April 2010.

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