The Horse Problem

I have ridden a horse twice in my adult life.  My knowledge of the care of horses, how they behave in groups or how they interact with their human counterparts can be described as vague on a generous day.  But, if were to write classical fantasy, there would likely be horses as part of the milieu.  Knowledgeable readers, armed with the internet and an endless supply of nerd rage would be more than happy to point out any mistakes.  And you know what?  They would be right.  Almost clichéd advice tells me to I write what I know, so how can I then justify having a milieu where horses are prominent given my ignorance?  I can research and cheat.

With an internet connection, research on any topic and finding people with specialized interests and knowledge is easier than ever before.  I can read, watch movies and study photographs.  I can take field trips to interact with real horses and the people who love them.  By befriending the very individuals that would be criticizing me for handling horses inaccurately, I am able to avoid pitfalls.  If I’m incredibly lucky and charming, I can convince one of them to beta read for me.

What if I’m in the middle of a scene I don’t want to stop what I’m doing to do hours of research?  I cheat.  If I don’t know something and can’t find the answer quick enough to suit me, my character doesn’t either.  I’ve tweaked backstories or milieu when I had to.  My protagonist can simply ride up to the inn and pay the stable boy to tend to his mount.  I might even hang a lantern on the occurrence by having my protagonist wonder what exactly goes into the care of the horse.  As another option, I can use the character’s ignorance as a plot point.  I’m a firm believer that characters should both cause and solve their problems, so what happens if a saddle is left on a horse for several nights in a row?  I might not know, but after I finish writing the current scene, I can go research.  Suddenly, my protagonist’s horse has sores adding to his problems.

Alternatively, I could simply change the rules.  After a gaming session in college, one of my players informed me that the “Keal stallions” I introduced that session were unrealistically smart.  Unable to fix the oversight, I cheated.  Next session, we started with a back story how the Horselords of Keal had bread mundane horses with Nightmares, a DnD demon horse, to create a race of super horses.  Unable to resist, I stepped their intelligence up a notch.  I had them counting, performing complex problem solving and communicating amongst themselves with each animal having a distinct personality.  Two hours into the session, we had done nothing but explored the personalities and interact with the party’s new mounts in a series of “training” sessions.  The kicker was that the person who had the most fun was my horse expert.

Beginning the Discussion: How do you handle a situation where a character knows significantly less than you on a given topic?


2 Responses

  1. Jess says:

    Yeaaaah, that happened to me ALL THE TIME during my super prolific writing phase (aka high school). Happens when you’re consistently and systematically cruising through every single job type simply to try something new.

    My standard technique was research, research, research, or if I could reason/stumble my way to a logical spot, I went with it. I look back on those stories and either face palm at the end result or smile at the brilliance.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      I’ve had plenty of my own face palm worthy moments, Jess. Recently, I have been thinking that the difference between a face palm and a brilliant moment is in the set up and execution. Have you ever gone back and tried to take the horrible moments and make them your brilliant moments?

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