Tag Archives: desert

The Incredible Judith Tarr

It is my honor—and I mean that truly—to host author Judith Tarr today.

I first read Tarr’s work in the 1990’s, and continue to be swept up in her stories the moment I read the first page. Her novels encompass the fantastical and historical traditions fantasy readers yearn for, and entwines them with characters who are vibrant, real, flawed, and ever striving. Among my favorites of her works are the White Mare’s Daughter and Arrows of the Sun. Both open trilogies filled with marvelous things. The Washington Post said of her work, “Judith Tarr is as confident in describing the battlefields of war as she is in exploring the conflicts of love,” and I must say I agree completely!

So when it looked possible to include Tarr’s newest novel in the Weird Western bundle—and as a debut!—I was biting my fingernails until she said yes. This woman of sharp observation, honed craft, and polished wit tempered with wide life experience has offered you, my darlings, an opportunity to read Dragons in the Earth through StoryBundle before it’s available to anyone else.

And on top of all that, she agreed to answer a few questions for me!

Dragons in the Earth takes place in Tucson and surrounding areas. I’ve a love for the desert myself, and your respect for the land of your adopted home comes through in your work so strongly. You mentioned elsewhere your reasons for settling in the desert. What has surprised you about desert living? Is that a warning or an enticement?

As I’ve said elsewhere, I moved here for my health. What I didn’t expect was for it to be as livable as it is. “It’s a Dry Heat” is true. I can’t handle humid heat at all, but here, while it’s challenging (and I have to be out in a lot, with the horses), it’s amazingly tolerable. It does not hurt, either, that we build for it, design for it, and plan for it. We make the most of what cool we can find or manufacture.

The other surprising thing, from the being outside all the time standpoint, is that while the desert is notoriously full of snakes, scorpions, and attack cacti, swarms of biting insects are remarkably rare. I can be outside at night without getting eaten alive, and horseback riding in warm weather doesn’t require six layers of Kevlar and a quart of fly spray per horse. We do get barn flies around the summer rains, and mosquitoes if there’s standing water, but it’s nothing like what I dealt with every spring and summer in New England.

 I moved from Indiana to the foothills of eastern Colorado, so I completely understand the joy of (mostly) insect-free outdoor enjoyment!

Now, I’m a dog person. A dog person who adopts rescue pups and helps others understand their adopted dogs who have “a past.” What I’ve loved about reading your accounts of working with horses, on your blog and through Patreon, is comparing your explanations of equine communication to canine communication. Can you share a little bit about communicating with horses—the nonverbal exchanges, the predator-prey alignments, the differences between mares and stallions—and the depth you chose to include in your novel.

Now this could be a book.

And it is! Right here, folks can find Writing Horses—your fantastic guide to including horses in a novel without triggering horse-knowledgeable folks to throw said novel against the wall. Or across the stall.

Or a library!

As briefly as I can put it, horses communicate through movement, through body language and through what can be best be described as manipulating energy. They’re extremely subtle, and extremely complex in their interactions. Humans are at a severe disadvantage here; we’re focused in our heads, we’re loud, we’re clumsy, we lack nuance. Horses are extremely patient with us, but it’s a rare horse who doesn’t eventually just give up and stop trying if it’s constantly exposed to oblivious human body-screamers. That’s the checked-out barn potato but also the crazy spookmonster who freaks out about everything.

If a human tries to communicate with a horse on the horse’s own level, even if the effort is at best a clumsy approximation of what a horse would do, the horse tries very very hard to accommodate. That’s especially true of sensitive horses, and horses raised with the expectation that the humans will try to pay attention.

Then things happen. Like you’re longeing your horse on a 20-foot line, and not saying a word. “Riding” him from that far away. Moving him, changing his gaits, with tiny shifts of your own weight and attitude. Or you’re standing with your horse and you’re breathing with her and she started off anxious about something outside, but now she’s breathing slow and deep along with you, and the anxiety is gone. And stays gone as long as you keep that focus.

Magic.

Mares and stallions? Ah, the myths. Most basically, stallions aren’t the wild hormonal maniacs they’re made out to be. They’re strongly controlled by their instincts, yes, but it’s the mares who control them. Which means human women get along great with stallions. Better than men. A man can be a rival, but a woman is the alpha mare, and he’s wired to defer to her.

Just recently I was going to ride my stallion, but one of my mares wanted the session. As I led him past her, he went nutty. She was driving him off his tiny head with her targeted mareness. I seriously could not get him to focus–and he’s well trained, very smart and wise, and bonded to me. She manipulated him right out of the session. So she got the ride, and he calmed down the minute he was back in his stall with his pile of hay.

And these aren’t even ancient Powers hiding on a ranch outside of Tucson.

Well. Maybe that’s not actually true.

Dragons in the Earth puts together a bunch of elements we often associate with isolation and solitude—a desert setting, caretaking, spiritual and magical undercurrents. What choices and opportunities do you find this provides your characters and their developments?

It lets the characters be very much a part of the landscape and the climate and the overall spirit of the place. At the same time, since that isolation happens just a few miles outside of a city of half a million humans, on land that’s been occupied continually for millennia, there’s the option of entering the urban energy sink and using that to power certain aspects of the magic. Which I will be contemplating for the sequels, because Tucson Magic is a real thing, and it’s urban as well as desert and wilderness.

That’s the thing about the city, in fact. Twenty minutes outside of a heavily populated area is desert or mountain or forest. There’s real wilderness out there. Mountain lions and bears. Bighorn sheep. Saguaro forests. Then you turn around and drive down and you’re in the mall or the University or the barrio.

And even there, you’ll find tiny enclaves: houses with a pipe pen and a couple of horses in back, a garden that’s been there since the Spanish Colonial days, an old sacred hill that looks down on the inner city. There are thousand-year-old pit houses in the middle of the city, or at highway interchanges. And cutting-edge aerospace and biotech, and the airplane graveyard out by the air base.

The stories write themselves.

Would you share your most memorable desert experience?  Your most memorable equine connection?  Either or both?

Oh gosh. There are so many. The mare manipulating the stallion with her hormones–that was a couple of weeks ago. She does things like that all the time. So do the rest of the horses.

For pure desert experience, one of my favorites was a couple of years ago. A writer friend was in town researching a book, and we went down to the Presidio and poked around the remnants of colonial Tucson. From there we headed to Saguaro National Park West, and back in time: we climbed Signal Hill to see the petroglyphs. It was the summer Solstice, 109 degrees F, and we were up on the edge of the sky, where the old ones left messages for the gods and each other. That was a very Tucson day.

What’s coming up next for you, and how can folks who love Dragons in the Earth be informed?

I’m working on a sequel to my space opera, Forgotten Suns, and also on the next Tucson Magic/Horses of the Moon story. I talk about these things intermittently on facebook (with much horse and farm detail), and more often on twitter, where I’m @dancinghorse. Twitter is a good place to find me.

I also have a Patreon, where I post bits of horse and farm news and snippets of fiction. That’s here: https://www.patreon.com/dancinghorse

As a Patreon supporter myself, I can highly recommend it!

Thank you so very much for your time, Judy!

Judith Tarr’s current new release, Dragons in the Earth, is available exclusively through  StoryBundle until September 8!

If you’re ready for more, check out Dancing Horse Farms for information on Tarr’s writer mentoring, and her Horse Camp for Writers.

#SFWApro

 

 

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Season’s First Camp

Between swings of cold weather, there were two days that looked perfect for a quick, early-season outing–clear skies, warm temperatures, and an almost-full moon as a bonus.  Shortly before the trip, the forecast called for a bit of wind and rain on the second day, but I’ve camped through Indiana summer thunderstorms (and a tornado outbreak), so I didn’t have much concern for a slight chance of a maybe-rain event in the high desert.

Compared to Indiana, Denver is pretty darn dry.  Compared to Denver, Pueblo is damned dry.  Truly, it’s been almost twenty years since I’ve spent significant time in the desert, but there is no mistaking the distinct feel of the air on the skin and in the lungs.  It isn’t just the low humidity (which dropped to around 5%).  It’s the smell of dust and–if you’re lucky–the heat-pushed scent of twisted little trees and determined brush.  Breathe it in long enough, and you’ll be able to discern the distinct scent-feel of plain water, too.

When I stepped out of the car and took a few deep lungfuls of that air, I felt as if I were visiting a long-lost home.

LakePueblo March16
Afternoon View From My Campsite

 

It didn’t take long to set camp.  I was one of two campers on the loop, with my nearest neighbors way on the other end, and we couldn’t see each other without stepping around the stunted trees and table covers between us.  We waved from afar, a nice little acknowledgment and mutual agreement to ignore one another.  Really, when you deliberately choose a campground as far as possible from everyone else–not to mention a short hike from the bathrooms–you recognize others who do the same.

In comfortable and quiet isolation, I settled down to bask in the sunshine with a bottle of water (my third since arriving, and I was still thirsty!) and my Kindle for a session of what was essentially self-chosen slush reading.

I looked up as tumbleweeds rolled between me and my tent.  The next one rolled through even faster.  Sitting in the shelter’s lee, intent on my reading, I hadn’t noticed the rising wind.  But now grit was scratching my eyes and my mouth felt a little dusty, and the tent was rippling.  Then a new gust shoved the tent, squishing it down to about half its height, and I thought I might have a problem.

After a few hours of checking and re-checking tent stakes, weighing down the leading edge of my tent to keep it from pulling up, keeping track of everything else that kept trying to blow away or blow over, and consoling Gambit where he’d decided to curl up under the table and shake, the wind abruptly stilled.  My tent had not blown away, its poles hadn’t snapped under the strain, and I just might get a decent camping trip in.

The moon was so bright that night, I sat out writing notes for book-plotting long after the sun went down.  And those other campers at the other end of the loop?  Musicians.  Every now and then, light guitar melodies provided a quiet accompaniment to the few insects chirruping in the night.  Owls hooted.  Coyotes yipped in the distance.

I turned in early, thinking to catch up on sleep, but awoke shortly before midnight with Gambit nosing me.  He never asks to go out in the middle of the night at home, but does so when we’re camping.  So we took a moonlit hike, not at all needing a flashlight, up and down the shale-scattered hillside around the campground with nothing but a light breeze for company.

The next morning, rested and ready to spend the day in combination of book-plotting and brief hikes, I checked the weather alert that had come through my phone.  It was another high wind warning, set to begin late morning and go late into the evening, with predicted wind gusts exceeding 60mph for hours and hours.  And Wednesday’s forecast was even worse.

Staying would have been little more than a decision to battle the wind all day in the hope I’d have enough energy left by nightfall to accomplish what I’d actually come to do.  So I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, gave the sausage intended for the next day’s meal to Gambit (HAPPY DOG!), and packed up.  The wind starting rising while I was taking down the tent.  That made it extra fun, I tell ya.  Driving through those winds coming home made for a long and tiring two hours, too.

And so it was, tired and dust-covered, I rolled up back home.  It was not a wasted trip.  After all, I screened a few novels, mapped out plot points and essential elements of two others, and plotted two novels of my own.  Gambit was thrilled to scout new stuff of his own–he has earned the privilege to wander off-leash under certain circumstances–and I felt absolutely ALIVE to reach even the edge of a desert again.

But within a few hours of being home, the headache started.  Out of curiosity, I checked the weather.

Surprise!  Blizzard warning!  Six to twelve inches, consistent winds around 30mph and gusts over 50mph.  Set to begin in the very early morning, and be at its worst just about the time I would’ve been attempting to drive home had I stayed that extra night.  Yep, I’d have been looking at a 100-mile drive in blizzard conditions.

Had the winds not been so terrible in Pueblo, I would have stayed that extra day.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me to check the weather in Denver.  I’m not an experienced enough Colorado resident to assume blizzard potential in March.  Lesson learned.

Over a foot of snow has fallen here already, and it’s just early afternoon.  We’ve at least three more hours to go.  Denver International Airport shut down, as have numerous roads.  Even the snowplows are getting stuck.  And the winds around Pueblo, where I was camping?  Today, they’re gusting over 80 mph.

Home is good.  Really, really, good.

#SFWApro

More of What Ends Up In the Book

Once upon a time, I lived near deserts and I loved them. It was natural, then, that deserts became the living and breathing setting for Sand of Bone.

When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a piece of desert property outfitted with a one-room cabin outside Apple Valley, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Apple Valley was a little tiny place at the time – less than a tenth of the population it is now – and for a kid raised in the suburbs of Orange County, it was about as middle-of-nowhere as I could imagine.

Our family spent a few weekends every year up there. It being the late 70’s, my parents let me roam the desert at will for hours as long as I promised to never try to catch a snake or explore the abandoned mineshafts.

Continue reading More of What Ends Up In the Book