How Much Is Too Much?

First thing… Artemis Awakening has its first major review. I hope you won’t mind if I share both it and my excitement. The review is from Publisher’s Weekly:

Spotted Tiger...  Really

Spotted Tiger… Really

“Centuries after a war shattered the star-spanning Empire, the planet Artemis is a fable—an artificial paradise lost to mainstream civilization. Archaeologist Griffin Dane is the first to rediscover Artemis, but his attempt to explore it in person leaves him stranded on the forgotten planet. With Artemis local Adara to assist him, Dane searches for remnants of high technology, treasures that might allow him to return home. Dane is not the only person interested in Artemis’s secrets, and, as he soon learns, his rival is unbounded by decency or law. Seeking only knowledge, Dane and Adara are propelled into the role of the planet’s protectors. Lindskold (Five Odd Honors)—paying homage to golden-age SF by authors like Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, and C.L. Moore—offers familiar set pieces like fallen civilizations, mad scientists, telepathic animals, and enigmatic mechanisms bordering on the mystical, all filtered through a modern sensibility and polished prose. Embracing and building on tradition, the work is a promising series launch.”

A question I’ve been asked several times since I turned in “The Hermit and the Jackalopes” to Steve Stirling for his Change anthology is “What are you doing now?” The answer is, I’ve been recharging my creative juices.

One of the things I do to recharge my writerly batteries is read non-fiction. One of the books I’ve been reading is the lushly gorgeous Horses: Myth and Fascination by Susanne Sgrazzutti. The book has several sections, one of which is devoted entirely to the complicated and sometimes confusing terminology associated with horse coloration and markings.

I first encountered many of these terms in Marguerite Henry’s All About Horses, a book that was given to me when I was ten or twelve and which still has an honored place on my bookshelf. At the start of Chapter 13 the author says:

“If we are riding across country and meet an old friend on a new horse, how nice to be able to say, ‘What a beautiful buckskin (or sorrel, or flea-bitten gray)!’

“Or if we’re at the races, watching the entries parade to the post, how nice to be able to say, ‘I like the chestnut first, then the sandy bay.’”

Well, of course, I agreed with Ms. Henry. I wanted to know what made one horse a “chestnut” and another merely “brown.” Why was that horse a buckskin but this other one – so close in coloration – a dun? Why was one face marking a “blaze” and another a “stripe”? At what point did a stocking become a sock? Ms. Henry elucidated these mysteries and many others.

Later, I learned that terms for coloration varied according to region and culture as well. Terms commonly used in American horse circles such as “pinto” and “palomino” come to us through the Spanish who contributed so much to the language of the American West and later to American English in general. I remember being vaguely puzzled when in one of Susan Cooper’s novels someone is described as riding a “lion-colored” horse. When I sorted through the description, I realized that what she meant was a palomino.

Ms. Sgrazzutti’s provides yet another angle on this mystery. Her book was originally written in German and traces of the German terminology creep over. One example is that she refers to what an American would call an “Arabian” as an “Arabian Thoroughbred.” To most American horse fanciers, a “Thoroughbred” is a specific type of race horse. As Ms. Henry says: “to a horseman a Thoroughbred is always a horse whose ancestry can be traced directly to the Byerly Turk, Darley’s Arabian, or the Godolphin Arabian.”

Even more fun was discovering that the German color system was designed by one man – Eduard Meyer – in the 1930’s. For this reason, a grey horse is mold colored, while one with a wildly spotted coat is referred to as a “Tigerschecke” or “spotted tiger.”

Now, when I say this is “fun,” I suppose I should clarify. I find this a tremendous amount of fun because I find horses beautiful and interesting. Therefore, I find the language associated with them interesting. I must admit, I would not feel at all the same about, say, guns. I quite enjoy mysteries and thrillers, but when the writers pauses to lovingly describe a certain model of gun for no other reason than they want to, I get frustrated. (I feel differently if the distinctions have some value to the plot.)

I am fond of Steve (S.M.) Stirling’s “Change” books, but sometimes I feel as if I should have my dictionary of armor by my side when he starts describing what his characters are wearing. All those technical terms for types of helmets and breastplates and the like mean less than nothing to me. They actually make what his characters are wearing less clear than if he stuck to less accurate, more general terms.

Too technical a definition becomes worse than no description at all. Why? Because a description that relies on too specific a vocabulary may be the equivalent of saying “gobble-wibble wibble-wobble.” Don’t believe me? Let’s try an example.

I bet most of you would have no problem following me if I described a horse as having a “star.” You’d even position it correctly on the horse in question. However, would you understand what the difference was if I said the horse had a “flower”? Without context, would you even know where the flower was, or that it was a marking, not an ornament? Possibly not. Why? Because the term “star” as a marking on a horse has entered common usage. It’s dramatic to describe the hero riding into town on his black horse with the star on its brow. Less so if he rides in on a black horse with a flower…

But both are legitimate terms for equine horse markings that mean subtly different things to a horse fancier. (A star is more angular, a flower more a rounded blotch. A flake, by the by, is a very small blotch. All are located on the face. If elsewhere, other terms are used.)

How about “overo piebald” or “tobiano skewbald”?

A careful writer can combine accurate use of any sort of terminology by melding it with description, but this needs to be carefully handled. Take a look at the subtle differences between these descriptions.

“Marshall Kane rode out to confront the bandits on his chestnut gelding with the white stripe.”

“Marshall Kane rode out to confront the bandits on his ruddy chestnut gelding with the white stripe down its nose.”

“Marshall Kane rode out to confront the bandits on Flame, his chestnut gelding with the white stripe down its nose.”

The first is perfectly accurate and would tell someone who knew horses that the horse was reddish brown and had a thin white stripe on its nose. However, someone who didn’t know horses might envision a horse with zebra markings or a lightning bolt on its flank. “Chestnut” is descriptive – if you know what a chestnut is. If you don’t, it doesn’t immediate conjure “reddish brown.”

The second description bridges the gap between accurate terminology and description. The third uses the horse’s name “Flame” to hint at the coloration.

Which would I use? Honestly, I’d probably skip the term “stripe” (which describes a narrow white line; a marking, just to confuse matters further, that is also called a “race”) entirely and go for the more familiar “blaze.” I’d hazard “chestnut,” but find a way to slip in “reddish brown” when possible. “Dismounting, he placed a hand on the horse’s reddish brown shoulder.”

Let’s dance back to those German terms for a moment. What if I had a German character? Shouldn’t I use German terminology? Well, it could be colorful. (I have a mad desire to have some character ride a spotted tiger in some future book.) However, would it add interesting world-building or merely confuse my reader? How much is great fun and how much is too much? Whether describing horses or guns or types of food or whatever fascinates you, that’s something writers need to consider.

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8 Responses to “How Much Is Too Much?”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Congrats on the good review!

    Now I’m imagining two horsemen walking into a bar and getting into an argument about what their respective mounts are. One’s very German, the other’s a cowboy… That could be either very interesting or very boring, depending on their relative levels of horse nerdistry.

    As for guns, I’m not a big gun nut myself, but with this whole (expletive deleted) assault gun fad, we’ve at least got a decent set of semiotic markers to use in art. The main purpose of those guns isn’t to kill whatever-makes-you-paranoid. Nope, that’s the sizzle that sells them. They’re basically toys (shooting range adult toys, mind you, with 2nd Amendment overtones and that hint of future tragedy when someone actually uses them for what they’re designed for), toys that are designed to be infinitely customizable to suit their owners’ money, fantasies, and, occasionally, needs (the last primarily for law enforcement).

    I’m more than a little sarcastic about this, because as far as I can tell, the goal is to sell as many guns accessories as possible, just so that the gun companies can stay in business. Before those companies came up with the assault rifle gambit, sales were steadily declining, because the guns they made lasted for generations. If you make a product that works great for 100 years (as they used to), it’s hard to stay in business once you’ve sold everyone all the guns they need (as has happened to many gun manufacturers). It’s better by far to sell nerd guns with lots of fiddly after-market parts so that customers can tinker with them and keep buying more parts for them. It’s a strategy that has worked for everything from Hello Kitty to stereos and computers, after all.

    The upshot is that you can get a bright pink AR-15 with a Barbie logo and a holographic sight, if that’s what your heart desires. Since I’m not a gun nut, the primary interest for me is whether a writer can customize every character’s gun to reflect something about the character. Love them or hate them, assault rifles definitely do this. Now, I’m trying to imagine the person who would want a matched set of Barbie and Ken rifles…

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    It’s a balance to be sure. Though generally, I try to avoid the highly technical terms when possible without damage. For one example, despite my love of animals, I hadn’t heard the term “digit-grade” until I had a conversation with friends about the different kinds of fur suits. It describes the design of the legs, mostly the hind legs, for animals who walk on they “digits” (toes). Cats and dogs are the obvious example.

    Now image using that term to describe an alien that, while standing upright on tow legs, is largely animal in features, including “digit-grade” legs. Okay, if you don’t know what that means, you’re lost. Even the term “anthro” can be alien to a lot of people. So you have to get creative.

    You’re right, it’s something to think about. Even the most basic terms can be slipped in and missed without us realizing it. For example: “I tried my hand at fencing, but I couldn’t even afford a dry foil, much less an electric one.” To non-fencers, this sentence means nothing. But to me, I think so little on it I’ve used it in conversation before I remembered only I would know those terms.

    (Foil is a weapon, once of three, each with specific designs and rules. Dry means no electronic component, which is required for using score boxes in most competitions.)

    • Chad Merkley Says:

      The term actually comes from comparative anatomy and should be written and pronounced “digitigrade”. Cats, dogs and birds are all digitigrade. This contrasts with “plantigrade” as seen in bears and humans. An extreme form of digitigrade is “unguligrade”, which basically means the animal is walking on its fingernails (unguis in anatomical Latin), and is found in hoofed animals like horses and antelope.

      Basically, these words describe which part of the foot is touching the ground in a normal gait. Digitigrade means that just the digits are on the ground. Plantigrade means there are tarsals and/or carpals touching the ground. These are technical terms that have apparently been adopted by fur-suit enthusiasts. I hope they use them correctly…

      I’m shutting down my inner biologist now. I have to let my inner musician out anyway to go play this afternoon.

      • Nicholas Wells Says:

        Wow. I knew all that after doing research, but I couldn’t have said it so well.

        And yes, from what I’ve seen in my digging around, they do use them correctly. The term that differs from person to person is “anthro” or “furry”. But that’s another discussion entirely.

  3. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I like to learn about terms related to animals, so thanks, all! But guns, armor, and the like? Not so much. Bleah. For me, it’s a little like reading about fashion trivia. I don’t know the designers, the minutiae of classification (what the hell is a “cloche”?)… enough, for me, to know if a character is dressed formally or informally, messy or neat, and that, only if it’s relevant to the story line. Same with tools for killing people.
    But animals? I want to know. (By the way, was that a Knabstrupper pictured on your page, Jane?) But I must admit that a “spotted tiger” would not have me picturing a horse!
    Oh, and the Marshall Kane rode out to confront the bandits on his chestnut gelding with the white stripe.” would have me picturing a man riding a chestnut gelding, and alongside both of them (man and horse), would be an ambulatory white stripe. 🙂
    I guess it’s all about what interests a person. Hard to know, for an author writing for a wide audience. Bummer, that.

  4. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention, congratulations on the good review, Jane! Yee-ha!
    But I wish the writer had said “unbound” or “not bound”, instead of “unbounded”. It makes it sound as though the person had been set free or made infinite by decency and law, rather than decency and law being things not in consideration. Or am I misinterpreting?

  5. Paul Genesse Says:

    Jane, Congrats on the review in Publishers Weekly! That is awesome.

    Writing description has always been a struggle of mine. My philosophy is that less is more, but I do appreciate a great passage of description, especially if it’s three lines or less. The odd words don’t help me much and take away for sure. The most beautiful writer of description I can think of is James Lee Burke. His prose is poetic, tight, and incredibly beautiful.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I very much have enjoyed the comments…

    Several “ghosts” have commented as well…

    One, who is a horse professional, commented that terms do vary considerably according to context and nationality. She said she’d never heard “flower” or “flake,” for example, and she’s worked with horses since she was a child.

    This just goes to show that a writer should never depend on only once source of information and, if in doubt, check with a reliable living breathing source.

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