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The book that ate my brain

As an avid reader, I noticed that in the acknowledgments, authors almost always thanked their long-suffering family members. I routinely wrote articles and blogged, so I really wondered just how bad could it be? Now I know.

I had great hopes that I could juggle studio work while finishing the upcoming horse color book, and still continue to post to the blog. Obviously that has not been happening! Over the last few months, my world has narrowed down to just the one thing: the book. I do not multitask well at all because I tend to lose myself in whatever project is in front of me, but I must admit that preparing a book has taken that obsessive focus to a new level. I am fortunate that those around me have been very patient with my partial presence; some part of me is always working on the book.

I am getting closer to completion, although I suspect that what looks like the end is just the beginning as I begin to deal with the actual publication. Towards that end, I have begun assembling the necessary photographs and illustrations. Just a few weeks ago, I made a trip to the National Sporting Library in Virginia in hopes of securing better digitized images from some old stud books. It was one of the few equine libraries I had not yet seen, so I was excited about the prospect. The building, pictured above, is in the style of an old coach house, and contains over 17,000 volumes dating as far back as the 16th century. I went with some specific goals, so I only had the chance to skim the surface of what was available there.

Civil War Horse, bronze by Tessa Pullan (1996).

The sculpture, which stands just a short way from the spot where the Battle of Middleburg (part of the Gettysburg Campaign) was fought, commemorates the more than 1.5 million horses and mules that died in the Civil War.

There were restrictions on taking photos in the upper levels of the library due to some of the artwork on loan, which was a shame. The interior is lovely, and gives the impression that you are visiting the personal library of some nineteenth-century Virginia gentleman.

But this is where I spent most of my time: the basement. Over the years I’ve learned that the really useful stuff is usually in the basement. This one was far, far nicer than most. The moving shelves in the picture hold most of the stud books in the collection. To get to the necessary aisle, the handles are turned and each case slides along a track to open a path. If only I had something like this in my house! (Lacking such fancy solutions, I have relied on the Kindle to make space for more books.)

I intended to get better copies of images that I already had, but I made a few finds while I was there. One of the best was a handful of images of the famed, but sadly extinct, Hanoverian Creams. This one came from a 1909 book on horse breeds. There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the actual color of the Creams, so finding a handful of images was an unexpected bonus.

Pistachio, one of the last living Hanoverian Creams

So progress continues on the book, albeit slower than I would like. I had hoped to have copies in time for the Bring Out Your Chinas Convention, but I have other projects that have to be done for that event (including the presentation there) that are going to require that I set the book aside for a bit, so I suspect that is not going to happen. My next big make-or-break deadline will be BreyerFest. I am much more optimistic about making that one.

In the meantime, I fear this blog may still be more sporadic than usual. I have gone ahead and set up the blog for the book, but it is only a placeholder at this point. It should go live once the book is well and truly off to the printers. That’s also when I should return to the studio, and pictures of shiny ponies will once again appear here.

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Unexpected things

You will never guess what I am!

I started getting requests to write a book on horse color shortly after I started writing articles on the subject, but I didn’t take the idea really seriously until after I began doing seminars at BreyerFest in 2001. My husband co-authored a physics textbook a few years later, and I began teasing him that surely my obscure interest (horse color) was more marketable than his (optical physics). I am still not sure about that, but his publishing experience did convince me that I was too used to controlling my images and text to work with a publishing company. The growth in self-publishing options, particularly print-on-demand, and the belief that I probably knew the market for this kind of book better than most publishers, decided it for me.

The book I truly wanted to write didn’t seem feasible at this point. I needed high-quality color printing, and while the prices have come down a great deal in recent years, they aren’t yet down low enough. I thought that producing an in-depth book on color identification at a reasonable price was still a few years off, so I thought perhaps a smaller scale project might be a good way to “learn the ropes” of self-publishing. What I had in mind was a book that expanded on the information provided in my breed color charts. Those charts have always been abbreviated, both in the scope of the breeds and the colors themselves (new colors have not be added over time). They also don’t give any background or clarification on the information. That information has always been in my notes – in my rather infamous “color notebooks”.

These are just a few of the sheets from a few of the notebooks. After almost twenty years, there are thousands of pages – and still they represent only a fraction of the accumulated information.

I thought I could produce a book with a brief outline of the colors and patterns currently known, and then present each breed with a narrative of what colors were present in the gene pool. I envisioned a handy reference book that could fill in what the charts did not tell. Since it was not designed to explain horse color, but merely to tell the story of horse color in the different breeds, it could be printed in black and white.

So that was the plan – a handy reference book that could be written in time for a June deadline (making the first copies available at BreyerFest 2010). Along the way, a lot of unexpected things came up.

The horses’ stories got longer. I’m sure my friends would point out that this is common with the stories I tell! But I am laying some of the blame with technology.

I’m a better-known individual than my pony friend up there, but you might not know what I am either!

When I started work on the book, it was important to me that it be as grounded in fact as possible. I knew that many breed ‘purists’ weren’t going to like some of the information I had, so I wanted to be on solid ground with what I wrote. But more importantly I didn’t want to simply repeat what previous volumes said about a given breed. Having read countless horse books, it is rather striking how most simply reword what some other author said on the topic – and sometimes even the rewording is pretty minimal! I thought the least I could do was confirm information with first sources.

This probably wouldn’t have changed the scope of the book, except that technology meant that I had access to a lot more information. I already have an impressive amount of information right here in my own library, but in the last few years many registries have gone online with their databases. Most of the American and British databases are restricted to members of the various breed societies, or are only available on a subscription basis. Smaller countries, however, have proven to be a lot more open. This, paired with Google Translate, has allowed me to tell the stories of many obscure breeds more fully.

The other important bit of technology were sites like Google Books and the Internet Archive. Projects like these are scanning older texts and offering them as PDF files for downloading. In the case of Google Books, there is a powerful search engine that sifts through not only titles, but the text of books and periodicals. Fortunately for me, the formative years of selective breeding in horses is the time leading up and the time just following the turn of the last century. It coincides almost perfectly with the books aging out of their copyright protections. Having access to so many contemporary texts from that time (and being able to quickly search them for specific subjects) has allowed me to better understand the earliest times for many of these breeds.

The downside has been that the book has become unexpectedly large, and is taking an unexpectedly long time (not to mention eating up an enormous amount of my attention). This stopped being a “quick reference” long ago, but I am even more enthusiastic about telling the tale. I think that here, nearly a century in to selective breeding of animals, is a good time to record these stories and give some idea of the sweep of history involved. It is my hope that by showing how things really were, perhaps those of us who love horses can see more clearly how to proceed in the future. It just won’t be done in time for this year’s BreyerFest.

Oh, and the two horses pictured are some of the unexpected things I have discovered while writing. The black pony is – believe it or not – a Haflinger. He wasn’t just any Haflinger, either. He belonged to the Emperor of Austria, and was pictured as a “typical example” in a nineteenth century treatise on horse breeds. The grey horse is a Hackney. While I knew the color had once been present in Hackneys, I wasn’t aware there were breeders focusing on the color so late into the twentieth century. (It is, as best I can tell, truly lost now.)

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