fantasy, writing

Killer Research

For other writerly thoughts today, you

could check out my Mad Genius Club post.

This post is about how a story was killed by research. Or: facts and fiction get muddled easily. I was chatting with a colleague about mustangs, and how I was wondering that the BLM rehomes mustangs in the Tennessee area. She told me that she was pretty sure the wild horses in the East, especially Kentucky and the Carolinas, were herds left over from pit ponies turned out after working the strip mines for coal.

And in the course of a workday I had a pretty little story pop into my head involving a tiny dragon named Inktail, his newfound friend who works all day and dreams of becoming a unicorn at night, and their quest to find the pit pony a princess. Which they do, of course, and she puts a glittery horn on the pit pony with a headband, fulfilling his dreams. It’s a silly story, I will happily admit, and a sappy one. But it would be great fun to write and illustrate.

Only… I started to do the research and discovered that it’s not true. Other than some depictions in popular media, pit ponies were a European and Australian thing, they were not at all common in the US (where mules were more likely to be used). The most likely pit ponies in the US were family owned and highly unlikely to have been numerous enough to form herds. And the wild horses on KY strip mines? They do exist, but they aren’t abandoned mining ponies, they have been turned out for free grazing on the reclaimed ground the mining companies have carefully reseeded. Some of them aren’t wild at all, and their ownership is somewhat controversial.

There are wild ponies in Virginia, and they are adorable. But they were put there by the Park Service forty years ago, and let go feral. I don’t want to use them for my character, as they are caught as foals and auctioned, rather than being retired.

So for now, this story idea is shelved, unless I can re-imagine it in a way that makes it work with the facts. I won’t write a narrative that looks like it’s not fiction, but is utterly based on untruth. Tugging on the heartstrings works, but it feels wrong.

18 thoughts on “Killer Research

  1. What alot of people don’t want to admit is some of these horses are abandoned animals. When the animal rights activists got it passes that you couldn’t take horses to the slaughter house it left a lot of owners in a bind. They know own animals that had very little value. Also left the owners with the problem of what to do when the horse had to be put down. Have you ever tried to bury a 1500 lb animal. It’s not easy.

    1. Joe, we’ve had quite a few horses and ponies — thankfully never had to bury any of them. I did have to sell one for meat after he got tangled up with a fence and tore a tendon, and we had a couple that would have otherwise gone for meat. That bill preventing horses from being sold for meat was a serious disservice to both horses and horse owners.

  2. Well if you’re thinking Wales, there were also children as young as 3 or 4 working in the mines alongside the ponies prior to about 1900. I can look that up for the right years, if you like as it was part of a little summer school thing I did with the grandkids a couple of years ago.

    1. Actually, the ponies were brought in when legislation forced the mines to stop using very young children in many places. There were still children working in the mines – the movie The Pit Pony highlights an 11 to working alongside a pony in a Cape Breton mine – but less as time went on. Ponies were used up until 1970, although there were very few in service after the 1920s when steam technology matured.

    2. Oh, and part of the reason I wanted to set it closer to modern era was that children ‘then’ would not approach a pet with carefree playfulness like kids now will. They grew up too fast to have the time and energy to spend in play, or have a ‘useless mouth’ to feed around the house.

  3. I have noticed that if I overwork my voice I become a Shetland pony.

    I could not think of a Unicorn pun, several possible contenders were pointless.

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