When Jaden Terrell started researching A Taste for Blood and Ashes, about the ugly practice of "soring" horses, she was warned by a source, "They'll kill me and they'll kill you." The award-winning author persisted. The Femmes welcome Jaden today.
By Jaden Terrell, guest of the Femmes Fatales.
“I’m thinking of writing about the soring controversy,” I said.
A horse trainer had mentioned leaving the Walking Horse show world because of the pervasive practice of using caustic chemicals and other painful techniques to get the distinctive high-stepping gait known as the Big Lick. “Could I take you to lunch one day and ask you some questions? I’ll give you a shout-out in the acknowledgments.”
Her back stiffened. “I’m not talking about that,” she said. “They’ll kill me, and they’ll kill you too.”
“It’s not an exposé. It’s just a novel. It’s fiction. I’m not naming any names.” I gave her a reassuring smile. “I won’t even put yours in the credits if you don’t want me to.”
She shook her head, and this time there was fear her voice. “It doesn’t matter. They’ll find out, and then we’ll both be dead. Seriously, you should drop this.”
I did drop it, but not because I believed I would be killed and not because I’m especially brave (I’m not). I dropped it partly because I couldn’t find anyone willing to talk to me and because I came to believe that the Horse Protection Act of 1970 had finally stopped the practice.
I was wrong.
Shortly after my second Jared McKean book came out in 2012, I started hearing about soring again. It seemed the more ways the government found to identify the practice, the more ways some trainers found to get around it.
I watched YouTube interviews with trainers who had gone to prison for soring. I talked to horse owners who had left the Walking Horse world because of it. I read articles and watched presentations and talked, first to vendors at the world-famous Walking Horse Celebration who said soring was ubiquitous, and then to trainers who said the inspectors can prove any horse has been sored just by annoying it until it responds. I watched undercover videos of trainers “stewarding” horses—an innocuous word for the barbaric practice of teaching a horse not to respond to pain by beating it when it does.
I felt that tug again, the one you get when an idea grabs you by the heart and won’t let go. I thought of that long-ago warning: "They’ll kill me, and they’ll kill you too." I told myself that with soring stories all over the internet, I could hardly be accused of being the one to break the news.
Besides, I had a series character who owned and loved horses, a private detective with a soft spot for animals and a hard spot for animal abusers. Maybe it was finally time to write that story.
One challenge of writing a book about a controversial issue is how to write a strong story without preaching. I liked the way Tim Robbins handled Dead Man Walking. His even-handedness forced viewers to think through the issues surrounding the death penalty and come to a more nuanced decision that acknowledged the very real concerns of both sides.
John Grisham took on the same topic in The Chamber. He too addressed both sides of the issue, but added an extra dimension. He madethe death row prisoner a vile, unrepentant racist and murderer. Both Robbins and Grisham were sharing an important message, but that message was secondary to the prime objective – give the audience a good story.
To make my novel a good story, I had to create complex, shades-of-gray characters. Once I knew each of them and what they wanted, the story began to fall into place.
I started with a suspicious barn fire, which Jared investigates. Zach and Carlin Underwood, the couple who own the barn, are “sound-horse” activists, meaning they are anti-soring. Yet, the fire examiner’s report shows that the accelerants used were chemicals commonly used in soring. The Underwoods’ finances have been stretched to the breaking point by medical bills. The couple suggests they’re being targeted by other members of the Walking Horse community because of their activism. While sifting through the ashes of the ruined barn, Jared finds human bones. Who died? How did the person come to be there?
There is no morally defensible argument for soring, so I focused on how and why it happens, and why otherwise decent people who think they love horses either do it or allow it to be done.
Some of the anti-soring rules are so vague that no two inspectors interpret them in quite the same way. This means there’s plenty of room for corruption.
There comes a point where the characters spring to life. That’s how I fell in love with the Underwoods, a Tennessee Walking Horse stallion nicknamed Judge, a handsome handyman with a past, and a beautiful gold-digger obsessed with fire.
Shortly after I finished the book, I showed it to my buddy at the feed store. I'll call him Tom. “That’s a fine-looking book,” Tom said. “I hope you’ll be okay.”
I laughed, a little nervously. “Of course I’ll be okay. This stuff is all over the internet now. There’s a lot of people talking about this who are way more visible than I am.”
“I know,” he said.. “But they’re out there, and you’re here.”
Jaden Terrell is a Shamus Award finalist and the internationally published author of the Nashville-based Jared McKean mysteries. She is a contributor to the Killer Nashville Noir anthology, International Thriller Writers’ The Big Thrill magazine, and Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. A recipient of the 2017 Killer Nashville Builder Award, along with the 2009 Magnolia Award and the 2017 Silver Quill Award for service to the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, this former special education teacher now offers private coaching, live workshops, and online courses for writers. Learn more at: https://www.jadenterrell.com.