Friday, March 29, 2013

Your Horse Doesn't Love You: An interview with historical fiction author Sue Millard

1) Please tell us about Coachman. 

Good-looking and ambitious George Davenport travels to London with his bride Lucy, determined to make the most of his skill in driving a four-in-hand of horses. It’s 1838. Queen Victoria is crowned, and England is at peace, but it isn't a good year to be a coachman.

George finds employment with William Chaplin, the “Napoleon of coaching”, but railways are about to open across the country and kill off the coaching trade. George loves both his work and his wife, so he has a lot to come to terms with… even before the boss’s daughter starts to stalk him.

2) What was your inspiration for this book?

In 1994 a friend showed me a letter written by William Chaplin, which a bookseller had bought at auction and brought to show her. Neither of them could read his writing. I could… so I got the job of transcribing it. That sparked my curiosity about Chaplin. I knew, hazily, some of the background of my subject. I’d read of him before as “the Napoleon of coaching” in the 1820s and 30s. I was already knowledgeable about horses and had been driving my Fells for a good many years. I owned a lot of books about driving and I’d read accounts of stage coach rides by De Quincey, Dickens and Thomas Hood. However it was my own experience, plus the discovery that coach travel had been replaced very rapidly by rail travel, which gave me the interesting combination of facts and a story that hadn’t been told before.

3) Please tell us a bit about your main characters.

George Davenport is a young English coachman, born and bred to the trade, whose skills are at their height during the “Golden Age of Coaching” in the 1830s. He’s moved about the country to gain experience and better himself and at the beginning of Coachman, he is on his way from Carlisle to London hoping for a share of the lucrative trade in and out of the capital. For the first time in his life, though, he’s got someone else to consider – his landlady’s daughter Lucy Hennessy, to whom he has proposed marriage. Lucy has a rough background – how rough, George doesn’t find out until much later. The tensions in their relationship, and others’, are about the conflicts of work and money versus love and responsibility.

4) Due to the lead character's profession, you spend a lot of time on horse-related content. What sort of things do people often get wrong about horses in books?

One assumption is that your horse loves you. That may be quite wide of the mark. He likes you to be his herd leader, to lead him to food or to provide it, and to reassure him that you know what you are doing and will keep him safe. Given the choice, he wouldn’t put a saddle on his back or a bit between his jaws, pull a carriage for miles along a road or gallop at top speed across country: He does those things to please you because he accepts your leadership and because your society reassures him. Doglike devotion and cute behaviour are foreign to him.

In both books and movies, in battle or suspense situations we are shown horses screaming with fear. However, horses’ fear, unlike humans’ and primates’, doesn’t translate into vocalisation. The noise you would actually hear is that of hooves running rapidly away.

For that reason, your characters driving a carriage can NOT abandon it at the roadside like a car, unless you want to plot a horrendous accident. The “engine” is never out of gear until you unhitch the horses from the carriage. You always need someone to take charge of them.

Finally there’s the assumption that you can give your hero or heroine extra machismo if they ride a stallion. It may work for the reader by association of ideas, but in horse society the mare is the boss! Unless you can also write about how the hero manages his stallion in the company of strange mares… he’s better off riding a gelding.

5) Please tell us a bit about your research process and resources.

I only started to write historical books when I found material that hadn't been dealt with before – the letter from William Chaplin that attracted my attention to the road coaching trade. Coaching figures in many books about the history of driving  – so I started reading what was on my bookshelves – and re-reading. “Write what you know” however had to be supported by a lot of delving. I started with the Dictionary of National Biography, plus his family tree from his great-grand-daughter, my neighbour. I realised that there had been a big change – a national shift in habits – from travelling the roads by horsepower to travelling on rails, by steam.

I knew that the most interesting way to deal with national events was to write fictional characters into them. So I had to invent someone whose life would touch Chaplin’s; make my hero cross paths with him to find the heart of my story; and perhaps weave in a few anecdotes that are known about Chaplin.

No novel has ever taken me so long to write! What I couldn’t find, back in 1994, were the first-hand accounts on which to base this character’s life. They were all in expensive out of print books. So the story stalled until the advent of the World Wide Web and the digitization of books by Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. It was only then that I began to find the personal accounts, the primary sources that showed the attitudes and habits of former coachmen, and the visual evidence of contemporary prints and paintings. I also used the Old Bailey records on-line to find contemporary rulings on crimes, and some were so closely tied to my time period and location that they were woven in and became pivotal events and characters in the narrative.

The British Postal Museum and Archive – again online – provided photocopied original material for other essential scenes in the book.

Historical directories by Pigot and Mannix have been invaluable for character names, place names, typical businesses, inns and coaching routes. I reconstructed coach timetables from such directory entries, though I also relied heavily on the collected data in the Directory of Stage Coach Services 1836 by Alan Bates.

I indulged myself by giving my hero the name of my great-grandfather who had been a “domestic coachman” in a slightly later era.

I really loved the research I did for Coachman, so trimming information out to focus on the story was very hard work.

6) Do you have a link to any excerpts you'd like to share?

The Kindle edition on Amazon has the opening passage in which George is on his way to London seeking work, and has to take over the reins of a stage because the designated coachman is too drunk!



7) Please tell us briefly about your other work.

My poetry pamphlet “Ash Tree” is coming out in late summer 2013, and so I expect to be working with the editor of Prole Books ( in April and May to make sure it’s exactly right for publication. I’ve currently stalled in the middle of a sequel to my horseracing novel Against the Odds, but once I’ve got “Ash Tree” perfected, that’s what I’ll be going back to.

8) Where can readers find out more about you?

The easiest way is to look at my web site, and my blog at I’m also on Facebook – Sue Millard – and Twitter – @jackdawebooks.


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

What a good interview. I visited Sue Millard's blog earlier to read about "The Napoleon of Coachmen", but this was even richer with information about the era and about horses. My present middle grade mystery involves a young girl who loves horses, so this had some good information for her. And I appreciated Ms. Millard's information about sources in general on the Internet.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

PS: Her book sounds like a wonderful story.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth.