At the age of eight, Terri Farley tapped out her first horse story on her grandmother’s typewriter. By the time she was a sophomore in high school she had made her first sale. Her mother came to school after lunch and before geometry waving a skinny envelope. Farley remembers thinking, “I can imagine these things and people will pay me for it?” From then on she was hooked!
Farley wrote through college (winning a Phelan Award for creative nonfiction), while raising children, and teaching high school English for fifteen years. Initially, much of her writing found a place in the magazines and newspapers serving her Nevada home. But a ten-day cattle drive changed her life forever.
After a torrential rain, Farley remembers riding drag behind the herd. Steam rose off the rocks as she peered down a slot canyon. A lone white horse stood in the misty morning. Or did it? She had to gallop off to chase an errant cow before she could investigate, and by the time she did reach the canyon, the horse was gone. Even Farley admits a lone horse was unlikely; horses are herd animals. Unlikely or not, Farley’s imagination took off with her clutching the reins for dear life! “Every time I turned around,” says Farley, “I would hear a scrap of dialogue or imagine a scene.” Soon she had seven recipe boxes filled with scraps of paper scrawled with ideas for new characters, dialogue, scenes, settings, and plots.
She wrote Phantom Stallion: The Wild One as a single title from a fraction of these notes and sold the manuscript to HarperCollins. But after reading the manuscript, Farley’s editor envisioned a three-book series. Farley knew she could write two more books, because she already had the makings in her recipe boxes. When her editor decided Phantom Stallion could be a six-book series, Farley returned to her boxes. This fall the Phantom Stallion will culminate with book 24—a five-year project for Farley, writing five books a year.
As the Phantom Stallion series took on a life of its own, Farley quit teaching to write full-time. “Writing is something I’ve worked for all my life,” she says, but she misses teaching all the time. “I cry at back-to-school sales!” She continues to stay in touch with kids through school visits and the 100-plus daily emails she receives from her readers.
In order to adhere to her rigorous writing schedule, Farley’s rented office space contains her computer and a coffee pot. No Internet access and no distractions. She’s at her desk by 7:00 a.m. and writes between six and ten hours a day.
Farley says her books are “three quarters imagination and one quarter research. Every time I dip my bucket into my imagination well I’ve come up with something, but I’ve got to refill it.” She frequently apprentices herself to various organizations to gain experience and insight into a particular job or way of life. For instance, she observed training sessions for police horses and rode in a Pony Express reenactment for the Phantom Stallion series. She worked at a marine mammal rescue center for Seven Tears into the Sea (Simon & Schuster, 2005). And she observed Paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) on their native-owned Hawaiian ranch for her newest series, Wild Horse Island, debuting in Fall 2007.
After writing 25 books, she realizes that her characters are a lot like she used to be as a kid. Farley’s elementary school bordered a dairy farm that also dealt in veal calves. The farmer culled every fifth calf that was born, hit it on the head with a chain, and sold it for veal. Outraged, Farley organized a sling shot posse firing rock ammunition at the farmer the next time he tried to remove a calf from the herd. Farley describes her adolescent characters as smart (but somewhat geeky), hovering around the outskirts of popularity and standing up for people or animals that can’t help themselves.
Farley’s work ethic is the driving force behind her wildly successful series. “Why watch TV or read a magazine,” she says, “if I could do a page of a book or make a note and stick it in a box.” According to Farley, a good day writing “is like being in another world. Wow! You’d do it for free!”