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February 22, 2010

What I Learned About Writing from Bestselling Mystery Writer Dick Francis

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Photo copyright Dick Francis

When I was in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I dabbled in writing.  I wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid to be a writer.  Afraid to make mistakes, afraid to show my work, afraid to put anything down on paper that might expose too much of who I was.

Then I read the mystery novel Reflex, by Dick Francis.

Though I'd always loved mysteries, I'd never read anything by Francis. I tended to stay away from mysteries written by men (too violent, or bad women characters), or mysteries written in the first person (too personal).

I made an exception for Reflex because the protagonist was a jockey whose hobby was photography, and at that time I was very much into photography.

After reading a couple of chapters of Reflex, all of a sudden, a light bulb went off. This was the style of writing I had been looking for.

Dick FrancisPhoto copyright Megan Smith

All of my writing attempts up to that point were stories written in the third person. Though writing that way made me feel safer, less exposed, it never felt right. What did feel right was Francis' sparse, yet descriptive, first-person style.

The other thing I loved about Reflex was that the main character, Philip Nore, liked women. Not just loved women, had sex with women, or was raised by a woman -- he liked women. That theme carried through many of Francis' novels.

Add to that a murder and several photographic puzzles it took our hero, some bruises and a darkroom to solve, and by the end of the book I was a devoted Francis fan.

Even then, it took me years to get up the courage to experiment with my writing skills, but the fact that I'm writing this right now, not afraid for you to read it, is due to the seed that was planted when I began to read Dick Francis.

Last week, on Valentine's Day, Dick Francis, author of "42 novels, a volume of short stories, an autobiography (The Sport of Queens) and the biography of Lester Piggott" died at the age of 89.

I couldn't let that milestone pass without a tribute to someone who entertained and inspired me in so many ways.

A former steeplechase jockey, Dick Francis worked as a sportswriter after he retired from racing. He eventually published his first mystery novel, Dead Cert, in 1962. Francis had a way of getting the reader right up on the horse with his characters and never letting you off until the thrilling ride was over.

All of his novels were set in the world of racing and after reading them all, I learned more about how to fix a horse race than I ever thought possible. I also learned that fashion models have nothing on jockeys when it comes to compulsive weight control. And the Kentucky Derby? That's nothing compared to riding a steeplechase in a raging downpour.

What I also liked about Francis' books was that his protagonists, though often similar, were always different characters. And they always had some kind of important personal issue or decision they had to deal with while tracking down the bad guys.

Like Henry Grey, the pilot in Flying Finish, who flew the horsey set around. Or Roland Britton, the accountant in Risk, who kept their books. Or kidnapping expert Andrew Douglass in The Danger, brought in when a famous woman jockey is held for ransom.

Francis' most well known character however, is Sid Halley, a badly injured jockey who becomes a private investigator when he can no longer race. He's one of the few characters Francis used in more than one book.

Several of Francis' plots were used as the basis for two TV series that aired on PBS's Mystery: The Racing Game and the Dick Francis Mysteries.

The books always started with a bang, and kind of like a jockey on a horse, never looked back. There was violence, but never anything that felt gratuitous, and Francis was particularly good at describing physical pain -- since during his racing career he'd broken more than his share of bones. Here's an excerpt from Reflex:

Winded and coughing, I lay on one elbow and spat out a mouthful of grass and mud. The horse I'd been riding raised its weight off my ankle, scrambled untidily to its feet and departed at an unfeeling gallop. I waited for things to settle: chest heaving, bones still rattling from the bang, sense of balance recovering from a thirty-mile-an-hour somersault and a few tumbling rolls. No harm done. Nothing broken. Just another fall.

After reading Reflex, every year when a new Dick Francis book came out, I would make a pilgrimage to the Murder Ink bookstore on the upper west side of Manhattan for his book signing.

And there he'd be, a small, bright-eyed man, signing my book with a smile and a handshake. As the years passed, the arthritis in his hands became more pronounced and the signing events became shorter and shorter.

Francis and his wife Mary were married for 53 years, and it's rumored that she not only helped Francis with his books, but co-wrote significant portions of them. After her death 10 years ago, his public appearances diminished, and I never saw him at a book signing again. His last few books were co-written with his son, Felix.

You know how you connect with some writers because of the point in your life when you discover them? It was like that for me with Dick Francis.

Dear Mr. Francis, RIP.

Related Links:

A video interview with Dick Francis and son Felix Francis on BBC Radio4

We Will Miss You Dick Francis, by Rhonda Lane

In Memoriam: Dick Francis by the Tailored Woman

Dick Francis is Gone by Morgan Mandel

RIP Dick Francis by Melissa "Melicious" Joulwan


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