I've recently been invited to join equestrianink and thought I'd begin by introducing myself and telling the story of the long trail that culminated in the sale of my equine mysteries to a major New York publisher. My name is Laura Crum and I write a mystery series about equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy. The books are set in California and revolve around the world of western horses. Each book deals with a different facet of western horsemanship, as well as a different stage in Gail's life, and all of the books arise out of my thirty years plus experience training and owning horses. Here's a condensed version of my history.
I grew up riding horses for my uncle (a part-time rodeo cowboy who competed at team roping and raised Quarter Horses), and was breaking and training colts for him by the time I was eighteen. In my twenties, I worked for a pack station in the Sierra Nevada Mts and for a large cattle operation in northern California. This was followed by a period where I worked for some prominent cutting and reining horse trainers and hauled my horse, Gunner, all over California and several other western states competing at reining and cutting events. Eventually I began competing at team roping, and continued to train horses, both for myself and others.
Right around the time I turned thirty I decided I was ready for a slightly less strenuous career. Since I had always been a big fan of Dick Francis (like so many others), I decided to try my hand at turning my background with western horses into mysteries, much as he had used his past as a steeple chasing jockey to create his own books.
So for the next few years I wrote. I continued to train horses for myself and competed at team roping, but my focus began to be on writing about it. I wrote longhand, in a spiral bound notebook, and I can remember writing away in the front seat of my pickup while I waited for my name to be called to compete at various ropings. I wrote in the barnyard while I watched my hosed-off horses dry in the sun. I wrote three book length manuscripts over a three year period before I was able to get an agent to represent me, and when she did agree to take me on she demanded numerous rewrites-this process lasting another year (she was a former editor and it showed). Once she was satisfied with the book, it took her over another year to sell my first novel, Cutter, to St Martin's Press. So the path to publication wasn't exactly easy nor was it a fast track. Still I have very much enjoyed the process of writing about the many aspects of the western horse world that I've been involved with, and I feel grateful that my mysteries have continued to be published regularly ever since that first book hit the shelves.
Cutter came out in 1994 and describes the world of cutting horses. It was followed by Hoofprints, which revolves around reined cowhorses. Roughstock features team roping and endurance riding, and Roped deals with ranching and roping. Slickrock is set in the course of a pack trip in the Sierra Nevada Mts and Breakaway involves Gail in riding the trails of coastal California. Hayburner describes breaking a colt and Forged takes Gail and her horses on a pack trip along the beaches of Monterey Bay. Moonblind features a Thoroughbred lay-up farm on the cliffs above that same bay, and Chasing Cans, my tenth book, which is just out this month, centers on a legendary barrel racing trainer.
I'm frequently asked by readers who want to become published authors what my advice would be to one who is getting started. Obviously you have to be willing to persevere with your writing even when success doesn't happen immediately. (Or doesn't happen for years, which was my own case.) I think this goes without saying. I have also found it helpful to write about things I know intimately. Almost all the facets of the western horse world that I explore in my books are areas that I have participated in for years and years. (The exceptions to this are endurance riding and Thoroughbred lay-up farms, on which my knowledge is second-hand-thank you Craig and Ginny!)
Since I have had horses all my life (currently I own eleven) the veterinary calls and emergencies that Gail deals with are based on things that have actually happened to me and my horses, or to my friends. And the horses in the books are all based on horses I have known (and mostly loved). This helps the books come alive (at least for me; I hope for others).
The books are set in California, primarily on the coast near Monterey Bay, where both Gail and I live, and where my family has been running a ranch for four generations. Though I know some authors can write about places after brief trips to research them (and do a good job of it, too), I don't posess that skill. In order to write effectively about the weather, landscape, and "feeling" of a place, I have to know it intimately.
When I first began writing these mysteries, inspired by Dick Francis as I was, I used a male protagonist. However it wasn't until I re-wrote my third manuscript, changing the male veterinarian into a female version, that an agent finally accepted my work. I believe this was in part due to the particular timing; female protagonists were just becoming very popular in the mystery genre, with a great many of us riding in on the heels of Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. I have come to feel blessed by the chance that gave me a woman to write about; I found that my ability to give Gail life changes that I knew intimately (having been through them) contributed to my ability to keep her "alive" through many, many books (at least for me, again, I hope for readers, too). "Write what you know" has become my mantra.
One of the biggest thrills in my writing career has been to actually meet the man who was my inspiration-yes, I mean Dick Francis. Since our meeting we have had a regular correspondence for the last fourteen years. You can imagine how delighted I was when he read (and praised) my novels, but the the ultimate moment came when he asked to borrow some details of veterinary medicine that I used to further the plot in Slickrock. Of course I said yes. (!) "Borrow anything you like" (though I don't know if he really did). Praise from one's mentor is sweet indeed and I am never happier than when my books are likened to Dick Francis'. (See the comment on the back of Chasing Cans-I'm very touched by it.)
All in all its been a wonderful ride-both the books and the horses. I still ride my horses almost every day, and despite all the hours I've put in writing over the last twenty years (yes, its been twenty years-I started writing mysteries when I was thirty and I'm now fifty), it doesn't amount to half the hours I've spent on the back of a horse!
Happy trails, Laura and Gunner
PS-Gunner is twenty-eight this year, happily retired (still sound) and living in my sixty acre pasture.