By Laura Crum
I’m often asked by readers who would like to become published authors how I was able to achieve that goal. I’ve talked about the long trail that culminated in the sale of my equine mysteries to a major New York publisher (St Martin’s Press) on this site (“One Woman’s Path to Publication”—March 2008). Today I’d like to talk about something even more fundamental—the actual writing.
I’ve always been one to learn by doing, both with my writing and my riding. As a child I took lots of riding lessons (anything to get on a horse), but I never felt I learned as much from this as I did from the long unstructured hours of riding (sometimes on quite difficult horses) at my family’s ranch. As a woman in my twenties, I took many lessons from prominent reining and cutting horse trainers, but it wasn’t until I actually went to work for these guys and spent eight hours a day for many years riding horses for them that the stuff they were trying to teach me finally sunk in.
So, who did teach me to ride? (Or to write?) The short answer is that Lad and Tovy taught me to ride and Dick Francis taught me to write.
I was a horse crazy little girl like so many others. Yes, that’s me on the pony, all of two years old and thrilled to be on a horse. That pony’s name was Tarbaby, and though in the photo I may look like a lucky little girl with her own pet pony, the true story is rather different. My uncle, who owned the pony, fancied himself a horse trader, and having bought the critter cheap, was determined to sell it for a handsome profit. Thus the point of the photo was not to show off my small self on a pony, it was to show prospective buyers that Tarbaby was gentle enough for kids. The notation on the back of the photo says nothing about “Laura”; rather the words are “Pony for Sale.”
This gives you something of a frame of reference for the way in which I “grew up” with horses. My uncle always had them, and I was allowed to ride them out at the family ranch, but no one took much interest in me or my progress; certainly I was not allowed to have a horse of my own until (at fourteen), I had saved up enough money to buy one myself. I did ride my uncle’s horses, many of them “trading horses” like Tarbaby, all through my childhood, and, as you can imagine, I had some interesting experiences.
Still, amongst the runaways, broncos, and various other recalcitrant beasts that I struggled with were two horses that my uncle kept to team rope on and never traded off. These two registered Quarter Horse geldings were gentle, well-broke animals who knew their job, and between the two of them I learned to ride pretty well.
Lad and Tovy were their names: Lad was dark brown with a blaze, Tovy a solid sorrel. My cousin and I rode those horses bareback and double, we rode them sitting backwards, we rode them standing up at the trot and slid off over their tails for a dismount. We jumped them over three foot fences (despite the fact that they were team roping horses and this wasn’t their job description) and galloped them along the creek. Not to mention gathered the cattle and did all the ranch chores on them. Yes, Lad and Tovy taught me to ride.
If you’re wondering how, exactly, Dick Francis taught me to write, well, no, he didn’t personally tutor me. Like so many others, I loved his books and read and re-read them constantly. When, at thirty years of age, I decided to use my background training and competing on western cowhorses to create a mystery series, much as Dick Francis had used his background as a steeplechase jockey to create his own books, you can imagine who I modeled my writing on. Yes, every time I got “stuck” at some place in my first manuscript, I would pull out a Dick Francis novel to see how the master did it. (And yes, I’m sure that Cutter, my first novel, has in some ways a very, shall we say, derivative feel.)
In time, of course, I developed more of a sense of my own voice, though I always admired Dick Francis’ work. I was also honored to meet my “teacher” and have a longtime correspondence with him. In the course of these letters he praised several of my mysteries and actually asked to borrow some bits from one (this was Slickrock). My books have been likened to Dick Francis’ novels by many reviewers, something which always pleases me (see the quote on the cover of Chasing Cans, my most recent novel). However at this point in my career I no longer have the impulse or need to imitate another author; I merely tell the story that comes to me, in my own way. Some say that my later books are better written than my earlier ones, and I like to think that’s true. Nonetheless, I will always credit Dick Francis as my original inspiration and am grateful for his support over the years as well as the example that he set.
There are other ways to learn both riding and writing, of course—horseback lessons and writer’s classes, seminars of both sorts—all these things have their place. But I would like to assure those whose path, like mine, is more of a solitary one, that this can be productive, too. Lots of hours spent horseback and lots of time spent reading authors whose work you admire can pay off every bit as much as instruction and critique when it comes to riding and writing, at least in my opinion.
And since the most entertaining part of this blogging is hearing the responses, I’d like to put this question out there to all the horse people and authors (especially bloggers) who read this post. Anybody else have a take on this subject that you’d like to share? What made you a rider? Or a writer? I know mugwump has been big on continuing instruction, at least in her riding career, and I’m always willing to learn from her, talented trainer and writer that she is.
Oh, and for those who commented on my last post about my skinny horse, I’m happy to report that ET is gaining weight steadily and looks much better than he did even two weeks ago. No ribs showing at all. Thanks for all your input.