Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Learning to Ride / Learning to Write

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.


Leslie said...

Laura, I always find it fascinating that just when I'm thinking about particular subjects, they pop up somewhere. I don't believe in coincidences. Refreshing to read a post that is encouraging on two subjects I've been wrestling with myself. Your views on both are encouraging.

Finding writing instruction is easier than finding riding lessons in my home area. I have the internet for the writing! Local libraries for books. Resources at my fingertips! I'm sure I sound like I'm complaining about lack of riding instruction, but in all honesty, we just don't have that resource here so I accept it and just work on my horseback riding best I can through DVD's and remembering my past experiences working at a riding stable. I just want to enjoy riding, trail riding especially. Maybe one day a LD ride in a Competitive Trail Ride event.

Writing I'm able to do in all kinds of weather!

Writing, good and not so good, has always been something that I have had a need to do. Kind of like my need to have horses to fulfill a longing I've felt since I was a horse crazed girl myself.

Whether I ever publish or whether I ever make it to a CTR event, I plan to keep working at these goals. Isn't that what life is about?

Congratulations on what appears to be a successful writing career! I have never read Dick Francis, but since I've been reading the posts on this blog, I've decided I will have to check into his novels. I remember the titles when I was a libararian. I have never been much of a mystery reader,not sure why, but my tastes are changing!

mugwump said...

Yo Laura- You make me blush. I couldn't agree with you more. The best place to learn to ride is on your horse without your parents looking.
That said, I worry that the safe, broke to do it all horses aren't around for kids to ride anymore. The world of lawsuits stops most barns from allowing the gang of kids prowling the hills bareback like I rode with in the 70's.
I also think there is a lack of regular "horse people" anymore. The feed store guy used to actually know things. Your shoer used to ride and own horses. I could go on. We were lucky to grow up like we did. Now, instruction is vital.
As far as writing, I'm doing the same. Reading lots. I have a habit of reading good books twice. The first time to just wallow in the story. The second to study how it was done.
Now the beasty writing job is teaching me to just "getterdun" and beating my poor comma abuse habits right out of me.

Laura Crum said...

LJS82, I wish you the best in your pursuits. Judging by your blog, you are already an effective writer. And my current goal with my horses, very like yours, is to enjoy trail riding with my son. i wish us both many happy trails!

And mugwump, thanks for your comments. I am always interested to hear your take on things regarding horses and writing--and everything else, for that matter. I, too, love rereading books. I learn so much.

Anonymous said...

I think sometimes formal instruction can actually hurt natural talent. I see this sometimes in writing, the author starts trying too hard to follow rules etc that they lose their natural way of storytelling. Probably true of riding also. Good thing many seem to be able to find the middle ground. Mugs, don't let them beat your style out of you, it has so many of us riveted already (not that you want advice from a fellow comma abuser!).

Laura Crum said...

I agree, mugwump, don't change your style to please anyone else. Your "voice" is great just the way it is. Be unique. Use (or don't use) those ding dang commas any way you want to.

Mary Paine said...

Hi Laura,

You have great courage to ride so many different horses! My characters are much braver riders than I am. I had a similar experience in that I didn't own my own horse until I was an adult. My parents were able to pay for lessons, though, and I hung around my local barn all summer filling water buckets, grooming, mucking, helping teach beginners. Anything to be around the horses!


Laura Crum said...

Mary, I'm not so brave any more. These days I only ride two horses--my old team roping gelding (Plumber) and my little palomino trail horse (Sunny). And they're both real solid. My days of having "great courage" are definitely in the past. But thanks for the nice comment. I hope you are able to get some "horse" time in these days.

Anonymous said...

An illness interrupted my riding lessons, and then the recuperation sent me out-of-shape. I hadn't realized how much so until a nice barn manager allowed me to groom her lead-line ponies. As a result, I've been laid up on muscle relaxers for almost a week now. That'll teach me to groom four of those lil boogers in three hours.

IMO, horses seem to be leaving the middle class, especially in urban and suburban areas.

Anonymous said...

A charming piece!

In Clondalkin, in Dublin, in Ireland, the local children started buying ponies at an illegal market and bringing them home.

The usual response to this is to take the ponies away and scold the children.

But in Clondalkin, local people instead set up a horse course to teach the children how to mind, feed, groom, ride and care for their horses.

Then they found that there was an immense pool of local knowledge - the kids' fathers, uncles and granddads had been carters, horse-drawn cabbies, draymen, jockeys, milkmen and breadmen and coalmen delivering with horse-drawn carts and vans.

When these people were brought in, it made a huge difference. Kids who might have fallen to drugs and crime have found a love and a work that leads them to a new world.

I love your story of being taught to ride (and to jump!) by the ponies, and I hope that first pony found a new owner as loving as you.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Rhonda and Anonymous, for the comments. Horses were definitely my main teachers, when it came to learning to ride. I think the horses kept me out of a trouble to a great degree wihen I was a teenager--at least as much as anything could. I'm grateful to have had so many horses in my life (and quite happy with the dozen or so I have today).

Mrs. Mom said...

I know- days late and a few dollars short here, but at least I made it.

Excellent thoughts here Laura. The horses have been my best teachers over the years, and continue to be the best ones even now, only more so.

Writing was (and at times still is) a challenge for me on the blog. My Biggest Fan (that'd be my Dad) tells me every time we talk that I need to write a book. I laugh and tell him that there are a few books inside, but they are not ready to come out yet. We shall see...

Favorite authors? Top Two:
Dick Francis-need I say more?
Second: Janet Evanovich. I am a true blue Stephanie Plum addict. There ought to be a 12 step program or something for an addiction of this sort.