Tag Archives: mysteries

Dick Francis, a top jockey and an even better mystery writer

When Dick Francis took his horse Devon Loch up over the last hurdle at the 1956 Grand National Steeplechase, he was on top of the British racing world — which was quite a place to be since racing, literally, was the sport of kings. He led the field, and the finish line was in sight. Devon Loch was the Queen Mother’s horse, and the race had not a royal winner in many years.

Little did he know that in the next few seconds he would be spiraled into the pitch and thrown into a new life that would eventually make him one of the premier mystery writers of the second half of the 20th century.

The loss that day, plus many injuries he had sustained during his years of racing, convinced him to retire. He was 36 years old.

He took a job as the racing correspondent for the Sunday Express, something he did for the next 16 years. He wrote his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, and at some point decided — in part because his journalism job paid so little — that he would try his hand at mystery novels. His first novel, Dead Cert, was published in 1962.

That novel set the pattern for the more than 40 that followed. They all involved the world of horse racing, something that Francis knew from top to bottom and inside out. Each had a different protagonist, a rare exception being Sid Hadley in Odds Against (1965), Whip Hand (1979), Under Orders (2006), and Come to Grief (1995).

Francis would take about a year to write each of his novels, and he had a great deal of help from his wife Mary, who often did much of the research. He wanted to include her in the byline, but she always refused.

Francis’ writing process was slow and methodical. He would write a sentence and work on it until he got it right. Then he would write the next sentence in the same painstaking way. Once he was finished with a sentence, chapter, or manuscript, he would never rewrite it.

The former jockey also believed in getting out of the gate quickly. First sentences and first paragraphs hooked readers immediately. For instance, here are the first lines of Come to Grief (which I am reading at the moment):

I had this friend, you see, that everyone loved.

(My name is Sid Hadley.)

I had this friend that everyone love, and I put him on trial.

The trouble with working as an investigator, as I had been doing for approaching five years, was that occasionally one turned up facts that surprised and appalled and smashed peaceful lives forever . . . .

In the 1980s, after his novels had become popular in the United States, Francis moved to Florida. Later he and Mary moved to the Cayman Islands. Francis kept writing until his wife died in 2000. In 2006 he collaborated with his son Felix on a novel, and they published several together before his death in 2010.

Francis won every major award there was for crime and mystery writing and was unassailably a master at his craft.

Neil Nyren has a good review of Francis’ work in this article on CrimeReads (Dick Francis: A Crime Reader’s Guide to the Classics | CrimeReads), and here is Francis’ obit in the New York Times: Dick Francis, British Jockey and Thriller Writer, Dies at 89 – The New York Times.


Where ideas come from: One author’s journey

James Callan is a fiction writer who was introduced to newsletter readers several weeks ago.

He is the author of the Father Frank mysteries, the first of which is Cleansed by Fire, a roaring good adventure with lots of action and interesting characters.

Here are a few questions that James was kind enough to answer.

Cleansed by Fire

Where do you get the ideas for your books?

That’s one of the questions most often asked when I make a presentation.  I love that question because it’s so easy to answer.

Ideas are all around us, every day. You can’t pick up a newspaper or listen to the newscast without a story idea popping out.  Even talking with friends, or overhearing a bit of a conversation can ignite a story.

For example?

I was once in a restaurant. The people in the next booth were chatting back and forth and I pretty much ignored them.  It was as if my mind heard the sentences and immediately discarded them, without my conscience brain registering them.  But one sentence vaulted to the front of my mind and I knew I would write a story, or a book, where that sentence played an important part.  The sentence?  “Was she the woman who died twice?”

My books are all complete fiction, but initiated by something in real life.

What about Cleansed by Fire?

A few years back, a number of church burnings occurred in east Texas.  When they finally caught the two arsonists, the only reason given was, “Could we get away with it?”  As I thought about it over a year, I just couldn’t imagine someone burning down buildings for no reason.  What could be a reason?  And that became Cleansed by Fire, where churches were burned. But there was a reason.

You have said the spark for Over My Dead Body was the Keystone Pipeline.

Over My Dead Body

By eminent domain, Keystone cut a swath one hundred fifty feet wide and a quarter of a mile long through our property, bulldozing down thousands of trees, from hundred foot tall pines to sixth year-old oak and hickory trees.  And this was eminent domain for a private corporation, not for a state or federal project.  

One day I read a brief folktale about a missing wagonload of precious metal in Texas back in the early 1800s.   I wondered, how could such a folktale affect people today.  The answer became A Ton of Gold.

You said that newspapers often provide you with ideas.

Several years ago, I read a four-paragraph story in the Los Angeles Times about a woman held a virtual slave. There were no chains holding her, only the threat to kill her family left behind in Cambodia.  At first, I couldn’t believe such a story. Virtual slaves? In the U.S. today?  I decided to research that on the Internet and to my amazement found it was common. One government report said there may be more slaves in the U.S. today than there were in 1860 —no chains, but threats and economic controls.

A Silver Meddallion

One editor suggested I write a non-fiction book. Interview some who had escaped or some of the families of “slaves.”  As I thought about that, I knew it would be too emotional a topic for me to ever finish the book.

But the idea stayed with me and finally I decided I could write a fiction book and highlight the problem.  A year later, A Silver Medallion was released.  Tthe four-paragraph news story led me ultimately to a 94,000-word award-winning novel.

Any other examples?

Other books have come from similar circumstances: a chance comment, a news story, a personal experience. Often, it’s just asking the question, “What if?”  Not only does this produce good books, it makes life more interesting.  Seemingly off-hand remarks can send the curious mind down interesting and unpredictable paths.  

At least it does for a fiction writer. 



Cleansed by Fire, Over My Dead Body, A Ton of Gold, A Silver Medallion, and other books by James R. Callan can be viewed on his Amazon Author page:  http://amzn.to/1eeykvG or by visiting his website:  http://www.jamesrcallan.com


James R. Callan took a degree in English, intent on writing.  But when that did not support a family, he returned to graduate school in the field of mathematics.  Upon graduation, he worked as a research mathematician, and vice-president of a database company.  

James Callan

He has received grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Data Processing Management Association.  He has been listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science, and Two Thousand Notable Americans.

When his children were grown and self-supporting, he returned to his original love—writing.  For two years, Callan wrote a monthly column for a national magazine. For six months, he wrote a weekly column that appeared in newspapers in four states. Callan has had twelve books published. All have been published in print, nine were also published as e-books and four were released in audio.  The audio version of one of his mystery/suspense books rose as high as number six on the Books in Motion list. Another book ranked as high as seven in its category on Amazon. He has had shorter works published in five anthologies.

In addition to writing books, Callan gives workshops on writing in the U.S. and Mexico.

He and his wife split their time between homes in east Texas and Puerto Vallarta.  They have four children and six grandchildren.