Beloved mystery suspense author Dick Francis died on Valentine’s Day at the age of 89. Francis, a former jockey to the Queen Mother, is a wonderful example of how one can reinvent one’s life, even after bitter disappointment. When he was 37, he lost the Grand National, steeplechase’s most prestigious race when his horse collapsed momentarily right near the finish line. It was the last race of his career. Here is the video of that event:
Forced to retire because of multiple injuries, Francis began to write, first an autobiography, then a racing column, finally fiction. Because his books always included some aspect of racing, Francis found a way to remain involved in the world he loved. He also gained more success and fame than he ever could have done as a jockey.
I discovered Dick Francis’s books in the 1990s, after I had finished my Masters in Social Work and suddenly had time on my hands. Mine was not a straight line back to reading Romance, you see, but Dick Francis was an important step along the way, because what I loved about his books is what I love about Historical Romance.
I didn’t really care about the mystery in his books, but I loved his heroes. Heroes like Sid Halley, who were brave, good, honorable, but flawed men who generally did what was right. (Sid Halley, by the way, was the hero of four books and shared some of Francis’s history. He, too, had been a jockey forced to retire because of injuries.) I am certain Francis’s heroes have influenced how I create mine.
I also loved the worlds he created so vividly they made me feel as if I were a part of them. Francis recreated the world of racing, but the principles are the same. I try to write as accurately and as authentically as he did. Mostly, I try to make the Regency come alive for readers like his racing world came alive for me.
In the 1990s, still before I started writing, Dick Francis came to a bookstore near us for a book signing. It was a small neighborhood Waldens Books, when small neighborhood bookstores still existed. I dragged my husband, son (about age 9 at the time and thoroughly bored), and our friend Virginia. I had never been to a book signing before and had never met an author. The line snaked around the store and it took a couple of hours to get to the head of it.
Francis seemed old and frail even then, a slight figure of a man who looked like a mild wind could topple him over. At my instigation, Virginia presented him with a list of his books in the Library of Congress collection (now easily accessible online) and he was surprised and pleased.
Dick Francis’s was a long life, well-lived. I am grateful the world had such a man and I’m grateful that he gave us so many wonderful stories. I am glad I met him. And I’m glad for what he taught me about creating heroes and creating a fictional world that seems real.
Have you read Dick Francis? Which books are your favorite? (mine were Driving Force and the Sid Halley books, Odds Against and Whiphand)
What non-Romance authors have been your favorites or have influenced you in some way?
**Tonite at 9 pm on PBS American Experience is showing a biography of Dolley Madison. You know, the First Lady who saved George Washington’s portrait when those pesky English soldiers burned the White House. Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott on the Two Nerdy History Girls Blog did a blog called “Dressing Dolley Madison” with a link to a video of the costume designer for the Dolley Madison show. Take a peek. It is so interesting. (Amanda, tell your modiste about this!)**