Dick Francis, master of mysterious beginnings

First published on PenWarrions.com

I told the boys to stay quiet while I went to fetch my gun. (Twice Shy)

Twice Shy by Dick Francis

When I read those first words of Twice Shy by  Dick Francis, my immediate thought was, “Now there’s a powerful opening hook!”  Then I put the thought aside and kept on reading, because first and foremost I love a good story. Time enough to analyze how Francis hooked me and try (hope) to bring that power to my own writing after I’d read the story. 

So began my study of beginnings. The opening hooks I loved most were the ones that not only promised, but also delivered an amazing read. Many of them were written by Dick Francis.

E. C. Sheedy introduced me to the idea of searching for the power words in writing that impresses me. Gun is definitely a powerful word, associated with violence and death. Paired with boys, which implies youth, it becomes even more dangerous and powerful. The command to stay quiet implies a threat, increasing the dangerous stakes.

In seventeen words, Dick Francis completely hooked me. When the next paragraph reveales that the first person narrator is a Physics teacher in a boys school, using the gun as a prop for a lesson on ballistics, I’m even more intrigued. I know the gun is going to be important – after all, this is a mystery. The narrator will be the detective character, and I’ll be staying up late to read this book.

Dick Francis didn’t disappoint me.

I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder. (Hot Money )

Hot Money begins with the above statement by jockey Ian Pembroke, whose mother was his father’s second wife. I love the way the author blends powerful words  like intensely, disliked and murder with details that skillfully reveal the murdered wife was preceded by four others, one of whom will be Ian’s mother. I anticipate family discord, and I expect Ian to be the innocent prime suspect.

Hot Money delivers on the promise of its opening sentence with a delightfully complex family arranged in factions around three ex-wives, an intriguing mystery, and the delight of discovering Ian’s complex relationship with the father who, when his own life is threatened, turns for help to his estranged son – the one person everyone else suspects of the murder.

Here are a few more great openings from Dick Francis novels:

Dying slowly of bone cancer, the old man, shrivelled now, sat as ever in his great armchair, tears of lonely pain sliding down crepuscular cheeks. (Wild Horses)

I had told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead. (Driving Force)

I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault. (To the Hilt)

StraightAnd then there’s Straight, which I believe is Dick Francis’ most brilliantly crafted novel:

I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me. ( Straight)

The violence implied by killed is preceded by a tantalizing blend of what seem to be small details (his desk, his gadgets) and the threat implied in inheriting his enemies and his mistress.

What elevates this book beyond the status of a truly great mystery is the way every one of those inherited items became meaningful: not only in solving a murder, but also in painting the evocative portrait of the uncompromisingly Straight man whose death preceded the story’s beginning.

Dick Francis was a master who continues to fascinate me. Every time I re-read one of his novels I hope to soak up some of the magic of his storytelling.

Dick Francis died on February 24, 2010, survived by two sons and a legacy of best-selling mysteries. The fascinating story of his life and its real-life mystery is revealed in family friend Graham Lord’s biography Dick Francis: A Racing Life, which I discovered (and bought) while writing this blog.

Necessary Lies, Steven Covey, and this writer…

This blog first appeared at PenWarriors.com

The novel I’m now working on – Truth to Tell (TTT) – has surpassed all my other books by having the longest gestation period on record. I conceived of the idea over two years ago when I wrote a couple of scenes, then stalled and put it aside to work on other priorities. Months later I picked the project up again and realized that I had a good character, but the story needed work.

I brainstormed TTT at a Red Door retreat with with the PenWarriors, and came up with a story that seemed fine–but I didn’t touch it again for months. When I did finally return to TTT, I realized my heroine needed a completely different story – and finally the story caught fire for me.

OK, now we’re cooking!

Part of the problem has been that in my other life as a university faculty member, I’d become involved in a long-term project that took most of my writing energy. A continuing stream of time-sensitive tasks had exhausted my creative energy.

On August 1st I started a 1-year research and program development sabbatical, which should mean that I have time for both R&D AND writing. My husband and I decided to take this chance to tour some parts of North America we’ve wanted to see, complete with my books and computer but away from my telephone so that I can focus on both the R&D and my writing.

It worked pretty well during August. I finished and published a new short story, The Broken Gate, and formulated a plan for the last few chapters of TTT. September I devoted to R&D tasks and getting started on our trip. October–

Hmm. October wasn’t looking so good last Friday when I tried to set some goals for the next week. They looked something like this:

  1. Read and critique a story for a writer friend
  2. Write four modules for the course under development
  3. Write this blog
  4. Get back to TTT

Once again, I realized, my writing had fallen to the back of the queue. When would I get time to finish TTT?

The horrifying thing was that back in mid-August when I was working on the book, I came up with a new title that was a much better fit – and I’d forgotten what it was!

I feared TTT would never get the attention it needed, but items 1, 2, and 3 were time-sensitive commitments that mattered. There was ALWAYS something urgent to get in the way.

Staring at the list I’d written, I could see that I’d fallen into the time management mess Steven Covey talked about in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where long-term projects of importance get pushed to the back of the queue because they are not as urgent as more short term and often less important tasks.

The trouble was, back when I read 7 Habits, I didn’t have a time management problem, but I certainly do now! I get a lot done, but things that are very important to me get neglected – like TTT, the book whose new name I can’t remember

First things first, says Covey’s 3rd Habit. If I don’t put long-term-core-value things that reflect my purpose and values first, they’ll never get done.

The solution: turn the task upside down. So, last Friday I rewrote the list of this week’s goals:

  1. Every day, first spend half an hour on TTT. Use a timer.
  2. Read and critique the story
  3. Complete one module for the university program each day
  4. Write the blog for Monday

Almost magically, my task list became manageable.

When would I get TTT written? First thing every day.

I’m on day 4 now and I’m amazed – it’s working! I get up early and walk the dogs with my husband, then happily settle in to work on TTT (this is my time!) – which, my Scrivener file tells me, is now tentatively retitled Necessary Lies. I give myself an hour, because 30 minutes felt too rushed. Then I make a cup of coffee and start working on R&D – I’ve completed two modules in four days, slower than my goal, but I should be able to get the targeted 4 done this week.

I read and critiqued the story Friday evening – great story. I enjoyed it. Now here I am Monday doing the blog. I just realized I’m one day late on that, because this is Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and I got Sunday and Monday mixed up.

I’m in touch with my book, I’m getting other tasks done, and afternoons and evenings I still have time for some sightseeing and other odds and ends – like posting character name searches from my 60,000 name database to my Twitter feed. A habit doesn’t get formed in only four days, but I’m committed – and not to a mental institution!

First things first. This week the system works for me.

I’ve got my A-I-C (a-ah-butt in chair) and it’s fun. Necessary Lies is alive for me and I don’t feel guilty about the other stuff. I realize that my time management has been suffering from “first things last” for a long time. This feels like a miracle!

Vanessa

Check out the free sample of my short story, The Broken Gate
 from Amazon.com
This story will also be appearing in the upcoming PenWarriors anthology of short stories, It Happens at Midnight