Aug. 7, 2021

Russia Week - Dick Francis's Trial Run

Russia Week - Dick Francis's Trial Run

What can writers learn from a Grand Master of the genre about secrets, societal expectations, setting, and building characters for story?


In this episode of Tart Words, Linda Hengerer talks about Dick Francis’s book Trial Run, and how he uses setting to emphasize the story, shows how societal expectations affect actions, and how to build characters for story.   

It was first published in the United States in 1978 by Berkley Books and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

The last place veteran horseman Randall Drew wanted to go was Moscow. But when his royal highness the prince asks a favor, one doesn’t refuse.
 
 The Royal Family is worried about the prince’s brother-in-law, who aims to make the Olympics. Unfortunately a jealous Russian rider has sworn to kill him if he sets one hoof in Moscow. So Randall leaves his thoroughbred horses and loving girlfriend to investigate.
 
 But what he finds is more than jealousy. It’s a terrifying track of sabotage and murder. And now that he knows, the killer is after him…


Takeaways for writers:

In Trial Run, Randall Drew has time on his hands due to a recent rule saying jockeys cannot wear glasses while racing. He is asked to go to Moscow, find the mysterious Alyosha, and find out what he has to do with a Prince’s brother-in-law. Randall uncovers a plot that will endanger many people at the upcoming Olympics. 

Exercises for writers:

Secrets – Johnny Farringford tells Randall Drew an abbreviated story about his interactions with Hans Kramer. How much of a secret do you share, and how much do you hold back and reveal as the story progresses?

Societal Expectations – Randall Drew is an upper-class Brit whose family has served the monarchy over the years. How does his background contribute to his finally agreeing to go to Moscow? How can you incorporate your story’s societal expectations into your characters' actions?

Setting – How do the descriptions of England and Moscow enhance or reinforce the story? How can you describe the setting to convey the tone of the story, and how setting impacts character?

Building Characters for Story – Randall Drew wears glasses and is prohibited from racing due to a recent rule. He is in good health except for being susceptible to lung problems including asthma and bronchitis. How do each of these create problems for him as a character, and play into the story? How do you build characters whose personal flaws contribute to the story?

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Transcript

Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos and grammar errors.

Episode 339 - Trial Run

6:13

 

Linda 00:00

Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader, and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them; chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors; and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words.  

In this episode of Tart Words, Linda Hengerer talks about Dick Francis’s book Trial Run, and how he uses setting to emphasize the story, shows how societal expectations affect actions, and how to build characters for story.   

It was first published in the United States in 1978 by Berkley Books and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

The last place veteran horseman Randall Drew wanted to go was Moscow. But when his royal highness the prince asks a favor, one doesn’t refuse.
 
The Royal Family is worried about the prince’s brother-in-law, who aims to make the Olympics. Unfortunately a jealous Russian rider has sworn to kill him if he sets one hoof in Moscow. So Randall leaves his thoroughbred horses and loving girlfriend to investigate.
 
But what he finds is more than jealousy. It’s a terrifying track of sabotage and murder. And now that he knows, the killer is after him…

 

I’ve loved reading Dick Francis ever since I heisted one of my father’s Dick Francis novels. In my recollection I was 10, so the book was probably Forfeit or Enquiry. Over the years my appreciation grew for Dick Francis, both as a reader and then as a writer as I learned how to write. I think his newspaper experience gave him an economical writing style, and his decades as a jockey contributed to the backgrounds for his many stories.

I’m not alone in my admiration for his writing. During his writing career, from 1957-2010, he won many awards including the Gold Dagger Award and Cartier Diamond Dagger from Britain’s Crime Writers Association, the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America, and the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1983 and promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000. Tufts University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1991. 

All of his mysteries have horses and/or horse racing either tangentially or at their center. For me, the real genius of Dick Francis as a writer is how he shows people at their most basic and how their actions have both intended and unintended consequences. His ordinary characters are in extraordinary circumstances as they explore the unintended consequences occurring from accidental death or murder.

My favorite Dick Francis novel is To the Hilt, but there are too many of his novels that I read often to list.

Trial Run begins and ends in England, but the main story action takes place in Moscow. 

Johnny Farringford tells Randall Drew an abbreviated story about his interactions with Hans Kramer. Randall goes to Moscow with an incomplete understanding about what Johnny’s jeopardy might be if he goes to Moscow to compete in the upcoming Olympics. As Randall investigates, he finds out more about what Johnny and Hans Kramer did together and how their activities might be used to discredit Johnny and by association the British monarchy, or to gain a hold over the British government.

As Randall investigates, he discovers that Hans Kramer was part of a plot to potentially kill thousands of spectators and athletes at the upcoming Olympics. The stakes are raised from averting potential embarrassment to the British monarchy to preventing mass killing. Randall’s life had already been threatened, and the danger he faces escalates as he continues his investigation.

Dick Francis does not disappoint readers of Trial Run. All of the elements he incorporates into his novels appear: horses; an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances; a clear storyline with minimal subplots; and a plot that twists but has a satisfactory ending. 

Moscow life is seen through Randall’s eyes as a visitor, Steven’s eyes for foreign residents, and through a couple of characters eyes for residents, Randall registers how Russian life differs from English life. Steven is a guide for Randall to what is expected and potential repercussions if a visitor deviates, and Misha shows what Russian family life can be like.

In re-reading Trial Run, which I hadn’t read for some time, I was struck by how well Dick Francis shows the differences in cultures without advocating that one is better than the other. I get a feel for what it’s like to visit and what the differences are from my lived experience. 

One reason why I re-read favorite authors is my genuine love for their stories and their writing. Another is to dissect what makes them so readable, and analyze how I can incorporate those techniques into my own writing. 

Reading Trial Run is a master class in how an acknowledged Grand Master of the genre sets things up and pays them off, how he builds characters to get the most out of story in an organic way, and how using societal expectations – British and Russian – can enhance the story.

Takeaways for Writers and Exercises are in the Show Notes. 

Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit Tart Words.com/tart339. Before you go, subscribe to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Subscribe now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for bakers, readers and writers at Tart Words.com/About. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Thoughts.