Home>>TRIPLE CROSS Interview . . .
Equine-Oriented Mystery Series Shifts to Kentucky and Churchill Downs for a Future Installment
Interview conducted by Parker Owens
Parker: Tell us a little about what you write.
Kit: I write a mystery series set in the world of horses. The stories follow the adventures of Steve Cline, a young man who grew up privileged and wealthy only to end up alone and penniless at the age of nineteen when he drops out of college and is disowned by his overbearing parents. He takes a job as barn manager at Foxdale Farm and never looks back. From the fancy hunters and show jumpers to the sleek, often high-strung, thoroughbreds that compete at the racetrack, the horses and settings are as integral to the stories as the mysteries themselves. Titles to date include At Risk (2002), Dead Man’s Touch (2003), and Cold Burn (2005).
Parker: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Kit: I’ve always loved reading fiction, especially mysteries, and I’d say that’s what every writer is first: an insatiable reader. I somehow managed to skip over Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Agatha Christie to discover the works of George Bagby and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have a very vivid memory of reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes one summer night when I was quite young. Before I knew it, sunlight was streaming through the dormer window, and I realized I’d read straight through the night. For me, that was an epiphany of sorts. The idea that one person can put pen to paper, create a fictional world that we can envision and populate that world with interesting characters that we grow to care about is fascinating. But the idea that I could write didn’t occur to me until many years later, in the summer of ’96. After working in the horse industry for twenty-plus years, I was reading an equine-oriented mystery to relax one evening, and I was disappointed with the ending. The protagonist did something foolish that put her in grave danger, and I thought I could do better. However, I quickly found out that writing a compelling mystery with an exciting climax is a tricky proposition. In order to write a heart-pounding, adrenaline-charged ending; oftentimes, your main character needs to make some error in judgment, even if it’s a minor one, so you can put him in a predicament that he needs to escape.
Parker: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about his work?
Kit: Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Steve Hamilton, Janet Evanovich, Greg Iles, S.J. Rozan, and T. Jefferson Parker are some of the many contemporary authors whom I admire, but Dick Francis has had the most impact on my career and, indeed, my entire life.
I wasn’t always involved with horses. I started my working career employed by the government. But in the summer of ’77, I hurt my back moving typewriters. Yes, typewriters. It was that long ago. I took a week off and ended up staying at my parents’ house while they were on vacation. Well, I stumbled across Dick Francis’ In the Frame and was hooked. His ability to portray a life lived with and around horses is astounding. After reading his body of work, I felt I knew what it was like to gallop a horse forty m.p.h over brush hurdles, to hear the twigs splintering and the thud of hooves pounding the ground, to feel the wind against my face and to smell the blended aromas of horse, leather, and turf. So . . . I left the government and got a job working on a horse farm. That move, although not brilliant as far as finances were concerned, kicked off a wonderful career working with and owning horses.
What strikes me most about Dick Francis’ work, besides his gifted ability to put the reader in the scene, is how he brings his characters (both human and equine) to life. His protagonists are principled and honorable men; yet they are flawed, a combination that makes them wholly believable. And he is a master when it comes to plot.
Parker: Where do you get your story ideas?
Kit: I started writing much later in life than most writers I know, but I must have the soul of a storyteller. I don’t know what other people do when they’re mucking stalls, but I used to make up stories in my head--a form of self-entertainment, I suppose. A friend of mine frequently misquotes me by saying I hear voices in my head, but that’s a different story. Anyway, some of these old stories became integral scenes in the books, and I’ve used real-life events for inspiration, as well. When I worked at a hunter-jumper farm, I was the first person to report to work every morning. I’ve walked in on emergency situations that arise when you manage a couple of hundred horses. That’s to be expected, but I always wondered what I would do if I walked in on a person doing something they shouldn’t be doing. That kind of situation kicks off the opening scene in At Risk.
Cold Burn gets its start from a very real event. I was delivering foals on a huge breeding farm when a serial arsonist was torching vacant barns in the area. We kept the barn doors cracked open for ventilation, and I’ll never forget what it felt like to look down the barn’s long aisle at two-thirty one winter morning to see an orange glow on the horizon and know another barn was burning.
Parker: What influences your writing?
Kit: I’m always studying, whether I’m reading books on writing or the work of other writers. I pay more attention to dialogue in movies and lyrics than I ever used to. Even current events influence my writing to some degree. But as I’ve matured in my writing, I need to get an emotional theme going for each book--something Steve will come to understand about himself or human nature by “The End.”
Parker: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Kit: I really have to work at the plot. That’s the most difficult part of the process for me. I love the writing and editing phase, so once I’ve got the plot nailed, I’m happy.
Parker: Do you consider the horse industry glamorous? What made you choose it for your settings/stories?
Kit: From the outside looking in, the horse industry most definitely appears glamorous, and there’s a certain degree of romanticism that’s automatically associated with anything equine. Many horse owners, especially those who own top show or racehorses are wealthy, and that bolsters the image of opulence and glamour. But the reality of the day-to-day job of caring for horses is far from glamorous. The men and women who tend these wonderful animals typically work long hard hours, often seven days a week in all kinds of weather, and usually for a pittance. They frequently make do without adequate benefits or health insurance, if they have any at all. There’s an initiative going on in Kentucky to mandate insurance for track employees, and it’s long overdue.
I chose the horse world as the setting for my series because I worked in the industry for over two decades and know it better than I know anything else. But I was fortunate, because I have a source of outside income. That made it easy for me to hold onto that feeling of innocence and romance and idealism while doing a tough job for little pay. When I first started writing, I didn’t consciously consider it, but the horse world is an ideal setting for fiction, especially mysteries, because it brings together people with vastly different socio-eco backgrounds.
Parker: Discuss the class differences between the horse owners and the horse laborers that you’ve observed. Where do you fit in as a writer? Given your background, which class are you more sympathetic to?
Kit: The class difference between owners and laborers frequently runs to extremes, but I’ve found a wider range of people working in the industry than you might expect. I’ve worked on the backside of a racetrack alongside college students earning degrees in night school and employees who’ve had minimal education. I’ve worked with guys who would take advantage of you in any way possible and guys who would give you the shirts off their backs even if they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. And don’t forget, there are any number of owners and trainers who are scraping to get by but stay in the industry because they love it and can’t imagine doing anything else.
Given my background and experience, I’d like to see the laborers’ wages increased significantly. If the powers that be did that, I think they’d find they could attract and keep a better class of employee, and that would benefit them, but most of all, it would benefit the horses.
Parker: What excites you about horses and the horse industry?
Kit: Horses are such amazing creatures. I am continually fascinated that they allow us into their world and accept our unnatural demands and ministrations so amiably. They are so generous and giving of themselves. Of course, the horses are the most exciting aspect of the industry, but I also love the variety. There seems to be no end to what you can do when partnered with a horse, and one of my goals while writing this series is to introduce different equine venues to the reader. Besides the hunter/jumper show world and the racetrack, I’d like to write about polo and 3-day eventing, driving and foxhunting. The list goes on, but I’ll always return to the series origins of show barns and racing. Part of the thrill of writing for me is to write a scene so that the reader feels like they’re there, standing beside my protagonist.
Parker: Speaking of your protagonist, have any of the horses or horse people you've known become characters?
Kit: Many of the horses in the stories are modeled after horses I’ve known or have owned, but invariably, as the story progresses, they take on personalities of their own. The same can be said for a few select characters that I’ve chosen to model after real people. A funny thing happened when I was writing the veterinarian character in At Risk. I did model him after the vet who was treating my horses at the time, and I even gave him the same first name; although, I intended to go back and change it later. Needless to say, I forgot, so now, this character, who is way too much like the real guy, is there for everyone to read about.
My primary characters, especially Steve, are totally fictional. I couldn’t write them any other way. If I had modeled them off someone I know, I would feel confined by reality.
Parker: Do you wish you led the life of one of your characters?
Kit: I’d like to be Rachel (Steve’s girlfriend) because she’s young and attractive, but just as importantly, Steve’s young and handsome . . . young . . . cute . . . sexy . . . young . . . .
Parker: Did you do research at any KY horse farms or race tracks? Which ones?
Kit: For a future book that will take place in Lexington during the Keeneland sales, I did some advanced research by attending the sales, exploring the town, and touring local horse farms, though I have much more still left to do.
Some of that research is coming in handy for the book I’m working on now, tentatively titled Triple Cross, a book I simply refer to as “Churchill.” This book takes place in Louisville and at Churchill Downs during the two weeks leading up to the Derby; although, a scene does take place on a farm near Midway. For “Churchill,” I’ve researched the new track facilities, visited Millionaire’s Row and the Jockey Club suites, the backside, Wagner’s Pharmacy, Fourth Street Live, the National City Towers, Hilton Garden Inn, Rocking Horse Manor B&B, Bristol Bar and Grille, Waterfront Park, Sully’s, Maker’s Mark. Who said research can’t be fun? I spent most of Derby week in Louisville and experienced Derby fever firsthand. It had been quite some time since I’d been to Churchill, and I actually got chills when I drove over the newer portion of Central Avenue, heading west, and saw the Twin Spires.
I mentioned earlier that part of the appeal of the horse industry is its variety. In order to showcase that variety, the series moves around a bit, with stories taking place in Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland. Steve will eventually become a professional investigator, in order to avoid the dreaded “Jessica Fletcher syndrome,” and I haven’t decided where his office will be based or even what his job will entail, but it will involve horses, as always.
Parker: You mentioned the Derby. Please tell us a little bit about Derby Rotten Scoundrels and how it came about.
Kit: Derby Rotten Scoundrels is a collection of short stories of mystery and intrigue surrounding the Kentucky Derby and written by members of the Ohio River Valley Chapter of Sisters in Crime, presented by Overmountain. Sisters in Crime is an international organization of crime writers who work to improve the recognition of female mystery authors. The local chapter meets in Louisville once a month at the Barnes and Noble on Hurstbourne Lane. The idea for the anthology came about as our then-president Elaine Munsch and treasurer Sandra Cerow Leonard were driving through a thunderstorm to attend Magna cum Murder, a mystery convention held each year in Muncie, Indiana. Needless to say, I was delighted when I learned that the theme of the new anthology had to do with horses. A second anthology, aptly titled Low Down and Derby, will be released in the spring of 2006; although, I don't have a story in that one thanks to being under deadline.
Parker: Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
Kit: My number one goal is to improve with each book. So far, I think I’ve accomplished that.
Parker: What are you about? Why would anyone want to read your books?
Kit: What am I about? Gee, I don’t know. Besides being a parent, I focus a great deal of time and energy into my writing, but it doesn’t really matter what I’m about. What matters is the read. If you like traditional mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth; stories that are exciting, fast-paced and edgy; stories that feature wonderful horses and offer an insider’s glimpse into their world; stories that have white-knuckle endings, then you should like this series.
Parker: What are you working on now and where can readers contact you or find out about your books?
Kit: I’m busily working on the “Churchill” book, tentatively titled TRIPLE CROSS. Did you know that fifty percent of the titles are changed by the publisher? So, who knows what it will be called. Unfortunately, it probably won't be out until January of 2007. Feel free to visit my website at www.kitehrman.com. If you like what you see, and want to be notified when “Churchill” sees the light of day, consider joining the mailing list.