Long before she piloted Circus Rullah to victory at the 1986 Potomac Hunt (steeplechase) Race, and long before she dove into the exciting world of Maryland Thoroughbred racing as an owner and trainer, Lynda Sasscer Hill was an eager fifth-grade student tasked with a writing assignment.
Instructed by her teacher to pen a story, the little girl, obsessed like most with tales of The Black Stallion and other horsey lore, let her passion come tumbling out in words on paper.
When her teacher finished reading her work to the class, a child asked, breaking a momentary silence, “Well, what happens next?”
The question was about the best compliment a writer could get, says Hill, who today tries to keep readers guessing about that next scene in her fast-paced mystery about a racetrack with a drug secret.
In her recently published novel Racing from Death, Hill weaves a tale about a meth lab and dying jockeys with such page-turning skill that Mystery Scene Magazine recently compared her work to that of legendary mystery writer Dick Francis.
In this week’s Reader’s Clubhouse, Hill talks about her life with horses and the exciting new chapter of her life as a mystery author.
Before you starting writing mysteries, you had a deep and varied background with Thoroughbreds and racehorses. Please tell me a little bit about your life before you became a writer.
I started racing Thoroughbreds in 1982 in a small way. My husband and I got married in the 1970s, and we moved onto my family’s farm, Pleasant Hill Farm, in Maryland. We bought a broodmare to keep my hunter company, and it was soon after that that we started to breed horses.
I broke them myself and galloped them. I even had a winner at Pimlico! I pulled this horse—his name was Sea Surge— out of his mother, galloped him myself, and he won a maiden claimer his second time out!
You also rode and won a steeplechase race!
I had this amazing hunter, Circus Rullah, and I wanted to try him out at the Potomac Hunt Race. I’d ridden him in pair races, where you race against the clock, over fences; I’d done a lot of that.
But this was a real race, with everybody running over three-foot timber fences at the same time!
When the race was about to begin, and someone held up the wire so we could line up our horses, I held back. I was so scared. One rider had already been injured and taken away in a medical helicopter, so I tried to hold back the whole way.
But my horse put us on the lead, and we actually won. This was in 1986.
Afterwards, people looked at me and said, “You rode a great race!” and I said, “I am never doing this again!”
How did you segue into writing?
I always wrote. I was in the fifth grade when I figured out that I could write. Our teacher asked us to write a little story, and I wrote a short tale about a young guy in a horse trailer with an older guy, and they were taking a horse to a race. I threw in some tension and some problems to keep it moving, and, when the teacher read it to the class, everyone got real quite. When she was done, this little boy asked me what happened next, and that is about the most flattering comment a writer can get.
I was an English major at Franklin & Marshall College, and graduated with honors in English lit. Later on, I took a course at the Bethesda Writer’s Center, and wrote a romance/mystery. I’ll never forget. When I turned it in to my teacher, she went through the first 15 pages and crossed everything out. She told me that my book started on page 16, and what I’d written before that was just “throat clearing.”
She also helped me learn to write dialogue. She would say things like, “People don’t talk in complete sentences. They say things in phrases.” And, when a writer describes what someone is wearing, for example, they don’t need to describe everything. That’s a laundry list! She told us to pick out two or three things.
Tell me about Racing from Death.
Racing from Death is about a jockey named Nikki Latrelle who is sent to Colonial Downs, which is a nice track, but in the middle of nowhere. It’s like a classic western, with a girl from out-of-town who gets swept up in bad things.
In this story, jockeys are dying from using a diet cocktail made in a meth lab. One jockey brings it back with him from another track, and pretty soon, others start using it, and dying. There’s also a misunderstood racehorse named Daffodil, and he’s part of the plot, which thickens when Nikki’s friend Lorna disappears.
Q: You received rave reviews from Mystery Scene Magazine, which says fans of Dick Francis will love your book.
I’m proud to be compared to Dick Francis! And, I was honored to get the review in Mystery Scene.
This is actually my second book. My first was Full Mortality, which is named after the mortality policy taken out on horses.
I published both on Wildside Press.
And, I’m working on my third book, The Sea Horse Trade. In this, my character goes to South Beach, Fla. Her friend Carla is searching for the child she gave up in adoption, and when they arrive, they discover the adoptive parents have been killed and the girl is missing. I’ve got some good “Black Stallion” horse stuff in it, and the book is essentially about white slave trade.