Born Charles Leslie McFarlane in Carleton Place, Ontario, he is most famous for ghostwriting many of the early books in the very successful Hardy Boys series using the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon.
The son of a school principal, McFarlane was raised in the town of Haileybury, Ontario. He became a freelance writer shortly after high school. He and his family moved to Whitby, Ontario in 1936.
As a young man he worked in Sudbury, Ontario as a newspaper reporter then for a weekly paper in Toronto before taking a job at the Springfield Republican newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts. While in the U.S., he replied to a want ad placed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, publisher of such titles as Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins. As a result, he freelanced in 1926 and 1927 as one of the authors using the pseudonym Roy Rockwood to write seven of the Dave Fearless serialized mystery novels. This led to his involvement with the Hardy Boys, a project on which he was a large contributor, writing 19 of the first 25 books between 1927 and 1946 and 20 overall. He also wrote books in several other juvenile series, and in pulp magazines, novellas or novels over his fifty year career, at one point writing six novels in one year. McFarlane earned as little as $85 per book during the Great Depression yet he continued because he had a growing family (note: he would get $100-$125 per book during other, better times and even $85 is good money for the Depression, especially when it is your moonlighting job--hence the reason he kept with it).
According to his son, McFarlane regarded the Hardy Boys books as a nuisance.
"In his diaries, my father talks about having to write another of those nuisance books, in order to earn another $85 to buy coal for the furnace. And he never read them over afterward. It was only much later that he accepted plaudits for the work."
His daughter, Norah McFarlane Perez, said in an interview that "They'd give him an outline, but to make it palatable, he'd come up with different characters and add colour and use large words, and inject his wonderful sense of humour. And then he'd finish and say, 'I will never write another juvenile book.' But then the bills would pile up and he'd start another."
However, McFarlane was not bitter about not earning a cut of the enormous revenues generated by his work. "He was very philosophical about it. His attitude was, 'Look, I took these on and I was glad to get the deal.' There was no rancor," according to his daughter.
While still writing for the series for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, McFarlane returned to Canada to work for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). As part of the NFB, in 1953 he was nominated for an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film for his documentary titled Herring Hunt. Moving to Toronto he wrote for CBC television and at the suggestion of his friend Lorne Greene, moved to Hollywood for a time to write scripts for the TV Western Bonanza in which Greene starred.
McFarlane also wrote the first four volumes of The Dana Girls series for the Stratemeyer Syndicate under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (he did not write any Nancy Drew stories, although he is sometimes credited with them--note that the ghostwriters were often assigned different pen names and Carolyn Keene is many people, not just one). His last Hardy Boys book, The Phantom Freighter, was actually written by his wife, Amy.