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Friday, July 15, 2011

Accept the Restrictions: An Interview with Donald Bain

Note: Donald Bain will be a featured author at the 2012 Love Is Murder Mystery Conference, Feb. 3-5 in Chicago.  I interviewed him for the LIM newsletter.

1. JCS--You are in the unusual position of writing in partnership with someone who doesn’t exist, Jessica Fletcher. Angela Lansbury told me that she was in your publisher’s offices and someone complimented her on her book series. She told them, “But I don’t write those books.” Obviously, your unique situation is confusing. Care to comment?

DB--Because many of the 110 books I’ve written were ghostwritten for other people, I suppose that “collaborating” with a fictitious TV character isn’t so unusual. Giving us a dual byline was, of course, a marketing move by the publisher. When I make appearances there sometimes are people who are disappointed that I’m not Angela Lansbury (I apologize to them for not wearing basic black with pearls). And there is at least one fan who is really confused. She e-mailed me to say that she was amazed how much Jessica Fletcher looks like Angela Lansbury. Angela has told me the same thing that she told you, that she’s been stopped in airports and on the street by people who thank her for having written the books. She always graciously thanks them for their kind words and moves on. So far the confusion hasn’t negatively impacted my relationship with Jessica; at least I don’t think it has.

2. JCS--Your first Jessica Fletcher book came out two years before the series ended. What are the challenges of writing a book based on a TV program? Fans can get pretty snarky if an author messes with the perceived canon of an icon. Did that worry you? Did you ever have any problems with that? What advice might you share with someone who wanted to write about a pre-existing character?

DB--You’re right, of course. Writing a media tie-in book poses certain problems, but none that can’t be overcome. I owe it to fans of the “Murder, She Wrote” TV show to be faithful to the Jessica Fletcher character, as well as to other characters and to the tone of the series overall. Before I started writing the first novel 22 years ago I watched as many episodes of the show as possible, and didn’t commence writing until I felt confident that I had all the nuances down pat. Even then I missed a few. For instance, I didn’t pick up on the fact that Jessica doesn’t drive a car, and had her behind the wheel in the first book, Gin & Daggers. And there have been other slips, although they’ve become fewer as I continued writing the series. (There are now 37 books and a new 3-book contract. Remarkably every one of them is still in print).

My advice to writer who might end up basing a novel on a pre-existing character is to accept that there will be restrictions on what you can have that character do and say. Having been handed a wonderful character like Jessica Fletcher, who was created by others and given life by Angela Lansbury, is a gift for which I’m thankful. On the other hand it is limiting to an extent because I can’t deviate from that character’s basic nature, philosophies, likes and dislikes. It’s a trade-off that I’m perfectly happy with.

3. JCS--Under your direction, Jessica has gone to some pretty nifty places like Moscow and Manhattan. She’s done some way-cool things—and I know that you always do a site visit. Tell us a bit about how you do your research. Your wife Renée is involved. Tell us about how she helps you with your research, please. In SKATING ON THIN ICE, you shared the sort of insider info on skating, learning to skate, etc., that all authors dream of scoping out. Any tips on going beyond the superficial information?

Renée and I are true collaborators on the series, and have been for the past dozen or so books. We research the books together, brainstorming where to set the next book, and arranging travel to those places, which includes appointments with local law enforcement officials, politicians, local characters whose lives might lend color to the story, and others who can provide an interesting slant. We travel with cameras, a tape recorder, and notebooks and try to nail down everything about the setting as possible. Our readers expect details to be accurate, and we strive to achieve that. Of course we also turn to the best travel books and the Internet as other sources of information.

The research for SKATING ON THIN ICE came primarily from Renée’s lifelong love of figure skating and the many other skaters with whom she’s been involved. She skates a few times a week and interviewed her skating instructors, rink operators, Zamboni drivers, and anyone else who had something to add to the story.

To answer your final question about tips on going beyond superficial information, I suggest that when researching factual material for a novel that you seek the answers in the children’s section of the library. Too much information bogs down a good story. What’s contained in children’s books on any subject gives the writer just about the right amount of background to weave into the story.

4. JCS--Some authors are highly resistant to work for hire or using a pen name. Forgive me if I misunderstand your position, but is the Murder She Wrote series work-for-hire? If so, what suggestions can you make for any writer considering work-for-hire? If it is not, would you please educate me about what it is? It looks like there would be obvious upsides and downsides to your situation. Dish.

DB--The term work-for-hire denotes a writing assignment that involves a flat fee payment, without financial participation in the project. I’ve done those, especially earlier in my career, and would do others provided the flat fee was large enough. “Murder, She Wrote” is not a work-for-hire project; I participate in royalties from all the books. Having a financial piece of the action serves to motivate a writer, although too many projects are offered in which the up-front money is small on the premise that the writer will get rich on the back end. When one of my books, COFFEE, TEA OR ME? was published back in the 60s it was a runaway success and generated numerous motion picture offers. It also spawned an offer to turn it into a Broadway musical comedy by stage luminaries Anita Loos and Jule Styne. They offered a small advance with a generous financial participation if the show was a success. I opted for the bigger up-front money from (because I needed it), and have regretted the decision to this day.

Writers accept work-for-hire assignments because they need the money. That’s all there is to it.

5. JCS--You advise authors to develop a strong storyline. What’s your process? How detailed is your working outline?

DB--“Story” is everything in a novel. Assuming that a novelist can write coherently and correctly, the story that he or she wants to tell becomes paramount. All the good writing in the world can’t salvage a poorly conceived and constructed plot. Renée and I come up with a storyline of about six or seven pages before starting to write, and then watch as the story begins to deviate from the original outline. We discuss each scene before it’s written. At the same time we keep going back over what we’ve already written to refine, add salient material, and ensure that the plot is staying on track. We don’t develop a long, detailed outline before writing. Some writers do, and need it. We prefer a looser storyline in which we know how the book will start, where it will go in general terms, and how it will end. But even then we find that what we considered solid major plot points change as the story progresses.

6. JCS--You have written a variety of genres, as well as non-fiction. (Can a genre be non-fiction? Hmmm. I don’t know!) Writers are typically told NOT to do that. But obviously, you’ve been very successful. Were you ever warned off of writing in different genres? What skill set stays the same no matter what you write?

DB--Good writing is good writing no matter what the genre. I disagree that a writer shouldn’t switch genres. Having to address a different sort of book after writing another type can refresh and reinvigorate a writer. I learn from everything I write, be it a western, murder mystery, historical romantic novel, business advice book, or comedy. To me being a professional writer means being able to do just that. But a writer must also be realistic when choosing assignments. For instance I would never agree to write a book about finance because I find that topic daunting and beyond my ability to absorb it. I’m also careful to not lend my name and writing ability to the sort of book that would turn off readers of the “Murder, She Wrote” novels, who appreciate the series’ lack of explicit sex, gore, and foul language. We receive many e-mails from teenagers who enjoy the novels, as well as from parents who use the books to jump-start their children into a reading habit.

7. JCS--You’re a proud graduate of Purdue University, as was my father and my sister. Purdue isn’t usually the first school that springs to mind when people think of a launching pad for authors. Comment?

DB--Hail Purdue! When I went to Purdue I never intended to be a writer. I went there because of its excellent educational radio and TV program, and worked in that field before turning to writing. What Purdue gave me was a sense of a larger world and the people who inhabit it, and I love going back each year to lecture to creative writing students.

8. JCS--Mr. Bain, you and I are the only two people I know who are fiction writers and who have won Silver Anvils. How did your work in PR help prepare you to become a successful author?

DB--Everything in my life has helped prepare me to become an author—being a salesman, my three years as an officer in the Air Force, performing as a jazz musician, working in radio and TV, learning to fly—and my years as a PR executive, primarily in the airline industry. Everything gets used when I write. My PR experiences brought me into contact with a wide variety of people, always a good thing for a writer. It also sharpened my ability to explain concepts and things in writing. And, of course, it has helped tremendously in marketing my own books.

For more information about Donald Bain, visit his website.


Ellen Byerrum said...

What a delightful and informative interview! I have had the pleasure of conversing with Donald and Renee at Malice Domestic. They are both charming and gracious and great conversationalists.

As for COFFEE, TEA, OR ME?, the story of a stewardess: I found a paperback copy of it on the bookshelves of some people I babysat for in high school. They had three children, two hellions and one infant, and almost no books. Thank goodness for COFFEE, TEA OR ME. It was the only book worth opening, though my parents might have disagreed if they knew I was reading it. It certainly raised the eyebrows of a 15-year-old sitter. OMG. But when I found out that Donald Bain wrote it, I was shocked, I tell you. Shocked!

Thanks for a great post, Joanna.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Shocked? I know! I didn't realize he was the man behind the stewardesses either!

caryn said...

Hail Purdue! (Class of '74)
I agree with Donald's thoughts on preparing to write. It seems to me that the authors I most enjoy are those who spent a great deal of their early years doing something else completely-or better yet many things. The life experiences gives them so many different views of the world to use.

Cathy Shouse said...


What an interesting interview with Donald Bain. As a fellow writer, published in nonfiction and aspiring to publish a mystery, I found it very informative.

I especially liked the part about the pre-writing the 7 pages about the story before beginning to write. My question is, are all the suspects, red herrings and steps to the sleuthing included in that preliminary outline?

BTW, the interview would have been perfect if the authors had recognized the superiority of Indiana University over Purdue! lol

Cathy Shouse, 1983 IU grad
Hoosier author of "Images of America: Fairmount"

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Caryn, I do think it's important to have some life experiences and some interests besides writing. I remember Kurt Vonnegut saying like he was glad he hadn't been in a writing program because he thought he would have taught him what not to do.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Cathy, I'll see if I can get an answer from Mr. Bain for you. I can tell you that in my work-in-progress, I turned in a 22-page summary for my editor. I did include some of the red herrings and so on. I'm not sure how much of that you might get in seven pages, but I think the more you can plan, the better. IMHO

That said, as you write, you "see" the book and new ideas and opportunities arise as you tell yourself the story. It's one of the most enjoyable parts of being an author.

Cathy Shouse said...

I appreciate your response. No need to contact Mr. Bain unless you want to. Thanks!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

From Mr. Bain--

To answer your question:

The six or seven pages of outline cover only the bare-bones of the plot. As the writing progresses new characters emerge who weren't in the brief outline, and twists and turns develop, fueled by what the characters do and how one event spawns another.