Thursday, July 8, 2010

Partners in Crime: Morgan St. James

Partners in Crime  (Writers who write with one or more partners on one or more books) Guest Blog series continues today with Morgan St. James.

Be sure and check out past Partners in Crime Guest blogs with David Corbett, Jeffery Deaver, Michael Stanley, Reed Farrel Coleman, Charles Todd, Charlotte Elkins, Bill Crider, Max Allan Collins.

MORGAN ST. JAMES co-authors the award-winning comical crime caper series Silver Sisters Mysteries with her sister Phyllice Bradner, as well as writing novels and short stories solo and with other partners. She keeps busy a busy schedule including her column for, giving workshops and being a panel member and staying active in six writer’s organizations. In August her new “Twist of Fate” series, written as Arliss Adams, will debut with “Devil’s Dance.”



I co-author the Silver Sisters Mysteries, comical crime capers featuring identical twins Goldie and Godiva and their eighty year old mother and uncle, with my real life sister Phyllice Bradner, so I’m often asked how I write with a partner.

What people generally aren’t aware of is that Phyllice isn’t the only partner I write with. I jokingly say my epitaph will say, “She wrote well with others,” which for most people isn’t that simple.

The answer is, it depends upon who I’m writing with and what we are writing. Most frequently people assume that I write one chapter of the Silver Sisters capers and Phyllice writes another. Reviewers have commented that the writing and characters are seamless. That’s because when we began to write together in the late 1990’s, both of us were published writers in other genres with our own credits and strengths. However, neither of us had tried our hand at fiction before.

I cut my teeth on magazine articles, having written many “how to” articles as well as some in-depth studies, such as “It’s Just Old Age…or is it?” and a few true short stories that won awards. Phyllice received several Alaska Press Club awards and other accolades as a journalist and graphic designer, was the print specialist for the Alaska Department of Tourism and created award-winning political print pieces. She also co-authored a cookbook and a touring guide of Juneau, AK. Add to that my being a pure “A-Type” with the energy of an Energizer bunny and Phyllice being a self-described “C-,” and it equals an interesting writing team.

I write very quickly and often click into “automatic writing,” while Phyllice massages every word and sentence to get it exactly right. My sense of humor is quite good, but hers is over-the-top. So there you have it. The emerging writing team of St. James and Bradner, sisters who didn’t know each other very well with strengths in different areas. Very early on, we agreed that we wouldn’t sweat the small stuff. If one felt something was emphatically right and the other was on the fence or didn’t care one way or the other, the one with the strong feelings prevailed. If we both have equally strong but different opinions, we work it out for the good of the manuscript.

When we first plot our story, we try to have a writers’ retreat for five days to a week. Since we live in different states, after that retreat almost everything is done by phone or e-mail. Our mission when we are together is to plot the initial storyline, create a time-line and develop new characters to add to the ones that appear in every book. Our recurring main characters are Goldie Silver, an over-the-hill flower child who lives in Juneau and owns an antique shop and her twin Godiva Olivia DuBois, a selfish, manipulative wealthy Beverly Hills widow who writes the advice column “Ask G.O.D.”(her initials). Add the eldersleuths, their eighty year old mother and uncle who were vaudeville magicians and still perform at the Hollywood Home for Has Beens and love to don disguises to go undercover. Flossie and Sterling Silver have fans of their own who love these quirky octogenarians. Put it all together and you have the makings of quirky, comical crime capers. We have just finished the manuscript for the third book, “Vanishing Act in Vegas,” and due to fans requests, Flossie plays a very active part in this one. She always manages to drag her brother-in-law Sterling into the danger zone with her.

Schemes backfire, the twins love sarcastic banter with each other, Flossie is into tarot cards, séances and astrology and Sterling is the voice of reason. We loosely based Goldie and Godiva on ourselves, and other characters are composites of friends and our zany family.

Once we have the framework of the story, I write the chapters and e-mail them to Phyllice. She is a trained editor, compelled to edit the minute she receives basically raw material. For that reason, I generally don’t do a lot of editing myself, because I know she is going to trim everything, add her special brand of humor and send it back to me. This is the process until the first draft is finished. Sometimes the chapters go back and forth a few times. As each one is approved by both of us, it is pasted into the master. Our last steps are to do two “out-loud” read-throughs. We try to do that during another retreat, and sometimes we actually succeed in setting one up either in Oregon, L.A. or Las Vegas. Before she moved to Oregon, she lived in Alaska, so Juneau was also the site of many edit sessions.

If we can’t manage to get together in person, we have marathon phone sessions. Headphones in place or speakerphone activated, these conversations can last up to as long as five hours.

When we are finally satisfied that we have polished the manuscript and its ready to go, we send it to our publisher. Our paperbacks, Kindle and e-books are published by L& L Dreamspell; our audio book CDs and MP3 by Books in Motion, Inc.

We have realized a wonderful bonus from writing together. Phyllice moved to Alaska when she was twenty and lived there for many years. We’re five-and-a-half years apart with me being the big sister. Just when we would have become friends as adults, Phyllice was thousands of miles away. Our mother was the conduit, telling each of us what the other was doing. We would talk on the phone sporadically, but weren’t really good friends. Outside of Mom’s reports, we knew very little about each other.

When our mother had mini-strokes in the mid 1990’s and Phyllice travelled to L.A. to help arrange for her care, we finally spent a great deal of time together and discovered we really liked each other. We also found that while we are different in many ways, just like Goldie and Godiva, we also have many similarities. Today, through our writing, we have become best friends.

Under the pseudonym, Arliss Adams, I am also writing a book with Meredith Holland entitled “Anything But Paradise.” This year our short story leading up to it, “Welcome to Paradise,” will be part of the anthology “Dreamspell Revenge.” This is a delicious tale best described as 9 to 5 meets The First Wives Club in a government embezzlement scheme. Meredith has not written before, but is a marvelous idea and research person. The bones of the story were created from an experience both of us lived, and as we looked back we realized it had an interesting storyline for fiction. We’ve been working on it for a few years.

The process of timeline, basic storyline and evolving plot were similar, but Meredith feeds me lots of possible situations and research, some from memories of actual incidents we experienced together and some from her fertile imagination, and it’s my job to put it into a polished manuscript. She is so prolific, it’s almost like being at a sumptuous buffet and trying to choose which dishes will fit on the plate. I’d easily have enough material for two or three books, and we have discussed doing a series.

This was a totally different experience than writing with a sibling who happens to be an author/editor. We have been having lots of fun with it, particularly when we reminisce about some of the experiences and how they might fit into the storyline. Of course, this has all been fictionalized, so we have license to create scenes that never would have happened…or would they? As I read of so many scandals in the papers these days, I wonder sometimes if this is art imitating life.

I’m hoping to have the manuscript finished before the year is out.

Then there is my project with Mike Dennis, an author of noir mysteries whose writing I greatly respect. We’ve recently finished a proposal for “You Don’t Say,” a humorous word book that will be suitable for a reference book, casual reading, gift book and much more. We both put equal effort into working out our format, content, organization of the material, and much more. Mike and I write a monthly column of the same name for the Sisters in Crime/Southern Nevada newsletter, “On the Prowl”. After working on the column for several months, we knew we had the makings of a book and a wonderful topic for talks in many venues.

Mike is the wordsmith between us, and I love to come up with ways to present the information. So, again, we both have our separate strengths. To sweeten the mix, my son-in-law is a brilliant illustrator, having done work for high profile publishers of books, magazines and newspapers. He created a killer rough cover for us, so we are ready to pitch it to publishers or agents and are hopeful to see this book in print.

We haven’t touched on the projects that I write on my own…books, stories and my column in, but I could go on forever. Suffice to say that I have two new books coming out under the Arliss Adams pseudonym, “Devil’s Dance” in August and “The Devil’s Due” in September. These are the first two books in my new “Twist of Fate” series and will be in all formats including audio. I have a novel, and anthology and a “how to” book in various stages of completion.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my underachieving nature with you.

2 comments: said...

Thanks so much for this interview, Janet. I've been asked so many times how I write with a partner.

If the guidelines are drawn in the beginning, and both parties stick to them, there can be many benefits like strengthened friendship, learning from each other, and much more.


Janet Rudolph said...

Thank, you, for being my guest.