Friday, March 11, 2011

Donald Bain & Renée Paley-Bain: Partners in Crime

Our series Partners in Crime (authors who write together) continues today with a guest post by mystery author Renée Paley-Bain who writes the Murder, She Wrote mysteries with Don Bain.

The "Murder, She Wrote" original mystery novels are bylined by Jessica Fletcher, who exists only as a fictional character, and Donald Bain, who is a real flesh-and-blood character. For the past ten years, Bain has been writing the books with his wife, Renée Paley-Bain. Their latest collaboration, Skating on Thin Ice, will be out in hardcover in April as will the paperback version of Nashville Noir. More information may be found at

Renée Paley-Bain:

Love, Honor and … Edit

For a husband and wife, writing as a team can be fraught with danger. Like many other writing partners, the big questions have to be addressed: Who has the upper hand in a quarrel over plot points? Who writes first and determines the style? Who gets the last word if a disagreement over the manuscript remains unresolved? But the little questions also worm their way to the fore: Who’s still reading the morning newspaper when the other sits down at the computer? Who gets to end a chapter, leaving the beginning of the next one up in the air? Who has to start dinner while the other is beavering away? Those are the kinds of issues you confront when a “night-time is my time” owl and an “I’m up with the birds” lark both cohabit and embark on a book together.

I have the good fortune to be married to Donald Bain, who happens to be a prolific author. In a writing career that spans more than 40 years, Don has 110 books under his belt at last count. He’s written in myriad genres: mystery, romance, westerns, true crime, biography, autobiography, investigative journalism, comedy, and some that are hard to define. For the past twenty-two years, however, in addition to numerous side projects, he has devoted his attention—and I’ve joined him—dreaming up the adventures of a television sleuth I’m sure you’ve heard of.

“Murder, She Wrote” debuted on CBS in September 1984. The show was conceived by another pair of writing partners, Richard Levinson and William Link, Hollywood writers and producers, who were also behind such great television series as “Mannix” and “Columbo.” Together with their frequent collaborator Peter S. Fischer, they came up with the idea for an amateur sleuth modeled not on Agatha Christie’s popular Miss Marple, but rather on Ms. Christie herself. And thus Jessica Fletcher, a widowed mystery writer, bicycled onto our small screens and charmed us for a dozen-plus years’ worth of episodes and another dozen-plus years’ worth of reruns, simultaneously assuring eternal fame and a legion of devoted fans for her portrayer, the great Angela Lansbury.

Midway through the life of the series, Universal, which produced the show, agreed that mystery books about Jessica Fletcher were a good way both to promote the show and to create a lucrative brand extension. Thus the “Murder, She Wrote” books were born, and Don who had ghosted a mystery series for a well-known author was offered the gig.

Thirty-six books later, he is still sharing the byline with the fictional Jessica Fletcher. For a ghostwriter, having his name on the cover of a book is a rare treat, and while some readers still think Jessica Fletcher is a real-live person, and a few think Angela Lansbury is behind the computer, most understand that it is Don who brings Jessica to life on the pages of the “Murder, She Wrote” mysteries.

Exactly how we came to write together is a story more of evolution than revolution. As a former English teacher, newspaper editor, and public relations professional, I was never shy about voicing my opinions on writing. Initially, I would read Don’s drafts and make comments on sticky notes attached to the margins. When he encouraged me to make edits directly on the manuscript, I considered it a great honor. (In our business, everyone knows there is nothing those-who-consider-themselves-writers love more than correcting, editing, altering, embellishing, tweaking another writer’s work.) Eventually, I offered Don a specialized service, arguing that as a man writing as a woman he needed a few more feminine touches. Since he doesn’t know a camisole from a Chippendale, I began adding in those details of clothing and furniture women usually find not only entertaining, but revealing. From there I moved up to inserting whole paragraphs, then pages, not all of this focused on decorating, of course. The day finally came when, after long discussion on the scene in progress, Don told me to write the chapter as I saw it. I wrote one, and then another, and before we knew it, we were writing a book together.

Every writer needs a good editor and we serve each other in that capacity. One time, on a book Don was writing, which was not in the “Murder, She Wrote” series, I pointed out what I thought was a particularly awkward description of a character, and suggested he rewrite it. He declined. It was a turn of phrase Don had labored over and was really pleased with; he didn’t want to change it. Yet, when the book came out, one critic pointed to that phrase as an example of “clunky writing,” and Don pointed to me and said, “You called it.”

Critiquing each other cuts both ways of course. When I was working on the first full book we wrote together, Murder in a Minor Key, I set a scene at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. I was so enamored of all the musical acts that appear in this annual event that I went on for pages, describing the musicians and their instruments and the pieces that they played. Don came into my office after reading the chapter and handed it back to me. He shrugged. “It’s boring,” he said. This from a part-time musician and jazz lover! I edited out five pages and the chapter was greatly improved.

These days, we brainstorm together, often during a dinner out, preferably over cocktails, with a pad and a pen next to the fork and knife. Afterward, we take turns being writer and editor, depending on each other’s workload, and whether or not one of us possesses an area of expertise required by the plot. Regarding plot, we find that even though we submit a detailed outline to our editor and to Universal, the storyline is a moving target. Both of us are pantsers. (In writing jargon pantsers are people who improvise on the page, or write by the seat of their pants.) That quality can make the story take sharp turns or cause a character to behave in unanticipated ways. While it creates an exciting twist, it also challenges whoever is in the writer’s seat to weave it smoothly into next chapter and figure out how it impacts the resolution of the mystery.

Not having a clear path to “what happens next” can make for some nervous days in front of the empty screen, but it also allows for a lot of creative flow. I always say writing a book is like sewing a back stitch. You move forward one stitch and go back over what you’ve done before moving forward again.

That’s essentially how our books get written. Whenever we get a bright idea late in the writing, we go back through the manuscript to weave in clues so that by the time we reach the conclusion, the reader has the same information we do.

We have been very lucky in how well we collaborate and in having such a wonderful character to work with. Aided by separate offices with a conference room in between—Don likes the TV on or music playing while he writes; I don’t—we invent Jessica Fletcher’s latest challenges and live vicariously through her exploits, although we have been known to join her in her travels, especially when it’s a place we’re dying to go to.

Speaking of dying, it’s my turn to write about Jessica’s latest case, a Jack-the-Ripper-type murder on the beautiful island of Bermuda in Blood on a Pink Beach. Don is waiting for the next chapter, so I’d better get back to work.


Anonymous said...

Hello Renee (& Don)--

Thanks for this behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative writing process that has resulted in so many wonderful MSW books! Having had the distinct pleasure of meeting you both, I can say that you truly are partners in crime--and an inspiration for aspiring writers! (Though I don't think I could ever co-write a book with Chelsey, as I can barely tolerate her editing one of my columns...) I would like to propse a title to you: MARRIAGE IS MURDER. (Just a thought...)

Your friend,


Anonymous said...

I just got a Kindle about 4 months ago and have downloaded 8 pages' worth so far! But I am finding the most enjoyable 'reads' that I have are the Jessica Fletcher books. Sure-fire entertainment. Thanks for doing them, and don't stop !