Monday, June 5, 2023

Partners in Crime: Guest Post by Rhys Bowen and Clare Broyles On Collaborating in Writing the Molly Murphy Series

: Two years ago my daughter Clare came to me with an unexpected proposition. She said, “I think I’d like to write the Molly Murphy series with you.”

I had put that series on hold after book 17 because I was already writing two books a year, one of them a big historical stand-alone novel that required loads of research. I simply did not have time for a third book. But, as Clare pointed out, I got a constant stream of emails saying “when is the next Molly book coming out?”

I was ambivalent about Clare’s suggestion. I knew she was a good writer, but what if she couldn’t get Molly’s voice or the tone of the novels? She was my daughter. I loved her dearly. What if I had to tell her it wasn’t working out? But I agreed to give it a try. I was so pleasantly surprised. I had expected to do a lot of hand-holding to start with, a lot of rewriting, mentoring.

Instead Clare read all 17 books again then hit the ground running. She got Molly’s voice perfectly, and she came to that first book with so many good ideas.

CLARE: I loved the Molly Murphy series from the first book and didn’t want the series to die. I knew that to be successful as a collaborator I had to get Molly’s voice. So I not only read through all seventeen of the novels taking notes, I also listened to the audiobooks. Early on, Rhys gave me some great advice. She suggested that whenever I felt stuck I picture myself sitting in Molly’s house at her kitchen table while she tells me a story about her life. I try to be the listener as I write, and that was it is Molly who drives the story in her own words. 

RHYS: We fell into a smooth way of working. We talk through the main theme of the book, we decide on our characters and their names, do the preliminary research, then we work together on the first chapters. After that it’s all rather organic. Clare might tell me she can picture the party scene so she takes it.  I read it through, sometimes tweak here and there, and go on ahead. She reads through my scenes and then goes ahead again. We talk every day, bouncing ideas off each other.

CLARE: It is such a gift to have a co-writer. For one thing, I get instant feedback on each scene that I write. Most writers have to just live with their self-doubt! And each time I write ten pages, Rhys has written ten more, so I get to be a reader as well. We spend hours discussing the tricky details of the murder. We want to play fair and give the readers clues, but also have a clever solution. In ALL THAT IS HIDDEN, our latest Molly Murphy, we blithely gave ourselves the challenge of a locked room mystery. And then we had to figure out how the murderer could have done it!

RHYS: Obviously books set in the early 1900s require a lot of research. Clare has turned out to be the queen of research. She reads the New York Times archives for every day we write about and has come up with great ideas that we’ve incorporated into our plots. I come with the background knowledge of having written almost twenty books set in the time and place. I know Molly’s New York intimately, having walked every street when I was writing the first books, as well as having assembled a collection of photographs of the city, restaurant menus, Sears catalog for 1900 etc etc.  So when Clare is writing she will leave details of Molly walking across Manhattan and what she might have seen to me. And I leave it to her to find out details about Tammany Hall corruption, the mayor’s election, dirty dealings at the docks.
Clare, tell the readers what brilliant news items you found for our new book, ALL THAT IS HIDDEN.

CLARE: One of the first articles I read was about a boat catching fire on the Hudson. The New York Times gave an exciting account of the boat being engulfed in flames as the crew struggled to dock and couldn’t, then finally made fast at a small dock that promptly burst into flames. Rhys and I knew we had to put Molly on that boat. And that detail shaped a major character. We knew we wanted a wealthy man involved in our mystery, but when we decided to include the boat it led us to the docks and Tammany Hall. I scoured the Times for mentions of Tammany Hall and read about the Republicans teaming up with William Randolph Hearst’s Independence Party to try to take control away from Tammany. Those stories formed the background to the novel. 

RHYS: We have just turned in our third book. This one was exceptionally fun to write because we set it in the Catskill mountains at the very beginning of the Jewish bungalow communities. Again I left it to Clare to do the research. She found videos of a train ride through the mountains, old maps and what were the plums, Clare?

CLARE: I learned that the streets of New York were paved with bluestone that came from quarries in the Catskills. In 1907 Portland cement was replacing blue stone and the quarries were in trouble. A new Catskills state park had just been formed with the first park Rangers and chestnut trees were still abundant, although the blight was spreading. My favorite find was an artist’s community that was a summer destination for bohemians like our characters Sid and Gus, and for many professional women. It still exists today with lodging and a theater. We decided to make a fictional version for Molly to visit and have the liberal inhabitants come out in protest against the blue stone quarrying that was disturbing the peace of the Catskills.

RHYS: So now we had plenty of conflict. Plenty of potential for clashes and motives for murder. Obviously we are writing about a community that is not our own. We felt this was okay to tackle as it is all seen through Molly’s eyes, the eyes of an outsider. However we wanted to make sure everything about the Jewish community was completely authentic so I enlisted the help of an old friend in New York, who comes from a distinguished Jewish family, and we had her go through the book for us. She is a former editor and she went through with a tooth comb! And miraculously she found very little to criticize or change. 

CLARE: I don’t think you could write about the Catskills without including the Jewish community. At that time the large resorts had signs saying, “No Hebrews”. It didn’t matter how wealthy or educated the family was. If you are a fan of the Molly books you know that many of them deal with a group who is excluded because of their gender, race or religion. Including, of course, the Irish who arrived in New York to signs that said, “No Irish need apply.” I hope we are able to continue to tell those stories. 

RHYS: It is my plan to step back gradually with each book until I can hand the series over to Clare and I’ll lurk in the background as the mentor.  So watch out for her. She’s already coming up with brilliant ideas for her own series.


Rhys Bowen is the NYT bestselling author of the Molly Murphy and Royal Spyness series as well as several internationally bestselling historical stand alone novels. Her daughter Clare Broyles is a teacher, music composer whose work for theater won an Arizona Zoni award, and now a perfect partner in crime.

1 comment:

Katy McCoy said...

This wasn't one of my favorite series (don't remember why) but based on this article, I'm going to start again with the first one with the joint authors. The history is one of my favorite parts.