Thursday, October 26, 2017

Writing with-

Michael - Thursday

Bouchercon was great fun (as it always is), and I had a super panel. In the first place it was on a topic that really interests me—how mystery and thriller authors go about writing collaboratively—and second the authors on the panel are all award winning, New York Times bestselling authors, and, equally important, they are very interesting and experienced writers. I was the moderator, so I could find out all the things I’ve always wanted to know from them.

The panelists were:

Reed Farrel Coleman, who continues the enormously popular Robert B Parker Jesse Stone series. Reed has just pocketed his fourth Shamus award and has won just about everything else going except the Edgar—and he’s been a finalist for that four times.
JT Ellison is a big name in her own right with standalones and series, and has won the ITW Thriller award. She writes the ‘Brit in the FBI’ series with Catherine Coulter and their latest collaboration—The Devil’s Triangle—has everything, the lost ark, weather control technology, higher than high tech, even an underground motorcycle chase. (JT said that had come to Catherine in a dream—literally—and she had to fit it in somehow!)

Chris Grabenstein writes witty mysteries on his own, and has won the Anthony, Agatha and Sid Feischman humor awards.  He also produces a prolific series of wildly successful books for young readers with James Patterson. He was this year’s Bouchercon4kids guest of honor.
Charles and Caroline Todd write the popular Inspector Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford mysteries set at the time of the First World War. They’ve won the Barry, Agatha, McCavity, and Mary Higgins Clark awards, and been short listed for the Edgar. Charles and Caroline kindly stepped in for Max and Barbara Collins who had to drop out because of some medical issues shortly before the convention.

So you can see why it was a dream panel assignment for me; not only did I have a group of great authors, but their work spanned the whole spectrum of collaboration.

I started off by asking each of them how the collaboration had started for them, and how it worked.

Reed took over the Jesse Stone series from another author, who parted ways with Robert B Parker's estate. He read all the previous books, trying to get himself into RBP's style.  Then he got some really good advice from a friend who is a great Elvis fan.  The friend has seen all the films, heard all the records, seen all the Elvis impersonators. The advice was simply this: all the Elvis impersonators were just that-they could never be Elvis. Reed took the advice to heart, found his own style consistent with the series, and has just launched the fourth book. It seems to work. The Hangman's Sonnet started right up the New York Times best seller list.

Reed speculated that a writing partnership has to have a boss (at least if both authors are still alive), and JT confirmed that Catherine was the boss. Her agent was approached by Catherine’s, and so she flew out to Catherine’s home to discuss a collaboration. It went well from the start, but Catherine is the big name, so she has to be happy with the style, plot and writing. JT’s own books are more in the police procedural space, and so she enjoys writing the James Bond style thrillers. Thrillers give a freedom from the more constrained murder mystery. 

Chris confirmed that ‘Jim’ Patterson was the boss. They went back a long way because Jim was Chris’s first boss at an advertising agency. When he approached Chris many years later about a collaboration on books for kids, Chris jumped at it.
Chris gave us a very different view from the rather snobbish one of Patterson having a slave pen of writers who do all the work and then have their names dropped off the books. Patterson is incredibly hard working and Chris estimates that he does more than half the work on the collaborative effort. He works on eight books simultaneously each month. His office has eight desks each with the work for one of the projects. Chris often wakes to phone messages about their latest book. Overall, a very enjoyable experience, he says.

Charles and Caroline told us the history of their collaboration. Both shared an interest in history, and enjoyed visiting England and the period of the early nineteen hundreds. Caroline said she chose Charles by default; none of the others in her family wanted to write with her. Charles just smiled and nodded.
Their first idea came from a true case of a soldier whose body had been found where it was unexpected, and no one had really determined what the real story was. Speculating about that case gave them ideas for their first Rutledge book, A Test of Wills. Caroline once told me that they were unsure of who the murderer was right up to the last few chapters. That's serious pantsing!
They write and research together - pretty much as we do. When things seem to one of them to be going offtrack, their solution is to work out what is best for the character.

As for Michael Stanley, two days ago we launched our sixth Detective Kubu book Dying to Live. Each of our books has followed a slightly different path. The first was pure pantsing, and we did everything together - writing, research, learning the craft. The second book we outlined and stuck to the outline pretty well. It worked, and we felt we had found the successful formula for efficiently writing books. Until the third book. We wrote the outline, but found it didn't work when we actually wrote the book. We shrugged it off, gave the characters their heads after that, and they galloped through the book - except we didn't know how it ended. Till we did. And so on. Now we expect each book to have something of its own writing style. We like being surprised as much as the readers do!

All the panelists seemed to be pretty happy with their collaborations (although Reed mentioned one with Ken Bruen which had not gone so well). It works for us and our readers!

We're on the road! Here are our upcoming events:

TONIGHT October 26, 7:00pm
Mystery to Me bookstore
1863 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711
(608) 283-9332
Free registration at 
Eventbright or by calling the store

October 27, 6:00pm to 8:30pm
Aunt Agatha’s
213 S 4th Ave # 1A, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
(734) 769-1114
Dinner (6:00pm) and discussion (7:00pm).
Please contact the store beforehand for details

October 30, 7:00pm
Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore
7419 W. Madison Street
Forest Park, IL  60130
(708) 771-7243
Discussion and refreshments

November 1, 7:00pm
Barnes and Noble
2100 Snelling Ave, St Paul, MN 55113
(651) 639-9256
7:00pm.  Discussion

November 4, 10:30am.
Mystery Lovers Bookshop
514 Allegheny River Blvd, Oakmont, PA 15139
(412) 828-4877
Coffee and Crime


  1. Good grief, Michael. Where was I when this was going on? With so many (all but one) good buddies of mine, I should have been in the front row.

    1. It was a great panel! Unfortunately it was at 8:30 on Saturday morning so it didn't pull the attendance it deserved.

    2. Best of luck at the CWA awards this evening and please say Hi to Leye for us if he's there.

  2. Michael, I am so impressed that you recall anything any panellist said. My mind just goes blank the minute I get off the platform.
    It was a very good panel, I felt exhausted just listening to the work rate of those guys.
    Congrats on a job well done!

  3. Thanks, Caro. This was a special interest of mine (obviously), so I really was concentrating for once!

  4. Great info, Michael. As Caro said, thanks for the memory demonstration. I should mention that I remember every word Caro ever says on a that I can go and look them up right after.