Sunday, December 11, 2011

Confessions of a Serial Novelist

Today, we are pleased to welcome Marcia Talley as our guest blogger. Marcia is the Agatha and Anthony-award winning author of A QUIET DEATH and nine previous Hannah Ives mysteries. Her short stories appear in more than a dozen collections. She’s a past president of Sisters in Crime and a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the Crime Writers’ Association, and the Authors’ Guild. When Marcia isn’t in Annapolis, Maryland researching 18th century manners and customs, she’s living aboard an antique sailboat in the Bahamas with her husband, Barry.

CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL NOVELIST: Or, How I Wrote Mystery Novels with Twelve Other Women and Lived to Tell the Tale
Marcia Talley

Fans of my Hannah Ives mysteries will be surprised to learn that I am also a serial novelist. I write novels with other women. And not just one woman either. TWELVE other women.

How could this happen to a good little girl from Cleveland, Ohio?

It’s like this. My agent called one day and mentioned that a publisher had paid Big Bucks for a serial novel about golf. Surely I could come up with something as interesting! How about a novel set in an exclusive health spa, I said? You could have a greedy owner, a star-struck daughter, a drunken senator, an aged rock star...I was on a roll. Naked Came the Phoenix was born.

I’d Kill for That was my second expedition into collaborative serial novel territory, and what an adventure it was! For the uninitiated, let me explain that the novel, like its predecessor, Naked Came the Phoenix, was written in round-robin style: one author writes the first chapter then passes it to the second who picks up the story where the first author left off, then passes it on to the third, and so on.

For me, coming up with the scenario – murder in an exclusive gated community – and creating a smorgasbord of fascinating characters for the others to play with was just the beginning. The fun really started when I turned it all over to my fellow authors, sat back and waited to see where my dream team would run with it, and they didn’t disappoint.

Under the talented pen of Gayle Lynds, the “greedy real estate developer” suggested in my proposal leapt to life “with a clash of cymbals and a drum roll” as Vanessa Smart Drysdale, a petite, chestnut-haired beauty in black leather slacks who possesses all the compassion of Cruella de Vil. Little did I know what Lisa Gardner had in store for poor, tormented Roman Gervase, and Julie Smith’s take on Sunday services at St. Francis of Assisi Interfaith Chapel had me chuckling for weeks. Other equally delightful chapters were penned by Rita Mae Brown, Linda Fairstein, Kay Hooper, Kathy Reichs (lending her customary forensic expertise, of course), Heather Graham, Jennifer Crusie, Tina Wainscott, Anne Perry, Katherine Neville and, ahem, me.

The authors seemed to enjoy the game, too. The rules were simple. Each chapter was to be written in the third person, with a definite solution in view, even thought we were well aware that subsequent authors might take – indeed were expected to take – the plot in divergent directions. Speaking of her chapter in Naked Came the Phoenix, which was set in a luxury health spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Nancy Pickard said, “It was dangerously liberating to know I didn’t personally have to deal with the consequences of whatever I put in my chapter.” Good thing, too, as she left our heroine struggling to extract the body of the spa owner from a mud bath.

Although writers were cautioned to avoid cliff-hanger endings that would require Houdini-like efforts on the part of the next author, the “real fun” comes, according to Laurie R. King who wrote the final chapter of Naked Came the Phoenix, “in seeing thirteen sweet-tempered lady crime writers stab each other thoughtfully in the back.” Judy Jance gleefully ended her chapter in that novel with Phyllis, the spa’s resident psychic, floating face down in a lake. Fortunately, however, someone in Faye Kellerman’s chapter knew CPR and revived Phyllis long enough for her to deliver a critical clue before lapsing into a coma.

As you might guess, my job as editor/contributor resembled a cross between tour guide and traffic cop as I assembled the team and worked out the intricacies of scheduling – each author had just a month to complete her chapter – and made sure, for example, that each author received packets of background information and copies of the chapters that preceded hers. Timing was critical. We met at conferences, spoke on the telephone and exchanged emails at a furious rate. As we raced to the finish line, Anne, Katherine and I kept the trans-Atlantic telephone lines hot as we brainstormed and worked out plot details – Anne Perry pointed out that the novel needed a love story, and she was right – so we put one in. And Val McDermid vowed she would not participate unless she could use the word “incarnadine,” a request I happily granted. Often we found ourselves revisiting an earlier chapter to plant a clue or clear up a discrepancy, and it fell to the amazing Katherine Neville – who volunteered for the job, I should point out – to tie up all the loose ends as our novel sprinted to its stunning conclusion.

It’s common for serial collaborations to benefit a worthy cause and I’d Kill for That is no exception. Like Naked Came the Phoenix before it, a percentage of the royalties is earmarked to support breast cancer research.

After I’d Kill for That, I had planned to hang up my serial novel pen, until Andrew Gulli, the editor of Strand Magazine, telephoned to twist my arm about a serial novel he was working on to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society—No Rest for the Dead – 26 bestselling authors! One terrific novel! according to Simon & Schuster who published it. Although I thought Andrew was out of his mind (and I told him so!) he decided to have all 26 authors write their chapters simultaneously. So, how did that work out? Listen to the authors as they comment at the novel’s New York City launch party in July.

There may be another serial novel in my future — never say never! — but in the meantime, A Quiet Death is recently out from Severn House in hardback and eBook, and I’m finishing Hannah’s eleventh adventure, The Last Refuge set entirely at historic William Paca House in Annapolis, Maryland!

Has Hannah Ives made the right decision joining the cast of Patriot House, 1774, a reality show recreating eighteen-century colonial life? There’s no electricity, no running water, and the cast are at the mercy of the show’s ‘Founding Father’. Even more worrying, Amy Cornell, Hannah’s lady’s maid on set, receives a text message from Drew, her Navy SEAL husband presumed dead after a botched mission ten months ago. Naturally, because I write mysteries (all by myself this time!) mayhem ensues. Look for The Last Refuge in the spring of 2012.


hannahdennison said...

what a fun idea! i have never heard of that before (where have i been?) great post Marcia.

Marcia Talley said...

Hannah, the next time I take it into my head to write a serial novel, will your hand be raised?? ;-)

Liz said...

Best wishes for success A Quiet Death and The Last Refuge. I've enjoyed Hannah's adventures to date.

You, and your collaborators, are to be commended for the effort devoted to Naked Came the Phoenix and I’d Kill for That, in such worthwhile causes.

Marcia Talley said...

Thanks, Liz. Nice to be having fun while, hopefully, making a difference.

Charlotte Hinger said...

I loved this! And what a galaxy of all-star writers.