Thank you so much, Mr. Bain, for allowing me to interview you online. As a best-selling Cozy Mystery author, I am sure there are many Cozy Mystery readers who are interested in learning a little bit about you. (I know I am!)
Most of the Cozy Mystery readers on my site know that you write (or should I say “co-write”?) the Murder, She Wrote Mystery Series. This series is one of the most recommended series on our monthly Cozy Mystery recommendation lists.
Something that isn’t as well-known about you is that you recently have taken over the writing of Margaret Truman’s Capital Crimes Mystery Series. Congratulations!
–What did you do before you became an author?
After spending three years as an officer in the Air Force, I worked as a public relations exec for American Airlines, wrote and directed industrial films, performed as a jazz musician (vibes & drums), and was a consultant to Pan Am. I started writing part-time, which grew into my full-time career of more than 120 books.
–Why did you decide to write mysteries, rather than another type of book?
It wasn’t my choice. After writing a series of comedies beginning with Coffee, Tea or Me my agent paired me with Margaret Truman, and I worked with her for many years on her “Capital Crimes” series. That led to writing the “Murder, She Wrote” series of books based upon the popular TV show.
–Who are your favorite authors?
There are so many. I loved Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard and was delighted when reviewers compared my recent novel Lights Out! to their writing. I enjoyed Faulkner’s work, Graham Greene novels, John Le Carré, P.D. James, Kurt Vonnegut, and a wonderful obscure writer, Arturo Vivante.
–What is your educational background?
I graduated from Purdue University.
–What do you enjoy doing – other than writing mysteries?
A passionate lover of jazz, I listen every day although I no longer perform. I used to be a dedicated fly fisherman but haven’t enjoyed that pursuit for many years.
–What is your typical day like?
I was a “morning person” for years and did most of my writing then. But lately I’ve been indulging myself in leisurely mornings and start writing after lunch.
–How do you feel about “co-writing with Jessica Fletcher”? Are you ever referred to as “Mr. Fletcher”?
I laughed when I read this question. Being “co-author” of the MSW series with someone who doesn’t exist except as a fictitious character is fun. It’s an ideal collaboration because Jessica never second-guesses my work. Of course my wife, Renee, who collaborates with me on the series, keeps me on my writing toes.
–When you are writing one of your books, where do you write?
Renee and I have separate offices in our home, with a conference room in between. We have very different needs. She requires silence when she writes. I always have jazz on the stereo, or TV.
–How difficult is it to come up with all of the different plots, as well as the actual crimes?
The plot, the story, is always the most difficult part of writing murder mysteries and thrillers. Developing three-dimensional characters is also a constant challenge. So many of our plots and crimes come straight from the day’s news.
–When you start a new mystery, do you plot it out in its entirety or do you let the plot advance as you write it?
Each book starts with a brief overview of the story and characters, with a sense of how the plot develops and where it leads. But we allow the story to sometimes deviate from our preconceived script and give the characters plenty of room to act out their lives. I suppose the term “pantsers” applies to us.
–What is your research procedure in writing your mysteries?
With very few exceptions we personally visit the scene of novels in the series to gain a first-hand feel of where the story will take place. Of course, the Internet also comes in handy. But nothing takes the place of actually seeing and experiencing the setting, armed with a tape recorder and notebook.
–Are the characters in your mysteries based on real people or are they solely products of your imagination?
A combination of both, although primarily through our imagination. Of course, when basing a character on a real person great care has to be taken to change enough of that character to avoid the possibility of legal action.
–Do you ever get writer’s block, and if so, what do you do to shake it?
I really don’t believe in writer’s block. I’ve always found that the way to avoid it is to write through it. On some days when the writing is laboriously slow the output for that day might not be up to par. But by sitting down and writing even sub-par pages, there’s something to edit and rewrite the following day.
–Do you get input from friends and/or family when you are writing your mysteries?
Never, aside from my wife.
–How long does it take you to write one of your mysteries?
We deliver two “Murder, She Wrote” novels each year. It takes us a good five months from concept through research, writing, rewriting and editing, to have a finished manuscript to deliver to the publisher. The novels in the Margaret Truman “Capital Crimes” series take longer, from eight months to a year.
–Once you turn a manuscript in to your publisher, what types of revisions take place and how much time elapses before the novel is published?
The editing process is a back-and-forth communication between us and our editor. I’ve been fortunate over the years to have worked with a number of first-rate editors, and every book has benefited from their input. A good editor is worth gold to a writer. Getting a book ready for publication is a long, slow process, and usually a novel isn’t published until a year has passed from the time the manuscript was submitted.
–I am sure you love writing mysteries, but if you weren’t doing that, what do you think you would enjoy doing?
If I hadn’t become a writer, I would have enjoyed being captain of the QE2 sailing across the Atlantic, or an airline pilot flying 747s. I have a private pilot’s license and enjoy every aspect of flying (with the exception of being a passenger thanks to today’s cattle-car airline mentality).
–Do you prefer it when Jessica Fletcher stays in Cabot Cove, or do you enjoy it more when she is elsewhere?
The novels set in Cabot Cove are more difficult to write than when Jessica trips over a dead body somewhere else. When she travels, the place becomes a character, which gives us more to work with. On the other hand, Cabot Cove is certainly a cozy town with wonderful characters to draw upon. Of course, setting a novel in a place other than Cabot Cove gives us the chance to travel for research, which is always a joy.
–Do you think it made it more difficult to write the Murder, She Wrote mystery books because the show made Jessica Fletcher a house-hold name, thus there were preconceived ideas of what she could do and what she wouldn’t do?
Having been handed the wonderful Jessica Fletcher character, who was shaped by Angela Lansbury and the TV show’s writers and directors, can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand the character is appealing and three-dimensional. On the other hand there is the problem that you cite in your question. Not only do readers have a pre-conceived notion of what Jessica Fletcher can and cannot do, Universal, which owns the franchise, is also protective of the Fletcher brand and they vet every manuscript.
–I think it’s really interesting that you have taken on Margaret Truman’s Capital Crimes Mystery Series. This series seems so different than the Murder, She Wrote series. How challenging is it to write such different mystery series?
I started collaborating with Margaret Truman on her Capital Crime series 30 years ago. Margaret and I were good friends, and she was a joy to work with. Following her death I was asked to continue the series under my own name, and have written four novels, with two more under contract. Writing the Truman series is considerably different from the MSW series. It takes an intimate knowledge and feel for Washington, D.C. and the political system, which necessitates spending considerable time in the nation’s capital and doing a lot of reading. These books are more in the “thriller” category of publishing, and I thoroughly enjoy the change of pace from the MSW series, which are definitely of the “cozy“ variety.
Thank you so much, Mr. Bain, for participating in this interview.
Thank you for inviting me! Renee and I hope your readers will continue to enjoy the “Murder, She Wrote” books.
Here is the link to the Donald Bain page on the Cozy Mystery site.