Books don’t happen in a vacuum. Indeed, there’s far more involved than us writers going into our self-imposed bubbles and just turning in whatever emerges however many months later.
My titles in the Murder, She Wrote series, for example, always begin with a one or so page proposal in which I sketch out for my editors that particular book’s story. But much more goes into the planning than that and each of the last three books I did were conceived with marketing concerns taking center stage, as much as creative ones. With MURDER IN SEASON, for example, I thought it was time to do a holiday-themed Murder, She Wrote book to take advantage of our late November pub date.
Okay, confession time: That notion actually sprang from the fact that I was getting bumped further down the Cozy bestseller lists by pretty much any mystery with “Christmas” in the title. That made it time for me to do one. And even if “Christmas” didn’t appear in the title, I knew Berkley would be able to create a package that would scream “Holidays!” And, boy, did they ever, as you can see from the cover. Talk about a perfect stocking stuffer!
But I had another idea kicking around in my head, that is to kind of play with the fact that Jessica Fletcher’s beloved town of Cabot Cove has been labeled the murder capital of the world, thanks to the inordinate number of homicides that take place there per capita. So, I asked myself and my editors, what if a tabloid TV reporter comes to town to do a story on what’s behind Cabot Cove’s excessive murder rate?
I’d also been playing around with the notion of Jessica finding the remains of two bodies buried in her backyard, murder coming home in other words. See, in MANUSCRIPT FOR MURDER, my second effort in the series, Jessica’s beloved home at 698 Candlewood Lane is badly damaged in a fire. So for the three books that followed, she’s been living in a suite at Cabot Cove’s Hill House Hotel. So I had her return to Candlewood Lane at long last in MURDER IN SEASON, specifically to take advantage of having the remains of two murder victims, separated by centuries, uncovered by a construction crew installing a new septic system.
Little did I know then that buried with the remains would be a colonial chest containing the founding documents of Cabot Cove. Those founding documents are packed with clues about a local legend in the form of a long-lost treasure that once belonged to the five men who founded the town in the late 1700’s, men who held their own dangerous secrets. I had so much fun delving into those secrets and the actual, albeit fictional, history of Cabot Cove that I had to remind myself that was just a part of the greater story I was telling.
When I started the book, I didn’t yet know that (Spoiler Alert!) the tabloid TV reporter wasn’t in town to do a story on Cabot Cove’s murder rate at all. That was just a ruse to disguise the fact something else entirely has brought him to Cabot Cove. I did know, however, that several descendants of the town’s original founders would be murdered and, ultimately, Jessica would link those killings to both the remains found in her backyard and that long-lost treasure.
In all my books, not just my entries in the Murder, She Wrote series, the challenge and the fun lies in tying all the disparate elements together into a cohesive whole. Basically, I do that on the fly, the twists and turns unfolding for me in real time just as they do for the reader. That’s what I meant by fun!
But since MURDER IN SEASON was a holiday-themed Murder, She Wrote entry, I also wanted to inject the feel of the season and what it’s best known for, particularly friends, family, and traditions. I’d already established my own tradition of bringing back popular characters from the TV series long missing from the books, like I did in A TIME FOR MURDER with Amos Tupper. That made MURDER IN SEASON the perfect opportunity to inject family into the mix and, for Jessica, family means her nephew Grady whom she and her late husband Frank raised after his parents were killed in an accident.
Grady arrives with wife Donna, late of the TV show, and Jessica’s beloved grand-nephew little Frank, who I created. And those family scenes were the ones I had the most fun writing, since it was something else the books had never fully explored prior to my taking the reins. That element of MURDER IN SEASON allowed me to showcase Jessica in a way I never before, recalling that so many episodes of the TV series were driven by her rescuing a niece, nephew or cousin from injustice. So I wasn’t really reinventing the wheel here, just hitching it to a new wagon.
And that’s the point. When I took over the series, my stated goal was to reconceive Murder, She Wrote as if the series originated in the present instead of 1984. Jessica, in my mind, needed to be the modern, independent woman she doesn’t get enough credit for being way ahead of her time. People forget that when the Murder, She Wrote TV series first premiered, all its competition in the crime genre was toplined by men. Shows like Matlock, Barnaby Jones, The Rockford Files, Miami Vice, Magnum PI, Hawaii Five-O—the list goes on and on. Jessica Fletcher never got the accolades she deserved for being a groundbreaker, a truly 21stcentury woman in the throwback vanilla Reagan era.
That’s why I believe the ageless Jessica has, well, aged as well as she has. And that’s why the most important thing I wanted to do in MURDER IN SEASON was blend a typically great Murder, She Wrote mystery with the day-to-day demands of the holiday season. Jessica loves both solving and writing mysteries, but she loves family and friends more. And that’s the theme that emerges by the end of a book I’m convinced will be greeted as my finest effort since claiming the series as my own.