Calling all armchair detectives! There’s a new pair of mystery authors in town who are ready to put your best sleuthing skills to the test. Marilyn Rausch and Mary Donlon share insights, wisdom and wit on the collaborative process behind their “Can Be Murder” trilogy.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Tell us about your respective writing backgrounds and why you decided to become co-authors.
A: After a lifetime of reading fiction, I put “writing” on my bucket list when I retired. A writing class led to a writers’ group and to a joint writing project with my co-author, all within a six-year span. (Rausch)
A: As a kid, I had an over-active imagination and loved to make up stories, but never told them to anyone else. It wasn’t until my own children were almost grown that I worked up the courage to share my stories with others. I started with a writing class and I’ve had a blast ever since. Co-authoring was an easy decision when Marilyn came to me with a brilliant idea of writing a novel-within-a-novel. (Donlon)
Q: Do you have favorite mystery authors whose storytelling styles you especially admire?
A: I admire all the mystery authors who have mastered the “page-turner” style of storytelling…short chapters with cliff-hangers at the end of each. (Rausch)
A: I admire authors who combine elegant prose with chilling plots, such as Dennis Lehane and William Kent Krueger. (Donlon)
Q: For your co-author projects, who brings what talents to the table in terms of dialogue, character development, research, etc.?
A: I bring quirky characters and folksy humor, while Mary brings suspense and gritty details. (Rausch)
A: Marilyn cracks me up! Her characters feel like people we all know and love. We both spend a lot of time on research. I like to think that I occasionally make the hair on the back of our readers’ necks stand at attention. (Donlon)
Q: How, exactly, does your collaborative process work when a new project begins? For example, are you always in the same room, do you email each other, do you brainstorm at the local coffeehouse?
A: We have started each book in a different manner. Whatever the stage, however, we are in constant, daily communication either face-to-face, via phone or email. Communication is the key to our healthy co-author relationship. (Rausch)
Q: The two of you have taken a unique approach in your projects – a novel-within-a-novel format wherein the protagonist, a novice crime writer, infuses his novels with real-life crimes going on around him. What inspired you to come up with that style of storytelling?
A: The credit for the idea all belongs to Marilyn. She wrote what became the first chapter of Headaches Can Be Murder as a short-story that she shared with our writers group. Then she thought it would be fun to expand Chip’s story into a full-length novel, with someone else writing his novel to give it a different “voice” than her own. I’m grateful she turned to me to write Chip’s book. (Donlon)
Q: So give us a hint what your latest books are about.
A: All of our books incorporate contemporary topics of technology or politics or social issues. If you read about it in the headlines, you are likely to find it in one of our books. For example, Headaches Can Be Murder featured medical implant devices and alternative energy sources. (Rausch)
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a partner?
A: We not only share in the writing, but we share in all the publishing/marketing tasks. We have half the work and double the fun. We motivate each other to keep the work on track and support each other when the work bogs down. The only real disadvantage is that we also split the profits, which to date have only financed my coffee-addiction. (Rausch)
A: The advantages far out-weigh any disadvantages. Not only do we share in the fun, but the hard parts of writing/publishing/marketing become much easier when there’s someone to brainstorm with. We’ve gotten to the point where we finish each other’s sentences. Couldn’t have picked a better partner in crime! (Donlon)
Q: How do you resolve your creative conflicts and artistic differences?
A: That’s the beauty of sharing our writing the way we have; with the novel-within-a-novel approach, we celebrate our differences in writing style, instead of letting those differences get in the way. We really don’t have creative conflicts, because we essentially have our own section that doesn’t interfere with the other’s chapters. The story lines obviously need to dovetail a bit, but we have gotten pretty creative with that. Lucky for us, neither of us feels the need to always be right. As Marilyn always says, our writing partnership is like a good marriage; we are very open and honest with each. Communication is the key. (Donlon)
Q: Tell us about your research process. For instance, do you do all of the research prior to starting the story or do you look things up as the need arises?
A: Research is an on-going process for us. With the writing of each chapter we do research before, during and then again after (in the re-writing process). Our beta readers often give us cause to double-check or further research our information. (Rausch)
Q: Do you allow anyone to read the book while it’s a work-in-progress (i.e., friends, relatives, critique group members) or do you make everyone wait until it’s all finished?
A: We are fortunate in that we have two writing groups that review our novels before they land on our publisher’s desk. One group reads the manuscripts chapter by chapter, with the other reading half the book at a time. Each format of review gives us a totally different perspective. (Donlon)
Q: What governed the decision to go for a series rather than stand-alone titles?
A: During the first meeting with our publisher we were apprised of the potential of a series. Mystery/thriller readers seem to clamor for series, so it was a natural outcome of our first story.
Our characters’ lives did not stop with the first book, and we wanted to see what the future had in store for them. (Rausch)
Q: If your book series was adapted to a television series, who would comprise your dream cast?
A: From the beginning I envisioned Greg Kinnear cast as Chip Collingsworth and Julianne Moore as Jane, the veterinarian. I’m not sure if they would consent to a television series, but they would be my choices. (Rausch)
A: This question has always been tougher for me, since I’ve pictured body types more than actual people. I would say someone like Ben Affleck for the role of Dr. John Goodman and Amy Adams in the role of Special Agent Schwann. (Donlon)
Q: At what point in the writing process did you start thinking about finding a publisher?
A: After our first novel had been through the review/re-write process with our two writing groups, we knew we had a decision to make. We could: a) put it on the shelf, b) self-publish, or c) find a publisher. We decided to try option c), so Marilyn researched several publishers and landed on North Star Press as the one that fit the bill. (Donlon)
Q: Tell us about the publisher you chose and whether the experience met your expectations.
A: We chose a publisher that fit our novel, a regional publisher with a history of publishing first-time, local authors and mystery books. (Rausch)
Q: Now that the books have been published, what are some of the steps you’re taking to market them?
A: We’ve been very busy with marketing. It’s amazing what a completely different process it is from writing! Marilyn sends out press releases and I contact newspapers and magazines for articles. We both designed our website, which was a totally new experience for us. We create our own bookmarks, business cards, and posters. We devote quite a bit of time to contacting bookstores, and other venues to set up author events. One of our favorite ways to meet our readers is through book club meetings. I think we’ve attended eighteen so far. (Donlon)
Q: What responses have you had from your readers?
A: Our reader comments, whether posted online or at book club events, have been both encouraging and helpful. We listen carefully to what they like and to the flaws they have noted, and have used them to improve our writing. (Rausch)
Q: What advice do you have for wannabe writers who want to follow in your footsteps?
A: Seek out other writers for advice and support. For us, Sisters in Crime has been a wonderful support organization and our writers’ groups have been invaluable. Don’t write in isolation. (Rausch)
A: Just sit down and write out your ideas. Even if they don’t come out the way you want them to the first time, they’ll get there, with some gentle massaging. And don’t forget to write down the ideas that come to you in the middle of the night…those are often the best ones! (Donlon)
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We are together on the final book in our Can Be Murder trilogy. The working title is Writing Can Be Murder. In addition I am contemplating a Christmas novella as a companion book to the series. (Rausch)
A: Marilyn is a much more disciplined writer than I am, so I have some catching up to do. We’ve storyboarded the chapters, which makes the process smoother. (Donlon)
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Don’t let age be a barrier to starting a writing career. I started after I retired, and it has kept me young and active. (Rausch)
A: We meet so many people who say they’ve always thought of writing a book. I always tell them to go for it. No matter what your background is, we’ve all got stories to share. As with anything worthwhile, that first step can be scary, but it gets easier. And the joy is worth it. (Donlon)
Readers can learn more at http://rauschanddonlonauthors.com/.