by Jon Land
Do you know Jessica Fletcher? Ask a hundred people that question and chances are, ninety-nine will answer with an unqualified yes. In addition to being one of the most successful television dramas of all time, and continuing to draw big audiences for its reruns and marathons on Hallmark Mysteries, Murder, She Wrote also engendered a series of novels, written by the brilliant Donald Bain and his writer-partner-spouse Renee Paley Bain.
To our sorrow, Renee died, and then Donald, one of the most devoted couples ever. But could Jessica Fletcher live? With much humility and understanding of the honor, I agreed to try my hand at it. And my first effort, A Date with Murder, is number forty-seven in the Murder, She Wrote book series.
Happily for me, I was privileged to work with Donald in the past. As our collaboration evolved, I formed certain markers I resolved to follow to assure a smooth transition, and keep the series strong and authentic. The readers were waiting.
Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman took over the Robert B Parker legacy. Jamie Frevelletti has written “as” Robert Ludlum. And Marc Cameron as Tom Clancy, and Jeffery Deaver as Ian Fleming. How do we as writers do that? How do we become someone else?
Find that special voice
Donald had worked with his grandson Zach, who went to become a crucial collaborator for me on the first 60 or so pages of A Date with Murder. That was enough to give me a notion of the story but, more important, a direct link to Jessica’s voice.
Finding that voice myself, in my own head, became the first challenge.
A shortcut for me—I could binge-watch Angela Lansbury from the classic TV show. I pictured her behind every page, heard her speaking every line. How did she choose her words? What were her favorite sayings? Her background, her education, her history, her personality? Were there words she’d never use? What were her motivations? How did her backstory—which I studied with reverence and devotion—inspire her actions?
If you don’t have a TV show to guide you, read every single thing the original author ever wrote. Hear their voice, and then make it your own.
Understand the genre
I’m a thriller writer. Prior to A Date with Murder, I’d never penned a book where the focus was more on who did it instead of what bad thing is someone planning to do. But that’s not Jessica Fletcher. Still, I knew my strength in this assignment would come from blending her process with mine.
The next challenge was was blending her genre with my own.
As a result, my first Jessica book transformed into a hybrid mystery-thriller. A mystery because Jessica is trying to solve the murder of a trusted friend; a thriller because she ends up risking her own life to expose a nefarious plot connected to a sinister Internet dating service.
Understand the core audience
I went into the series knowing that first and foremost I needed to capture the series’ core audience. A devoted group of readers who love the bucolic setting of Cabot Cove and the regular, established cast of characters Jessica interacts with.
My longtime agent gave me some wonderful advice: “If you know the characters, you can write anything.”
So I researched like crazy. I read everything, inhaled it, tried to understand it. Become it. For the dialogue, I relied on the quick, tart and witty exchanges between Angela Lansbury and the late, great Jerry Orbach as Harry McGraw or Ron Masak as Sheriff Mort Metzger. I wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel—but my intention was to make it churn a little faster.
Accept your role
I wanted to make the series mine, put my stamp on it. But Murder, She Wrote doesn’t belong to me and never will. It belongs to the tens of millions of readers and viewers who’ve come to cherish the stories, watching or reading them over and over again while trying to keep up with Jessica Fletcher.
Like all great fictional heroes, she is timeless, ageless, eternal. After me, someone else, I trust, will take the reins of this series. While this legacy is in my hands, though, I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Can I be Donald Bain and Renee Paley Bain? No. Can you “be” the author whose work you are hoping to help endure? No. I can be me, and you can be you. But a skilled author whose job is to write as someone else can work to understand what their waiting audience wants, and feel honored to continue—as best they can—a beloved tradition.
Jon Land is the bestselling author of over 25 novels. He graduated from Brown University in 1979 Phi Beta Kappa and Magna cum Laude and continues his association with Brown as an alumni advisor.
Jon often bases his novels and scripts on extensive travel and research as well as a twenty-five-year career in martial arts. He is an associate member of the US Special Forces and frequently volunteers in schools to help young people learn to enjoy the process of writing.
He currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island and loves hearing from his readers and aspiring writers.