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Writing the “MURDER SHE WROTE” Novels

by Pat Conway (originally in the Danbury News-Times)

When it comes to female sleuths, England may have Miss Marple but America has Jessica Fletcher, the wise and charming sleuth of “Murder, She Wrote” fame.

The series was originally created for Jean Stapleton, TV’s Edith Bunker. After Stapleton turned it down, Angela Lansbury was cast in the role and found legions of fans. The character even spawned 25 best-selling “Murder, She Wrote” mystery novels, written by Donald Bain. He and his wife, Renee Paley-Bain (who has collaborated on 10 titles in the series), are just finishing No. 26.

The latest one, published in October, called “Margaritas and Murder,” has a south-of-the-border flavor when Jessica Fletcher travels to Mexico to visit friends and winds up in the midst of a kidnapping.

Bain and his wife, who live in Danbury, will appear at Barnes & Noble in Danbury on Friday. They will kickoff the “Love Your Library Voucher Bookfair,” a statewide fundraiser to benefit the Connecticut Digital Library (iConn.org). Anyone who wants to help can pick up a Love Your Library voucher at any library or go online to www.loveyourlibrary.com. Bring the voucher to the store on Thursday or Friday and present it when making a purchase. Barnes & Noble will then donate up to 25 percent of the total sale to the Connecticut Digital Library.

The “Murder, She Wrote” books have enjoyed tremendous success and have a loyal following of Jessica Fletcher fans. All 25 titles, beginning with the first one, “Gin and Daggers” in 1989, are still in print.

“We get a couple of hundred e-mails a month from fans,” notes Bain, sitting in the couple’s bright and cozy dining room with a breathtaking view of the water. “And we personally answer each one.”

Many teens read the books, Bain and his wife said, because they enjoy a good mystery and there’s no off-color language.

But perhaps it’s Fletcher’s engaging personality that rivets readers. Angela created a fabulous character, said Paley-Bain. “She’s intrepid and brave and smart.”

It takes the writing duo three to four months to write a book. “We sit together and brainstorm plots,” said Paley-Bain, a former newspaper editor and business writer. Then they go to their spacious offices located on the lower level of their home where Bain will write, then his wife will edit and do a rewrite if necessary.

“There’s no formula,” added Bain, 70, who has written 90 books. “We do an outline, but when actually writing it, (sometimes) the story can take you somewhere else.”

“Don is the hardest working writer in the business,” said Lee Goldberg, author of the “Diagnosis Murder” books and the “Monk” series, based on the television show of the same name. “He isn’t married to any one genre or voice. He can write mysteries, westerns, anything. Few writers have that amazing ability.”

Mystery fans love the “Murder, She Wrote” books so much that the Bains, who married in 1992, have signed a contract to write four more. “Three Strikes And You’re Dead” will be out next fall. The book features a baseball theme, which Bain is especially excited about because he comes from a baseball family. His grandfather and uncle played in the major leagues and his father signed on as a pitcher in 1916 but never got the chance to play due to a broken shoulder.

Bain grew up on Long Island and graduated from Purdue University. He enjoyed a varied career as a writer/director, a producer of two radio series, and as host of a nationally syndicated series called “The Media Watch.”

He worked as a public relations executive for a top advertising agency and for American Airlines. He’s been a consultant for Pan Am Airlines and was co-host with Long John Nebel, the king of late-night talk radio, on more than 200 of his shows.

Bain has also “ghosted” books, many for famous names, and several of these books have wound up on the New York Times bestseller list. He wrote “Coffee, Tea or Me?” The airline comedy, published in 1967, that became a national and international best seller. CBS made a movie for TV based on the book.

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