The Blog Tour, Day # 6 — Ron Benrey

November 29th, 2011

Ron Benrey writes cozy mysteries with his wife, Janet. Together, they have written nine novels in three series: “The Royal Tunbridge Wells Mysteries,” “The Pippa Hunnechurch Mysteries,” and “The Glory North Carolina Mysteries.”  The most recent is DEAD AS A SCONE.

I gave Ron a list of questions to consider, and he chose a few that I think are especially interesting when answered by someone who part of a writing team.

How do you develop your ideas? Do you plot in advance or write by the seat of your pants? How did you evolve this approach and why does it work for you?

Because my wife and I collaborate on our novels, some “organization” is essential so we can work together. I generally develop the storyline before we start writing. In other words, I’m an outliner rather than a “seat of the pantser” (the PC label, these days is “instinctive writer”).

For starters, building an initial outline solidifies the theme that underlies every aspect of our novelizing. It also ensures that neither of us wander off into the hinterland and stray from the story. And of course it keeps us focused on the key elements of the four (and sometimes five) plots in every story. On the other hand—and this is hard for some people to believe—our initial outline is never a straightjacket. We take that word “initial” seriously. We feel free to make major changes as we move ahead.

I follow the classic three-act model created by Aristotle about 2,500 years ago. I build a three-act structure for the main plot and for each subplot, then we “weave” the different story elements together.

Tell us about the genesis of one of your books—what the original idea was, how it came to you, how it developed and/or changed as you wrote the book.

We began “Dead as a Scone” in response to a publisher’s request to develop a cozy mystery that Agatha Christie might have written. We created an initial outline for a simple story with a cast of eccentric characters and a somewhat “goofy” setting, but as the storyline developed, we were surprised to see the plot become significantly more complex—and we were amused when a deeper theme emerge.

The novel evolved to become a tale about how evil committed the distant past can have fatal impact today. Most surprising of all, the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum transformed from a caricature of a “classic” English manor house into a living, breathing institution of higher learning—a museum that we soon began to think of as real.

Here is the synopsis of Dead as a Scone in its final form:

Murder is afoot is the sedate English town of Royal Tunbridge Wells … and the crime may be brewing in a tea pot!

Nigel Owen is having a rotten year. Downsized from a cushy management job at an insurance company in London, he is forced to accept a temporary post as managing director of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum. Alas, he regrets living in a small town in Kent, he prefers drinking coffee (with a vengeance), and he roundly dislikes Flick Adams, PhD, an American scientist recently named the museum’s curator.

But then, the wildly unexpected happens. Dame Elspeth Hawker, the museum’s chief benefactor, keels over at a board meeting—the apparent victim of a fatal heart attack. With the Dame’s demise, the museum’s world-famous collection is up for grabs, her cats, dog, and parrot are living at with Flick and Nigel—and the two prima donnas find themselves facing professional ruin.

But Flick—who knows a thing or two about forensic science—is convinced that Dame Elspeth did not die a natural death. As Flick and Nigel follow the clues—including a cryptic Biblical citation—they discover that a crime perpetrated more than a century ago sowed the seeds for a contemporary murder.

Please finish by making the one or two most valuable suggestions that you can offer other writers

Ernest Hemingway said that the most important thing a novelist can have is “a built-in, shock proof, manure detector” (as you might expect, Ernest used a pithier word than “manure”). What he meant, of course, is that every writer must be able to accurately evaluate his or her own writing.

It takes time and determination to develop and fine-tune an effective detector. At first, a new novelist may be too discriminating—and strive for an impossible standard of excellence. Or, the new novelist may be too forgiving of his or her words—and mistakenly believe that his or her initial effort is the “Great American Novel” the world has been waiting for.

The former will make it almost impossible to actually finish a novel. The latter will generate an impressive collection of rejection letters. You have to keep using your detector until it zeros-in on the just-right “Goldilocks” point.

The way I calibrated my detector so it could honestly evaluate my writing, was to attend lots of writers’ conferences and read fiction written by other wannabe writers—some good, lots bad.

*

Ron has been a writer on magazines (his first real job was Electronics Editor at Popular Science Magazine), then in corporations (he wrote speeches for senior executives), and then as a novelist. He’s also authored ten non-fiction books, including the recently published “Know Your Rights — a Survival Guide for Non-Lawyers” (published by Sterling). As if that weren’t enough he holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT, a master’s degree in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a juris doctor from the Duquesne University School of Law. He is a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

And if you miss me today, I can be found hanging out with Earl Staggs at http://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com/ , where I have the hubris to choose, identify, and defend “the best thing I’ve ever written.”

7 Responses to “The Blog Tour, Day # 6 — Ron Benrey”

  1. Marilyn Meredith Says:

    I hate these CAPTCHA things, I can never get them right–and what I’ve written disappears. Ron, that was a great post as always. Wish I could outline, but the best I can do is jot notes down as ideas come to me while I am writing.

  2. john m. daniel Says:

    Ron, I quite agree that a writer must turn on the manure detector, and keep it on. Having a no-nonsense writing group helps. I also recommend reading your work aloud (you and Janet probably take turns doing this). Sometimes you might find yourself embarrassed by the overwriting, at which times it’s time to get out the shovel.

  3. M.M. Gornell Says:

    Ron, have always liked the concept of evil committed in the past having impact today. Interesting and informative post.

    Madeline

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Ron — I’m always fascinated by how collaborators work together. I collaborated decades ago as a songwriter, but the division of responsibility — music/lyrics — was clear-cut. I admire the two of you for harnessing your inspiration together and reinforcing each other like that.

  5. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Intriguing plot, Ron and Janet, and one I’ve got to read. I’m an “instinctive” novelist although I carefully outline my nonfiction books. I think it’s great that the two of you work so well together.

  6. Jackie King Says:

    Loved DEAD AS A SCONE. I’m another writer who fails as an outliner. I keep trying, but just can’t succee. Thus, I do lots and lots of rewrites. Alas.

  7. W.S. Gager Says:

    Thanks Ron for the politically correct term that I can now use to win friends and influence people. “I’m an instinctive writer, no outline needed.” Sounds very good but the manure detector is going off rather loudly. Great post. I admire you and your wife being able to work together.
    Wendy
    W.S. Gager on Writing

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