by Barb, enjoying fall in the Berkshires this week
First order of business–St. Martin’s has agreed to give away a copy of Wouldn’t It Be Deadly to two lucky commenters below–so jump aboard!
I’ve been excited about D. E. Ireland’s Wouldn’t It Be Deadly ever since I first heard the concept–Shaw’s Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle as sleuths. Who hasn’t wondered what happened after the curtain went down?
D.E. turns out to be the writing team of Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. I first met Meg at Malice Domestic in 2013. Wouldn’t It Be Deadly was complete and they were seeking representation. Meg asked if she could contact my agent, John Talbot, and say I recommended him. I said, “Of course, just don’t say I’ve read your book and I loved it.” Which, to be clear, Meg would never, ever do, but I always say that because you never know.
It must have gone well, because it seemed like three weeks later, I got an e-mail from Meg saying that not only had John accepted the book, but he had sold the series! So I do feel, a teeny, tiny bit like one of the (many) fairy godmothers of Wouldn’t It Be Deadly.
I’ve always been fascinated by writing teams, partly because I’ve never done it successfully. So when I had a chance to interview Meg and Sharon, that’s what we talked about.
Barb: You’re writing the Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins Mysteries as a team. How did this come about? How do you know each other? Have you written together before?
Sharon: We met in college as anthropology undergraduates; my specialty was archaeology and history, Meg’s was linguistics. While I was already published in short fiction, it was only in the early 1990s that both of us began to write our own novels. Friends for nearly a decade by then, it seemed natural for Meg and I to became critique partners. This helped us to understand the other person’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. The Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins series is our first attempt at writing together, although we had been looking for the right vehicle for a long time. And those years of critiquing each others’ manuscripts was an invaluable training ground for our eventual partnership as D.E Ireland. We knew each other’s writing style quite well, so there were few surprises when we finally began to work as a team.
Meg: Oh, there’s been some surprises along the way, but things have worked out very well. In the past, we acted as a sounding board for each others’ work, so now the brainstorming on a shared project is double the fun. We both had the same idea just the other day when I stumbled across some research! So while we “think alike” in some ways, we each have a different perspective on promotion, on villains, on what “too much detail” means, etc. Sharon can channel Higgins in ways I’d never dream of, and I’ve managed to channel Eliza – but we both take turns channeling each character. We have to know every character, from backstory to how they act and react.
Barb: So how does the writing work? Alternating chapters? One person outlines, the other writes? One does revisions? I’m dying to know. And did you find your rhythm of writing together right off the bat, or did it take awhile?
Sharon: A meticulously detailed outline is mandatory. As part of a writing duo, we have to literally be on the same page – or at least be aware of what the other partner is going to write about on that page. Both of us know exactly what is planned for each chapter and scene before we write the first sentence of the book. We discuss everything we want to do in the book, but I’m usually the one who actually writes up a monster of an outline – which makes Meg sigh in weariness. The outline changes often during the first draft as new ideas occur to us and original ideas start to look not so interesting. But changes are mutually agreed upon along the way. As for who writes what? Our initial plan was that we each write two consecutive chapters, alternating in this way for the whole manuscript. I tend to write faster than Meg, so sometimes we just agree among ourselves who is going to write a particular chapter. We may write alternating single chapters for the third book, so we’ll see how that works this time around.
We’re also equally involved with revisions. When we have written our “assigned” first draft chapters, we exchange them and the other partner edits and revises them using Word’s Review/Track Changes option. But the other person does not see what changes have been made to those revised chapters until the first draft is finished. Meg and I have known each other since the early 1980s. We’ve been through a lot together. And it is that shared history and long friendship that keeps us from strangling each other when we do disagree on a passage or even a sentence in the manuscripts.
Meg: That outline is both incredible (I’m jealous, really) and terrifying. I’ve learned to write “to spec” so that’s been pretty cool, although characters might spin things in a new way. We write rough drafts differently – mine are literally rough, while Sharon polishes her roughs – but that’s something I’ve altered as well. I am slower, but when the Sicilian cracks the whip, I churn faster! Sharon writes overflow, while I write tight. But the end result makes a solid book.
Barb: What happens when there’s controversy? Disagreement over plot or character or series direction? How do you decide?
Sharon: Usually disagreement begins with email messages questioning what the other person is doing in a particular chapter or scene. I should explain that Meg lives three hours away from me, so our communication is often via phone and email. (This translates to daily phone calls and endless email messages.) Sometimes the emails become rather testy and even heated. After all, writers are passionate about their prose. But any tension between us has never lasted longer than several hours or at most overnight. We simply can’t afford to waste time arguing and have always been able to come up with a solution both of us can live with. Our attitude is that the quality of the book is all that matters, not our egos. Even more important, our long friendship is worth more than any book contract. I am sure Meg would agree when I say that we would walk away from D.E Ireland before we’d let the any writing conflicts threaten our friendship.
Meg: Sharon’s right, although… (just kidding!) The book’s quality takes precedence, and we’ve always compromised to that end. We both know how to bend – I came up with a research detail I couldn’t cut, and Sharon let it stay in because sometimes, some things are just too good. We’re both total research hounds, so we understand that. And we’re committed to take this series in exciting ways, since the premise is awesome. The more we learn about Eliza and Higgins, the more things have gone in directions we didn’t expect – especially in book 2. We can’t wait to write another.
Barb: Not a team writing question, but I’ve seen lots of books about historical figures turned to sleuths, and of course treatments of famous sleuths like Sherlock over and over again, but I’ve never seen a book quite like yours. Where did the idea come from? What sort of obligation do you feel to Shaw and to your audience who may believe they know the characters well?
Sharon: Meg is the one who had the brilliant idea while driving over to see me one day, so I’ll let her tell it. As for our obligation to Shaw, it is huge. There would be no mystery series without his marvelous Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. Everything we do in the series is based on his public domain play Pygmalion. This includes the favorite phrases of his characters and Shaw’s description of Higgins’s phonetics laboratory or his mother’s Chelsea flat. However Meg and I did take a few liberties regarding other characters in Pygmalion. For example, Shaw wrote that Freddy Eynsford Hill’s sister Clara becomes an owner of a furniture business. Where is the fun in that? So we have other plans for Clara that I believe would quite surprise Shaw. Otherwise we try to stay true to the spirit of the play. And we hope fans of Shaw’s Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady it inspired will feel they are revisiting beloved old friends and locales. Above all, we want to entertain the reader and hope they have a bit of fun watching Eliza and Higgins solve a murder or two.
Meg: ‘And oooooh, what a loverly feeling’ – when I was driving on the highway, singing along to the soundtrack, it hit me. Good golly, had any other writer thought of pairing Eliza with Higgins as amateur sleuths? Once I shared the idea with Sharon, we checked and voila! We had a new series. While it took us a year to write the first book of our ‘secret project’, things happened like lightning when our agent offered representation three hours after a one-paragraph email query. And he sold the series in three weeks.
Barb: What’s next writing-wise–both for D.E. Ireland and for you individually?
Sharon: Move Your Blooming Corpse, our second Eliza Doolittle/Henry Higgins book, was sent to our editor in early September. With a Sept. 23rd release date for Wouldn’t It Be Deadly, promotion (book signings, a book launch tea, blogging etc.) should take up most of our time until mid-October. After that we begin working on a detailed outline for Book Three. November is all about Bouchercon and editorial revisions for Blooming. But we will spend the long Michigan winter hammering out a first draft for the next book. I also currently have a proposal with my agent for a contemporary cozy mystery series set in a little village along the shores of Lake Michigan, which is also my current home.
Meg: I can’t wait to see how Deadly does, both in reviews and sales. I’m really excited for Blooming as well – and I’m raring to go with more books in the series. But I’ve got several other projects to finish, including a Christmas novella with a dog that should be out before Bouchercon or shortly after, I hope! I’m working on a western mystery series, plus a contemporary cozy series as well. No rest for the weary! Being a full-time writer is fun, but it’s also hard work. It’s what I always dreamed of as a career, but I still read plenty and enjoy time with friends and family.
Barb: Readers- what do you think? Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle as sleuths. Leave a comment and win a book.
D.E. Ireland is a team of award-winning authors, Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. Long time friends, they decided to collaborate on this unique series based on George Bernard Shaw’s wonderfully witty play, Pygmalion, and flesh out their own version of events post-Pygmalion.