Nancy Drew Wants to Know: Plot or Words

Gather together a group of middle-aged women who read mysteries, and odds are most of them will have started with Nancy Drew. I know I did, saving up my allowance to read them in order. And that was before they were “modernized” with new fashions and slang.

To our young minds, Nancy was the perfect heroine: smart, brave, and independent. She had trusted friends, and a boyfriend who was about as bland as could be.
Just recently I finally read Melanie Rehak’s book Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, which came out in 2005. I bought it in 2005, but it languished on my TBR pile until this year. (Hey, at least I knew where to find it!).

What struck me now, on reading Rehak’s book, was that the “who wrote it” issue is not exactly simple. Edward Stratemeyer, the patriarch and founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, personally conceived of many of the early series that the Syndicate marketed. He also wrote outlines and style guides for quite a few of them. And then he farmed them out to anonymous for-hire writers, who were paid a flat rate per book. Thus the pattern was born: a Stratemeyer wrote the outline, and a deliberately nameless writer wrapped the words around it.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams

When Edward died in 1930, his daughters Harriet (the elder) and Edna took over the Syndicate, and more or less continued the pattern. Harriet managed the business end of things, but still wrote many of the story outlines (and married and raised some kids along the way—I wonder when she found time to sleep?) and for a long time insisted on complete control of the books, while maintaining the fiction of Carolyn Keene. Even her obituary in the New York Times (she was 89 when she died) credits her with writing nearly 200 books. But did she?

I’m not criticizing anyone here. Times were different, and readers were eating up what the Syndicate published, no matter who was doing the writing. We’re talking a lot of books per year here (eat your heart out, writers!). And I applaud a strong woman who could manage a major corporation and raise a family and turn out a couple of book outlines each year in her spare time. That’s outstanding for any era.

Most of us Nancy readers weren’t terribly invested in the “who wrote the books” controversies. In my own mind, I had filed what little I knew about that under “okay, it wasn’t Harriet Stratemeyer, it was what’s-her-name [Mildred Wirt Benson]” and Carolyn Keene never existed. Now I’m not so sure.

So who really wrote the books? One person (Harriet) provided a detailed outline (not just plot, but language, descriptions of characters and their clothes, etc.) A different person (usually Mildred) assembled the words that made the outline into a book. Who’s the author?

Readers, should they share credit equally? It was a joint venture, but that was never revealed at the time. But maybe more to the point, is the story line more important than the execution?

Have you ever worked with another writer, and how did that go?