Understanding Literary Collaborations

HelpingThe great Fats Waller said it all.  “One never knows … do one?”

Way back in 2010, when I finished writing my ragtime historical mystery trilogy, I had an idea for my next book: a mystery set in ragtime history and involving time travel.  But I’ve never been a sci-fi or fantasy reader, and I didn’t think I could come up with an original time travel component that would be consistent with the central mystery structure.

A writer-friend suggested I involve a fantasy buff in my work, but I put a vigorous kibosh on that idea.  I’ve always been averse to having anyone see my developing stories before they were fully written.  I shunned writers’ groups.  My stories were, after all, my stories, and I didn’t want another person’s mind diverting my mind, mucking up my people and sending my plot off on a different path than I intended.  So I wrote A Perilous Conception, a medical mystery. What next?

I’d intended APC as a standalone, no more stories featuring Detective Bernie Baumgartner and Dr. Colin Sanford. But somehow, the review copies went out proclaiming the book to be the first in the new Bernie Baumgartner series. Reviewers were enthusiastic – delighted, they said, that Bernie would have further adventures.  Well, okay.  I’d figure it all out once I got past the major promotional work for A Perilous Conception.


When I got back from my bookstore tour, I settled in and tried to go to work. I say, tried. I felt exhausted, my mind like a sieve. I figured I needed a week or two to recover from the tour.  Wrong. I got worse. Finally, I hauled myself off to my doctor, who told me I had Graves’ Disease (an overactive thyroid gland), and got me treated. But he warned me it was going to be a slow recovery. I’d need to be patient.

Talk about frustration. No way could I get another mystery underway. I couldn’t put two coherent thoughts together. Develop a plot or a character?  Forget it.

Then came another wrinkle in the authorial fabric.  I had acquired items from the estate of Brun Campbell, the Original Ragtime Kid, and the protagonist of two of my three historicals.  The Kid and his daughter clearly did not suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; the material was all in a jumble in three large cartons.  There was the unpublished story of Brun’s life, first as an itinerant ragtime pianist more than 100 years ago, then as a fanatical ragtime revivalist in the 1940s.  It was captivating, but to say the least, it also was seriously disjointed.  There were fifteen short to mid-length manuscripts, and they’d need to be put into some kind of reasonable order.  Well, while I was recovering, I could do that, couldn’t I? An hour here, an hour-and-a-half there.

A year later, I had a coherent collection, and thought it might be time to get back to Bernie and Colin. But Brun kept popping up in front of me, waving off my intention.  “Hey, you got all my stuff, now you gotta make a book outa it so people’ll know about me. Remember, I was tellin’ you about the time, it was back in Sedalia, summer of ’99, with weather almost as hot as my ragtime playin’. I’m sittin’ around with Scott Joplin and his pal, Otis Saunders, over by the Maple Leaf Club, and here comes this gal, movin’ double-time, the most attractive creature of the fair sex you ever set eyes on, and both her eyes got blood in them. Saunders, he takes one look at her…”

An irresistible blandishment. But to write this historical bio,  I’d need to involve someone who could do computer graphics and related work.  Enter my son, Casey…who of course had to read the text to do the graphics, and in the process, revealed himself to be a first-rate editor.    So much for prejudices about literary collaborations.  Without Casey’s help, the book never would have been written.  But now, four-plus years later, Brun Campbell, The Original Ragtime Kid, is a reality, along with a companion CD, Essays in Ragtime: The Music of Brun Campbell (the latter available at www.rivermontrecords.com).

What’s happening now?  I am deep into my next mystery, The RagTime Traveler, – but no, it’s not quite my mystery.  Full credit goes to the co-author, Casey Karp – a near-lifelong fantasy buff – whose use of time travel to conceive and enrich both plot and characters is as necessary to the story as my familiarity with ragtime.

We even have a pretty good idea for the book to follow this one.  Ave atque vale, Detective Baumgartner and Dr. Sanford.  Your careers likely begin and end with A Perilous Conception.

Of course I say “likely.”  One never knows, do one?

Never say never.  Go with the flow.