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?


27 Thoughts

  1. Most plots are variations on universal themes, so any individual story following a preset plot line is the work of that particular story teller.

    1. So you’re voting for Mildred–who was a strong character in her own right. (She got a pilot’s license late in her life.) Reading between the lines in Rehak’s book, I think Harriet had trouble letting go of her story, and Mildred wanted more, although she never insisted that her name go on the cover. But they collaborated successfully for a long time.

  2. I knew that “Carolyn Keene” was not a real person, although I did not know the details. Is this different from how James Patterson does it, though? Look at a Patterson book. His name is in big, shiny text, and there’s “with XXX” underneath, usually much smaller. I bet his check is much smaller, too.

    Is it fair? Probably not. It’s not that there’s not work involved in writing the outline. Although I don’t outline myself, I know it’s work for those who do. But I think it’s just as much work to string together the words of the narrative.

    So yeah, I wish credit were shared a little more, at least now. It’s the worst kept “secret” in publishing – and weren’t the Hardy Boys books done the same way? Wonder what those writers were paid.

    1. I’d have to check the details, but I think it was less than $75 per book (and it was cut during the Depression). I believe the books started out as 50 cents each, and I remember paying that much for some of them. But the Syndicate sold literally millions of books.

    2. Important difference between Patterson and Stratemeyer books is that Patterson is open about his co-writers. Stratemeyer had a stable of completely uncredited writers churning out Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and many other series. Seems wrong to me. Books are not Model-T’s or cornflakes! (I’ve read the Rahak book and knew the otlines of the story before it was written, too)

      1. I wonder if there’s a feminist story buried in there somewhere. Yes, both men and women wrote the series books, but in equal numbers? And the hired writers could write from home–was that unusual back in the day? Did the fact that Edward had only daughters to leave the business to influence him?

  3. I teach Nancy Drew pretty regularly as part of my mystery fiction classes at George Mason University, and the story behind the story is often as fascinating and educational to the students as anything we teach: glimpses into writing, publishing, culture, more. I’m actually presenting a short talk on Nancy Drew for a lifelong learning program in a few weeks, and hoping it goes as well with that audience as with my undergrads!

  4. I’m going to have to look for that book. I’ve known for a long time about the collaboration aspects of the books but didn’t as a kid. I wonder how much the voice changed in the books. I wasn’t aware of it when I was reading them but am curious now.

    1. The ones I read originally were the blue-covered ones. I didn’t like the style when they “updated” the covers to the yellow ones and revised the texts–there seemed to be more emphasis on clothes and social details (like going to dances). But they were always suitable for readers of any age.

    2. I have copy, Sherry, and you’re welcome to borrow it.

      I’d heard the story a while back and I know of, at least, one prominent female mystery writer who wrote Nancy Drews back in the 1980s – Frankie Y. Bailey. There was a Nancy Drew panel at Malice probably a decade ago, one of my first Malices, that she was a panelist on and the audience gasped aloud when she said she’d been Carolyn Keene herself for a few books. 🙂 She had an interesting story to tell about their bibles and how detailed they were, even down to the only words that could be used to describe the colors of Nancy’s hair and her roadster/convertible/Mustang.

  5. I got Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her in my Malice bag the year after it came out. I loved it! I saw it as a double biography of two strong, smart women, making their way in untraditional roles. (Wirt was a journalist as well as an author.)

    1. Ma gave my mom the Nancy Drew books as she was growing up. I still have all of them – including several first editions with the blue covers.

      1. I am jealous! For several years I collected the books during the summer, using my own pitiful allowance (I think it was 50 cents a week), and then when we moved to a smaller place in 1963 she got rid of them all. I never forgave her.

  6. This is why Carolyn Keene is perfect. We don’t have to fight over who gets the lion’s share of the credit. It’s all hidden behind the pen name.

    My look into all this was “Ghost of the Hardy Boys” by the man who ghosted the majority of the original Hardy Boy volumes. They may have cut his pay during the Depression (and he was Canadian, so after the exchange rate it was even smaller), but it helped him feed his family during those years.

    1. It seems to have been a highly successful business model (and the books are still on the shelves/online), and it seems that not too many of the anonymous writers complained. I think Mildred negotiated a raise, and there were occasional spats about use of language and how “feisty” Nancy could become, but it was a fruitful collaboration. In Rehak’s book Harriet comes across as rather controlling, but hey, it was her syndicate (sister Edna insisted on receiving her share of the profits, but she more or less retreated from active participation).

  7. I remember fondly the whole shelf of yellow Nancy Drews that I managed to collect through birthday and Christmas gifts and my own pitiful allowance. I still remember my disappointment when I discovered that Carolyn Keene wasn’t a real person and I’d never get her autograph.
    But maybe this is a great story of women making their way in a male dominated business. They weren’t famous but they were influential.

  8. Thank you for this topic. I read them all! Dana Girls, Ginny Gordon, Judy Bolton, Vicki Barr and of course, Nancy Drew. I am sure there were more. I was voraciously consuming them at a rate of 2 and 3 a week! Imagine my disappointment when I found out they were ghost written! Okay, so someone(more than one) took the concept, outlined, dressed, detailed and set the parameters. That is the mass production of the era. Just think what they could do with computers today!
    Writing partners are not easy to find and hard to work with if you are a bit of a lone wolf but there are still a lot of books out there today that are the results of collaboration. Collaboration could be a good subject to explore more in depth.

  9. All these comments read like a history and fiction lesson. So many tones in here. Feminism, children’s lit, beginnings of writers, the 20th century. What fabulous discussions must be taking place over this subject in classrooms and writers’ groups!

  10. It’s a common issue. Dick Francis’ wife cowrote or ghost wrote a number of his novels. Al Capp’s wife worked uncredited on the backgrounds of the early L’il Abner scripts. Apparently there are lots of uncredited women out there.

  11. This is not the first time I’ve come across a series and found out that the “author” wasn’t actually the author, but many people brought together to be the author. In my opinion, I think everyone who works on projects like this deserves some credit.

  12. Great question! Maybe co-authors? I don’t know the answer, but I am grateful for the series. Loved it. And so many mystery writers give Nancy a nod as inspiration–imagine how many current mysteries might not exist if they’d never read her!

    Just yesterday, I bought books 1-4 to give to some young readers I know. 🙂

  13. Glad to hear you read Nancy Drew also. I grew up on Nancy and just got back into rebuilding my collection and re-reading. I have an A to Z blog next April planned on All About Nancy Drew. I do have a couple of storys on Nancy Drew on my blog site.

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