​Murder, They Wrote

American’s Serialized Murder Mystery Has a Different Author for Each Chapter

By Stephen Fay

ELLSWORTH — It started in November of 2013 as a kooky idea. Nine months later, the idea has become reality and it’s still kooky: a 15-chapter murder mystery set in Ellsworth with each succeeding chapter written by a different volunteer author.

“Murder at the Black House” will be serialized in The Ellsworth American’s new weekly magazine section, The Ellsworth American Extra. The Extra, available only to subscribers, will be launched in the Aug. 7 edition of the newspaper.

Scott Shields of Ellsworth came up with the notion of a serialized novel by an ensemble cast of authors. In a Nov. 1, 2013, letter to Managing Editor Stephen Fay, Shields wrote that “the idea is to provide an ongoing fictional story (serial) that takes place in the Ellsworth area. I realize that this has been done before but I think this is unique in that
there will be multiple writers (a new writer for each chapter, continuing the story from where the previous author ends).”

Fay, Publisher Alan Baker and General Manager Terry Carlisle were intrigued. Coincidentally, The American management was early in the planning stage of a magazine section that would be included only in subscriber editions of the paper. The thought was to reward current subscribers for their loyalty and to entice non-subscribers to sign up.

Extra inducement: drop the price of a subscription from $42 to $29 and throw in a digital subscription at no extra charge. Extra-extra inducement: raise the price of a newsstand copy from $1 to $2.

The American ran a calling-all-writers notice in the Nov. 21 edition of the paper. A session would be held at the Ellsworth Public Library Dec. 11, 2013, to determine whether there was interest in Shields’ idea. Nineteen individuals, aged 20-something to 70-odd, showed up. The project was launched.

For the next nine months, the writers group met once and sometimes twice a week at The American. A plot and a stable of characters were hashed out, though it was slow going at first. Eventually, the group settled on a mystery set in contemporary Ellsworth.

The protagonist would be a young woman. There would be a murder, curious clues and romance. Joshua Torrance, executive director of Woodlawn and the Black House Museum invited the group up for a mid-winter meeting. He discussed the history of the Black House to a rapt audience of aspiring novelists. The Black House became a major player in subsequent discussions.

Turnout at the meetings fell off over time, which is normal, but a core group kept the faith: Sandy Cohen, Elizabeth Delano, Jenny King, Monica Giordano, Diane Gallagher, Michelle Knowlton, Mac Herrling, Andrea St. George Jones and Scott Shields.

Each took a chapter. For reasons of space, Fay set a maximum of 1,500 words per chapter. Gallagher went first with Chapter 1, then Herrling, then St. George Jones and so on. A few authors had to write an additional chapter when it became clear the story arc would carry through to 15 chapters.

Halfway through the writing process, Sullivan artist Mary Welsh dropped by The American to see if the paper had any interest in an editorial cartoonist. She brought samples of her previously published work. Based on the quality of her drawings, she was offered the job of volunteer illustrator. Welsh’s drawings of the characters and scenes appear in each of the 15 chapters. Ellsworth American Page Designer David Fickett evolved a design that works in images of the Black House.

Publisher Baker is enthusiastic about the process. He notes that magazines in Europe and the United States serialized novels in the early part of the 20th century — though serialized authorship is a new twist.

Will The American venture back into serialized novel publication in the future? “We’d like to,” Baker said. “This has been a lot of fun. Let’s see what the readers think.”