Barbara Allan: How it Works

September 23rd, 2014 by Max Allan Collins
Antiques Fruitcake

No question comes my way more frequently than, “How do you and your wife Barb collaborate on the ANTIQUES books?” Well, actually, I’m more often asked, “Has anybody told you that you look like Elton John?” But not much.

As I spent last week working on a Barbara Allan project, this seems as good a time as any to answer the first question. (As for the second question, there’s no answering it that will make it go away.)

As part of our most recent contract with Kensington Publishing, Barb and I agreed to write three novellas in the ANTIQUES series in addition to three full-length novels. The idea was to write novellas that could be e-books in an effort to attract new readers, and to prime readers for the next book in the series.

Further, each novella was to be Christmas-themed. This set the stage for possibly collecting the novellas, maybe with a new one, in book form at some point. Looking at the writing of one of these novellas should provide a study in microcosm of the collaborative writing process used by Barb and me on the novels themselves.

The work began several months ago with a series of conversations, fairly casual, about what the basic story would be, and what the title might be. Titles are tricky on these Christmas novellas. Coming up with something clever, like HO HO HOMICIDE or CHRISTMAS STALKING isn’t that tricky (although lots of possibilities have been used, including those); but in our case we have to include ANTIQUES in the title. Something like ANTIQUES CHRISTMAS STALKING has about as much music as a trombone falling down the stairs.

The first of the novellas was ANTIQUES SLAY RIDE and the second (which will be e-published a week from today) is ANTIQUES FRUITCAKE. We considered ANTIQUES MISTLETOE TAG, but that damn “Antiques” made it clumsy. So – we gave up and moved on to figuring out the story.

As is our habit, we kicked around ideas over lunch at various restaurants. Barb suggested something to do with a street-corner Santa Claus getting killed for his donation bag. But that had no “antiques” aspect, so I suggested somebody had put a valuable old coin in the bag, possibly by mistake. Then came the notion that our Santa was not Salvation Army variety, but a good-hearted local person raising money for some good cause. And the valuable-coin donation was on purpose.

From there came both a more detailed plot – with the same kind of back-and-forth brainstorming that Matt Clemens and I engage in – and a possible title. ANTIQUES SECRET SANTA. Finally I came up with ANTIQUES ST. NICKED, which became the title (unless Kensington hates it).

About five weeks ago, we finalized the chapter breakdown (over lunch, of course). When the Hollywood pitch trip came along, Barb went with me and worked on the ANTIQUES story in our hotel room while I was off on meetings. She got her draft of the first of five chapters written.

Back home, she continued at a rate of one chapter a week. In the meantime, I was doing two drafts of that TV script I’ve mentioned as well as several smaller writing jobs I agreed to do in weak moments. A week ago, she turned over her five-chapter, 69-page draft to me.

Monday through/including Thursday, last week, I did a chapter a day, revising, expanding, tightening, tweaking. Along the way I would have plot and character questions for Barb, which she would answer, or that she and I would discuss and work out. End of day she’d read my draft, mark it up, and I would enter her changes and corrections, either then or the first thing next work day.

Friday was beautiful, so we said, “Screw it,” and had one of our typical getaway days, going to the Amana Colonies and then Cedar Rapids for food and shopping. Saturday I did the final of five chapters, and on Sunday we both read the manuscript, first Barb, then me, each making notes and corrections.

Reading any long manuscript that you’ve written a chapter at a time, without doing much referring back as you go, means you’re likely to encounter plot and continuity problems, and that happened here. One thing that happened was that several things in our plot and on a “CHARACTERS/SUSPECT” sheet that Barb had prepared for me had not made it into the manuscript. We wrote them in. By late afternoon Sunday, the manuscript was finished – now 84 pages.

We may not turn it in for a while – that will be our editor’s call – because we did this story way early, in part because Barb needs to get cracking on the next ANTIQUES novel, but mostly because the deadline for the second Caleb York novel (also for Kensington) is the same day as for this novella. A “yikes” would not be inappropriate here.

It’s hard for a writer to know, right after finishing something, if it’s worth a damn. Barb is still just shrugging, shaking her head and making faces about this one. I feel more confident that we have just the right mix of our typical format with our characters presented well, a tricky little mystery, Christmas theme, serious subject matter handled delicately, and lots of laughs.

* * *

Here’s a very good, flattering essay about my work that morphs into a Chicago crime piece. I do wonder if the writer knows that much of what he goes on to discuss was dealt with in my novels ROAD TO PURGATORY and ROAD TO PARADISE.

Here’s a great little piece (with mentions of yours truly) on one of my favorite paperback writers of the ‘60s, Ennis Willie. (I’ll be talking about him and several other under-appreciated writers on a Bouchercon panel.)

Finally, check out this generous write-up, having to do with my writing a brief advance review of a book on Milton Caniff and his STEVE CANYON character Miss Mizzou.


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4 Responses to “Barbara Allan: How it Works”

  1. Joe Menta says:

    Thanks for the peek behind the creative curtain, Max. Not to get all “Dr. Phil” on you, but do you find regularly working with Barb on projects adds a level of quality to your relationship, or is it more of a chore/job/potential minefield that you both do your best to address amiably? I’m guessing it’s much more of the former, as you seem to enjoy working together. For example, I think it’s cool that your often combine story conferences with a nice lunch somewhere. While married couples should be comfortable with periods of silence, I think it’s equally (and maybe more) important to periodically come up with new and stimulating things to talk about. And you’ve found a mechanism to do that. Otherwise it’s too much talk about the bills!

    One more related question: Just curious, but are you and Barb involved at all in the world of antiques buying and selling, maybe running a kiosk in ones of those antiques malls? I’m asking because the level of detail about that business in the “Antiques” books is deep and (to my eye) credible. But, of course, that could just be good research. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also a small hobby or sideline.

    And, finally, do you watch “Banshee” on Cinemax? I find it very entertaining, especially the way it presents tough-guy/noir stories in a straight, unapologetic manner. That is, it doesn’t push a “hey, we’re really cool” vibe (as Tarantino films often do) but also doesn’t make fun of itself. Just, straight no-chaser, take it or leave it, tough crime stories with a 60’s paperback vibe. Anyway, just wondering if you’ve seen it, as it seems up your alley.

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    Barb and I have been together so long, and have been partners in so many ways for so many years, that this process is quite natural. I do love having a series that is so well-liked and successful to share with her, particularly since in many ways it’s her baby. We never have any problems collaboratively, or so few it’s hard to remember any. Sometimes in the brainstorming stage, I mount my horse and ride in all directions, which Barb doesn’t like so much…I don’t give her time to think each suggestion through. In that sense at least, she’s Brandy and I’m Mother. That’s the only thing even vaguely like friction I can think of. She’s entirely gracious about me making changes to her material, and over-rules me only (and I’m glad for it) when I’ve gotten something wrong, usually not understanding a female point of view. She does not particularly like the writing process, with the exception of the collaborative aspects, and takes her joy and satisfaction from the finished product.

    You need to understand that long before she began writing, alone or with me, she was my in-house editor and had huge input on everything I’ve written over the years. That’s part of what I mean by saying we’ve been partners for a long, long time.

    We are interested in antiques, although were more active in the ’80s and ’90s. Our home was built in the mid-’30s by the local theater owner and is very art deco, and we filled the house with that sort of thing. But a house fills up. My art collection has faced the same problem because wall space is at a minimum. But we still go to antiques shops, and we always wanted the series to be about low-end, real-people collectors — the “I break for yard sales” class, not Southerby’s.

    I have not viewed BANSHEE but will one of these days. There is at least one instance of creative crossover among those working on QUARRY, which will make getting to know BANSHEE a requirement and almost certainly a pleasure.

  3. Mike Doran says:

    Both belated and off-topic:

    Today (Saturday) I decided, spur-of-the-moment, to go to Centuries & Sleuths.
    Augie was having a signing for ‘D.E. Ireland’, two ladies who’ve started a series with Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins as detectives.
    During the Q&A, I became aware of an imposing gentleman who brought up the name Dorchester, with the attendant horrors attached thereto.
    The Ireland ladies, who’d had their own Dorchester-related adventures, asked the gentleman his name.
    He answered “Matthew Clemens.”
    And wouldn’t you know, some old fart in the back shouted out “THE MATTHEW CLEMENS?”
    … and that’s how I came to meet your collaborator in person today.
    He said he was in town on a personal matter, before heading to DC for research on the new book; he’d decided to visit C&S suddenly, as I had. I wished I’d known he’d be there; I’d have toted along a bunch of books for him to sign. Ah well ….

    This coming Tuesday, the 30th, is my 64th birthday.
    Cook County has already sent me a present: a jury summons.
    Some people have all the luck …

    Later ….

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