Book Review: Girl Sleuth – Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

What a terrific, fascinating read — not just for anyone interested in Nancy Drew, but anyone interested in publishing in general.

Confession: I never read Nancy Drew’s adventures when I was young, but among the first books I read were in the Hardy Boys’ case files series. I went to a Catholic grade school, and I rather vividly remember the small room that housed the library containing all the school’s books for all its grades — K through 8. I read pretty well from an early age (and spoke even earlier). By the time I got to that grade school (in second grade), I had already begun to explore beyond the children’s books. In that room I discovered A Wrinkle in Time, and not long after received the first in the Hardy Boys’ case file series.

I read as many of the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy as I could over the next few years. I found a few installments that crossed the Hardy brothers over with other characters — Tom Swift sticks out in my mind. I read only one featuring Nancy Drew before, in sixth grade, I read Stephen King’s Needful Things and never really looked back, pursuing more novels from King and Dean Koontz and Michael Crichton over anything for younger readers.

Besides being young sleuths and crossing over in their series, the Hardys and Nancy Drew (and the aforementioned Tom Swift, as well as the Bobsey Twins and several other characters I never encountered) had one big thing in common: they were produced by the Stratemeyer syndicate.

Does that not sound like the most insidious group ever? Like a Hydra-esque cadre of supervillains?

The Stratemeyer syndicate was founded by Edward Stratemeyer — creator of the Hardy boys and everyone else, including Nancy Drew.

“Creator” is an important word there, though — as far as I can tell, Stratemeyer wrote only a few books himself. He farmed the others out to ghostwriters, including Leslie McFarlane, whom I grew up knowing as Franklin W. Dixon — author of the Hardy Boys novels.

What’s interesting is that Girl Sleuth is as much an inside look at that creation and the subsequent management of the Syndicate as it was of the two women who most wrote Nancy Drew under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene — Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and a woman from Illinois named Mildred Wirt Benson.

Which makes Girl Sleuth as interesting for its insight into the publishing industry (at the time) as it is into the development of Nancy Drew and the relationship between Adams and Benson. Having first appeared in 1930, Nancy Drew has evolved over time — just as the feminist movement has. And having been created even before them, the Stratemeyer syndicate evolved just as the publishing industry has.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate seemed to me to be a now-more-transparent version of what James Patterson has done. It’s really only mentioned in the early pages of Girl Sleuth, but Stratemeyer himself would dream up characters for series he would pitch to his publisher, Grosset and Dunlap — which was purchased by G.P. Putnam’s sons in the 1980s and is now part of the Penguin Random House mega-publishing conglomerate.

Here it would have  been a nice coincidence to tie together, but Patterson is an author with Hachette. Still, basically the process is the same — after Grosset and Dunlap approved Stratemeyer’s series pitch, he would write up a detailed outline of a plot. It sounded like it was usually around five to ten pages long, and it included everything from plot beats to sequences on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

Once that outline was finalized, it would be sent off to a ghostwriter with whom the Syndicate had a relationship. In the case of the Hardy Boys, that was Leslie McFarlane.

In the case of Nancy Drew, that was Mildred Wirt.

Stratemeyer passed away soon after the Nancy Drew series was produced — it seemed like just as the first few books were published (and an immediate success). His daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer, would take over the family business, which would otherwise continue to operate largely as normal.

Girl Sleuth is a fascinating look at how the Nancy Drew books developed under the eyes of Stratemeyer-Adams and Wirt-Benson — and not always amicably, though there never seemed to be anything but politeness between the two women.

That was one of the things it was fascinating to see. The book includes correspondence between the two, with letters from times when their business partnership was strained for various reasons — family illnesses, for example. There were questions of payment and negotiations for increases.

Eventually, Stratemeyer-Adams began to use other ghostwriters for the Nancy Drew series, with Wirt-Benson focusing on her own work, characters, and books.

I mentioned it was now-more-transparent — but it never was at the time. There’s a mention at one point that the Authors Guild (of which John Dos Passos was a member) wrote to Carolyn Keene with an invitation to join — apparently not realizing that Keene was a pseudonym.

For me, for that alone, Girl Sleuth was fascinating. It lagged a bit toward the end, but I also noticed that it, like much non-fiction, suffers from the problem that Kindle can’t separate end matter like appendices and acknowledgements from either its estimated page count or its time-to-finish percentage. I finished the book last night, and when I closed it the percentage was still at around the 70% mark.

That’s a lot of notes!

Still, for less than ten bucks, I think it’s well worth the attention.


Review: This Side of Paradise

As a writer, the very best thing about this book was the recognition that Fitzgerald didn’t write The Great Gatsby the first time out, or even other times out.

I say that as a novelist who puts Gatsby squarely in my top ten. I think it’s terrific in terms of how much it accomplishes in how very little space, the breadth of its themes with the precision of its story.

I once wrote an essay called “In the Ring with the Bard,” partly inspired by Hemingway’s quote that he did a few rounds with several great novelists, but you’d never get him in a ring with Tolstoy. Or Turgenev. Somebody Russian. His gist was that we, as writers, wrestle with the greats.

It’s a very Hemingway way to conceive of writing. I’m happy to say I’ve grown out of it.

Still, as a writer, I sit down often and think everything has to be great.

This Side of Paradise was a nice reminder that there are a lot of different ways to do “well.” That over a career considered great there would be highs and lows.

Even Shakespeare wrote a Titus Andronicus. Which is pretty good but no Hamlet.

This Side of Paradise shows Fitzgerald’s talent even as it doesn’t reach the heights he would later in his career. It, like many first novels, shows ambition and a promise of both talent and execution. There are glimmers not just of the themes that would be explored in Gatsby, but small signs of its quality, remarkable turns of phrase and developments.

Unfortunately, it’s otherwise quite boring. There were moments where I kept going just because it’s Fitzgerald.

I’m not sure if that’s partly because of its subject matter. It’s a novel about a sad young literary man, but I don’t think it’s the first of those (and it certainly wouldn’t be the last). It partly made me lament the loss of sad young literary men, because when reading about Amory’s Princeton experiences I was reminded of the movie The Social Network and its portrayal of Harvard party scenes, and it’s not so much that we still need sad young literary men (we don’t), but it’s kind of a shame that Zuckerberg is now the leader of an organization so powerful it has changed the geopolitical world and yet shows none of the growth or self-awareness of Amory Blaine. Pretentious as Amory might have at times become, it still seemed to me like he ultimately tried to take responsibility not just for himself and his destiny (whatever that is) but also his place in the world. He might not have achieved that place in the world, but his ultimate conquest of himself is arguably the more important.

The story is fairly unremarkable. Amory Blaine (a stand-in for Fitzgerald, apparently) . . . lives. From boyhood through to . . . ruin? There’s a lot of Princeton, and a lot of literary ambitions (Amory’s, not Fitzgerald’s), and a lot of drinking and carousing.

It sags in the middle, which is where I got the impression that a lot of things I suddenly realized toward the end had occurred. Amory comes from a well-to-do family, but by the end he’s lost it all? It seemed that way. Mostly broke. Down to his last $24, at which point he decides to leave Manhattan and walk back to Princeton (?).

Thing is, as much as it’s a little blurry, it’s more because it functions almost like a sketch of what Fitzgerald would be able to achieve, and even as much as some things aren’t clear, what IS clear is Fitzgerald’s talent at writing and storytelling.

Paradise was, apparently, cobbled together from a bunch of work Fitzgerald had already created. Verse, drama, lines of doggerel poetry, that sort of thing. That he was able to pull it together to even begin to resemble a novel, and that that novel actually does have form and tell a story, is, I think, an accomplishment in itself.

It’s well worth checking out even if solely to see Fitzgerald before he wrote like Fitzgerald, and the best part of all is it’s public domain! It looks like there’s a copy for $3 on Amazon for Kindle, and paperbacks aren’t much more expensive.


Vellum: The Best Thing to Happen to Authors Since Kindle

If you’re an author interested in publishing your work, there are a few key tools you’d do well to invest in, but I think among the best and simplest is software called Vellum. It’s kind of a combination between a word processor, a WYSIWYG book layout designer, and an ebook generator. It’s a simple, elegant way to create a professionally designed ebook without the headaches of proprietary software and trying to run Terminal-level commands like KindleGen and whatever international-but-not-market-standard format ePub demands this month.

Amazon announced the Kindle platform, store, and device in 2007, and while I was intrigued by the concept, my enthusiasm was tempered by the actual experience. The first generation Kindle was like a Fisher Price publishing toy, with a weird shapes throughout, and its second generation wasn’t much better. Their ebook store was nascent. Were ebooks worth ten dollars?

In 2010, however, Amazon released its third-gen Kindle, the Kindle Keyboard, and it was a revelation. Its design was revolutionary, rather than evolutionary. And by then its Kindle publishing platform had gained some legs.

In fact, it had progressed enough that I showed the device to my editrix and told her, I think I can do this. I can make something like this.

And I did. I had Windows, and I downloaded MobiPocket Creator, and I had enough basic HTML experience left over from MySpace that I was able to roll the code for an ebook.

And that’s what I did. For, like, nearly ten years. I would take Word documents, strip out the editing, put them in Adobe DreamWeaver, recode them line by painstaking line, run MobiPocket Creator in a virtual machine on my MacBook Pro (on which I’d designed the cover in Photoshop), and then save the resulting .prc to a common folder I could upload to Kindle. And then used Calibre to convert for Apple and B&N and Kobo.

If you look at the above and scratch your head, or think it sounds complicated, you’re not alone. It sucked.

Around last year, though, I heard that .prcs were going to stop working as well. And truth be told they’d never worked very well, anyway. So I started looking into alternative ways to build ebooks.

And I found Vellum.

I fell in love with it. Mainly because it made my life easier, made my business more efficient, but there were a few key ways it did so.

One Program, All Formats

Lay out one book, entirely, and when it comes to generating ebooks you can get everything from a .mobi for Amazon to a generic .epub for any bookstore, plus files for Apple or Kobo in between. You only need to generate once and you get every format, and you can rest assured they’re all in good shape.


That’s “What You See Is What You Get.” Coding sucks. It’s all brackets and weird letters and ASCII and character codes. Not so for Vellum. Import from a Word doc and it pulls literally everything in. In any other program I had to hand code “curly” quotes — those are the ones that look curved, rather than straight like plain text renders. But it goes farther than that; in one of the books I recently worked in, one of the characters was producing music for a band from Greenland or Iceland or Finland. One of the countries that puts slashes through Os, that kind of thing. And it just pulled them in.

Prebuilt Templates, Extended Customization

I’ve never counted, but when you import a book, you can use any one of like, nine or so pre-built ebook styles. But each style offers further customization of things like ornamental breaks and chapter headings and block quotes. And let’s be honest, when you’re dealing with books, unless it’s literally part of the story somehow, the best design is basically invisible. No reader or review I’ve ever seen has ever commented “I mean the story was pretty good, but did you notice those ornate dropcaps? Intense!” — which is not to say ornate drop caps aren’t an option. It’s just to say that Vellum offers exactly as much customization is useful to remain professional. Which I think is good; I’ve seen way too many uses of Comic Sans and that Avatar font. When restricted to simple, elegant choices, the ebooks that are generated remain simple and elegant.

Great User Interface

It’s simple and easy to navigate. You know where to put your cover, where to enter whatever information is useful, and how to create new chapters and sections and parts. What’s more, some quick right-clicking around means you can manipulate them pretty easily. Want a group of chapters to collapse among one part? Done. Want to convert a section of text into a block quote, or insert an ornamental break? Yep. Easily accomplished.

So those are why I love it, and it’s reasonably priced. I don’t remember how much it is per individual book generated or for multiple, mainly because I laid out one book and had such a great experience that I was like, hell, even if I only want to generate the Kindle version that experience was still worth $200 (or more). And as soon as I started laying out that first book I knew I was going to be republishing literally everything from Exciting Press anyway.

I think there’s other software that might do the same. Like Scrivener. I’ve heard great things about Scrivener, which I think costs $50 (it’s been a long time since I bought it), but I’ll be honest: the first time I booted up Scrivener I was intimidated by how overly complicated it seemed. I know a lot of writers who swear by it, so it’s definitely worth checking out, but I prefer software that gets out of my way as I’m doing what I want. I don’t want to lay out a book chapter by chapter and have extra notes and images and all those things — I tend to just write chapter after chapter in Pages, sometimes with the rest of a book outlined beyond the scene I’m writing. That’s all I want. Using Vellum, I was able to paste that Pages file in and recreate the same formatting, and the ebooks generated are simple, elegant, and perfect for all the devices I would expect readers to find them on.

Because that’s ultimately what I always want; to create the best reader experience. Vellum has, so far, been the best and simplest way to achieve that I’ve seen, and while $200 might seem pricey, I think achieving that easily is priceless.

And Who Are Our Gods Now, America?


That’s the official trailer for Starz’s American Gods. It’s amazing. I went straight to Facebook to share it but realized I had more to say about it.

I remember when American Gods came out. I was there.

Not just in the sense that I remember when it was published. No, in the sense that, while double-checking for accuracy, I found Neil’s post on the publication at his journal, so many years ago, and it was a memory-lane trip.

I first shook Neil’s hand at those Magnetic Fields shows. My best buddy and I had tickets we made sure were front row. The show was divided into two sets, between which the audience was different, as well, so we had to leave our seats and mill about. As did the Magnetic Fields. As did Neil.

And I remember being there at the Bottom Line and passing by Neil and wanting to tell him what a huge fan I was and how much I’d loved Neverwhere (which I’d read because I’d heard it had been optioned by Jim Henson Company) and Stardust, but I went into utter fanboy catatonia. I went into that state where you want to say so much and all that really happens is your mouth moves and you vaguely, detachedly remember to be grateful you’re not actually making any noise, because who knows what it would be.

I told Claudia Gonson how much I’d enjoyed the performance of “Born on a Train,” and she whisked me, along with another fan, over to Neil, and requested that he guess which of us was a fan of Neil’s and which was a fan of the Fields. Neil’s response was a comment on how unfair a question it was, but it gave me the chance to put out my hand and say, “Neil. I’m Will–”

And before I said another word Neil lit up. “Oh, you’re Will! From the Well!” (The Well was an online forum, think a pre-pre-pre-Facebook, back in the day. There were several groups dedicated to Neil and his work, and I posted fairly often.)

It was awesome.

That was over the weekend. That Tuesday, Neil had a signing on the official publication day of American Gods at the Borders World Trade Center. My buddy, my sister, and her then guy all got on a train at like 10 am and arrived at the Borders before noon — and proceeded to sit there for several hours until the actual signing, which started at 6 pm.

I was first in that line. If you read that above post from Neil, he’d already signed myriad books for HarperCollins, but still I like to think that my copy of American Gods, made out to me, was the first one signed on that tour.

(It’s a better story, after all.)

Less than three months after that above post was posted, the Borders World Trade Center was no more. The World Trade Center was no more.

In a very real way, at least for me, the world was no more. Six weeks after the World Trade Center fell, I moved away from Manhattan. I returned, nearly a decade later, but it no longer felt like the Manhattan I’d once known and loved.

And maybe that’s not unusual. Maybe Manhattan is like real love, like a marriage — something you choose, every day, something you can’t help, every day, always, so you grow with it, together. And if that changes, it’s like an ex — somebody you used to know. Someone you once loved, and have fond memories of, but whom you encounter one day and can’t help noticing how different you both are.

Watching that trailer reminded me how big and awesome American Gods was. I remember reading it the first time and thinking it was okay, but being somewhat disappointed. Like I’d wanted something I’d never defined and then hadn’t gotten it.

And then I re-read it, and then, some years later, re-read it again, and each time I do realize how big and awesome I realized it was only in retrospect. That it was bigger and more awesome than I could at first appreciate.

I’m getting a similar sense from that trailer. That it’s going to be huge and weird and in ways not like the book but in the end exactly what it needs to be.

It was a novel about an identity crisis of faith that came just a few months before America’s crisis of faith.

It doesn’t feel like the show is far off, and some days lately it doesn’t feel like America is far off. It feels like we’re right now living in the midst of a war between old gods and new ones —

And I’ll not spoil the novel. But suffice to say I can’t wait to see how the show turns out.