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Literature - Nancy Drew

2. Ghost Writers

2. Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Ghost Writers

Although Carolyn Keene signs every Nancy Drew book, this author has never existed. Nancy Drew mystery stories were written under the collective pseudonym "Carolyn Keene" by writers hired by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the producer of a number of series books for children and young adults.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate was the creation of Edward Stratemeyer, an American publisher and writer of books for children. He was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on October 4, 1862, and always wanted to be a writer.

In 1893, Stratemeyer was hired by the popular dime-novel-author Gilbert Patten to write for the Street & Smith publication "Good News" and other type of adventure and mystery stories. He met his literary heroes Horatio Alger, Jr. and William Taylor Adams (Oliver Optic) while working at Street & Smith publishers.

At the death of Oliver Optic, the latter's publishers put into Stratemeyer's hands the unfinished manuscript and he, who had read and reread the Oliver Optic books, finished his last book.

And when Horatio Alger Jr. died, his sister gave his unfinished material to Edward Stratemeyer, who completed and put into shape some of the last books Alger began, and even wrote eleven new volumes under the Alger name.

Edward Stratemeyer created the modern juvenile series as we know it today and successfully adapted the mystery genre for adults to juvenile books. He excelled at writing irresistible adventure and mystery stories featuring young detectives who solve crimes. He wrote 150 books himself and in 1905, when he realized he could no longer cope with multiple volumes of multiple series, Stratemeyer formed a literary syndicate and he began hiring ghostwriters.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate had a method to create books: Edward Stratemeyer produced short plot summaries for the novels in each series, which he sent to other writers who completed the story, writing a specified number of pages and chapters. Each book should begin with an introduction of the characters and would be interrupted for a quick recap of all the previous books in the series.

Ghostwriters were paid a flat fee and they signed a contract surrendering all rights to the story and promising to keep their identity a secret. After writing, Stratemeyer himself, and later his daughter Harriet, proofread and revised each manuscript and sent the book to a publisher. All the process was quick: it is estimated that it took only forty days from conception to a finished typeset product.

Edward Stratemeyer died in 1930, only twelve days after the publication of the three first Nancy Drew books, and his two daughters, Harriet and Edna, inherited the Syndicate. Meanwhile Edna showed little interest and sold her share to her sister within a few years, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams played a very active role in the Syndicate, Nancy Drew becoming her favourite. Harriet's devotion to the series over the years helped to keep Nancy Drew alive and on store shelves for each succeeding generation of girls and boys. She headed the Stratemeyer Syndicate for over half a century. In 1984, two years after her death, the Syndicate was sold to Simon & Schuster.

Using the technique of hiring ghost writers, the Stratemeyer Syndicate published many successful series, such as "The Rover Boys" (1899), "Bobbsey Twins" (1904); "Tom Swift" (1920); "The Hardy Boys" (1927), "Nancy Drew" (1930), "The Dana Girls" (1934), "The Happy Hollisters" (1953), all published under pseudonyms. Summing up, the Stratemeyer Syndicate produced over 1200 series books in 125 different series, under approximately 100 different names and pseudonyms.

Nancy Drew series is one of the most popular Stratemeyer's series. It was created and outlined in detail in 1930 by Edward Stratemeyer and the first author hidden under the pseudonym "Carolyn Keene" was Mildred A. Wirt Benson. As a ghostwriter, Benson was the second most prolific writer in Nancy Drew series, producing 23 of the first 30 volumes, only after Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who wrote 25 volumes for the series. There were already 28 ghost writers who helped produce the Stratemeyer's Nancy Drew mystery books from 1930 to 1984.

Mildred A. Wirt Benson was born in 1905 in Iowa and died in 2002. She was a graduate in journalism from the University of Iowa and worked for 58 years as a journalist. She was still writing a weekly column for the "Toledo Blade" at 96, when she died from lung cancer.

Edward Stratemeyer hired Mildred Benson in 1926 to assist in expanding his drafted stories in order to satisfy increasing demand for the series books. Writing under Stratemeyer Syndicate's pen name "Carolyn Keene" from 1929 to 1947, she was paid a flat free of $125 to $250 for each book, the equivalent of 3 month's pay for a newspaper reporter at that time. As all Stratemeyer's ghostwriters, Benson signed away all rights to her texting; she was, however, permitted to reveal that she wrote for the Syndicate.

Benson also wrote many other series, including the "Penny Porter" books, which were published under her own name.
Regarding Nancy Drew books, the Stratemeyer's process of creation was the same as all its books: first generating a detailed outline, with all elements of plot; then the drafting of a manuscript that was occasionally revised or rewritten, and finally editing.

Edward Stratemeyer and his daughters Harriet and Edna wrote all outlines for the Nancy Drew books, except one (outlined by Andrew Svenson). A number of other writers wrote the manuscripts, Mildred A. Wirt Benson being the second most prolific after Harriet herself. Edward Stratemeyer edited the first three volumes and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams all subsequent volumes, with the exception of two.

In 1980, during a court case involving the publishers, Benson's testimony revealed her identity to the public as a contributor to the Nancy Drew mystery stories. Although Harriet had written many of the tittles after 1953 and edited others, she claimed to be the author of all of the early titles. In fact, she had rewritten the older titles, but not been the original author. Mildred Benson was called to testify about her work for the Syndicate and her authorship was revealed in court with extensive documentation.

It was Mildred Benson who breathed a feisty spirit into Nancy's character, helping make Nancy Drew an instant hit. Her books where full of descriptive imagery and flow, suspense and drama. Benson always felt that girls could do the same things as boys could and she lived her life in that way. Nancy embodied the spirit of independence that emanated from Mildred.

However, her ideas of what Nancy should be were different from the more traditional style of Harriet. As a result, Nancy underwent changes at the direction of Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and later under Harriet's revisions in the 1950's and 1960's: she becomes more sedate, and is always calm, cool and collected, instead of her being adventurous, flippant and daring in the first version.

Harriet could only work for the Syndicate after her father's death, which took place twelve days after the launch of the initial three Nancy Drew books, never having the chance to see its success. Edward Stratemeyer, a man who created heroines like Nancy, who enjoyed freedom from oppressive adult supervision, was permitted to do whatever she pleased and employed cars, planes, boats and motorcycles to act independently, this man was widely known for maintaining traditional values within his home. He didn't have sons to inherit the family business, but he refused to train his daughters to take over the Syndicate. Although he encouraged Harriet to attend Wellesley College, upon her graduating in 1914 he insisted she refuse all offers for employment, even at the Syndicate. After receiving her education, Harriet was forced to remain at home.

Edward Stratemeyer had made provisions to sell the Syndicate after his death, and his daughters Harriet and Edna tried to do so. But they were unable to find a suitable buyer and finally they took control of the Syndicate.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams developed a particular interest in the Nancy Drew series, and Edna's interest in the business gradually faded, until she sold her part to her sister. For Harriet, it was a difficult psychological struggle: her father wanted strong, independent and intelligent heroines, but it was not tolerable for the woman in his own family. What it is true is that after the first thirty-four volumes of the series were revised under Harriet's supervision, Nancy Drew actually became less independent and courageous.

Nevertheless, the series thrived under Harriet's direction over half a century, having been continuously in print since 1930.