We are delighted to be spotlight another existing series from Serial Box today. On August 15th, Serial Box released Dead Air, a series that combines a true crime podcast (which you can listen to here) and a thriller series (which you can read here). I for one, am super hooked up on it already!
Dead Air is Serial Box’s first mystery series, and was written in a TV-like writer’s room by the talented team of Book Smugglers’ faves Gwenda Bond, Rachel Caine and Carrie Ryan and we have the team over here today for a round table on writing the series.
Gwenda Bond: I’ll start us off! The process of creating Dead Air has been a fun whirlwind, a lot of work, and different than any other project I’ve done — even the collaborative ones. I originally came up with the idea of Macy (better known as Mackenzie to podcast listeners) as a character coping with a recent loss by indulging her interest in true crime on the radio, but who then gets drawn into an investigation that gets more and more personal. From the start, she was going to be a character with a lot of room to grow over the course of the story, and the radio show/podcast would be the driving force of that growth. I wanted to use Kentucky as a setting and immediately thought the thoroughbred horse-racing community would be a great backdrop for the old murder she ends up looking into.
Lucky for me, once Serial Box bought into the concept, I got to recruit the writers who would work on the serial and its companion podcast with me. Carrie Ryan is one of my favorite writers and a dear friend and a story genius. We go to a regular workshop together and I’ve seen her plot fu in action. I knew she’d be great at the give and take writers’ room format Serial Box uses. Carrie suggested Rachel Caine, who she knew well, for our third, and I’m such a fangirl of Rachel’s I was absolutely thrilled when she agreed to come on board too. Dream team alert. From there, I sent everyone a Story Bible I’d done with the broad strokes of the story and some of the major characters and then we got together in New York for a plotting and story development summit. How would you guys describe that?
Carrie Ryan: I adore plotting, and I love it even more when I’m not the only one doing it. Most of the time for me plotting consists of staring at the ceiling, wondering what’s next. But with a group of other authors, we get to bounce ideas off each other and it’s totally invigorating. I loved the process of one of us tossing out an idea and someone else taking it and running with it, making it even better.
The three of us holed up in an apartment with our editors, several packs of post-it notes, sharpies, and a wall of windows. We started out with Gwenda’s basic story idea, and three days later we left with those windows covered with what turned into the book. It was truly a collaborative effort.
One of the elements of the story that excited me the most was Mackenzie’s podcast. Like so many others, I’d gotten hooked on True Crime podcasts after listening to Serial and I couldn’t get enough of them. Early on in the process we approached our publisher, Serial Box, about producing the podcast from the novel and they jumped on board. Creating the actual podcast seemed like such a natural extension of the story itself and allowed us to address a lot of the ethical questions surrounding true crime podcasts. The three of us spent a lot of time debating the story Mackenzie tells in the novel versus the one she tells in the podcast and how to make both satisfying and unique experiences.
Rachel Caine: It was an incredible experience! I’ve never done that kind of deep collaboration before … like Carrie said, writing is a generally lonely business where you try to argue with yourself (sometimes right out loud) to try to improve your plot and characters … and this time, we got to sit down and bounce that process collectively. That meant driving all the way down through the themes, the characters, how we wanted characters to change during the course of the story, and of course: the mystery. It was so interesting and energizing that I’ve started using it myself on other projects, albeit just me and my own huge supply of sticky notes.
The fascinating thing about this story for me as a writer were the levels we built into it–not just levels of mystery and suspects and story, but able to be sliced out and delivered in a different voice inside the story in the form of podcasts. Deciding what Macy knows vs. what Mackenzie chooses to say (in the podcasts) was a brand new kind of storytelling for me, and I really enjoyed that. The podcast is a full, involving story, but you’ll only get the full story (and the additional characters and mystery) from pairing it with the serial novel.
Hearing the voice actors bring this all to life is really fascinating, too. I think it adds a brand new dimension and urgency to the story on top of everything else. I think Gwenda was very specific about the accents, too, which helps … right, Gwenda?
GB: Yes! I gave a lot of accent notes for the main roles and the actors carried them out beautifully. Like anyone from regions with distinctive accents, I usually find myself cringing at the ones I hear on TV and the movies. You hear people say Southern accent, but there are THOUSANDS of Southern accents — I trawled youtube for videos of those dialect memes with girls Mackenzie’s age from Lexington. I think we all knew that finding the right voice actress to play Mackenzie was crucial and the actress who we cast, Lynn Norris, just nails it. And we lucked out with one of our male voice actors in that he’s from just up the road in Tennesee and sent a sample of his back home accent as an introduction to his voice audition. I am thrilled with all the actors in the production and they are doing a dynamite job.
I learned so much digging into this story with both Rachel and Carrie, at the story summit and then when we’d go off to write our episodes and then come together over Hangouts to discuss them. We also had looooong email chains. Maybe a couple hundred back and forths when we were writing, where we brainstormed or asked each other for character names we’d forgotten or ran snippets by each other. It was such a collaborative mind meld on putting together the novel. There are no egos in this room. We were all about getting to the best story ideas and then holding onto the core elements that were most important — I think those are the keys to pulling off a successful collaboration like this. And while it was intricate as all get out — I mean, an intricately plotted mystery is difficult enough to pull off as ONE writer, let alone three people telling two separate, intersecting stories across formats — I feel like that part went so smoothly and straightforwardly…
Putting together the podcast had more of a learning curve. We had a firm handle on the voice and the scripts from the get-go, but we also learned a ton as we edited and tweaked and heard first performances. And Serial Box was learning too, because this is an entirely different type of audio production for them. So it took extra effort and time on everyone’s part to make something that hopefully listens entirely smoothly and offers an extra immersion into Mackenzie’s world. We learned how to give audio stage directions and create opportunities for new voices and sounds to come in. And it definitely didn’t hurt either that we had our own rich backgrounds to draw on throughout the story — Carrie’s expertise as a former lawyer, lots of experience with journalists and bureaucratic red tape, our collective time spent living in the South, and our own true crime experiences. I hope all of that comes through in those layers of story Rachel talked about, which is such a great way to describe what we wanted to do.
Meet the Team
Favorite Podcasts: Pop Culture Happy Hour, My Favorite Murder, Revisionist History
Gwenda Bond is the author of a number of novels, including Lois Lane: Fallout, Girl on a Wire, and Strange Alchemy, as well as the graphic novel Girl Over Paris with Kate Leth and Ming Doyle. She holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has written for Publishers Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, among others. She currently resides in a hundred-year-old house in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband, author Christopher Rowe, with whom she co-writes the middle grade series the Supernormal Sleuthing Service. You can find her and many photos of her pets online at www.gwendabond.com or on Twitter at @Gwenda.
Favorite Podcasts: Sword & Scale, Serial, Casefile
Rachel Caine is the NYT, USA Today and #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling author of a wide variety of novels, including the smash hit thrillers Stillhouse Lake and Killman Creek. Stillhouse Lake is a finalist for the 2018 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Original Paperback. She’s also written more than 50 novels in categories and genres as diverse as young adult, science fiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and media tie-in. Her work has been optioned several times for film and television, and she wrote and co-produced the Morganville webseries. Website: rachelcaine.com
Favorite Podcasts: In The Dark, More Perfect, How Did This Get Made, Planet Money
Carrie Ryan is the New York Times bestselling author of the Forest of Hands and Teeth series, the Map to Everywhere series (co-written with her husband, John Parke Davis), Daughter of Deep Silence, and Infinity Ring: Divide and Conquer as well as the editor of Foretold: 14 Tales of Prophecy and Prediction. Her books have sold in over 22 territories and her first book is in development as a major motion picture. A former litigator, Carrie now lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband and various pets. You can find her online at www.CarrieRyan.com or on Twitter at @CarrieRyan.