Lessons on Life & Writing from Murder, She Wrote
Months ago, Joe and I started planning a “distraction” trip for when our youngest goes to college. Joe suggested Maine, and my first thought was, “Oh, let’s visit the real Cabot Cove!”
A quick Google search revealed that Jessica Fletcher’s idyllic but murdery hometown never existed and was filmed in California, anyway. Humph.
My nerdy desire to visit Murder, She Wrote’s quaint fishing village and, perhaps, look through Jessica’s bright white Victorian before touring her garden and maybe going on a bike ride should tell you that I’m something of a fan. A small-town lady turned badass writer—how could I not be?
In 1984 when the show aired, I was nine years old. That was the same year I started writing my first novel. Coincidence? I think not.
In the first episode, The Murder of Sherlock Holmes, Jessica accidentally falls into literary success when her nephew Grady submits her story to a publisher without asking. Thus begins Jessica’s murder-solving, jet-setting, party-going, people-meeting, and yet, still small-town writer’s life.
Late-night reruns saw me through midnight feedings and sick children; served as background for typing many stories; distracted me in my grief when I lost my mom and eased me to sleep many nights when caring for my dad after his bypass. Murder, She Wrote is my TV comfort blanket, and Jessica Fletcher is my TV mystery mom.
She’s also a fellow writer. Between solving murder mysteries, the show provided my earliest insights into what a writing life looks like (or could look like) and what a writer needs to be successful (aside from damn good luck).
12 Writing Lessons Learned from Jessica Fletcher:
When in doubt, act it out.
It’s a delight watching Jessica Fletcher in her over-decorated living room acting out a murder to capture it realistically in her WIP.
But writers must get it right. Reading a manuscript aloud helps ensure that sentences and dialogue flow smoothly. Performing what you’re trying to describe, whether it’s a kiss, fight, or murder, adds authenticity to writing.
Do your research.
Jessica didn’t take to her typewriter willy-nilly, relying on only her knowledge and memory. She researched to build her plots and storylines. In one episode, she hires a private detective to investigate a cold case she wants to use in a novel—he gets murdered, but that’s not the point. In another, she uses fact-checkers to review her manuscript. Details are important. Extensive research adds authority and authenticity to writing.
Every writer needs a Grady.
As far as occasional sidekicks go, Grady’s a bit doofy. But he’s also the catalyst for Jessica’s success. He read her manuscript, which must’ve been lying around. (Note to self: scatter manuscripts around the house when guests come). He loved her work enough to advocate for her. When she protested, he convinced her that she could do it. Writing is a solitary, often disappointing venture, and writers are sensitive about their work. We all need supportive Gradys to encourage and push us through our fears.
Make writing a priority (even between murders).
Though busy with traveling, socializing, and murders, Jessica carved out time for writing. I love the episodes where she’s trying to meet a deadline, but a murder distracts her from finishing the chapters. She always gets it done, anyway. She taught me to prioritize writing and to work it into our schedules because it’s important. Writers write. And sometimes that means sitting at the kitchen table late at night with coffee, apple pie, and a typewriter (erm, laptop).
Write from the heart.
Jessica penned her first mystery after her husband Frank died. It was her way of working through her grief and passing the time without him. The best writing taps into our vulnerable, broken sides. I’d like to think that’s why her first novel resonated with people. Books provide an escape for both writers and readers—it’s up to us to make it a meaningful one.
Never give up.
Often, Jessica Fletcher had to prove her investigative worth to naysaying policemen and detectives who didn’t think she had anything to offer their cases. Down-on-their-luck writers often think they don’t have anything to offer, either. But just like Jessica stood her ground against her opposers, we must shut down that kind of thinking and commit to telling our stories, anyway. That takes Jessica-Fletcher-confidence and grit.
Jessica: These last few days I have been insulted, browbeaten and patronized and I say no thank you! Back in Cabot Cove, the only thing with claws are the lobsters and we eat them.
Trust your editors.
Jessica Fletcher accepts writing advice and edits her work. Joe and I have found that many authors (especially self-published ones) don’t edit—a fault easily discovered upon reading a sample or the reviews. As Joe mentioned, “It’s hard to enjoy a story when you’re stopping over stupid mistakes.”
Why don’t they edit? I don’t know. Perhaps they don’t have anyone to review their work and/or the money to hire someone to do it. Maybe they’re too sensitive about it, unwilling to make changes. Or it could be that they feel so accomplished by finishing a novel that they don’t realize they’re not done yet—I’m guilty of this in my early days. Regardless, if bestselling author Jessica Fletcher relied on her editors, then, damn it, so should we.
Make friends, help friends.
Throughout the series, Jessica always had time for friends and fans alike. Of course, she went out of her way to rescue them from murder accusations, but she was also quick to assist with their creative endeavors. In later seasons, she taught writing classes and was a favorite of her students. Oh, to have been in her class! Jessica teaches us to have a giving attitude toward other writers.
Keep it Professional.
Murders happening wherever you go would give most people a complex. Not J.B. Fletcher. Her dark and gruesome experiences affected her, but she funneled them into her writing. Similarly, rejections from agents, publishers, and readers could inspire anger, frustration, or sadness. Some writers react badly to criticism, spewing angry rants on social media. Doing this only hurts you—the writer. It’s unprofessional and foolish. In these emotional moments, ask yourself, “What would Jessica do?”
Jessica: You mean, do I ever feel overwhelmed by an urge to dispatch my enemies with the nearest available weapon? Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I abhor violence.
Be yourself, and don’t apologize for it.
Jessica Fletcher didn’t drive—an interesting character quirk for someone so independent. The writers made her a non-driver to create more opportunities for her to get information from people, but it served another purpose for me. First, being unable to drive never hindered her—she did fine without it. Second, she never apologized or explained herself. She didn’t have feelings of inadequacy or shame.
That’s a good lesson to apply to writing. We all have our limitations. We may not be like the writers in our periphery, but we should stay true to ourselves and the stories we want to write. Don't apologize.
You’re not just anything.
Jessica Fletcher was one of very few women in leading roles back then, especially in crime shows. Magnum P.I., Matlock, Miami Vice, The A-Team, and the like dominated. And if you rewatch those shows now, it's cringeworthy how inappropriate they could be. The sexist attitude portrayed on most TV shows was the same in households. My dad’s running joke whenever I accomplished something was, “Not bad… for a girl.” I remember constantly feeling like I was just a girl.
Lt. Faraday: I think writing is a real good hobby for a woman. You can cook up some supper. You can chat on the phone. Then pop over to the old typewriter now and then for a few minutes.
Jessica: Yes, when I'm not too busy beating the laundry against the rocks in the river?
Anyway, Jessica Fletcher challenged those beliefs, and no one cringes over reruns (except maybe at the hairstyles).
Characters with salacious perspectives and those with ingrained childhood insecurities fuel stories. And it’s always fun throwing in a Jessica-Fletcher-type to battle them.
It’s not too late.
Jessica Fletcher’s writing success happened at an age when many people retire. She was 59 (if you go by Angela Lansbury’s age at the time). The older I get, the more I cling to Jessica’s late-life success and all-around vibrancy. And the show highlighted it, too, with Jessica’s jogging, walking, biking, and traveling. It perpetuated a can-do attitude.
If she could do it, so can I. It’s incredibly hopeful in writing as the years and rejections add up, to be reminded that anything’s possible. Jessica published 42 novels during the show’s run, and though fictional, such prolificacy is possible (Danielle Steele has published 190 books and is still going at 75). Murder, She Wrote teaches us to never give up—not on seeking justice or writing success.
As always, share your thoughts below. Your insights are always encouraged—Murder, She Wrote fan or not. I’ll also accept happy vibes, writing advice, rants about sexist TV, and show recommendations for working out… Course, maybe I’ll just rewatch Murder, She Wrote (watch free on Freevee, BTW).