Tag Archives: death

What happens when a writer dies?

The writer - a floral tributeThis is not a spiritual question, nor is it a particularly physical one (with answers involving worms, combustion or large quantities of formaldehyde).  Nevertheless, it is a very practical matter.

Our society believes that death should not prevent writers from benefitting from the fruits of their labours.  We express this belief through copyright law which generally holds that copyright persists for 70 years after the writer’s death and that the estate of a deceased writer is entitled to any royalties that accrue during that time.  So, how is this managed?

There are two issues: who gets the royalties and how the royalties reach them.  In both cases, the writer needs to take some ante mortem action.

Where there’s a Will

A deceased writer’s royalties are part of the estate and are therefore disbursed according to the writer’s Last Will and Testament.  If the writer dies intestate, then the (residual) estate is divided amongst relatives of the deceased according to a standard formula.  (The formula varies between countries.)  Royalties are split in the same way as the rest of the estate.  (This may be simple, if everything goes to the spouse of the deceased, or it may be hideously complicated.)  So, the first piece of advice is that if your legacy is likely to be at all complex, then don’t put it off: make a Will.

By itself, a Will may not be enough.  A Will deals with the division of the deceased’s estate.  However, the literary estate may be a special case – for example, what happens if, five years after the author’s death, there’s an approach about making a film (or other derivative) of a work?  If the estate is divided amongst multiple legatees, who is entitled to make decisions about literary properties?

The solution to this is to appoint a literary executor; someone with the right and responsibility to make decisions about that part of the author’s legacy.  (Neil Gaiman is a very strong advocate of this procedure, and his on-line journal offers some very practical help.)  Even then, it may not be that simple.  That legacy lasts for 70 years; what happens if the literary executor doesn’t last that long?  If the work has a particularly long shelf life, does the writer need a literary line of succession?

Spill the beans before kicking the bucket

So you’ve appointed a literary executor?  Well done.  Now, how does he or she know what you have written and where it has been published?

In the simple, traditional literary mainstream, authors have literary agents who can be expected to know the state of play with all the writer’s works and hold copies of contracts.  But life isn’t always that simple; take playwrights (my particular cure).  Typically playwrights make direct approaches to specialist publishers rather than working through a literary agent.  Some playwrights have works with several different publishers.  Then there’s the whole business of self-publishing – which, typically, means that the writer has a contract with an on-line retailer who handles distribution of specific editions of particular works.  The literary executor needs to know about all those things.  Somehow, the writer needs to communicate to the literary executor.  It would take a pretty determined spiritualist to advocate leaving this until after death.  Somewhere, you need to leave the poor sap a complete list covering all the works and all the deals.

Who do you think you are?

Many writers use pseudonyms for some or all of their works.  From the point of view of your literary estate, your Will does not need to list your works and the names under which they are published (in the same way that it doesn’t list your bank accounts), but your executors do need to be able to trace that information.  You know that metal box where you keep all your important documents – your bank account details, investments, insurance policies and the like?  Well it would be a good idea to keep something in there about your literary works.  This could be copies of the (relevant bits of) correspondence with publishers, or it could be a simple list of title, published name and publisher.

The important thing about pseudonyms is that there should be evidence linking the pseudonym to the real name of the author.  What the author needs to do is to point the executor in the right direction.


So what does your literary executor need to do?  It’s a matter of giving instructions to the businesses that handle your works.  At their simplest, these instructions would be about where to pay the royalties.  Giving the instructions gets a bit more complicated when the executor is dealing with an on-line self-publishing retailer (because the author has an account with the on-line business, and the account needs to be changed or replaced), but the principles are exactly the same.  (I was discussing this point with Damian Trasler and he got in touch with a couple of eBook self-publishing companies to check the processes they had in place.  One of the responses included the slightly disturbing phrase “I recognize it’s inevitable for most individuals…”  This led Damian to observe that tracts of “undead” literature must be written from personal experience.)

The publisher (or eBook retailer) needs to be told that the writer has died and that the executor has been granted the right to deal with the estate.  Depending on the sums in question, the publisher may require evidence (of the death and of the executor’s rights).  This is the same as for financial institutions, and there are standard forms (death certificates and grants of probate) which will demonstrate legal proof if required.

And that’s it.  It’s a reasonably straightforward process, provided that the author has sorted out the information ahead of time.  From my (publisher’s) viewpoint, it’s much better to get an e-mail from an executor, than to have a royalty check returned with a message: “He’s no longer with us.   He didn’t leave a forwarding address, but he’s gone to one of two places.”

The Anatomy of Murder

Every time I think we must be covering all the possibilities, someone pops up with another way of creating a murder mystery.  I used to think that the spectrum went from fully improvised to fully scripted, but it seems to go beyond fully scripted into the area of written clues but no dialogue.

At the improvised end of the spectrum, Steve Clark and David Lovesy (of TLC Creative) are also part of Really Horrid Productions, a group that creates and performs murder mysteries.  The creation part is to create a scenario – a narrative arc for the event and a set of character back-stories.  The performance involves mingling with the audience and improvising dialogue – frequently very vigorous arguments – to move the plot along the pre-determined arc.  (Steve told me a tale of performing at a wedding breakfast at which only the bride and groom knew that they were taking part in a murder mystery.  Steve took the part of the toastmaster, a role which he played straight for the actual wedding speeches, but then veered off into some bizarre interactions with the members of the performing company.  David was, I think, playing the role of the technician managing the sound system, and was being so stroppy that one of the wedding guests offered to throw him out – an offer which Steve tactfully declined.)

At the written end, we have something that is, essentially, a play; scripted dialogue and (possibly) a formal stage set.  The audience interactivity can be restricted to just making a guess (possibly a stab) at whodunnit, however there are plenty of variations including written clues and the audience interrogating the suspects.  The latter takes us back into improvisation, since the cast will not know what the audience is going to ask (other than “Was it you what done it?”)

Once you get away from the formal sets, interactive murder mysteries become very cheap to stage (or to complete lack of stage.  What’s the appropriate verb here, when you’re putting on a show without a stage?  “Produce” or “mount”, I suppose.  Anyway, whatever you’re doing with it, the costs are relatively low.)  Consequently, whodunnits are often used as fundraisers.

The social committee of my local church wanted to use one as a fundraiser.  Whilst “let’s murder someone for Christian Aid” sounds a bit uncharitable, an event with entertainment is more likely to attract an audience than an invitation to a frugal supper.  However, the social committee had a stipulation: they wanted was a murder mystery in which they didn’t have to learn any lines.  Oh, fine, that’s improvisation.  No.  They didn’t want to improvise either.  So that would be a murder mystery for around six characters played by people who won’t learn lines and won’t interact with the audience through interrogation or other improvised formats?  Okay…

After a bit of thought, I came up with a new murder mystery format.  (New in the sense that it was one I hadn’t come across before.)  Instead of a script to learn, each participant was given a witness statement to read out.  These were written (loosely, within the constraints of a murder mystery format) as if they had been dictated in a police station, so they could be read out individually.  The statements were supplemented by a sketch map and three pieces of written evidence.  The result was Death of a Well-Spoken Gentleman.  The ladies of the social committee took the roles of the six witnesses and told me that I could play the detective (who acts as master of ceremonies for the mystery).  It worked.  The audience were swept-along by the mystery, and, whilst many of them got taken-in by the red herrings, several got to, or close to, the right answer.  From a writing point of view, it was a very satisfactory outcome; as a small charity fundraiser, it netted a respectable £500.

Death of a Well-Spoken Gentleman - a murder mystery by Stuart Ardern