Thomas B. Sawyer: Writing for Murder She Wrote

Novelist, screenwriter, playwright Thomas B. Sawyer was Head Writer/Showrunner of the hit CBS series, Murder, She Wrote, for which he wrote 24 episodes. Tom has written 9 network TV pilots, 100 episodes, and has been Head Writer/Showrunner or Story Editor on 15 network TV series. He wrote, directed and produced the cult film comedy, Alice Goodbody, is co-librettist/lyricist of Jack, an opera about John F. Kennedy, backed by the Shuberts, that has been performed to acclaim in the US and Europe. He is publisher of Storybase 2.0 writer’s software.

The best-selling mystery/thriller, The Sixteenth Man, is his first novel. Both his book, Fiction Writing Demystified, and Storybase are Writer’s Digest Book Club Selections. His new thriller, No Place to Run, will be published in April, 2009. He’s taught writing at UCLA, at other colleges and universities, at numerous major writers conferences, and online at Writers University. Mr. Sawyer has been nominated for an Edgar and an Emmy.

Creating 264+ Murders Using Three Motives – and No Blood, Violence, Crazy People or Forensics
By Tom Sawyer, Head Writer/Showrunner

Oddly, though not entirely unusual, the way I became a writer for MURDER, SHE WROTE before it began to air was the result of my agent sending the show’s co-creator, Peter Fischer, a non-mystery pilot script I’d written for CBS. Peter ‘saw’ something in it – presumably, that I could write scenes that worked – and he gave me a ‘blind assignment’ to write an episode. Meaning, I had to first come up with a story that was acceptable. He invited me to come in and view the very impressive half-hour film they’d produced in lieu of a full-on pilot, and to me, anyway, Angela Lansbury’s specialness, her presence, was awesome.

So Peter and I met. Pleasant, witty, like myself a former East Coaster, I have to say – in terms of instant impressions – that what struck me most tellingly about him was his spotlessly clean desktop (in contrast to my own, which has always been a colossal mess of scraps and disorganized piles that periodically reaches critical mass, requiring a half-day or more for me to clean up). Peter’s had not a single sheet of paper, not a pile anywhere – and it remained that way for the seven years I worked with him. Which is not, incidentally, a knock. A direct corollary of this clearly anal trait, I would learn, was that unlike any other showrunner with whom I’d been associated, Peter always had several scripts in the drawer, finished and ready to shoot. In series TV, this is rare to the point of nonexistence. On most shows they’re constantly hanging on by their fingertips, often writing the scripts as they’re being shot.

All that aside, MSW looked to me like a hit, and I said so. I also offered that given my limited writing credits in the genre (a QUINCY and a MIKE HAMMER), he’d probably have to hold my hand. He assured me that that wouldn’t be a problem and, in response to my question about the approach, the show’s style, Peter explained – as I feared – that he envisioned it in the mold of traditional Agatha Christie puzzle mysteries – what are known in the mystery genre as ‘Cozies’. You know – the character who behaves badly toward all the other players, and is detested by all, who is then – surprise, surprise – murdered – and all of them have motives which at the end are tediously, routinely – for me, anyway – explained by the sleuth, who has gathered them all in the drawing-room. Which prompted – with no hesitation – a remark from me, the sheer chutzpah of which I really didn’t wonder at until I recalled the incident several years later. And having wondered, I realized that it was pretty much the way I’ve operated for most if not all of my life: “Peter, I have to tell you, when I was a kid I read a couple of Christies and one or two locked-room mysteries, and they bored the shit out of me. I’m not going to write that for you.”

His response betrayed no sign that I’d offended. “Okay. What will you write?”

“I’ll write The Maltese Falcon.”

Peter replied without missing a beat: “That’ll be fine.”

And that’s what I did for the next twelve years – seven of them with Peter’s on-the-job blessing.

Though I never discussed that initial encounter with him, I think his not taking offense was because the two of us were speaking a kind of writer’s genre-shorthand, the subtext of which Peter, with his extensive background in whodunnits, certainly understood better than I. He knew exactly what I was saying-without-saying-it because for all of us who are ‘into’ that form, Hammett’s Falcon was/is the paradigm – the seminal modern detective novel – for several reasons – most significantly in that unlike the more traditional mysteries, and Falcon is indeed a mystery – who killed Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, as well as Capt. Jacoby of the SS La Paloma, and gunsel Floyd Thursby? – there were no clues, and almost no emphasis on suspects. Instead, Hammett took the reader on a journey, involving a bunch of marvelously colorful characters in pursuit of a McGuffin, and at the end, and happily without the tedious old-hat convention of the drawing-room climax, we did indeed get our closure about who did what to whom. But – and this further differentiated it from all the others – we almost didn’t care who the murderer was, so interesting were the journey, the people and their stories.
That was the matrix I used for all of the twenty-four MSW episodes I wrote, and for the nearly one hundred scripts I developed with other writers. Basically, my approach was that each was a play, about something, in which a murder had to take place. And for me, the play was the thing. I almost didn’t care about the details of the murder, because our main challenge was to make the method, circumstances and surrounding characters seem different from the last six or seven episodes. Oh, we provided clues and suspects, so that the viewers had a reasonably fair chance of solving the mystery before Jessica Fletcher nailed the bad guy. But I invariably placed the emphasis on that underlying drama, the interplay of characters with conflicting agendas, that (hopefully) provided an entertaining setting for the inevitable murder. Also consistent with the show’s ‘bloodless’ approach to violence, which was never shown, we steered way clear of another dark side – sociopaths and psychopaths, as in serial killers and the like. Happily for me because, despite their popularity in fiction, I find crazy people and other such stuff tedious in the extreme since they’re unfixable, their motives irrational – not, from my perspective, interesting enough to try getting inside their twisted heads. Not people I can, nor wish to try relating to. All that the police – or your detective – can do is catch them which, even with the fashionable cachet of forensics, I find basically uninteresting.

Thus, on Murder, She Wrote, we employed three motives for the killings: money, sex or power (sometimes together). A fourth, really a non-motive, was the occasional ‘victim-by-mistake.’ Essentially, to avoid predictability we tried to rotate these, as we did with the murder method (gunshot, knife, poison, etc.).

Like so much of my life-view, I assumed all the writers on the show regarded its structure the same way. I was therefore surprised when, some years later, I mentioned my take on it to one of them, and he revealed that his method was almost diametrically different, citing among his own rules that, somewhere in Act Two, his murderer had to make what would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Which proves, I suppose, that there is more than one way to do it right.

Though about that, I’m still not convinced.

Oh, and one other thing. Around the set, we referred to Cabot Cove, Maine as The Murder Capital of America (I have a coffee mug inscribed: “If you lived here, you’d be dead by now”). And Jessica Fletcher was known as The Angel of Death.

I mean – this nice lady just happens to be in the vicinity of a murder every week for twelve years…?


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Officer Robert Powell: I Can Screw You Over

NFL player Ryan Moats stopped for a red light, but proceeded through after he’d determined it was safe to do so. What was his hurry? His beloved mother-in-law, Jo, was in the hospital, just seconds away from death.

Moats and his wife had received the devastating news and were on their way to the hospital when Dallas police officer Robert Powell observed Moats’s stop-and-go at the traffic light. Powell then activated his emergency equipment (that’s cop speak for turned on his lights and siren) and followed Moats into the hospital parking lot. That’s when things really got ugly.

Let’s examine the officer’s actions. Was he right or wrong for holding Moats for 13 long, agonizing minutes while his mother-in-law lay dying? You be the judge.

Was Officer Powell in the right for:

1) Ordering Moats and wife to remain at their car?

2) Moat’s wife refused to stay at the car. Powell draws his weapon.

3) Threatening to take Moats to jail if he doesn’t produce his insurance documents.

4) Moats pleads his case, but Powell tells him to shut his mouth.

5) A second officer confirms Moats’s story about his mother-in-law, stressing the urgency. Officer Powell remains relentless, refusing to allow Moats the opportunity to be at his mother-in-law’s side.

6) Officer Powell threatens to issue a separate ticket to Moats for parking illegally in the hospital parking lot. (In most areas, the police may not issue a traffic summons for handicap parking violations on private property).

7) A hospital nurse comes out to say that Moats’s mother-in-law is dying that very second, and that’s Moats is needed inside. Officer Powell responds by saying, “All right. I’m almost done.” Then he finishes writing the summons, and proceeds to lecture Moats about running the red light.

8) Officer Powell tells Moats he can “screw him over” if he doesn’t cooperate.

Moats’s mother-in-law passed away before he reached her room.

Chief David Kunkle has apologized for Officer Powell’s actions. Officer Powell is currently on paid suspension, and has offered a written apology to the Moats family.

Here are the unedited in-car videos of the Moats traffic stop.

Part 1

Part 2

* Tomorrow, our guest blogger is Thomas B. Sawyer, head writer of the Murder She Wrote television series.

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Weekend Road Trip: Jason Odell Is For The Birds

I shot these photos in three different locations:

1) St. Augustine Alligator Farm, St. Augustine FL
2) Venice Rookery, Venice, FL
3) Ft. Desoto State Beach, St. Petersburg, FL

The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is a fantastic private zoo that has a large boardwalk over a pond stocked with hundreds of alligators; some over 10 feet long. The birds nest there because of the protection of the alligators from small animals that might otherwise raid their nests.

The Venice Rookery is a small island open year-round in Venice, Florida. A variety of species nest there, including great blue herons and anhingas.

Fort Desoto State Beach is not only a great place to get a tan, but there are numerous shorebirds there, including migrant terns, skimmers, and avocets. My images of the laughing gulls were shot there.

Please enjoy,








wood stork

white ibis

great blue heron

laughing gull

*Jason Odell is the son of author Terry Odell. You can see more of Jason’s work here.

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Friday’s Heroes: Remembering The Fallen

Corrections Officer Mark Parker, 44

Orange County Florida Sheriffs Office

Officer Mark Parker died on March 19, 2009, from gunshot wounds sustained on January 10, 1984. On that day, a suspect entered a courthouse with the intention of shooting the police officer who’d issued him a traffic citation. The shooter eventually killed two police officers, fired at the judge, and exchanged gunfire with another deputy.  Officer Parker was unarmed, but used his body to shield innocent civilians. He was 19 when he received the bullet wounds that left him paralyzed and under round the clock care for the remainder of his life.

The suspect was convicted of murdering the officers. He was executed for his crimes in 2000. Officer Parker attended the execution.

Sergeant Mark Dunakin, 40

Officer John Hege, 41

Sergeant Daniel Sakai, 35

Sergeant Ervin Romans, 43

Oakland California Police Department

Sergeant Mark Dunakin, Officer John Hege, Sergeant Daniel Sakai, and Sergeant Ervin Romans were all shot to death by a suspect, a parolee, who had an extremely violent history. The suspect was also wanted for a parole violation at the time of the shootings. SWAT members eventually terminated the threat by killing the suspect.

*Thanks to ODMP

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Transporting Those Pesky Prisoners

Years ago, when I first went to work for a sheriff’s office in Virginia, police procedure and equipment were quite a bit different than they are today. I know, that was back in the day when my co-workers were Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.

In those days, we didn’t have cages or partitions between the front and rear seats to separate us from the folks we’d arrested. That made things a little dicey, especially when the suspects were homicidal manics who got their thrills by spitting on the back of your head. Or better still, by head butting the back of your head with a forehead that felt like steel.

If the suspect was particularly unruly we’d call on another deputy to ride in the back seat with the slime bag, who’d by this time urinated on the cloth seat. There’s nothing like wrestling with one hand, holding onto to your weapon with the other, all while rolling around in a puddle of pee. Sigh…Those were the days.

Today, police cars are equipped with cages and partitions that prevent prisoners from assaulting officers during transport. Partitions also provide a little bit of a sound barrier between the front and rear compartments. Believe me, there’s nothing like listening to a drunk screaming obscenities at the top of their sweet little lungs for twenty minutes straight.

Many police cars also feature hard plastic rear seats and drain plugs in the floor. These two features are worth their weight in gold. Now, officers can simply hose out the entire back seat, if needed (and you know why).

Here’s a few tips for transporting prisoners:

1) Always search the prisoner before placing him in the patrol car. This includes the inside of his mouth, a place where handcuff keys, drugs, etc. are easily hidden.

2) Always search the rear compartment of the patrol car before and after transporting a prisoner.

3) The prisoner should be handcuffed to the rear, and seat-belted in. (Seat-belting is not a term for beating someone with a nylon strap).

4) Adjust your rear view mirror to an angle that allows you to monitor the prisoner. Some officers have installed a red, or other dim light bulb, in the dome fixture to illuminate the interior of the vehicle without affecting their ability to drive safely.

5) Always remain alert, especially at the end of the trip. Many prisoners make their move when the officer opens the rear door.

6) One end of a thin strap (a hobble) can be attached to leg shackles and the other end closed in the car door. This reduces the prisoners movements. Some police vehicles are equipped with a metal eye hook in the floor. The hook is used to secure cuffs or leg irons to the vehicle. However, some department policy does not allow securing prisoners to a moving vehicle.

* The photo below was added in response to Terry’s comment.

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Disaster Equipment

Special circumstances call for special tools. Here’s a few used by police and rescue personnel.

Street Thunder megaphone capable of delivering clear voice at distances of up to 900 feet. This particular megaphone is also equipped with a police siren. $80

Chemical resistant HazMat boots $50

Tactical gas mask $190

Homeland Security Field Guide $22

Incident command board with built-in radio and cell phone pouches, dry-erase board, and other handy hidey-holes. Designed to hang from vehicle window. $160

Disaster rescue kit especially suited for areas prone to floods, earthquakes, or other natural or man made disasters $80

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Thanks to Galls for today’s images

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