What mystery lover doesn't love a good puzzle? If crosswords are your puzzle of choice, you'll be delighted to meet the authors here.
Nero Blanc is the pen name of the husband-and-wife writing team of Steve Zettler and
Cordelia Frances Biddle, who are creating a crossword mystery series, featuring a mystery and several puzzles -- all in one book. We talked with them recently about this series and how they make a combined writing career work.
Tell us a bit about your backgrounds.
Steve: I'm a native of Bucks County, Pennsylvania; growing up in
Washington Crossing under the shadow of the classic Emanuel Leutze painting
of Washington crossing the Deleware. I attended Clemson University before
joining the United States Marine Corps and serving 17 months combat duty in
Vietnam. Prior to my writing career, I was a photographer and actor in
New York and Los Angeles. I appeared on stage in over 25 productions,
notably, the original production of the Pulitzer Prize winner, A SOLDIERS
PLAY, as well as many daytime and prime-time dramas, among them COLUMBO,
FALCON CREST, DIVORCE COURT & ONE LIFE TO LIVE. In 1997, I was a
Barrymore Award nominee for his role in BARE KNUCKLE at the Annenberg
Center in Philadelphia. As for my previous books, I'm the author of the international thrillers THE SECOND MAN,
Dutton/Onyx, 1996, DOUBLE IDENTITY, Dutton/Onyx, 1997, and RONIN,
Hachette Livres, 1998.
Cordelia: I'm a native Philadelphian, and attended The Shipley
School, Miss Porter's and Vassar College. I worked as an actress on
stage and in television in New York before becoming a writer. In
Philadelphia, I acted in Albert Innaurato's GEMINI directed by Broadway
superstar Jerry Zaks.
Steve and I met as actors in New York City over twenty years ago and
have been a team ever since. I'm the author of the historical drama BENEATH THE
WIND, Simon & Schuster, 1993, co-author of both MURDER AT SAN SIMEON,
Scribner, 1996, and CARING FOR YOUR CHERISHED POSSESSIONS, Crown, 1989.
Together we also write the Nero Blanc crossword short stories which appear in
Hemispheres Magazine, the United Airlines in-flight publication.
How did you end up teaming up to write together?
While living and working together in New York our fondest stage memories
have always been those of the productions where we appeared together. As we
both segued into writing careers the lure of becoming co-authors was one
that we found impossible to resist.
What drew you to writing mysteries?
Steve: Once we took our own bait, and decided to jump in with both feet, the
dilemma of genre and style was the first obstacle we were faced with. Our
personal styles are so vastly different - Cordelia's is flowing and
lyrical, and her genre is historical fiction; immersing herself for months
in research before starting a project. My work, on the other hand, is
in international thrillers, with gritty characters, with quick and often
coarse "tough guy" dialogue. The only logical blend of these two modes of
writing seemed to be the mystery genre. I get to add quick dialogue,
and Cordelia gets to inject her love of words, while setting a picturesque
New England stage.
What are some of the challenges you face as a writing team, such as resolving differences in plotting,
We recently finished the third book in our crossword mystery series
(pub-date - July, 2001). As we work, we continue to hone our "co-author"
style in an almost trial-and-error fashion. There seems to be no set rules
out there, and each writing team must find what best works for them. In our
own personal work, we prefer to take off with an idea and see where it
leads us, but writing together we've found that we must create a strict
outline before we start. We then each select which chapters we feel
comfortable with and get cracking. With the blessing of the computer age,
we are then able to swap the chapters we have written and allow the other
half of the "team" to rewrite and hone it. This system seems to work very
well for us, however every now and then one will hear, "I can't believe you
deleted that sentence!", echoing throughout our house. But we have always
had a strong personal relationship, and with our acting background, we've
learned to respect one another's work and be very constructive with our
And the flip side is - we take direction well. As far as taking
your work home with you; this is a problem for all writers. You live your
work twenty-four hours a day. So breakfast, lunch, and dinner do tend to
become one extended story meeting. But even when we're working on our
individual projects, "down time" conversation still seems to be monopolized
with discussions of plot, character, setting and motivation.
Are you still writing individually, as well as a team?
Absolutely! As much as we like working together, nothing can replace the
experience of creating a work of fiction on a solo basis. We each have our
own voice, and once we finish with our co-authoring, we seem inspired to
jump into our own work with a new vengeance.
Do you write together full time?
The schedule that works well for us is to work half of the year on our
crossword mystery series together, and work the rest of the year on our
Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
Cordelia - George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, John Irving, Charles Dickens,
Steve - William Styron, William Manchester, Charles Dickens, Shakesphere...
Interestingly, there aren't many mystery writers on our list, but the
operative word is "influenced." The "great" writers serve up the "great"
plots, characters, words and sentences. One can wallow in their books.
Mysteries we seem to swallow for the sheer enjoyment of the ride.
Tell us about your current book/upcoming release, and about your protagonist.
The Crossword Murder is the first in the series we're writing together
under the pen name of Nero Blanc, and it was released in August, 1999. Our
protagonists are a young couple who meet in this book, become romantically
involved, and will continue together throughout the series. Annabella
"Belle" Graham is a crossword puzzle editor at a large New England
newspaper - Her foil is Rosco Polycrates; a former cop, turned private
detective. Each book is unique in that six crossword puzzles are interwoven
within the plot, allowing the reader to solve the puzzles as they are
discovered by Rosco and Belle. The second book in the series, Two Down,
has a pub-date of July, 2000.
What are you working on at the moment?
We just finished the third book in the crossword mystery
series. Tentatively it's titled, The Crossword Connection. Most likely we
will begin work on the fourth book in the series around mid-November.
Presently, Cordelia is working on an historical novel entitled
Redemption. It's set in 1840's Philadelphia, and although a certain
mystery is an important element in the plot, it's more of a look into
characters, events, and the enormous struggle of day-to-day Nineteenth
Century life. Steve is putting finishing touches on his fourth thriller,
entitled Dead Heat, set in Panama; and beginning work on a new screenplay.
What role does the Internet play in writing, researching, and marketing
We went into cyberspace kicking and screaming less than a year ago and now
find ourselves with a web site (crosswordmysteries.com) and an e-mail list
of 2500 who would like to be "kept up to date." For marketing purposes, who
could ask for a more efficient, direct, and inexpensive way to reach your
readers? As far as research is concerned, we're afraid we still like the
feel of a book. There's no substitute for pouring through the stacks at you
local library. However, when creating our crossword puzzles, the Internet
has proven invaluable. We still construct our puzzles with graph paper and
a number two pencil, but the reference guides on the Internet are updated
constantly, out-moding almost any dictionary before the ink dries.
Steve and Cordelia, thank you for your time, and best of luck with your series. Readers, you can treat yourself to a preview of the Crossword Puzzle Mysteries at www.crosswordmysteries.com.
May 31, 2000