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Simon talks us through the labyrinthian writing process behind Could You Survive Midsomer? – and we discuss how brands can embrace left-field opportunities.
Last month saw Octopus Publishing bring ITV’s Midsomer Murders into Choose Your Own Adventure-territory with a new interactive novel, Could You Survive Midsomer?
Written by Simon Brew – founder of Den of Geek, Film Stories and author of Movie Geek, TV Geek and The Secret Life of Movies – the book sees readers play Midsomer CID’s newest recruit as they investigate a murder on the eve of the county’s Villages In Bloom competition.
We caught up with Simon to discuss the labyrinthian writing process behind Could You Survive Midsomer? – and how brands can embrace left-field opportunities.
Simon, it’s great to connect. Let’s dive into the origins of this book. How did it all come about? Were you a big Midsomer Murders fan?
Well, I have a relationship with Octopus, the publisher, where I’d previously done film books with them. I’ve always been a film and TV nut. I did a website called Den of Geek for a while and did a few books with them as part of that, and then I also did one called The Secret Life of Movies. The film books had run their course a little bit and I was itching to do other bits.
To answer your second question, no, I wasn’t a Midsomer Murders nut at all. I came from it from completely the other side… I grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books, Fighting Fantasy books and ZX Spectrum Text Adventures – interactive pieces of fiction that binary choices as you went along. I loved those, but I didn’t think they made them anymore.
It never crossed my mind that I’d get the chance to do one, but at one of my meetings with the brilliant editors at Octopus, they raised this idea. They had a good relationship with ITV and were having some chats about what they could do with the Midsomer Murders licence. A brilliant man at Octopus called Trevor Davies had the idea to do a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of thing.
I then got a call out of nowhere saying we’ve got something a bit odd and we thought of you!
“I had to find a way to kill people off with a strange piece of foliage early on otherwise I might not get them on side!”
There’s a compliment in there somewhere!
It’s a huge compliment. I’m a great believer in going where everybody else isn’t. You have to look for the leftfield. So Trevor put the idea in my head and left me to do some digging around.
So having not been entrenched in the brand beforehand, how did you get to grips with all things Midsomer Murders?
Well first of all I had to work out if it would work, so I did a 2,000 word taster of how I thought it could and should work, featuring the first 10 or so choices. That went over to Octopus who then put it over to ITV to see if they were happy with it before it got formal sign-off.
To approach that, you can’t fake it – and I wouldn’t dream of faking it – so I watched a lot of Midsomer Murders. I managed to talk to one or two people that had been in Midsomer Murders. I got the first Midsomer Murders novel and went through that. I got to a point where I was comfortable and had a feel for the world of Midsomer Murders, and then I stopped.
I stopped because I was given advice by some people that had written fiction before, and that was that they don’t read too much fiction because they need to ensure they can create their own take on things. I went through a lot and then I stopped so I could do my own version of this.
Let’s talk about the process of writing this kind of interactive Choose Your Own Adventure-style novel. I made a bad choice very early on that led to me being killed by a yukka tree!
Ah, you fell for the first one! There was a bit of back and forth on the yukka tree about whether it was right to kill someone so early on.
Yes, I think it was my third choice and I snuffed it!
We had to be brutal. When people are writing comedy films, you’ve got to make someone laugh in the first 10 minutes otherwise you lose your audience. In this case, I had to find a way to kill people off with a strange piece of foliage early on otherwise I might not get them on side.
It made me dive straight back in and go again so job done! Going through the story and the sheer amount of decisions you can make… It must have been a bit of a mind-melting experience mapping all this out?
It was mind melting. I looked around at various ways to do this – a table covered in post-it notes and stuff like that. I found a little programme called Twine. The old computer nerd in me knows that that’s the old interface for a scanner – but this one is for mapping out computer programmes and stuff like that. It allowed me to effectively place virtual post-its and build an interactive story, dragging bits and pieces all over the place.
That makes it sound hyper organised, but I got the impression fairly quickly that this tool was devised for more logical and limited choices. That’s no slight on the tool at all; I don’t think many people had tried to do what I was trying to do on it. If it showed you what it looked like by the end, it’s as if someone has cooked up a load of spaghetti, dumped it on a piece of paper and tried to make it look vaguely intelligent.
Ha! But it sounds like it was key to keeping track of all of the various threads.
It was crucial. And that was the longest bit. It took longer to do all that than it took to actually write. I was going back to it day after day after day, plotting and plotting and plotting. The closest I came to not enjoying it was two-thirds into that process. You get bogged down into thinking ‘well that choice now doesn’t make sense…’ or you add something that seriously impacts something right at the start. It was all a bit ‘Argh-argh-argh-argh’ I’m not sure how you’ll describe that noise but I’m sure you’ll come up with something!
That was the battle, but it’s not something you can shortcut. It had to work and you had to find logical routes through it. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are a couple of mainline paths through it, but even those go off in assorted different directions depending on where you choose to go. So mind-melt is right; it wasn’t easy!
So did you start with a core plot, and build out from there?
Yes, I knew who the main characters were and I knew who ultimately did it. What I wasn’t prepared for was how many endings I came up with. There are lots of different endings and lots of different ways to finish the book. Far better writers than me will tell you this, when I was half-way through, I still had a core case in my head but there were all sorts of things splintering off and people dying who I didn’t think would die at the start!
I used to read interviews with screenwriters who would talk about being surprised when their characters would do certain things and I used to think ‘What are you talking about! Get out of it!’ but I get it now.
One thing that’s worth stressing is that it feels like a very affectionate take on the Midsomer Murders brand. It’s very fun without ever being dismissive of it.
I’m not dismissive of it because I had an absolute ball watching it. The tonal line that they strike in Midsomer Murders is hugely impressive. There’s only so far you can push a tongue into a cheek before it starts to hurt the cheek. The balance they strike is extraordinary, and you can see it in how the cast and the writers play it straight; they take it seriously. By doing that, they can make the situations increasingly bananas.
The beauty of this is that I could walk in and play with their toys for a bit!
So has there been a yukka tree-based murder on the show yet?
No, that was actually a tribute to my late mum who always kept a yukka tree in the corner of our dining room. I can’t imagine she would’ve ever though it would be subverted into a weapon in her middle child’s fourth book, but there you go! Life takes us on strange paths.
We hear a lot about the passionate fanbases for brands like Marvel and Star Wars, and I imagine Midsomer fans care deeply about this IP too. What’s your thoughts on keeping fans happy with a project like this one?
I’ve lived in the world of fandom for a very long time and the one guiding principle is to treat other human beings with respect. That’s all I’ve tried to do.
Fandom, on the whole, is a hugely positive force for good, and I have huge respect for fandom; it’s got me through some very low days in my life. Positive pockets of fandom are all around, and the discussions around Midsomer Murders are just gold. I hugely respect it and as twee as it sounds, I’m honoured to be in their conversations at the minute.
If you can murder someone with a yukka tree and they still speak highly of you, you must be doing something right! And Midsomer Murders is not a brand that’s awash with product, so I imagine the fanbase is over the moon to have something like this book out there.
It’s interesting that, isn’t it? Britain has quite a few of these quiet little brands that are actually much bigger than you might think. Imagine if we’d done this with Bergerac back in the day – who knows where we’d be now!
Ha! There’s still time! So you think there’s quite a few brands out there that remain fairly untapped when it comes to these kinds of left-field brand extensions?
It’s tricky. My kids are into fidget toys at the moment. I can’t call whether that has brand potential or is just a fad at the moment. Should a toy company join the craze and spend a few years getting something ready for market without knowing if the fad will have died off by then? I don’t know – and therein lies the fundamental problem. If you’re going to put in the hard labour of writing a book – which I think we’ve done – it takes one hell of a long run up. The first chats about this book were almost two years ago.
The logical answer to your question is yes. Between the two of us, we could knock out a list of 20 TV detective shows that you could have fun with, but what’s unique about Midsomer Murders is its tone. It’s really quite different to a lot of the deathly serious American procedurals.
“Left-field untapped areas are a risk, and this is a risk, but the early signs are that it’s working. It’s a gamble to be the pathfinder and my hat goes off to Octopus for even trying it.”
This book is one example of how you can go left-field with a brand, but other examples are all around us. Left-field untapped areas are a risk, and this is a risk, but the early signs are that it’s working. It’s a gamble to be the pathfinder and my hat goes off to Octopus for even trying it.
On that, books tend to have one name on the front but that glosses over the fact that there’s a whole force of people that bring them out. A good example is this interview has been put together by the brilliant Hazel O’Brien at Octopus. All I’m doing is standing on the shoulders of a lot of great people.
Well said. And yes, thanks again Hazel! Now while reading the book, I realised that the world of Midsomer is likely rich enough to sustain all kinds of brand extensions… My mind wandered to an escape room!
I walked past Monopoly Lifesized the other week; that’s interesting. And look at the walkthrough maze at Thorpe Park based on The Walking Dead. There’s a certain portion of the demographic for Midsomer Murders that skews a little older, so who knows if they’d go for something like a Midsomer haunted house experience.
Well I think this book is testament to the fact that brand owners appear to be increasingly more open to being more playful with their IP.
I think so. Outside of what we’ve done Midsomer, I think we’re generally seeing more and more third-party companies going to brands with ideas. I’m not sure it’s all necessarily coming top-down. From the outside looking in, my perception is that with the people at the top, their ears are a bit more open now and the door is a bit more open now. The working culture has also changed. We now have an ecosystem of small creative companies who feed the likes of BBC, ITV and Sky.
Have you bit bitten by the licensing bug now? Are you interested in working with more brands on these kinds of books?
I’m after anything a little off-kilter, left-field and fun. I’ve gone through a few decades of writing and editing jobs and I’ve gradually zeroed in on the fun stuff. Things like the Midsomer book are ridiculously fun and hopefully effective as well.
Shifting gears slightly, you also run the film site and monthly magazine Film Stories. Licensees have the challenge of backing brands that aren’t just one-week wonders. Do you have the same challenge with Film Stories in terms of working out what to cover and which shows or films fandom is springing up around?
That’s not a problem for me, per se, because that’s not what Film Stories exists for. Film Stories is a self-published magazine designed to provide opportunities and highlight stuff that’s not necessarily getting highlighted. The guiding ethos of that is: ‘Is it any good?’
I don’t have to sell 50 million copies. If I was editing a much bigger magazine that had huge commercial expectation on it, I would have to go down a slightly different road and I’ve been in that chair before.
I felt opportunities were lacking for people looking to break into paid writing work and opportunities for independent filmmakers who want to get their film some print coverage. While some magazines are doing that exceptionally well in the UK, every bit of space counts for an indie.
Absolutely. Simon, this has been great. One last question: what do you find helps fuel your creativity?
I have a slightly different problem in that I have a list of things I want to do, and there are always five more things on it than I can physically do. That’s not a bad motivator to keep going.
With the writing of this book, once I’d got it plotted, to actually sit and write it was some of the most fun I’ve had. I write non-fiction usually, where you have to fact-check everything, so to be able to sit and make it all up was glorious fun; I had a ball.
My small little motto is: On the bad day, get up the day after and try again.
Thanks Simon. I should also ask before we wrap up, if anyone reading wanted to reach out, how can they do so.
I’m always open to ideas and opportunities, including nutty stuff! My Twitter is @SimonBrew or firstname.lastname@example.org is the best email to reach me on.
Great stuff. Huge thanks again for making time for this Simon, and congrats again on the book. It’s a lot of fun – I’ll let you know when I make it out alive!
Could You Survive Midsomer? by Simon Brew is published by Cassell, £12.99, www.octopusbooks.co.uk
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