There is no mystery as to why the “Murdoch Mysteries” television series grows its fan base every year.
Set in Toronto at the dawn of the 20th century, each one-hour drama explores the intriguing world of William Murdoch, a methodical and dashing detective who pioneers innovative forensic techniques to solve some of the city’s most gruesome murders.
Inspiration for each episode is born in a room where six scriptwriters toss ideas about, latching onto the ones that have the most general appeal.
One of the show’s successful scriptwriters is Salmon Arm Secondary 1976 grad Paul Aitken, who will be returning to the community in May as a presenter to the Word on the Lake Writers’Festival.
“We call it the hive; different brains operating in the same space and talking freely generate ideas in other people,” says Aitken, noting he rarely goes into a new season with episode plans. “You get way more ideas from other people and way more solutions become apparent.”
Aitken says the hive gets episodes off to a good start, an integral part of the process as 18 episodes are written and filmed in six months.
Stoked with ideas from the collective “brain,” scriptwriters break off to independently to write the scripts for their assigned episodes, very occasionally collaborating with another writer.
Research is key, a good measure of which is accomplished by searching the Web, often via Google and Wikepedia – except for political information, which is often skewed by contributors’ own agendas and false information, Aitken says.
“We don’t have the resources to hire a lot of staff so we do our own research; it’s a fantastic way to waste time if you are disinclined to write,” he laughs. “You learn a lot of stuff you didn’t know and it’s a pleasurable activity in and of itself. Getting into embedded links is a great way to spend a chunk of your day.”
Writing less costly but more challenging “bottle” episodes, which are shot in one location and have other constraints are very appealing to Aitken.
These are a little more dense because the story is all that’s being sold – no big scenes, no action scenes, no big sets, he says of the more complex characterization process that goes into writing a bottle episode.
The process, although more difficult, is much more satisfying when the manuscript is complete and ready for a return to the meeting room.
“We meet together to go over the scripts and we’re really mean with each other as we correct the manuscripts,” Aitken says. “Production (department) decides on what’s filmable and what’s not, how many people can be hired and film locations.”
Each episode has its own production limits, which vary on how difficult the plot is to break (figure out the plotting) and the type and complexity of the world in which the episode takes place.
Production for the new season of “Murdoch Mysteries” starts in the third week of May, so members of “the hive” are now breaking stories for eight different episodes.
Aitken’s road to the series began when a friend with an in, got him an introduction and a great opportunity, he says of life after university.
After graduating from SASS, Aitken attended University of Victoria, where he followed a curriculum that included “everything and nothing.”
“It was, he says, a good way to spend his youth. Following university, Aitken moved to Toronto in 1986 to try his hand at writing for television.
He and his friend with the in were successful in pitching a script for “The Campbells”, a Scottish-Canadian television drama series, produced by Scottish Television and CTV from 1986 to 1990.
“It’s good money. I’ve developed a craft of writing for TV so I enjoy that,” he says of his ensuing successful career. “When you do anything long enough, there’s pleasure in exercising a skill that you’ve learned. It’s also one of the few jobs where you necessarily have to do something different every time.”
As Murdoch Mysteries enters its 11th season, 150 episodes have aired to an increasingly larger fan base.
“I would say every person likes something different about the show; most are fans who love the history, so we all dig into the history,” says Aitken, who has been writing for “Murdoch Mysteries” since 2007 and written somewhere between 32 and 35 episodes.
In between writing for “The Campbells” and securing a long tenure with “Murdoch Mysteries,” Aitken says he bounced around from show to show, something scriptwriters do when they are not involved in a longtime project.
The show has hosted a few celebrities over the years, including Stephen Harper.
“He has been a fan, at least while he was prime minister, and his daughter wanted him to be on the show,” says Aitken. “He pulled some strings so, yes, we wrote a part for him in 2004 and he appeared on screen.”
Aitken says the network is always looking for marketing value and having celebrities appear on the show tends to bring in larger audiences.
“It’s always a good quid pro quo to have people we know make appearances,” he says noting former “Dragon” Arlene Dickinson of “Dragon’s Den” fame, appeared on the show in a 2012 episode called “Invention Convention” as a possible investor,
An international component comes from the inclusion of actors from England, whose appearance on the program help UKTV sell the program.
“Amazingly, the show does very well; every year it has been on, more people come to watch the show than leave the show,” he says, pointing out most television programs have short lives and that even the ones that qualify as hits don’t usually make it past nine seasons. “Going into the second season, we thought we had picked all the low-hanging fruit and were asking ourselves where would we get new ideas.”
By the third year, everyone was feeling more comfortable and Aitken says he can’t see any reason not to keep churning out great stories for the show’s fans.
The only scriptwriter to have been with the show since its debut is Aitken. While others have left to start their own shows, or in the case of one very talented writer and “really good guy” died, the hive is a relatively stable place.
“Generally people get on a show like this, they tend to stay. It’s a very pleasurable way to spend your day – in the company of people who are funny, bright and interesting, in a job where you make people laugh and come up with ideas,” he says. “Sometimes I get weary of the show and the stress it places, because when the machine is humming, we have to meet the need of that machine and it’s a constant stress.”
In his presentation to the Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival, Aitken’s goal is to actually create a writers’ room in which participants create an episode.
“I have never tried to break a mystery in a couple of hours; I don’t know how that will work,” he laughs.
Aitken also plans to explain why certain decisions are made in the production of “Murdoch Mysteries” – the kinds of things that have to be accomplished in a mystery that wouldn’t be done in another show.
“There are demands that are not in other shows, there are certain constraints in the form,” he says. “We take more liberties than others and I will talk about what the process is for breaking a mystery and how we do it in the “Murdoch Mysteries.”
Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival runs May 19 to 21 at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort and Okanagan College.
Sessions will include both skill development workshops and open forums with authors based on questions and answers in an intimate setting.
A Friday night “café lit” will feature presenters reading from their published works and a gala banquet is always a popular part of the Saturday night program.
For more information or to register, go to wordonthelakewritersfestival.com.