The Creation of Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew
The first Nancy Drew story

In 1930, Nancy Drew, the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, made her first appearance in the book, The Secret of the Old Clock. No one could have imagined the character’s popularity. The series ran from 1930 to 2003, with a total of 175 different titles. But this is only one of thirteen different series that featured the brave, female amateur detective. The publishers have sold at least 80 million copies of the Nancy Drew Mystery series in over 45 languages. As of July 2021, Nancy Drew has appeared in 13 different series and in 613 books, with books based on the character still being published.

The Creator

Edward Stratemeyer was born in 1862 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the youngest of six children of German immigrants. Although his parents were German speaking, the family spoke English at home. Growing up, he read Horatio Alger and William T. Adams, writers whose stories involved rags-to-riches tales of young Americans.

He became an American publisher, writer of children’s fiction, and the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. One of the most prolific writers in the world, he produced over 1300 books and sold over 500 million copies.

He married Magdalena Van Camp in 1891 and they had two daughters. His daughter recalled her father enjoyed the outdoors and taking annual family trips in the summer. She said he was a humble man, never sought public attention and preferred living a quiet life with his family in Newark, New Jersey.

In 1905, he formed the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He hired journalists to write stories from ideas and outlines he provided. Stratemeyer pioneered the book-packaging technique of producing a consistent, long-running series of books using a team of freelance writers writing under a pen name. He paid his writers a flat rate for each book and his company kept the copyrights.

His children’s series for included The Rover Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew.

Mildred (Millie) Benson

Born Mildred Augustine, Millie was the child of Lillian and Dr. J. L. Augustine in 1905. Her mother died when Millie was young. She grew up a tomboy, seeking adventures as she rode with her father on his rounds. While other girls played with dolls, she pursued outside athletic interests like ice skating and basketball. She kept that adventurous streak throughout her life, making several trips to Central America, exploring the jungle in a Jeep, canoeing down rivers, visiting Mayan and excavation sites, and learning to fly an airplane.

Millie earned her degree in English from the University of Iowa in three years. To help pay her tuition, she wrote and submitted short stories. In 1927, while writing for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, she became the first student to earn a master’s degree in journalism from The University of Iowa.

She worked for 58 years as a journalist, writing obituaries and a weekly column for the Toledo Blade.

In 1926, she replied to an ad in the Editor magazine to a writer position with eth Stratemeyer Syndicate. The ad read, “These stories are all written for the Syndicate on its own titles and outlines and we buy all rights in the material for cash upon acceptance… We are particularly anxious to get hold of younger writers, with fresh ideas in the treatment of stories for boys and girls.” (From “All About Millie,” on the Nancy Drew Sleuth website.)

Millie’s first work for Stratemeyer was Ruth Fielding and her Great Scenario, in 1927.

Writing Nancy Drew

The Hardy Boys series became an enormous success. Stratemeyer realized that many of the Hardy Boys readers were girls. So, he decided to produce a similar series for girls featuring a girl detective.

Early names that he suggested for the heroine were Stella Strong, Diana Drew, Diana Dare, Nan Nelson, Nan Drew, and Helen Hale. The editors at Grosset & Dunlap preferred Nan Drew but lengthened it to Nancy. Stratemeyer began writing plot outlines and hired Mildred Benson to ghostwrite the first volumes under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. She was only 24 years old.

Millie wrote books 1-7, 11-25, and 30 in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series. They published the first four titles in 1930 and it became an immediate success.

Stratemeyer paid Millie $125 to $250 for some of her earlier books, using his outline. This would be equivalent to three months’ pay for a newspaper reporter in 1930. When she wrote some of the latter Nancy Drew books, she received $500 each.

To complete a draft, it took her from a couple to six weeks depending on scheduling and publisher needs. Each book had 25 chapters and around 200 pages.

Edward Stratemeyer died in 1930 of pneumonia after completing only the first four stories.

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The Original Nancy Drew

The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series were such a success that in 1931, Grosset & Dunlap’s editor Laura Harris wrote to the Syndicate, “Can you let us have the manuscript as soon as possible, and no later than July 10? There will only be three or four titles brought out then, and Nancy Drew is one of the most important.”

In 1934, Fortune Magazine singled out Nancy Drew, “Nancy is the greatest phenomenon among all the fifty-centers. (The price of the books.) She is a best seller. How she crashed a Valhalla that had been rigidly restricted to the male of her species is a mystery even to her publishers.”

The earliest Nancy Drew books depicted Nancy as an independent-minded 16-year-old who had already completed high school. (16 was the minimum age to graduate at that time.) Continuity was a common problem with the different writers. Her age changed from 16 to 18 in book 31.

Nancy Drew’s father was an attorney, and many of her stories are tied to his cases. Her mother died when Nancy was young, and that led to some of her maturity. Nancy was not affected by either the Great Depression or World War II. She maintained an active social, volunteer, and sleuthing schedule, but was never shown working for a living or gaining job skills.

The series underwent a major revision in 1959 when Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, one of Edward’s daughters, revised and updated the series.

Millie could have never expected the response her readers would have to Nancy, but she did believe that young girls would embrace her stories because she was giving them a unique heroine. She said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times, “I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I’m glad that I had that much influence on people.”

3 responses to “The Creation of Nancy Drew”

  1. I was always more of a Hardy Boys fan, but when my son and I listened to “The Secret of the Old Clock” one summer, I realized how resourceful Nancy is. It was so refreshing to find a story in which the female teen detective doesn’t need rescued at the climax. And this was written in 1930.

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