MurderBooks welcomes the USA Today Bestselling, Lefty Award-winning, multi-talented Ellen Byron to the blog today. Ellen writes the extremely entertaining Cajun Country Mysteries, she writes comedy-series television, and she has written hundreds of magazine articles that have appeared in national publications. Did I mention she’s also a playwright? Today, she shares some of her writing secrets and gives us a peek at how she goes about accomplishing all these things.
MB: You’re a successful television writer, something I tried to do but failed miserably at. And, not that I’m looking for another bite at that apple (no, really, I promise I’m not), tell us how you managed to get into the business?
Ellen: LOL, that “successful” thing comes with a lot of ups and downs! I was working as a playwright and journalist in New York City, where I’m from. I had published, produced one-acts, and was shopping around a full-length play that had been a finalist in the O’Neill Theatre Center contest. I got a lot of readings at Off Broadway theatres and after each one, I’d get notes. I was in the middle of a post-reading notes call with the development director at Circle Rep when I had the thought, “If I’m getting all these notes, someone should be paying me to take them.” That’s literally the moment I decided to head west and break into television. To support myself, I freelanced for magazines and taught playwriting at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where I met my TV writing partner. Writing for television is often easier when you’re a team, especially in comedy. It really helps having two people come up with jokes.
MB: Which television shows have you written for?
Ellen: The ones people know would be WINGS, JUST SHOOT ME, and STILL STANDING. I’ve also written for a lot of shows that only lasted a season or not even that long. I’ve done pilots for all the networks and a couple of cable outlets, as well as shows for the Disney Channel. My last job was working in animation at Nickelodeon, where I wrote for FAIRLY ODD PARENTS. That was a blast.
MB: How did you get into the novel-writing business? And which came first, the desire to write novels or to write for television?
Ellen: I never thought I could write a novel. In 1999 I tried writing a mystery inspired by a writer I hated – spoiler alert, he was the victim – but got about ten pages into it when I realized it wasn’t very good. I didn’t try again until 2011, when I had time on my hands because I wasn’t staffed on a show. A friend started a writers group and to challenge myself, I decided to try writing another mystery. The first one I finished – REALITY CHECKED, now titled YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO THIN OR TOO DEAD – won a 2013 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished authors. That kicked off my mystery writing journey. While I was waiting for that to sell, I busied myself writing the first in my Cajun Country Mystery series, PLANTATION SHUDDERS. Sadly, my first book is still looking for home. But, hey -high class problems!
MB: You’re a native New Yorker, and there’s plenty to write about in New York City. But your novels are set in south Louisiana––another place where there’s plenty to write about. What made you focus there?
Ellen: I’m a huge Tennessee Williams fan, which motivated me to attend Tulane University in New Orleans. (Roll, Wave!) I fell totally in love with the city and south Louisiana in general, which I’d explore with my parents when they came to visit. I adore the culture, the people, the food, the music… for me, it’s just about the most interesting place in the country. Yeah, I know, I’m a bit of an author carpetbagger. But I do think my college years and post-college explorations give me some cred. An unexpected and wonderful benefit of my series is that many readers have told me my series has inspired them to visit Cajun Country. I’ve even created itineraries for several. But full disclosure – the Washington/Opelousas area is about as far north as I’ve gotten in the state.
MB: What can you tell us about the next novel from Ellen Byron?
Ellen: MARDI GRAS MURDER, my fourth Cajun Country Mystery, launches October 10th. I’m so excited because a) I’m nuts about the cover art, and b) it involves activities specific to the region. The Mardi Gras celebration in the book centers around the Cajun tradition of Courir de Mardi Gras – Mardi Gras Run. If you want to know more about Courirs, feel free to pre-order my book, LOL. There’s also a gumbo contest and a beauty pageant. But the main plot involves the fallout from an historic event.
Between 1854 and 1929, thousands of orphaned and unwanted children were transported from the New York Foundling Hospital to Cajun families in south Louisiana. People know about the orphan trains that went west, but few people know about the Louisiana train, so I’m looking forward to having them learn a little about it from my book.
I’ve also written a stand-alone mystery inspired by the real-life disappearance of my grandfather in 1933. He was a low-level Jewish mobster. He was from Brooklyn and disappeared in the Boston area, so of course I’m setting it in – New Orleans! It makes total sense in the book, which is set in both the past and present. There’s just something so timeless about NOLA.
MB: Tell us about some of your mystery-writing influences.
Ellen: Well, Agatha Christie for one. I think I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I’ve also read a lot about her personal and professional life in an attempt to get inside her head and see how she came up with such great plots. I tend to read a lot of traditional mysteries. I’ve read everything by Louise Penny and Jacqueline Winspear. I’m a series reader. I’ll get hooked by one book and then read everything that author’s written. There are lots of other authors I enjoy – too many to mention. I try to read at least one book by every author I know – which is a whole lotta books! But I also read a ton about NOLA and Louisiana, as well as other non-fiction titles.
MB: Tell us something about your favorite book? Song? Movie? Rock band?
Ellen: My all-time favorite book is WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I’m obsessed with the Brontes. I actually own a very beat-up 1846 first American edition of THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL by “Acton Bell,” which was Anne Bronte’s pseudonym. My brother found it in a Connecticut dump. My favorite movie is Fellini’s AMARCORD, because my mother is Italian – born there – and it makes me think of the village where she was born. (Orsogna in Provincia di Chieti and the Abruzzo region.) Favorite band: KC & the Sunshine Band. I dare anyone to convince me that “Get Down Tonight” is NOT the greatest pop song ever written.
MB: What books are you reading now?
MB: Any advice for aspiring writers of cozy mysteries?
Ellen: Read outside the genre. I think it’s easy to fall into cozy tropes – I do it myself – but let yourself be inspired by traditional, suspense, and even non-fiction books. Challenge yourself to bend the rules at least a little and add new dimensions to your characters and story.
MB: How do you go about constructing your novels?
Ellen: It’s funny, I never thought I had a particular game plan when it comes writing my books. But I’ve realized I do. I develop a one-page synopsis that lays out the bones of the story. Then I keep brainstorming and adding notes to the synopsis, turning it into a notes document. If I think of dialogue for my characters, I throw that in, too. Eventually I create a beat sheet where I lay out any story beats I can think of in a line or two. I keep adding until I turn this into a “fluid outline,” where I lay out the story chapter by chapter, adding in the b-story and whatever runners I might have. I call it a fluid outline because at least some of the chapter breaks always change and I find new plot points to add into the structure as I write the first draft.
I make a copy of this document and title it the “cutting outline.” As I write the first draft, I’ll cut each chapter section from the cutting outline and paste it on top of the chapter. I’ll either use or dispose of the notes from this cut-and-paste section as I create an actual chapter. The cutting outline helps me a lot because I don’t have to search through a whole outline to see where I’m at in the draft. There are always some dangling pieces that I’m loath to cut, but as my first draft grows, my cutting outline shrinks, making it more manageable. And BTW, my “outline” is totally rough. Unfinished sentences, snippets of dialogue, story points with question marks. I come up with new stuff all the time when I write the drafts, but I’ve found that structurally, my finished book hews very close to the outline.
BTW, one thing I always try to do is open whatever document I’m working on as soon as I sit down at the computer. So even if I’m doing social media, that doc is there calling to me, instilling guilt if I spend too much time procrastinating!
MB: If you could live anywhere on earth, and cost would not be a factor, where would you live, and why?
Ellen: I’d split my time between lovely, comfortable homes in New Orleans, New York, Connecticut, and Los Angeles.
MB: What are your hobbies?
Ellen: I’m a huge reader. But I’m also craftsy. I do a lot of one thing until I get sick of it. I.e., I did a ton of needlepoint, then took a break. I’ll probably get back into it soon, though. I’ve made jewelry for contest giveaways, and turned my book covers into decoupaged Christmas ornaments. I think that’s why I like swag so much – it’s kind of craftsy.
But I find lately that I’m on my computer so much it cuts into my hobby time. I have this guilt thing where I feel bad if I’m not working, whether it’s doing social media, putting together a newsletter, or just plain writing. I need to change that!
You can visit Ellen at http://www.ellenbyron.com. Her latest Cajun Country mystery, A Cajun Christmas Killing (Crooked Lane Books, September 2017), is available wherever books are sold. And Ellen, herself, will be appearing at the Left Coast Crime Convention (the very fun mystery readers and writers gathering) in Reno, NV, beginning on March 22, 2018.
Ellen was interviewed for MurderBooks by Roger Johns.