I met Ellen at Malice Domestic in 2015, the year that Cynthia Kuhn and I won the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic grant. Ellen has been a mentor, a supporter, and a friend ever since – -living proof that crime writers are the most generous people you’ll ever meet. She kindly sat down and answered my questions about her writing career.
(By the way, if you need a big laugh – and who doesn’t? – pick up a copy of Wined and Died. It’s full of kindness, gentle humor, dead bodies, and big LOL moments. – Keenan)
How does your experience as a TV series writer influence your book writing career?
In my years writing for TV, I worked on probably close to 200 episodes, and some techniques I learned have carried over into my mystery career. I lay out my story in a detailed outline. In TV or film, you can’t go to script until your outline is approved at multiple levels: studio, network, showrunner. I call mine a fluid outline because I’ll realize I need a new story beat or even a character. The outline is really like my first draft, which is why I consider it organic. TV also taught me to end a chapter on an “uh oh” or a “what’s going to happen next?” On network TV, you want to make sure you hold on to viewers through the commercial. With streaming shows, you want them to binge or commit to a series. As an author, I’ve translated that into chapter breaks that hopefully make it hard for readers to put down the book.
How do you do it? Write multiple series at a time and market? Are you extremely organized or fly from crisis to crisis (like I do)?
LOL, I’ve morphed into my late father – I’m a workaholic! I’m writing this blog post at 9:40 p.m. It’s the release day for Wined and Died in New Orleans, I got home from almost a month in New York late last night and was up at 7 a.m. thanks to jet lag. I’ve been going since then. Basically, I set goal for myself and unless the house is on fire, I glue my butt to the seat. (Or I stand. I finally got a desk riser so I don’t atrophy in the office chair!) But my husband once said to me, “Ever since you started writing books instead of working in TV, I see you more but I talk to you less.” It was because I’d tell him not to interrupt me so many times! Since then, if I’m writing a draft, my goal is 2K a day Monday through Friday. On the weekend I do work that allows interruption. Blog posts, graphics, etc.
Some say there’s no such thing as writer’s block. What do you say?
I’ve said before that I can’t afford writer’s block! I’ve spent my entire writing career – except when I wrote plays, and even then sometimes – writing to deadlines. When you’re being paid for your work, there is no such thing as writer’s block. You can’t tell the magazine waiting for your piece, “I was blocked.” If you told your showrunner you couldn’t finish your script because you’re blocked, the reaction would be, “GET THE F—OUT OF HERE, YOU’RE FIRED! AND YOU’LL NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN!!” But I did experience blockage twice as an author. Once, after the 2016 election and then after I evacuated from Hurricane Ida. How could I write light, humorous mysteries under such dire circumstances?
If you’ve experienced writer’s block, how do you break through it?
To break through, I followed the advice to write fifteen minutes a day. The writing time grew until I was on track.
Tell us about the inspiration for your latest book, Wined and Died in New Orleans.
Actually, evacuating from Hurricane Ida was the inspiration for one of the major plotlines. I happened to be in NOLA researching for the book and visiting my daughter. I wanted to stick it out. She insisted we evacuate. Thank God I followed her lead because the city was a disaster for weeks after the hurricane. But I translated that experience – and others I had in New Orleans regarding hurricanes – into my protagonist’s dilemma over whether to leave or stay when a hurricane is approaching. The second major plot point where a valuable cache of 150—year-old wine is discovered hidden under the Bon Vee Culinary House Museum was inspired by an internet story I read about a couple who discovered bottles of whiskey hidden during Prohibition under the house they’d just bought… proving that procrastination on my part can pay off!
WINED AND DIED IN NEW ORLEANS, VINTAGE COOKBOOK #2
The second in a fantastic new cozy mystery series with a vintage flair from USA Today bestselling and Agatha Award–winning author Ellen Byron.
It’s hurricane season in New Orleans and vintage cookbook fan Ricki James-Diaz is trying to shelve her weather-related fears and focus on her business, Miss Vee’s Vintage Cookbook and Kitchenware Shop, housed in the magnificent Bon Vee Culinary House Museum.
Repairs on the property unearth crates of very old, very valuable French wine, buried by the home’s builder, Jean-Louis Charbonnet. Ricki, who’s been struggling to attract more customers to Miss Vee’s, is thrilled when her post about the discovery of this long-buried treasure goes viral. She’s less thrilled when the post brings distant Charbonnet family members out of the woodwork, all clamoring for a cut of the wine’s sale.
When a dead body turns up in Bon Vee’s cheery fall decorations, the NOPD zeroes in on Eugenia Charbonnet Felice as the prime suspect, figuring that as head of the Charbonnet family, she has the most to gain. Ricki is determined to uncover the real culprit, but she can’t help noticing that Eugenia is acting strangely. Ricki wonders what kind of secret her mentor has bottled up, and fears what might happen if she uncorks it.
In the second Vintage Cookbook Mystery, Ricki has to help solve a murder, untangle family secrets, and grow her business, all while living under the threat of a hurricane that could wipe out everything from her home to Bon Vee.
BIO FOR ELLEN BYRON
Ellen’s Cajun Country Mysteries have won multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and Lefty Awards for Best Humorous Mystery. She also writes the Vintage Cookbook Mysteries, the Catering Hall Mysteries (under the name Maria DiRico) and will soon debut a new series, the Golden Motel Mysteries.
Ellen is an award-winning playwright, and non-award-winning TV writer of comedies like Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly Odd Parents. She has written over two hundred articles for national magazines but considers her most impressive credit working as a cater-waiter for Martha Stewart.
An alum of New Orleans’ Tulane University, she blogs with Chicks on the Case, is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, serves on the national board for Mystery Writers of America, and will be the 2023 Left Coast Crime Toastmaster. Please visit her at https://www.ellenbyron.com/