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Ellen Byron Talks Dogs, Writing, and Cajun

One of my favorite cozy authors dropped by for a visit today – introducing Ellen Byron!

The Author …

Ellen writes the award-winning Cajun Country Mystery series. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called her most recent book, A Cajun Christmas Killing, “superb.” It  won the Left Coast Crime Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery, as did Body on the Bayou, the second book in the series. Both books were nominated for Best Contemporary Novel Agatha Awards.

Her debut Cajun Country Mystery, Plantation Shudders, made the USA Today Bestsellers list, and was nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards. Ellen is also a recipient of a William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant from the Malice Domestic Convention. Find out more about Ellen on her WEBSITE or on TWITTER and FACEBOOK

The Interview …

You’re from New York and live in LA, but you write the award-winning Cajun Mystery Series. What made you choose that location over other places you’ve been?

I fell in love with New Orleans and Cajun Country when I went to Tulane. When my parents would come to visit, we’d putter around south Louisiana and I was just fascinated by the music, the food, the people, and yes, the language. To this day, there are people who choose Cajun French as their first language. I always wondered what drew me to the culture, and decided it’s because it somewhat mirrored my own background. My mother was born in Italy and so I grew up with a culture within a culture on that side of my family. We lived in New York, but I could go a weekend without hearing English if I spent time with my nonna or other relatives. That’s what Cajun Country is—a culture within a culture.

 ” … let me tell you, you don’t have writers block when someone’s paying you to deliver.”

You’ve worked as a playwrightjournalist, and television writer in addition to writing novels. How do those forms differ in terms of process? How do they inform each other?

Playwriting is most similar because it’s my baby, from my imagination. As a journalist and television writer, I’m for hire, unless I’m doing a pilot. Even then, I have a studio to answer to and/or a network, although it’s still a very creative process. But those two disciplines gave me a great writer’s work ethic. My goal with every project, including my series, is to beat a deadline. And let me tell you, you don’t have writers block when someone’s paying you to deliver. You can’t tell a magazine or TV network, “The muse just didn’t visit today.” It’s a surefire career killer.

Cozy readers love holiday-themed books. The third in your series, A Cajun Christmas Killing fits the bill—what do you love about holiday books? Are you a lover of the holiday season?

I love Christmas. Always have, always will. It’s really the one holiday I get excited about, although when my daughter was little, Halloween was a thrill. I’ve been collecting Christmas ornaments since I was a kid. In fact, when I was in middle school, my mother announced we weren’t going to have a tree anymore. Noooo!!!!!!! I told her I’d take over decorating and undecorating, and I did.

What I particularly loved in A Cajun Christmas Killing is that I got to share about the unique Louisiana tradition of bonfires on the levee, AND I got to send my characters to New Orleans, so I got to describe how beautiful the city is at the holidays. In my next book, Mardi Gras Murder, I get to write about Louisiana’s favorite holiday. They have a great sweater I almost bought. It’s decorated with Christmas motifs, but reads “Happy Almost Mardi Gras.” Hi-larious!

What is your favorite part of writing a series? Do you ever consider writing a standalone? (or a second series).

Funny you should ask. I wrote the first draft of a stand-alone, inspired by the real-life disappearance of my paternal grandfather in 1933. It’s set in the past and present. I have to take another hard pass at it, then get some additional feedback. I’ve never used a developmental editor, but I might for this book. It’s a passion project and I really want to sell it.

As to another series, my agent is taking out a proposal as we speak, for a cozy series inspired by my Italian relatives. Fingers crossed on that. I’m also noodling with another series idea. I really do love writing series. You fall in love with your characters and the fictional world you create – they become so real to you.

But I think my passion for writing mystery series is also a by-product of working on TV series. With every show, comedy or drama, you have the season and series arc on top of the story of the week. To me, that’s what a mystery series is. You have the “story of the week” in each book—the mystery to be solved—but you also have the overall arc of the characters’ lives.

“I have to have dogs in my life.”

We’re both dog people … tell us about your dogs, how do they keep you grounded in the craziness of a writing career?

When my husband and I were dating, I told him early on that if he wasn’t interested in having dogs, there was no point in continuing our relationship. I have to have dogs in my life. They absolutely keep me grounded. I call Pogo and Wiley my therapy dogs. If I’m anxious or depressed, I pet them and instantly feel better. I honestly can’t imagine life without them.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a draft of the 5th book in my series, tentatively titled “Killer Cajun Music Festival.” As soon as I get that out to beta readers, I’ll go back to the stand-alone and take another crack at it.

” … go for it!”

Final Words of Wisdom:

Just. Write. Seriously. The only time I had true writers block was right after the 2016 election. I was so depressed that I couldn’t face writing my humorous mystery series. A writer friend told me, “Write 15 minutes a day. Anyone can do that. If it’s longer, great. But start there.” I did, and the time I spent writing grew. Then I set myself a goal of writing 1000 words a day. If I wrote more, great. If you do that, you have a draft in less time than you’d think possible.

I also outline, which I think is the result of my “day job” as a television writer where outlines are part of your job requirement. I always feel like I’m on the defensive because so many people are pantsers – writing by the seat of their pants—but I find laying out a plot and creating a 35-40 page outline is as organic as any other process. And believe me, that outline isn’t gold. I can go over it three times before I start a draft and still find holes when I’m writing. But just having laid down the bones, plus some dialogue and other beats when inspired, really helps me power through a draft.

But find what works for YOU. That’s the most important thing. And then… go for it!

Thanks for visiting!!


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