Ellen Byron - Writing Award-Winning Mysteries
Ellen Byron is the Agatha Award-winning author of the Cajun Country Mysteries. The USA Today bestselling series has also won multiple Best Humorous Mystery Lefty awards from the Left Coast Crime conference. In 2020, she’ll debut a second series, The Catering Hall Mysteries, under the pen name Maria DiRico. Ellen’s TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly OddParents. She’s written over 200 national magazine articles, and her published plays include the award-winning Graceland. She also worked as a cater-waiter for the legendary Martha Stewart, a credit she never tires of sharing. A native New Yorker who attended Tulane University, Ellen lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and two rescue dogs. She still misses her hometown - and still drives like a New York cabbie. As our Author of the Day, Ellen tells us all about her book, Fatal Cajun Festival.
Please give us a short introduction to what Fatal Cajun Festival is about.
Pelican, Louisiana is launching a music festival that’s the town’s answer to the legendary New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Protagonist Maggie is thrilled for her good friend, musician Gaynell Bourgeois, whose appearance at Cajun Country Live! will serve as an audition for a future slot at NOLA’s renowned Jazz Fest. The headliner of Cajun Country Live! is country star Tammy Barker, a Pelican native who won an American-Idol-styled TV singing contest. But Maggie soon discovers that the “voice of an angel” has the personality of a devil. Tammy is a full-fledged diva, a tiny terror in six-inch platform-heeled boots and a thick head of hair extensions. Worse, she carries a grudge against Gaynell. She sabotages Gaynell’s audition for JazzFest and when a member of Tammy’s entourage is murdered after the star’s first set, the nasty diva sees to it that Gaynell is the prime suspect. Maggie is determined to dodge any wrong notes she hits along the way in her fight to clear her dear friend’s name.
Why did you pick a Cajun Country festival as the backdrop for your story?
The state of Louisiana has more festivals than days of the year! It made sense for the town of Pelican, the fictional location of my series, to eventually host their own festival, and my characters determined that having it be a music festival that led into the hugely popular New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was a smart business move.
Tell us more about Maggie Crozat. What makes her tick?
Maggie is driven by a passion for her family as well as her hometown, something she’s only recently come to terms with. She’s always felt like a fish out of water in Pelican – that “artsy fartsy girl” who went to New York for art school and never imagined she’d return to the town where she grew up. She comes from a family whose roots in Louisiana go back almost three centuries. This gives the family a prestige among the locals that she’s uncomfortable with, but she’ll use their storied lineage if she has to, like if it helps her bring justice to an unjust situation. She’s smart, talented, self-effacing, and has a dry sense of humor.
What makes Tammy Barker so special?
She’s a local girl “made good.” Tammy won a “Voice”-“American Idol” type of national TV show and it’s completely gone to her head. You’d think with that kind of fame she wouldn’t carry a grudge against a former high school classmate, for goodness sake! And yet she does. Tammy is way less special than she thinks she is. She’s got a great voice, but not much else. She doesn’t play an instrument or write her own songs. On top of that, she’s a selfish, devious person.
Why mysteries? What appeals to you about the genre?
I’ve always loved reading mysteries. I’m one of those authors who got hooked on Nancy Drew, then Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie. I love Dame Christie. By the time I was fourteen, I think I’d written everything she wrote. So I basically write the genre I read.
Tell us more about the cover and how it came about.
Stephen Gardner is the brilliant artist who paints my series’ covers., Crooked Lane always asks for my ideas re: the covers, which I really appreciate. Not all publishers do that. I’ll send some thoughts and usually a few photos to them and they’ll work with Stephen to come up with the artwork. You’ll always find three things on the cover of a Cajun Country Mystery: a plantation manor house, a hint of menace, and Gopher, the family basset hound. Gopher was inspired by Lucy, our late basset hound rescue. As to the houses on the cover, rather than feature the same home over and over again, I asked for a different location to be featured on each book. They’re all inspired by real places. Eventually, I’m going to have a contest where I give something away to whoever can identify the real manor houses that inspired each cover.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
Not too many, I’m afraid. I love to needlepoint. It’s my go-to hobby. Let’s see, what else. Um… I’m a good dancer?
Do you like country music yourself? Who are some of your favorite artists?
I absolutely love Cajun and Zydeco music. Zachary Richard, Beausoleil, and C.J. Chenier and The Red-Hot Louisiana Band are a few that come right to mind. As to more general country music, I’m more of a song-by-song fan than a general one. Like, I love “Before He Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood, “Country Girl,” by Luke Bryant, and “Rainbow,” by Kacey Musgraves. I hope I got those right!
Which one of your characters do you think you would get along with the most? What about the least?
I think I’d get along best with Grand-mere. She’s got such a sly sense of humor. Even though she seems like the grand doyenne of Pelican, she approaches the role rather tongue-in-cheek. She’s someone who’s always in on the joke.
In your mind, what happens to the characters after you write their final chapters? Do they continue to "live on" in your imagination?
Oh my goodness, they live on so much that sometimes I worry about my mental state! I forget they’re fictional.
Do you consider yourself a disciplined writer? Do you have a schedule that you stick to, or is it more in the moment?
When you have deadlines to meet, you must be disciplined. It’s a vocation, as well as an avocation. I’ve been a professional writer for decades now. Whether I’m writing for TV, magazines, or my series, it’s a business where I’m paid to deliver on time. I generally deliver early, which I take as a point of pride. My goal is to always beat a deadline.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
Outline, for sure. I don’t know how pantsers do it. Maybe it’s my decades writing for sitcoms like WINGS or JUST SHOOT ME, but I have to know where a story is going. In TV, you can’t even move on to script until an outline is approved by three layers: showrunner, studio, and network or buyer. I’m launching a new series called the Catering Hall Mysteries with Kensington (writing as Maria DiRico) and they require an outline. I love that because laying out the story in detail makes writing the first draft go so much faster.
What are you working on right now?
My sixth Cajun Country Mystery, MURDER IN THE BAYOU BONEYARD, launches on September 8th. It’s Halloween-themed and I’m excited about it. And HERE COMES THE BODY, “Maria DiRico’s” first Catering Hall Mystery, launches February 25, which I’m super excited about! It’s inspired by aspects of my real life. I’m working on future books for both series.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
Ellen Byron and “Maria DiRico” are also both on Bookbub and Goodreads.