Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Today's Mystery Author Guest: Ellen Byerrum

As promised yesterday, fellow Colorado mystery author Ellen Byerrum is visiting my blog today. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post. Also, Ellen is running a contest for a free autographed copy of Veiled Revenge and will choose the winner from among those who leave a comment!

The photo above is the cover for Ellen's February 5th release, Veiled Revenge, the ninth book in her Crime of Fashion mystery series. A haunted Russian shawl is featured in the book: a dark family legend come to life—and stalking the living? Washington fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian has always believed clothes can indeed be magical, but she’s never thought they could carry a curse. Until now. Lacey’s stylist and friend, Stella, is finally getting married (with a lot of luck, and a little help from her friends). Lacey's fellow bridesmaid (and psychic fortune-teller) Marie Largesse arrives at Stella's bridesmaids' bachelorette bash wearing a stunning Russian shawl. A shawl, Marie warns, that can either bless or curse the wearer. When a party crasher mocks the shawl and is found dead the next morning, Stella and her guests fear the ancient curse of the Killer Shawl has been unleashed. Cars crash, guns blaze, and puzzles dwell within puzzles. Lacey will need all her famous “Extra-Fashionary Perception” to stop a shadowy villain, one who vows that nobody at this wedding will live happily ever after.

Extra Fashionary Perception! I love it!  This looks like such a fun read. Below are Ellen's answers to my interview questions. Please leave a comment for her, and if you have a question of your own for her, ask it!

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

It seems I always wanted to be a writer and was always a voracious reader. I studied journalism in college, but I also started writing plays in my senior year. Plays were much more fun than journalism exercises but certainly not profitable. Still I have had several produced and published under my pen name Eliot Byerrum. (A Christmas Cactus and Gumshoe Rendezvous are available from Samuel French, Inc.) Getting to the point of writing novels took a while. I always knew I wanted to write them, but I felt I needed some seasoning and experience before I produced a book. The first one, Killer Hair, was published in 2003.

Why Lacey Smithsonian and crimes of fashion? I remember distinctly why I came up with Lacey.  There were so many books that featured female sleuths who were rough and tough and smart and always got their man (or woman). But they only wore jeans and t-shirts pulled out from under the bed, and there was always a point where they explained how fashion just frightened them. Oooh, scary. It drove me crazy, and so I wanted a great female sleuth who could also dress herself without apology. However, my choice is a mixed blessing and it can be challenging to write about clothes and style in every book. Some readers reject them out of hand with the explanation, “I never read about fashion,” or something to that effect. Nevertheless, the clothes we wear tell stories about us, and that’s the way I use them in the books. They aren’t about Fashion with a capital F.

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

Oh dear. I know there are writers who create character bibles and outline their entire lives, they know who doesn’t like spinach, but I am not one of them. However, I have my own quirks. I can’t write a character without a name. The name always gives me a picture of the person I want to describe. A name can suggest a nationality or a geographic area. It can be harsh or soft. Boring or evocative. In one of my plays, I decided Jericho Starland was better than Craig Golden. Once I changed the character’s name, a whole new back story and way of speech were suggested.

From my playwriting experience, I try very hard to give all the major players their own voice, so they can’t be confused with another character. I really want to be able to hear them and see them through what they say and what they do. Oh yes, and how they dress.

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

My publisher requires an outline for my books, so I must submit one as part of the process. Sometimes they are helpful, but there is always the danger of expending too much energy on the outline and being exhausted by the time I write the book, and losing interest. Outlining definitely requires a balance when I write them. When I write, I love the moments when something occurs to me out of the blue, which is perfect for the book and leads me into completely different story territory and makes it deeper and richer. I can’t foresee that in an outline.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?

Characters inform the plot and manipulate the plot, so I’m a character writer. Hopefully the plot and characters are so entwined that you could hardly pull them apart. But plot mechanics without a motivated character pulling the strings are simply drudgery for me. Then it simply becomes moving your people around on a chessboard.

I’d like to say you can’t have plot without character and character without plot, but that’s not true. I’ve read heavily plotted works with paper thin characters and character studies where nothing at all happens, which some might call literature. But I’m not highbrow enough to enjoy that. In my book, something has to happen.

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

With all the distractions of marketing and publicity and the Internet, I find focusing on the writing is difficult, and finding the quietude for writing remains a constant challenge. I envy writers in the past who never had to check their e-mail and Facebook updates, who weren’t distracted by television. (Of course they didn’t have spell check or a cut-and-paste function on a computer.) Studies suggest we have lost our ability to concentrate. . .and um, what was I saying? Motivation?  Heaven only knows. I just keep going in spite of what might be sensible.

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

I wish there was a typical workday, but there really isn’t. However, when I was working a full-time job, I would head toward a bookstore, coffee shop, or library where I would write, by hand, for an hour or two. Then I’d be able to key it in and revise later.  Now, in the beginning stages of a project, I still head to the coffee shop or library (where have all the bookstores gone?) to write. I couldn’t say how many hours a week I write.  It can vary from a couple hours a day to eight or ten when I’m under deadline. And of course, rewriting and editing are part of the equation. There are days that I am only editing and inserting corrections and complaining how hard it all is. In any day, I generally need some kind of physical activity, mostly walking, to keep the ideas coming.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

I’m not exactly the best go-to person for the aspiring author. Writing takes a lot of work, dedication, pigheadedness, and Butt Glue. There are no shortcuts, really, although some people think you’ll succeed if you only know the right people. All you need is to do is to be connected and bingo, bango, you’re a bestseller! Maybe it works for some people, but not for me. A friend once commented on my published books: “Look at all you’ve done and you don’t even know anyone.” And I didn’t go to Yale either. So take heart, you don’t have to know anyone or go to Yale necessarily. It might help, it might not. You have to follow the beat of your own drummer and ignore what all your personal critics say.

Just so you know, I have personally discouraged a number of people who wanted to write. Not by anything I said, oddly enough. By example. At least three coworkers in the reporting business told me that after watching me juggle the job, the writing, the varied marketing duties, and show up every day an exhausted wretch, they decided writing a book was not for them. It was too hard: not the writing, but all the rest of it.  So I hope that works in my favor when I stand at the Pearly Gates.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

When I was in college, I worked at J.C. Penney in the Housewares Department. When the department was expanded to include cake decorating supplies, we all had to take a Wilton Cake Decorating Course. Not only do I have a degree in journalism from a university that has scuttled and downgraded the program, I have a cake decorating diploma! I can make a frosting rose on a pastry nail. I forgot everything else. It was a long time ago.

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

My next Lacey Smithsonian Crime of Fashion is being outlined right now. I have a title I love, but don’t want to divulge just yet. And I am bound and determined to finish a thriller I started a few years ago. I hope to have it finished in a couple of months.

Also, I recently published a middle grade/YA mystery novella, The Children Didn’t See Anything. It is available on Amazon, but will eventually be available for the Nook and other platforms.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

If you want more information about me or my books, please check out my website. I am also on Facebook and Twitter and Live Journal and Goodreads.

Thanks, Ellen! Now, who has a comment or question for her? Good luck in the contest! 


Perle said...

Love that you write by hand, always consider it my 1st draft, typing that my 2nd. Love the fashion, some of my fav outfits are from thrift stores, elderly ladies' estate sales. As for where have all the bookstores gone? If ever in Birmingham, check out Little Professor. Lots of tables upstairs, attached cafe for coffee, wine, eats. I'm awaiting their call that my copy of book is in - a free copy would be a present for a friend.

Anne said...

Re: where have the bookstores gone?Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue (D.C.) seems to be going strong and they have a cafe in the basement.

Love Lacey, can't wait to get Veiled Revenge!

Anonymous said...

What a great interview. It is so nice to read how writers write.

Unknown said...

Just attended the SCBWI conference in NY. Fashion week is soon, so many stick-thin models walking around. So glad to see you also write MG/YA. I have been writing a MG novel for a while. Editing and revising now. Butt glue is definitely the answer.

Sasscer Hill said...

". . . the clothes we wear tell stories about us, and that’s the way I use them in the books."

You are so right, Ellen! Not only what they wear, but how they wear it. Does she creep in wearing the designer silk gown looking apologetic, or does she stride into the room like she owns the place?

I think clothes are an excellent plot and character device and enrich any story. You go, Ellen!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Good morning, Beth, good morning, Ellen, this plot sounds fascinating, and I love that your characters manipulate the plot -- And how great that you're from Colorado. I love learning about fellow Coloradoans. Best wishes for a fantastic sale-through!

Alicia said...

I always look forward to the new books in this series. I enjoy Lacey and reading about clothes and the trunk!

Ellen Byerrum said...

Good morning every one.
Perle, I'd love to check out the Little Professor, if I get to Birmingham. Sounds like a wonderful place to write, by hand or by computer.

Anne, yes, I'm so glad that Politics and Prose in D.C., is still hanging in there.It's a great spot. So glad you love Lacey.

Hi Nancy. I'm always a little intimidated by how other writers write. I'm sure they all write faster than I do.

Ellen Byerrum said...

Hi Jill, I've never been to fashion week, but it would be fascinating. I need a big new jar of butt glue.

I'm so glad you agree about clothes in books, Sasscer. I get very confused when there are no descriptions of characters or what they wear.

Donnell Ann, thank you for your good wishes. I'm just getting my high altitude legs after being away for so long. The adjustment takes awhile.

Alicia, did you know some people accuse me of writing a bottomless trunk? It may be. I'm gratified that you love the clothes and the trunk.

Kelly said...

Great interview! I certainly understand the desire to step away from the rough, tough, fashion challenged female detective. (Although I am a jeans and t-shirt gal myself, I do enjoy dressing up to go out). I have put Killer Hair on my to-read list and would love to win a signed copy of Veiled Revenge to add to my autographed book collection. Maybe you should feature a picture of a frosting rose on the cover of one of your books? :

Kaytee said...

I just finished Killer Hair and am starting the rest of the series. I am not a fashionista, not by a long shot, but I really enjoyed the first in the series. I also enjoyed reading the answers Beth asked. How interesting. Question, what made you set your books in DC rather than CO? It seems that most writers living there keep their books centered there. Glad you did the DC thing though. So funny to read about all the helmet heads. Thanks for writing such an interesting series. Kay

Ellen Byerrum said...

Kelly, putting Icing on the cover would be a slippery slope, and it's Felicity Pickles's territory. LOL. I think we all have the urge to dress up sometimes.

Hi Kaytee, I was living in Alexandria, VA, when I started the series and I like having Lacey based there. But she does get to travel and has gone to Southern Virginia, Paris, New Orleans, and Colorado. She might not yet be done with traveling to other places and other plots.

Lishie said...

I love this series & always savor the newest one!!! This time, I pre-ordered the e-book form.

Renae Davis said...

I have not read any of this series. I cannot wait to start! Sounds great!!!!

Ellen Byerrum said...

Lishie, I really appreciate your continued support of my books! Thank you.

Renae, I hope you enjoy the characters and the series. It's been both challenging and rewarding.

Maria from RMMWA said...

Ellen, how long were you in that exhausting transition phase of day-jobbing full time while building a fiction career? And what allowed the next step after that? (She asks, before grimly packing a lunch for today's 11-8 shift.)
Thank you for sharing your process! And for the work you do to advance the female sleuth!
Love the account of discouraging writers by example. I've done that at poetry readings, when people say they envied that I was "able" to build a life around writing. One time I was so embittered that I said, to an audience member expressing this very envy, "You, too, could live in low-income housing and put poetry first in your life."

Ellen Byerrum said...


Thanks for checking in and asking a tough question. The answer is it wasn't easy. I was writing a book a year with a full-time job for six years before I was able to leave my job. There were a couple of TV movies that helped me be foolhardy and leave, but they certainly didn't offer the kind of money that people think they would.

Basically, I got to the point where something had to go, either the job or the books. I was beyond bone-tired exhaustion. It took me a couple of years just to recover. And looking back, I have no idea how I managed to do both. And I'd like to be more prolific than a book a year, but we'll have to see.

There are some days I wish I'd kept the job. But mostly, I'm poorer but happier. Everyone has to make their own choices.

muffster said...

A new author to me - will be interesting to visit Ellen's writing.

cmgren said...

Great interview. Love this series - would love my own copy of Veiled Revenge

Julie Golden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Golden said...

Thanks for the entertaining and informative interview. I laughed, sighed and ordered one of your earlier books. (I would love to receive a copy of Veiled Revenge.)

Suggest that you don't use too much butt glue, or you may need some Butt Paste.

I would love to go shopping with you sometime.

Ellen Byerrum said...

I've been in and out today. I'm gratified by your comments and hope you enjoy the books. I do love to shop at vintage stores, so shopping with Lacey's readers would be fun and informative. Though we can always do via fiction.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your wonderful comments, everyone, and for making Ellen feel welcome here! Keep those comments (and contest entries) coming through tomorrow and check back in the evening here to see if Ellen has drawn YOUR name as the winner of an autographed copy of VEILED REVENGE.

Anonymous said...

I first heard if you wheni saw your movies on Lifetime. I recorded them both and so wish more were to come! I never watch lifetime and was thrilled to stumble across your work in the process.

Andrea Miller said...

Ellen, just bought the new book today on the way home from work, didn't know there would be a chance to win an autographed copy. I love books set in D.C. and that is why I read the first one, I wasn't so sure about the fashion aspect. I have learned a lot from Lacey about what fashion means and love the trunk (because it's part of Lacey's story). Your characters are wonderful and this is one of my favorite series. I loved the two titles that Lifetime did, I watched and rewatched them. Love Lacey's friends, the workplace she's in, good and bad, the good mysteries and in the movies, the hunks! I can enjoy eye-candy even if I'm not crazy about romance themes in books! Thank you for the great series. I work in a school library, so will be looking at your novella for the younger crowd.

Beth Groundwater said...

I've heard we may have a blogger problem this morning. If anyone has a problem posting a comment, feel free to email it to me at beth07 AT, and I'll post it for you.

Ellen Byerrum said...

I hope this makes it through blogger as I was having trouble. Beth, I wanted to thank you for having me today and yesterday, it's been great to meet new readers.

Andrea, thanks for reading the books. It's so gratifying when people enjoy the fashion in the books,despite their calms. I love the way what we wear tells stories about us. It's not all about dropping names of designer labels, which I don't care for. And please let me know what you think of The Children Didn't See Anything, my middle grade mystery.

Ellen Byerrum said...

So my husband and I put the names in a hat and Jill Woods is the winner of an autographed copy of Veiled Revenge. Congratulations, Jill. E-mail me at and send me your mailing address and a copy will be in the mail this week. If the Post Office is still open this Saturday,

Thea said...

Ellen -
I've just started Hostile Makeover, where you introduce a character named Tate Penfield. I live in Boulder, Colorado, and knew Penfield Tate, our former mayor and neighbor. Did you go to university here and know the Tate family, or is it just an incredible coincidence? (Either way, I'm a big fan of your books!)

Thea said...

I've just started Hostile Makeover, where you introduce a character named Tate Penfield. I live in Boulder where Penfield Tate was a long-ago mayor and neighbor. Did you know him? Did you grow up here or attend the University here? (Either way, I'm a big fan and appreciate both your writing and your fashion advice!)