by Sandra Murphy
This week we have a review of Plantation Shudders by mystery author & TV writer Ellen Byron. Details at the end of this post on how to win a copy of the book, and a link to purchase it.
Plantation Shudders by Ellen Byron
review by Sandra Murphy
Plantation homes are endangered in the South. Some fell on hard times and have been torn down, some fell down, some are a tourist attraction, and some turn into B&Bs in order to survive.
Crozat Plantation is one of the lucky ones, now a B&B. The Doucet is now a tourist attraction. Maggie Crozat has an interest in both—Doucet was in her mother’s family. Now Maggie dresses in a polyester Southern belle outfit, complete with hoop skirt, and gives tours there. At Crozat, she welcomes guests, fills in where she can, creates merchandise to sell and tries to find time for her artwork.
It’s a motley crew of guests this week—frat boys, a family with kids, newlyweds, a group of older women traveling together, a single man and an elderly couple. The old couple are a challenge. He never stops complaining and she never stops smiling.
Still, it’s great to have a full house so late in the season, at least until the shudders start. Shudders are what used to be called “someone walking over my grave.” It’s a sure sign things are going to go wrong. And go wrong they do when the old man dies, followed within minutes by his elderly wife. His death is ruled natural causes; hers, murder by poison.
The local police department is led by Rufus Durand. The Durands have held a grudge against the Crozats for years, due to a curse. Rufus delights in continuing the fight. He’s sure one of the Crozat family is guilty of murder so why look further?
Luckily, he hired a new detective—another Durand but one who is more open minded. Maggie has to snoop on the guests who each have an ulterior motive for visiting, work at Doucet, work at Crozat, find out who killed the old woman, find out the single man’s secret since he’s getting involved with Maggie’s cousin, keep her grandmother in line, and fight an attraction for the newest Durand. Catching the murderer might be the easiest thing on her to-do list.
This is the first book in what I hope is a series. Maggie is a delightful character, a bit quirky but not over the top (leave that to her grandmother), with a good family and friends for support. The possible romance with Bo Durand is promising. JJ, the over-sized, cross-dressing bartender adds more than a little color. Facts and tales of the South are throughout the book but never in a dreaded information dump. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, one that
will make you crave a mint julep before dinner and gumbo for the meal.
Interview with Ellen Byron:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Ellen: I’ve been writing mysteries for about three years, but I began my playwriting career in the mid-eighties. I segued into journalism to support myself through freelance magazine writing and then moved into television, where I’ve been working since the early nineties.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Ellen: My first novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery, just came out on August 11. It features Magnolia “Maggie” Crozat, a feisty artist in her early thirties. She moves from New York back to her hometown, eccentric Pelican, Louisiana – town motto, “Yes, We Peli-CAN!” – to help out at her family’s historic plantation-turned-B&B. An obnoxious eighty something couple staying at the B&B on their honeymoon mysteriously drops dead within minutes of each other, and the family business is suddenly imperiled. The Pelican Chief of Police carries a longstanding grudge against the Crozats, and Maggie can’t trust the sexy new detective in town who happens to be the Chief’s cousin, so she’s forced to become an amateur sleuth, aided by her accordion-playing best friend Gaynell, her cross-dressing pal JJ, and her cocktail-loving Grandmere.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense?
Ellen: When it comes to novels, I’ve only written mysteries. But my bread and butter for the last umpteen years has been sitcoms! Interesting transition, huh?
KRL: How fun! What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Ellen: My “Cajun Country” series is set in a fictitious village inspired by towns like St. Martinville, Louisiana. I fell in love with the area as a student at Tulane University, and set several plays there. I find the culture and scenery both beautiful and magical. When it came to writing a mystery series, I thought, what could be more fun than setting it in one of my favorite places? I’m also an architecture buff particularly fascinated by plantations. Yet I’m a native New Yorker who lives in Los Angeles. Throw all that into the creativity pot, and out comes Magnolia “Maggie” Crozat; she’s a native daughter of Pelican, Louisiana, but as an artist who spent twelve years in New York, feels like a fish out of water now that she’s returned home. Bonus about my series: it gives me an excuse to visit Louisiana, which I’ll be doing over Christmas!
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Ellen: I write primarily to entertain, but it’s always cool when a reader has a takeaway. Sometimes it’s something I never thought of myself, which I love. It’s awesome when readers are smarter than me. And sometimes it’s something I actually did add for a bit of depth. There’s a subplot in my book that touches lightly on the legacy of slavery. I felt that even though I’m writing in the present day, my book couldn’t be all Sazeracs and garden strolls. I wanted to acknowledge the past through the present.
KRL: Do you have a schedule or do you write whenever you can?
Ellen: Oh, definitely the latter! I have a teenager, two rescue dogs, and a fulltime job writing for an animated series. I have to grab time whenever and wherever I can. (Notice I didn’t even mention my poor husband, who is the most patient man in the world.) My daughter had Zero Period this past year, so I’d drop her off at 7 a.m. and then go to my office – which was only five minutes away – to write until 10 or 10:30 a.m. when my job began. That’s pretty much how I wrote the entire draft for book two in the Cajun Country series. I do try to set deadlines for myself – i.e., a chapter or two a week.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Ellen: I once heard James Ellroy speak and he said that his outlines were sometimes longer than his books. And I thought, OMG, that would kill me. I have my own weird system. I collect all my note scraps and compose a very rough outline, because I do want to know where the story is going. But boy, is that outline fluid. It’s technically chapter-by-chapter, but it’s rough as rough can be. (Have I used the word “rough” enough?) Chapter Ten becomes Chapters Eleven and Twelve; a new character suddenly appears in Chapter Fifteen. But the basic story structure stays pretty consistent, even if the way I get there evolves. One thing I do is keep a list of character names and who they are. That’s helped a lot for book two. I enter every character I create, even ones who are only mentioned by other characters. I also write down all the letters of the alphabet and cross them off as I use them. I started that when I discovered that I had about five characters in book one whose names began with the letter C!
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Ellen: I would say that instead of a specific time, it would be at whatever time of day I feel most awake. There are days when writing at 7:30 a.m. is brutal and days when it’s the same for 7:30 p.m. It depends on how much sleep I got the night before – which is usually not much. I just force myself to power through.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Ellen: Yup. In 2013, I won a William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for my first mystery, You Can Never Be Too Thin or Too Dead, found a great agent, Doug Grad, and thought I was good to go. That book still hasn’t sold. YCN… had a much different tone from Plantation Shudders. It takes place at a wealthy private school in Los Angeles and offers a sharp look at that privileged world. I still have faith that it will be published one day, but getting pass after pass was disheartening.
KRL: I understand that you have also written for TV–can you share with us about that?
Ellen: I was working as a playwright in New York and got tired of rewriting for free. I decided that if I was going to work that hard, I should be earning a living from it! So I wrote some comedy spec scripts and reluctantly moved to Los Angeles, because there was little TV production in New York at the time. I met another writer in an advanced sitcom lab at UCLA Extension where I was teaching playwriting, and we became writing partners. She and I got our first job on the Fox sitcom, Flying Blind, in 1992.
KRL: What shows have you written for?
Ellen: Wings, Just Shoot Me, Still Standing, and then many that came and went after a season. We’ve also done pilots for the major networks and cable. Even though most of our career has been in comedy, with a few forays into drama, our pilots have been both comedies and dramas.
KRL: What aspects of your work as a TV sitcom writer did you find helpful when you set out to write Plantation Shudders?
Ellen: Writing TV really hammered a sense of story structure into me. I also learned to end each chapter with a reason to turn the page. In TV, act breaks mean commercial breaks, so you want to end the act in a way that makes the viewer feel they HAVE to finish watching the show. I try to bring that to my books. It also reinforced my ability to write natural dialogue. I started as an actress, so I brought that to my plays, then to TV, and now to my mysteries. Also, in well-written TV each character has a unique voice and rhythm. My goal is to make sure this is true of my books as well.
KRL: How does it differ, and do you find one harder than the other?
Ellen: Writing novels is more like writing plays. I’m writing for myself until I get notes from the publisher. Writing for TV is a job. You’re trying to please a show runner, a studio, a network, an audience. It’s a great job, and I love it, and you can create wonderful viewing opportunities. But I also love just working on my own thing, like my mysteries. I’ll tell you what’s hard, though: sitting in a writers’ room for ten to twelve hours thinking of smart jokes. It’s totally rewarding and so much fun because you’re with funny people and you laugh a lot. But it can also be hard as hell.
KRL: Are you still writing for TV?
Ellen: Yes. It’s still my bread and butter.
KRL: Future writing goals for yourself and this character?
Ellen: My future goal is to continue my Cajun Country series, and develop Maggie’s world and life even further. I’ve fallen in love with my fictional town of Pelican, Louisiana, and its quirky inhabitants. Eventually I’d like to sell my first book, You Can Never Be Too Thin or Too Dead, and I have another cozy series percolating in my head.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Ellen: I go old school on my all-time favorite writing heroes. I think Charles Dickens is a brilliant storyteller. His characters, his structure, his chapter breaks – all flawless. I’m also a total Bronte-phile. I recently re-read my favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, and its passion and energy are so ahead of its time. And then there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald; what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Clearly a rhetorical question! For romance and suspense, I love Daphne DuMaurier; for mystery, it’s all about Agatha Christie, as well as more recent authors like Louise Penny and Jacqueline Winspear, and so many cozy writers.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Ellen: I have three shelves of books on Louisiana, plantations and Cajun Country, and I hit all of them at one point or another while writing Plantation Shudders. Even though my series is contemporary, I’m dealing with a historical structure – a plantation and its buildings – and I wanted to get that right. I also hit up my Louisiana friends when I had questions. My friend Charlotte’s family goes back centuries in Louisiana, and owned several plantations. She shared some family stories that I incorporated into the book. And of course, I trolled the Internet when I was too lazy to go searching through my library. And I made my recipes over and over again to get them right. I think my daughter would be thrilled if she never saw another bread pudding again in her lifetime.
KRL: What do you read?
Ellen: I read mysteries and non-fiction. The two areas often collide in my head and inspire each other.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Ellen: My two favorite TV series are off the air: Thirty Rock and Mad Men. The comedic lunacy of Thirty Rock just knocks me out. I love it! And since my dad was a Madison Avenue advertising exec, Mad Men was my life. I swear, I was Sally Draper. The show even referenced real-life execs who I knew of from my father, including one S.O.B. who almost ruined his career. After the series’ finale, I burst into tears and wept for fifteen minutes. It was cathartic. I used to joke that my late dad was Don Draper if Draper had been Jewish, less gorgeous, and monogamous. Current shows I enjoy are Silicon Valley, Veep, Amy Schumer, and there’s nothing like an episode of Law & Order in any iteration. As to movies, my three all-time favorites couldn’t be more opposite: Fellini’s Amarcord, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and The Haunting. Russ Tamblyn must think I’m stalking him, because whenever the last two are screened, I am THERE!
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Ellen: I worked and performed as a comedy improviser for ten years, doing a form of improv known as Theatresports. I think learning the basic tenets of improv helped my writing enormously. The most important thing I learned was to say “Yes and,” not “Yes but.” If you “yes-and” a scene or a chapter, it opens up so many unexpected paths. I know this is unconventional advice, but it’s the one thing I can offer that might be different from other writers. If you ever go to an improv show, watch what happens when performers say “no” or “yes but.” It stops a scene cold. There’s nowhere to go. Say “yes and” as you write or outline, and see how far your imagination can take you.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Ellen: I’m so excited to be part of the mystery writers’ community. I’ve never felt so supported as a writer. It’s filled with the nicest people on the planet!
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Ellen: I’d say it was the fact that I worked for Martha Stewart as a cater-waiter when she was just starting out and I’m in her book, Entertaining, but I recently blogged about that for mysteryloverskitchen.com, so I guess it’s no longer a surprise. I can’t think of anything else right now! Oh, here’s something: I was a roller-skating extra in the movie, They All Laughed, starring the late Dorothy Stratten, the Playmate of the Year whose life ended so tragically. I was a teen who had never roller-skated before, but I did the classic actor thing of saying yes when they asked if I knew how. So I taught myself for the movie.
KRL: Where can we find you online?
To enter to win a copy of Plantation Shudders, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Shudders,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 5, 2015. U.S. & Canadian residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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