Once again, it’s my pleasure to feature as a guest blogger, before she makes her appearance on my podcast the Crime Cafe, another awesome thriller and mystery author, Ellen Byerrum.
Ellen writes the popular Crime of Fashion Mysteries, which means she writes about
my criminally bad wardrobe a female fashion reporter, who wears something other jeans and T-shirts with writing on them knows all about stylish things to wear and solves crimes, too. Her name is Lacey Smithsonian, and I desperately need her help in doing a wardrobe makeover you can read all about her in the series, which will include the book you see to the left, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DRESS. Coming soon! 🙂
There’s also a giveaway, in which you get your choice of a copy THE MASQUE OF THE RED DRESS or an awesome Grace Metalious bobblehead doll! To enter the giveaway, simply email Ellen at ebyerrum[at]yahoo[dot]com with “Giveaway” in the subject line.
With that said, here’s Ellen! 🙂
The Side Trips Lead to Inspiration
What’s that character doing in my plot, messing it up, demanding more time? Taking me down an alley I don’t want to go? Making me learn something new again?
Good. Now we’re getting somewhere.
When I start a book, I sometimes wonder how I can come up with 300 to 400 pages. A blank Page One is daunting enough. I tell myself I’ve done it before, so why worry? Self-deception is an art and we’re all pretty adept at it. Even so, sometimes I fear I can’t come up with enough ideas to fill a book.
That’s why the unexpected side trips are among the most satisfying moments for me. Not that I always recognize them at the time. The fact that many of them occur in the middle of the night when I’m almost asleep seems to be an occupational hazard. As I settle in for a lovely snooze, somewhere a voice says, “She can’t just get that crucial information over the phone. She has to go there in person, see it for herself. It’s more immediate, more visual, more dramatic. Get her there!”
I reach for the pen and scratch a note in the dark and hope I can read it in the morning.
Before I start writing, I usually think I’ve got a story that is under my control. Ha! And the biggest fallacy of all: This one is going to be a breeze to write. And then something messes it up. I learn something new, I hear an interesting turn of phrase, and stubborn facts threaten to undo it all.
I could resist and say, No, that’s not part of my plan. I could remain static, cleave to my preconceived idea and come up with a nice little story. Many writers do. Or I could explore those detours and see the possibilities open up.
I am always amazed at how one small thing someone says or something I stumble upon can take my book in a whole new direction. Making it richer, deeper, more complex. Small characters demand more lines. Sometimes you have to hold them down to keep from taking over. Yet giving them free reign can be instructive.
In my new book, The Masque of the Red Dress, I explore two seemingly disparate worlds—espionage and the theatre. In reality they aren’t as different as they seem. Both employ disguise, disinformation, and drama. This time I incorporated a fictitious theatre company full of émigré Russians, a crimson costume that leaves victims in its wake, and the ambient paranoia of post-election Washington. Is a foreign assassin on the loose? Fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian, who has an undeniable case of ExtraFashionary Perception, is saddled with discovering the truth.
How did I get there?
Weirdly enough, I came up with the title of the book before I started writing. The masque implies a complicated dance, a masquerade, an entertainment.
I suspect I always wanted to write about the local D.C. theatre. In a previous incarnation as a playwright, I was involved in Washington theatre for years, and I came to know and love certain recurring types: self-involved actors, demanding directors, put-upon tech people, and self-pitying playwrights. I enjoyed throwing them into the mix.
My series also has a continuing character of a former Russian agent whose life may be in jeopardy. The recent Russian interference in our elections has also been on my mind, as well as that juicy Spy Museum factoid that there are more spies in Washington, DC, than any other place on earth. One in every six people in Our Nation’s Capital, so they say, is a spy. And in recent months and years, there has been a very large and suspicious death toll of Russians related to Vladimir Putin.
All I had to do was blend all these ideas together. And acknowledge the unexpected development. Oh yeah, and write them down in the middle of the night. So it might not be the book I planned to write. It’s better than that.
I’m always on the lookout for the great quote, a wonderful character, a twisty turn of plot. But it is important to be ready to listen, to ask questions, and many times to get off my butt and leave the house, if necessary.
Here are some other unexpected side trips that led to books, characters and ideas.
- A coworker told me that the last velvet factory in Virginia was closing. I immediately called the factory and set up a visit to tour the place on its last day of business. I told the manager I was a mystery writer, and he casually mentioned that there were lots of ways to kill someone there. Music to a mystery writer’s ears! Not so much if you’re an OSHA beat reporter, though, which I also was at the time. The equipment involved is dangerous and creating that luxurious fabric cannot easily be automated. Velvet is woven with the backing on two sides, and to expose the velvet nap, giant six-foot circular blades split the fabric in two as it’s fed into the machine. Dress-grade velvet will now come from countries that do not have the safety protections that exist here. That trip to Blackstone, Virginia, also provided a glimpse into how a whole town can be affected by the closing of one key business. Once that factory had employed a hundred weavers and additional staff, and shutting it down impacted the entire regional economy. This trip became the basis for Shot Through Velvet.
- Someone I met in writing circles provided an introduction to two women who worked in the costume closets in the Smithsonian American History Museum. I was able to see American clothes dating from the 1600s to today, many of them never exhibited, something most people will never get to see. Among the questions I asked: Can clothes be haunted by their past owners? Let’s just say the jury is out on that one. I came to my own conclusion in Veiled Revenge.
- I recently interviewed a beekeeper about how they collected honey during WWII. This is leading me into new directions as I establish a secondary character who wants to be able to bake and not let wartime sugar rationing get in her way. She keeps bees and runs a brisk honey business out of her home. The beekeeper suggested that if a woman was keeping bees, gathering honey, and had access to government sugar, she might very well be tempted to sell some of the sugar to moonshiners for illegal alcohol. Voila! Now the possibilities open up and far more motives for murder abound, all because I decided to go talk to that beekeeper early on a Saturday morning. Beekeeping will find its way into The Brief Luminous Flight of the Firefly.
Author the popular Crime of Fashion Mysteries, Ellen Byerrum is a thriller and mystery writer, a playwright, and a former Washington D.C. journalist. In the pursuit of research, she attended private investigator school in the Commonwealth of Virginia and holds a PI registration in that state.
The Crime of Fashion Mystery series features a savvy, stylish female sleuth named Lacey Smithsonian. Lacey is a reluctant (but well-dressed) fashion reporter in Washington D.C., “The City Fashion Forgot.” Two of Byerrum’s Crime of Fashion novels, KILLER HAIR and HOSTILE MAKEOVER, were filmed for the Lifetime Movie Network. The tenth and most recent book in the Crime of Fashion series is LETHAL BLACK DRESS, and the next title will be THE MASQUE OF THE RED DRESS, available as an ebook Oct. 16.
For a change of pace, Byerrum has gone darker with her recent psychological suspense thriller, THE WOMAN IN THE DOLLHOUSE. Best Thrillers calls DOLLHOUSE “an ingeniously crafted psychological thriller that bewitches on page one and continues to mesmerize until its shocking conclusion. Fans of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN will love it!”
Byerrum recently started a YouTube Channel, “Ellen Byerrum’s Fashion Bites,” which was inspired by her Crime of Fashion mysteries. From this experience she has learned a lot, had a lot of fun, and finds herself asking why anyone in their right mind would do this.
A bobblehead of Grace Metalious sits on her desk. Byerrum likes to bobble the head when she is seeking ideas.
More information about Ellen Byerrum and her books can be found at http://www.ellenbyerrum.com
on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/EllenByerrum
and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/EllenByerrum