An interview with Ellen Byerrum

I first had the pleasure of working with Ellen some years ago and have followed her progress ever since. She’s delightfully talented and always comes up with something unique for Lacey. If you’ve not yet met Ellen, she writes the popular Crime of Fashion mysteries, set in bustling Washington, D.C., The City That Fashion Forgot. Featuring Lacey Smithsonian, who solves crimes with fashion clues, Death on Heels (Number 8), takes Lacey out of her comfort zone and into the Wild West. While researching fashion, Byerrum has collected her own assortment of 1940s styles, but laments her lack of closet space. She has been a D.C. news reporter, a playwright, and holds a Virginia P.I. registration. Here’s what she has to say today:

PJ: Hi Ellen! How long have you been writing?

Ellen: Seriously writing, since college. I was a journalism major at a university that has since scuttled the J-School program, and I discovered playwriting in the last semester of my senior year, and I fell in love with that. I have been writing mystery novels for about the last decade. So for awhile.

PJ: At what point did you reach a place where you felt successful as a writer?

Ellen: That feeling definitely comes and goes, and some days I wonder when it will happen. However, having something published—between two covers—really helps feeling successful, at least for a fleeting moment.  When my first play, A Christmas Cactus, was published by Samuel French, it was ahigh point.

PJ: Is the writing life what you expected when you started out? If not, how is it different?

Ellen: It depends on which style of writing. Being a reporter was pretty much what I expected: low pay and long hours.  As for playwriting, I had no idea it could be the agony and ecstasy that it is. When I started out as a mystery writer, I knew I would have to promote my work, but who could have predicted that Facebook, Twitter, Web sites, and more would come into the picture and soak up so much time? Or that publishers would put more and more of the burden of promotion on the author? It is a huge juggling game to keep up the quality of books in between the promoting end of things. Sadly, I am reading way too many books where most of the effort seems to have gone into the promoting and not the writing.

PJ: The general public seems to think authors are relatively wealthy. Without prying too much, has your writing income lived up to expectations? 

Ellen: Hmmmm. I’d go with no.  Luckily I have been practicing living economically all my life. Of course I wish that could and would change. Living extravagantly is a long-held dream.

PJ: LOL  Yes, for most of us I expect. But here we are. Early on, so much focus is given to getting published. Now that you’re published, how has your focus changed?

Ellen: Finding the time and energy to write. I would like to broaden my audience and finish a thriller I’ve been working on and explore an idea for a YA novel. And there is a play I would love to return to.

PJ: How long did it take you to get published the first time?

Ellen: The first book I wrote, KILLER HAIR, was published, but it took about a year from the time my first agent had it in hand until it was sold. After that, the publishing process itself takes about a year or year and a half.

PJ: Would you do anything differently if you had it to do over again?

Ellen: I’d start writing books sooner.

PJ: Writing new material, rewriting, submitting new work, waiting, promoting published work…the list is large. How do you manage to divvy up your time to give adequate attention to all needed areas?

Ellen: That question makes me want to go right back to bed!  For my first six books, I also had a full-time job as a reporter inWashington,D.C.. When I look back, I have no idea how I did it.  I try to check in on Facebook every day. I’d like to be more consistent on Twitter, and I add something to my blog every month or so, and write for other blogs whenever I get the chance. But there is no way I could write a weekly blog, the burnout factor is huge. I am mentioning this last, but the writing is the most important thing—striving to keep up the quality. I try to write every day, but there are simply times when I cannot do that.

PJ: I understand. Some days there just aren’t enough hours! What is the single most exciting thing that’s happened to you as a writer?

Ellen: Ranking up there: Two Lifetime Movie Network films were based on two of my Crime of Fashion mysteries, Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover.  They aired in the summer of 2009 and occasionally show up on Lifetime, but I cannot predict when.

PJ: I remember! That was so exciting! What is the single most disappointing thing that happened to you as a writer?

Ellen: At the moment, I can’t think of that, and if I did, I’d be whining.

PJ: With more books being released each month now than ever before, what do you believe sets your work apart from the others?

Ellen: Though they are about fashion and murder, and are funny, my books are not gimmicky. They have subtext. They build on each one. Every story is different, my heroine and I have to learn something new each time.  I think the voice of the books is distinctive, and I try to give all the major characters, not just Lacey Smithsonian my sleuth, a distinct voice, a distinct way of looking at the world.

PJ: I think you do that very well.  What do you feel is your most effective tool for promoting your published work?

Ellen: The quality of the books, if it’s not there, readers are not going to come back for more. People who love the books and encourage others to read them might just be the best tool.  And I have very good and consistent covers by the very talented artist Craig White.

PJ: What area of book promotion is the most challenging to you?

Ellen: Recently I moved across country and it’s very hard to find the connections that I enjoyed in the Washington D.C. area, where I knew other writers and bookstores, and where there were lots of opportunities for cross-promotion and great friendships. I’m slowly learning the ropes here inColorado and of course, going to my local Mystery Writers of America meetings.

Mystery Loves Company

PJ: Do you have a local independent bookseller you’d like to mention?

Ellen: Yes!  In Oxford, Maryland there is the fabulous Mystery Loves Company run by Kathy and Tom Harig. In Arlington, Virginia, One More Page, has really been great. And of course, I would be

One More Page

remiss if I didn’t give a great big shout out to The Mystery Lovers Bookshopin Oakmont, PA, formerly run by Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman.

Mystery Lovers Bookshop

Give us a list of your published titles in chronological or series order:

The Crime of Fashion Mysteries, published by Signet/Obsidian, an imprint at Penguin, are:

KILLER HAIR

DESIGNER KNOCKOFF

HOSTILE MAKEOVER

RAIDERS OF THE LOST CORSET

GRAVE APPAREL

ARMED AND GLAMOROUS

SHOT THROUGH VELVET

DEATH ON HEELS

My plays are published by Samuel French, Inc.

A CHRISTMAS CACTUS

GUMSHOE RENDEZVOUS

 Share with us an elevator pitch (no more than 30 seconds) of your latest title:

DEATH ON HEELS

When three young women are murdered, and the accused is a former boyfriend of fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian’s, she cowgirls up and heads West to prove Cole Tucker’s innocence. And perhaps to resolve the last of her old feelings for the man she had loved and left. Lacey’s plan doesn’t sit well with her current beau, private investigator Vic Donovan, who has his own history (and game plan) in Sagebrush.

Tucker takes one look at Lacey and abducts her in a daring courthouse escape into the badlands of northern Colorado. On the run from the law with her old flame, in stolen vehicles and on horseback, with Vic and the posse in pursuit, Lacey’s world turns upside down. Caught between two men, with a vicious killer on her trail, Death on Heels is a whole new—and potentially fatal—frontier for this fashion reporter.

Where can we buy it?

Mystery bookstores, Barnes & Noble, and other bookstores. And if you don’t see it on the shelves, remember that any bookstore can order any of my titles. They are all in print. Also, DEATH ON HEELS and all the others are available on line at all the usual electronic suspects.

Ellen, thank you for stopping in! I thoroughly enjoy your work and know a lot of others do, too. My hope is that your sharing with us here will get the attention of a few more and you’ll add some new fans to the growing list. If you have a comment, please share it and by all means, pick up one of Ellen’s books!

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6 thoughts on “An interview with Ellen Byerrum

  1. Pat Reid says:

    Sounds like a good series – Lacey running on horseback in Colorado sounds pretty exciting. Thanks for the great interview and list of books.

  2. jennymilch says:

    You speak very well to the juggling act–I really enjoyed this interview. I also love your emphasis on bookstores. Thanks for the Maryland tip. If you’d ever want to contribute a “Made It Moment” to my blog, I would love to have you! Not too much of a time suck, I promise 🙂

  3. Barb Goffman says:

    The D.C. mystery community misses you, Ellen. We can’t wait until you come back to visit again.

  4. Lelia Taylor says:

    Ellen, you moved to Colorado?! Sheesh, I really need to come out from under my rock a little more often. Now that I know, I miss having you right up the road a piece 😦 In an “it’s a small world” moment, I see your play was put on at Attic Productions—my 18-yr-old grandkid has been in several plays there (not yours) and loves that theater. I hope he’ll get to do one of yours someday 😉

    • radine says:

      Ellen, your life (sounds like) couldn’t be more different from mine. In fact, as a “hillbilly” who lives in a forest and buys most of her clothing in thrift ships, it seems downright foreign! (And glamorous, truth be told.) However, I am also a full-time writer, and was somewhat startled to see that I could easily agree with most all of your answers in this interview. They are so similar to my feelings and experiences. Your books sound (even if “foreign” in setting–giggle ) absolutely fascinating, and I am going to start reading them.

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