Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Overheard Conversations and Random Thoughts By Ellen Byerrum

A big thank you to author Ellen Byerrum for stopping by and sharing her thoughts with us! You are fabulous, Ellen!


Everything and anything can be inspiration for a writer, and I am no exception. Overheard conversations, current events, news stories, the random thoughts that occur to you while you’re on the Metro or sitting at a hearing with some politician droning on, they can all be the germ of an idea for a book or a character or a scene.

When I started writing about Lacey Smithsonian, I set out to create a different kind of sleuth. It was a reaction to a lot of mysteries I was reading at the time, which featured some memorable female detectives who were rough and tough and smart. They could fight and shoot and drink and drive just as badly as any male action hero. I loved these books!

Except for one little thing: They didn’t care about their clothes. They didn’t even get the allure of clothes to most women. No, these heroines were intimidated by dressing themselves. The little black dress? Oh, yeah, that’s so scary. Wearing color? Impossible. Sexy dresses? Heaven forbid. High heels? Forget about it. Makeup? A foreign language! Go shopping? They’d rather die!

Some of these super-smart female investigators would prefer to go ten rounds with a super-villain than indulge in the time-honored female pursuit of hunting and gathering fashion. Putting together a basic outfit was beyond these heroines. Style made them scream. Frankly, it began to get on my nerves. I thought if I read one more book where the jeans-and-T-shirted tough-girl sleuth reluctantly dug her one and only “good dress” out from under the bed where she’d crumpled it up months ago, I’d be the one screaming.

I wanted to read about a woman who could outwit, outthink, and outshoot the bad guys, solve the crime, and rock some kick-ass clothes. Why couldn’t her talent for looking great in her clothes be one of her superheroine superpowers? So I came up with Lacey.

I write the Lacey Smithsonian Crime of Fashion mysteries, where style and murder take center stage. She’s a sleuth and she knows how to dress. (She’s often much more reluctant about the sleuthing than the dressing.) She loves vintage clothing from the late 1930s and 1940s, because the women who lived through that period were strong and capable: They filled the jobs in the factories and offices when the men went off to war. They looked great while taking the weight of the world on their padded shoulders. They had great clothes and they didn’t have to be afraid of them. They took looking good as a woman’s right (and responsibility).

Lacey has what I call ExtraFashionary Perception (EFP for short). Every outfit tells a story, especially for Lacey, who is a reluctant fashion reporter in Washington, D.C., The City Fashion Forgot. Although she would like to work on a “hard news” beat that would bring her a little more respect around her newsroom, she has a talent for finding clues in clothing and motives in style a la mode.

We all have this power, but Lacey has it to the nth degree. She solves crimes with fashion clues. The major crimes in my books are more serious than reckless dressing or shopping while ability impaired. Nevertheless, Lacey also finds time to address, in her Crimes of Fashion and Fashion Bites columns, the lesser fashion faux pas around her.

Inspirations for the stories come from many different things, including items in the news, or some personal experience. The plot of KILLER HAIR, the first book in the series, was sparked by a phone call I received one night while working in the marketing department of a large salon chain. A stylist in southern Virginia called because a guy had come into the salon with a peculiar request. He claimed to be from the home office’s marketing department (which was clearly a lie, I knew the entire marketing department). He said he was willing to pay cash to any stylist with very long hair who was willing to cut it very short. He offered to pay even more for a video of the haircut, and he would fork over a lot more cash if he could have the hair. Finally, he wanted the hair and the video dropped off at a local gas station. After hours.

Does that sound like a legitimate marketing program to you?

The stylist he talked to, who had very long hair and was very interested in the money, said she wondered too. But she had given the guy her home phone and address! The whole story gave me the creeps (and an idea for a plot that percolated on the back burner for a few years.) I immediately called the local police department in her city. I told them I didn’t know whether this was some kind of college prank or some weirdo, or whether the guy had hit other salons with his bizarre hair request. I got a call back the next day from a detective who told me the guy apparently had not called any other salons, but they were checking into it. The detective added that he spoke with the stylists in person and stressed forcefully to them NOT to give out their home addresses to random strangers! Luckily the creepy caller faded away and nothing bad happened. And I got the beginnings of a book.

In addition to inspiration for darker moments in my books, I enjoy finding fodder for Lacey’s Crimes of Fashion and Fashion Bites columns just by taking a look around.

Is someone wearing flip flops, shorts, and a puffy parka? Must be a victim of “Seasonal Apparel Disorder,” otherwise known as SAD (Grave Apparel). A particular type of female in Washington, D.C., turns out to be Powerful Women In Pearls, or P-WIPs (Armed and Glamorous).. Even underwear is food for thought. If you need a little extra courage, try wearing a Red Bra of Courage (Raiders of the Lost Corset).

In my latest book, Death on Heels, I wanted to reveal more about Lacey’s past and background. What better way than to bring an old boyfriend into the story? This time, Lacey gets into trouble in the last place on earth she ever expected to see again, Sagebrush, Colorado. Again, the story had to simmer for a year or two before I wrote it.

I am currently at work on the ninth book in the series, Veiled Revenge, to be published next year. But in the meantime, I have a few ideas warming up on the back burners right now.

Thank you so much for asking me here today. It’s been a pleasure.

Author Bio:

Ellen Byerrum writes the popular Crime of Fashion mysteries, set in bustling Washington, D.C., The City That Fashion Forgot. Featuring style sleuth Lacey Smithsonian, who solves crimes with fashion clues, the eighth book, Death on Heels, takes Lacey out of her comfort zone and into the Wild West where she confronts her past and an old boyfriend who is accused of murder.

While researching fashion, Byerrum has collected her own assortment of 1940s vintage dresses and suits, and the occasional accessory, but laments her lack of closet space. She has been a D.C. news reporter in Washington, a playwright, and holds a Virginia P.I. registration. Although she currently resides in Denver, fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian will continue to be based in Washington, D.C.

Byerrum is currently at work on the ninth book in the Crime of Fashion series, Veiled Revenge. You can find more about Ellen on her Web site or on Facebook.

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  1. What a FUN & entertaining post!
    Thank you, Ellen & thank you, Michelle!

  2. Thank you, Lishie. It's funny how one thought leads to another and eventually there are enough ideas for a book.

  3. Ellen, I love love love this series! I adore fashions from the 30's, 40's, & 50's. Am a plus size gal now, but whittling away the pounds. First thing I want to do when I am at my goal is shop at vintage stores.

    As for inspiration for stories, there is a guy I have seen a few times at the train station who fascinates me. He's like the calm in the midst of a storm. I have finally found the right story to put him in as the complete opposite of my heroine.

  4. Allison, hope you have great success at the vintage stores. It's getting trickier as the sources for those clothes dry up. And I love the idea of guy at the train station. Trains are so full of stories and it's cool that you've found the right story for him.

  5. What a fun article, Ellen. It almost makes me want to thank that guy who called the stylist in southern VA and subsequently gave you the idea for Killer Hair. If he wasn't such a creep, that is.

    I love Lacey for her wit, her strength, her intelligence and her warmth. Her flair for fashion makes her even more fun!


  6. So glad you liked the story. The guy was a creep, but it would have been a crime if I hadn't used it somehow. You're right, Rosemary, sometimes those weird experiences just add to our arsenal of story ideas. Thanks for the comment.