Writing a humorous mystery is a triple-whammy of a challenge that requires the author to marry the dark plot of death with the light touch and tricky timing of comedy–and nobody meets that challenge better than Ellen Byron, sitcom writer turned award-winning author of comic mysteries. Career Authors talks to the funny and talented Ellen in this exclusive interview celebrating her new novel A VERY WOODSY MURDER (which debuts next month and is available for pre-order now).

1. What’s the title of your book—and was that always the title?

The title is A Very Woodsy Murder, and that was always the title. Honestly, I’m a little surprised it was accepted so readily. It’s kind of an unusual, tongue-in-cheek title.

2. Who’s the main character of your book—and was that always their name?

Dee Stern is the book’s heroine and it was her name from the beginning. I made the mistake of giving all three of the protagonists in my other series names that start with the letter M for some reason known only to the deepest, Mariana Trench recesses of my mind: Maggie in the Cajun Country Mysteries, Mia in the Catering Hall Mysteries… I thought I got it right with Ricki in the Vintage Cookbook Mysteries until someone reminded me her full name is Miracle!

3. At the start of the book, what’s the character’s goal?

Dee’s goal is to pivot from her career as a struggling sitcom writer to one as a successful motelier. She convinces her best friend – who also happens to have been her short-lived first husband – to go into business with her, breathing life back into a rustic retro motel in California’s Gold Rush Country.

4. What was the core idea for this novel—a plot point? a theme?—and where did it come from?

My husband and I were early adopters of Schitt’s Creek from its Pop TV days. We saw the show starred two of our favorite SCTV alum, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, and instantly jumped on board. We were also enmeshed in the first season of Hacks. As a writer with a twenty-five year career in sitcoms, I related to both lead characters in that show. My agent and I were batting around ideas for a new series. He mentioned Schitt’s Creek and I came up with a mashup of Hacks meets Schitt’s Creek.

Since I write humorous mysteries, people often ask why I don’t just tap into my own background and set a series in the sitcom world. I haven’t been able to do that – it’s too close and I have too many mixed emotions about the experience. But making it Dee’s former career allowed me to tap into aspects of it. And speaking of the past, the setting was inspired by a location my great-aunt took me to on my very first trip to California: Columbia State Historic Park.

5. At what point did you come up with the final version of the first line?

I had the opening line from the minute I started writing the first draft. I used to be a freelance entertainment journalist and I could never move on with an article until I got the first line right because it encompassed the theme from which I built everything else in the story. (Ha, I sound like a college English professor!)

6. Did you know the ending of the book when you started?

Yes. I’m an outliner – although I call it a “fluid outline” to allow for unexpected brainstorms and developments. Someone once commented that my outlines are like a first draft for me, and that’s absolutely true. In breaking the story for a book, I have the same excitement of discovery and surprise I think a pantser must get from writing their initial draft.

7. What’s something in this book that you’ve never done before?

While there are elements of me in all my protagonists, I’ve never had a character actually do things I’ve done in real life—things I’m embarrassed I did! Dee doesn’t do them herself but relates the experiences as examples of the extremes some of her women writer friends have resorted to in order to hide their age. There are two specific examples of this in the book. I did them both in real life.

8. What part of your tour (or launch week) are you most excited about?

There’s an absolutely charming bookstore called Once Upon a Time, in an equally charming community called Montrose here in SoCal. It’s the oldest children’s bookstore in the country but they also sell mysteries. Shop owner Maureen Palacios invited me to do a launch event there and her enthusiasm is off the charts! Plus, the store is up the street from one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, so I see a celebratory Margarita in my future.

9. Who in your #writing community deserves a special shout-out for supporting you in writing this story?

I definitely have to give a shout-out to my agent, Doug Grad. I know this is very Hollywood but he deserves it. Not only did he help me craft my premise and proposal, he’s always sending me great ideas that wind up generating plots. I also have to give a shout-out to my Chicks on the Case blogmates, Cozy Mystery Crew Facebook mates, and my support team pals Lisa Q. Mathews, Gigi Pandian, and Diane Vallere. And of course, a huge shout-out to the generous and amazing authors who blurbed the book. And a final shout-out to my blogger pal Dru Ann Love, who always finds a way to encourage and motivate me.

10. How do you want readers to feel when they close the book?

Happy! I want them to feel like they just took an armchair vacation in Gold Rush Country, helped solve a couple of murders, and had lots of laughs along the way.

11. What did you learn from this book?

I learned to embrace the state I live in. I moved to California in 1990 to become a sitcom writer. But despite the fact I’ve lived here for over thirty years, I insisted I wasn’t a Californian, I was a New Yorker who happened to live in CA. Road tripping to the locations that inform this book and then writing about them made me proud to be what I really am at this point: a Californian. I also learned that I can incorporate my TV past into a book – and series – without having it be “on the nose,” as we say in the writers’ room. It’s so freeing!

Ellen Byron is a USA Today bestselling author, Anthony nominee, and recipient of multiple Agatha and Lefty awards for her Cajun Country Mysteries, Vintage Cookbook Mysteries, and Catering Hall Mysteries (as Maria DiRico). Her new series, The Golden Motel Mysteries, recently debuted. She is also an award-winning playwright and non-award-winning writer of TV hits like Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly OddParents, but considers her most impressive achievement working as a cater-waiter for Martha Stewart. Visit her at Cozy Mysteries | Ellen Byron | Author