Thursday, June 16, 2022

The First Book is a Pilot by Ellen Byron

Jenn McKinlay: One of my very favorite Agatha Award winning authors is here today to talk about her latest and share her insights from her TV writing days. Welcome Ellen Byron!

Ellen: A few weeks ago, I happened upon a Friends rerun from the show’s first season. I sat down on the couch to watch the episode, and I noticed something strange—at least strange by sitcom standards. There was an entire scene where Courtney Cox didn’t have a single line. They serviced her character with a couple of reaction shots, but she didn’t utter a peep. 

I spent over twenty years writing sitcoms and I knew exactly what happened. 

 Whatever material they gave the actress at the table read didn’t land. The jokes the writers replaced it with didn’t land either, in rehearsals or even on shoot night, when you have to come up with jokes on the fly to replace ones the audience doesn’t respond to. It’s extremely rare for a lead to be left without a single line in a scene. How did the writers wind up in such dire straits? It’s simple, really. Remember, this episode was from the first season. The writers hadn’t figured out yet how Courtney – and thus her character, Monica Geller – was funny. 

 A good sitcom gets funnier as it goes along. The confidence of everyone on the crew, from stars to writers to post-production, grows. Showrunners discover the strengths – and weaknesses – of the actors and write to – or away – from them. In Courtney’s case, the Friends writing staff discovered the actress was a neat freak and a little obsessive in an entertaining way. Soon, so was Monica. They found Courtney’s funny and translated it to her character. 

Want the scent of Monica Geller wafting through your house? Here’s your chance: https://amzn.to/3LzgzNZ 

I’ve come to think of the first book of a mystery series as a pilot for the series. You may think you’ve laid out everything perfectly, but then you suddenly find yourself writing great scenes between your protagonist and a character who you had every intention of keeping on the back burner. Did you know that actors Julianna Margolis of ER and Kathy Kinney of The Drew Carey Show were only supposed to be in the series’ pilots? They both had so much unexpected chemistry with their series’ stars – which would be swoony George Clooney and the hilarious Drew Carey – that they went from day players to cast regulars to stars. 

In Plantation Shudders, the first book in my Cajun Country Mystery series, I created Gaynell Bourgeois as a sidekick and ear for Maggie. But as the series evolved, I had so much fun writing scenes between Maggie and Grand-mere that their relationship took center stage until the fifth book, Fatal Cajun Festival, where an entire plot revolved around Gaynell. 

In my Catering Hall Mystery series, which I write under the pen name Maria DiRico, when I was breaking the story for Long Island Iced Tina, the second book, I realized I’d written myself into a corner with the romantic relationship I’d set up in the first book, Here Comes the Body. I spent an entire subplot extricating my protagonist Mia from the doomed relationship and setting the stage for a new love interest. 

Bayou Book Thief is the first book in my new Vintage Cookbook Mystery series, but I’ve already written the second book, Wined and Died in New Orleans. I’m having a blast playing with all my new fictional friends, discovering which characters have the most chemistry, especially matched with my protagonist. Who will go from day player to regular to star? And which character may find themselves on the reverse trajectory? Think about this when you read Bayou Book Thief, which I hope you will. Let’s see if you can guess who the “breakout” characters in my new series will be. 

 Eliza in the Friends fountain at age two, from when I worked on Maybe It’s Me, a show that shot on the Warner Ranch. That’s where the fountain resided until they moved it to the main Warner lot. 

Readers, can you think of a TV show where a supporting character “broke out?” 

SYNOPSIS: A new mystery series from USA Today bestselling and Agatha Award–winning author Ellen Byron. 

 Twenty-eight-year-old widow Ricki James leaves Los Angeles to start a new life in New Orleans after her showboating actor husband perishes doing a stupid internet stunt. The Big Easy is where she was born and adopted by the NICU nurse who cared for her after Ricki’s teen mother disappeared from the hospital. 

Ricki’s career dream comes true when she joins the quirky staff of Bon Vee Culinary House Museum, the spectacular former Garden District home of late bon vivant Genevieve “Vee” Charbonnet, the city’s legendary restauranteur. Ricki is excited about turning her avocation – collecting vintage cookbooks – into a vocation by launching the museum’s gift shop, Miss Vee’s Vintage Cookbooks and Kitchenware. Then she discovers that a trunk of donated vintage cookbooks doesn’t contain books – it holds the body of a cantankerous Bon Vee employee who was fired after being exposed as a book thief.
 

The skills Ricky has developed ferreting out hidden vintage treasures come in handy for investigations. But both her business and Bon Vee could wind up as deadstock when Ricki’s past as curator of a billionaire’s first edition collection comes back to haunt her. 

 Will Miss Vee’s Vintage Cookbooks and Kitchenware be a success… or a recipe for disaster? 




BIO: Ellen’s Cajun Country Mysteries have won multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and multiple Lefty Awards for Best Humorous Mystery. Bayou Book Thief will be the first book in her new Vintage Cookbook Mysteries. She also writes the Catering Hall Mystery series under the name Maria DiRico. Ellen is an award-winning playwright, and non-award-winning TV writer of comedies like Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly Odd Parents. She has written over two hundred articles for national magazines but considers her most impressive credit working as a cater-waiter for Martha Stewart. An alum of New Orleans’ Tulane University, she blogs with Chicks on the Case, is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, serves on the national board for Mystery Writers of America, and will be the 2023 Left Coast Crime Toastmaster. Please visit her at https://www.ellenbyron.com/

59 comments:

  1. This is so interesting, Ellen . . . .
    Congratulations on your newest book and your new series . . . I’m looking forward to meeting Ricki.

    As for television shows with a breakout star, I guess the best-known is Henry Winkler, Fonzie on “Happy Days” . . . . I remember when Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins ended up as the focal point in “Dark Shadows” back in the day when it was a daytime serial. Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane on “All My Children” is another in the daytime serial milieu . . . .

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  2. Fascinating stuff, Ellen! I don't watch enough television to comment, except maybe about the reverse, when a character I like goes away. Miranda Hart - Chummy - on Call the Midwife is one example, or the two actors who were killed off early in Downton Abbey. I never know if maybe the actor had a conflict or what happened.

    Bayou Book Thief is on top of my TBR pile!

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    1. Edith, yay! As to characters, I can tell you for sure the several actors who departed Downton early did so for contractual reasons. British show contracts don't lock the actors in for as long as American contracts do. BTW, it's why network shows sometimes have trouble locking down actors these days. The actors like the shorter runs and prestige of a streaming show on Netflix or HBO Max or one of the others.

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  3. ELLEN: Yay, I am so happy about your new series!! Vintage cookbooks, NOLA & quirky characters call to me.

    I don't have cable TV so I am not up-to-date on new series. One older breakout supporting cast member for me is forensic specialist Abby Scuito (Pauley Perrette) in NCIS. I stopped watching the show when she left.

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    1. So interesting. Her character's departure - as well as the actress's - was controversial.

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    2. Yeah, I heard the details about what happened on the NCIS set later on...

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  4. While I personally didn't find the character all that funny on the rare occasion I saw an episode of the show, I think you can put Will & Grace's Jack as a supporting character who broke out. Add in Karen and the "supporting duo" actually seemed to surpass the title characters of that show in terms of popularity.

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    1. Jay, absolutely! Right on both counts. Not only did the character of Jack break out, BTW, but Sean Hayes created a successful production company. Hot in Cleveland was one of his shows. I worked on the pilot.

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  5. Welcome Ellen and congrats on the new book!

    Not a sitcom, but Inspector Robbie Lewis broke out of "Morse" (then D.S. Lewis) to get his own show.

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    1. That totally counts. Isn't it interesting how that happens/

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  6. Congratulations on a whole new series, Ellen! As for characters breaking out and going way back in time -- would Rhoda (and maybe Phyllis) count in The Mary Tyler Moore show? Didn't Rhoda end up with her own show?

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    1. Yes! Both of them. No one expected either character to be as successful as they were. Fun sidebar: my TV writing partner and I took out a pilot pitch with Valerie Harper. She was the nicest woman you'd eve want to meet.

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  7. Interesting food for thought for a writer. Before my musical (which is still touring under another producer but that’s in the horror story category), I started a series that I’ve finally returned to. Interestingly the break out character in thinking about it would be at this point down the ladder from the lead. I had another concept for musical but after 4 years realized it had no button. End zone. It wants to be a sitcom. Like MTM it’s about a subject people don’t “talk” about but they all have stories. I write so the audience can relate. Thanks for your incite.

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    1. Jeanie Linders

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    2. "I write so the audience can relate." Now THAT'S a great reason to write!

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    3. Good luck. I hope the horror story resolves in a non-horror fashion for you!

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  8. Congratulations on the new series. I'm still finishing up the last one, but will surely follow this one as well.

    I'm going quite a way back in time here, but Michael J. Fox was never intended to be the focal point of Family Ties. That one worked out well. But sometimes, I don't understand the allure of the character who breaks out -- I'm thinking of Urkel in Family Matters and JJ Walker's character in Good Times.

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    1. Gosh, I had no idea that Michael J. Fox wasn't always meant to be the star of that show. I still remember that character so well! The others? Not really.

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    2. Absolutely true about Michael J. Fox. A perfect example. And the other characters you bring up are also good examples. I think they broke out because they had signature lines, at least with JJ - "Dyn-o-mite!" The drag for the actors, particularly Jaleel White who played Urkel, is that it was hard to get past the character and land new, different roles.

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  9. Wasn't Leonard intended to be the central character of Big Bang Theory? And Sheldon became somewhat of a breakout character?

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    1. From Triss Stein.

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    2. Absolutely, Triss! Leonard was supposed to be the focus, but Sheldon broke out and then it morphed into a true ensemble. Big Bang Theory is one of my favorite examples of sitcoms done right, in that they wound up creative funny, DIFFERENT voices for each character. They also achieved a TV miracle in creating three women who were equally funny in completely different ways.

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  10. I've got Bayou Book Thief on the top of my TBR list, as soon as I can get my hands on it, Ellen! And another breakout from Happy Days would be the immortal Robin Williams in the role of Mork.

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  11. Rhoda, right? On Mary Tyler Moore? And I am always so relieved when characters push to the front… It means they have been brought to life! Congratulations on your wild success!

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    1. Absolutely! Rhoda is a classic example of a breakout character.

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  12. Hank Phillippi RyanJune 16, 2022 at 9:32 AM

    Oh, rats, I push the wrong button. The paragraph above is me!

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  13. Fun topic, Ellen!

    Nothing to add, but I'm enjoying everyone else's additions.

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  14. I'm coming back to say: I am totally smitten with Kevin in Julia's books. I think he and Hadley would be considered secondary characters (right?) and I am *so* concerned about what is happening with them. Obviously, I'm interested in Russ and Clare, but those two young-uns have my heart!

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    1. Amanda, you're spot on - Kevin was "cast" in the first book as the slightly goofy redheaded kid against whom world-weary Russ could bounce off in a few scenes. And when I introduced Hadley, it was because I needed a new cop to take the place of one who left in the previous book, and I was interested in the idea of someone who takes the job because it's got good pay and benefits, not because they're called to it.

      But when I put the two together, wham! They're still secondary, but very close to being lead players.

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    2. "very close to being lead players" -- yay! Can't wait for more of their story, Julia!

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  15. Ellen, congratulations on your new series. It is on my list of summer must reads!

    I think that Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory was not supposed to be biggest star. My husband found him so annoying that he eventually stopped watching regularly. But, audiences loved him, so...

    Also, Edith ditched a mediocre boyfriend for a hot guy in her Country Store Mysteries. Brave and effective!! Your fans will appreciate the change.

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    1. Aww, thanks, Judy! When I started reading your comment, I thought - wait, Edith in Downton Abbey? A pleasant surprise - but it was Robbie who made the switch. ;^)

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  16. I'm struggling to find an actor in a TV show others haven't mentioned, but in the broader sense of writers figuring out an actor's strengths and writing to them, I nominate JK Simmons, who mostly played nebbishy good guys (insurance, anyone?) and nebbishy bad guys (like the mob's accountant.) Then at the age of 59, he broke character utterly in WHIPLASH and won an Oscar for it. Since then, he's been playing all sorts of intricate, fascinating roles. If you haven't watched him in the two-series show COUNTERPART I highly, highly recommend it.

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  17. ELLEN: Congratulations on the launch of your third series and your new book release. Welcome to JRW!

    Did Eliza remember meeting any of the actresses/actors? I remember meeting Deaf actors like Bernard Bragg and Deaf actresses like Linda Bove ( Deaf librarian from Sesame Street) when I was a young child. I also met Peggy Lennon (from the Lennon Sisters).

    Off the top of my head, I cannot recall any breakout roles in tv series. I loved the FRIENDS tv series because the characters reminded me of people I knew in real life. I remember there was a role that was supposed to be temporary and the producers ended up making the role permanent for a tv series. Was it Star Trek of Lost in Space or Bewitched?

    Great post today!

    Diana

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    1. Eliza never got to meet the Friends actors because the show shot on the main lot and the show I worked on shot at the ranch up the street. She was too young to have remembered anyway. But she's gotten to meet a lot of the actors I worked with and was particularly thrilled when I worked on a Disney Channel show and she even got to go to a BBQ at Demi Lovato's house. As to the shows you mention, I think they all had breakout characters. I doubt anyone expected Dr. Spock to become such an iconic character!

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  18. I don't notice it as much in books, although I do occasionally see how a book is setting up future stories than serving the first story. I definitely notice things like that with TV shows. There is so much backstory in a pilot, you can't judge a series by it.

    Sometimes, what you are talking about even happens late in a series. Betty White's Sue Ann Nivens was only supposed to be in one episode, but she and the character worked so well, they kept her around for four seasons.

    Congrats again on the book!

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    1. Mark, thanks! And Sue Ann Nivens is a GREAT example of another character who was so entertaining - and more importantly, gave the other actors a character to bounce off of - that she become a regular and then a star.

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  19. Didn't the Joey character in Friends have a spinoff series? Or did I make that up?

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    1. Yes, he did. But a lot of times a character who was perfectly balanced on one series really can't carry a series on their own.

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  20. A very short one, but he did have his own spinofff series.

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  21. Writing ensemble casts is sooooo hard. I'm just now doing the copyedits for Fatal Fascinator (the next London hat shop mystery) and having seven characters that like to out do each other with bad puns is brutal and you can't forget anyone. Argh! Great post, Ellen! Can't wait to read the latest in this series of my heart!

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    1. Thank you so much, Jenn. And yeah, tell me about writing for ensembles. Or the whole cast. The opening airport scenes in WINGS episodes just about killed us because we had to service every character AND make them FUNNY and launch all their stories for the episode!

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  22. Congrats on the new series, Ellen! I'm looking forward to diving in. What an interesting look today at writing for TV. I love applying the "breakout character" to books!

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    1. Deborah, isn't it interesting to look at our books - or any books or series you read - and think about who the breakouts are?

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  23. Also, I liked two (quirky) supporting characters on Criminal Minds: Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) and Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler). Several of the male leads quit/fired (Mandy Patinkin, Thomas Gibson), and the producers dumped the two female BAU agents mid-series and brought them back (AJ Cook and Paget Brewster).

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    1. Paget Brewster has had an interesting career. She's come and gone from more than one show. Actors get on my radar for different reasons. Sometimes it's talent, like JK Simmons. But sometimes it's for an odd reason - for Paget Brewster, she stood out for me because she had a haircut I hated!!

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  24. Has anyone picked up a crucial theme here? The importance of CASTING. They say in Hollywood that if you cast right, 95% of the hard work is done. Oooh, gives me an idea for a future post! Anyhoo, I worked with a showrunner who had Jennifer Aniston under contract for another show she'd done that was waiting for a pickup. She BEGGED him to let her out of the contract and he finally relented. She went on to do Friends. His show was canceled.

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  25. What an interesting perspective, Ellen. I would throw in Dr Frasier Crane from Cheers, and then the character of Niles Frasier from the spinoff. And Taxi. Jeff Conaway was supposed to be the star but everybody else in that cast eclipsed him.

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    1. Fun story about Niles, Pat. I know the casting director. He wasn't in the OG script. She told the creators - who I know from WINGS, same guys - that she found an actor who was like a carbon of Frasier. That was David Hyde Pierce. One of the nicest guys EVER.

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    2. He certainly comes across that way.

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  26. Congrats on the new series Ellen! This looks right up my alley and I love the idea of thinking about a first book as a pilot. In my experience anyway, there’s no way that a writer can really understand who is going to blossom and what will be important. Miss Gloria in the Key West Books was a throwaway in the first of the series and now I’d say she’s the most popular character I’m right. Who knew?

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  27. Family Ties - Michael Fox's character Alex Keaton

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  28. Mary Tyler Moore had a lot of spin offs. Lou Grant was different because it wasn't a comedy. Besides Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek, Data in the second series, maybe the Ferengi in Deep Space 9, and 7 of 9 in Voyager. Your new series is on my TBR pile but I loved the other two so I'm sure I will like this one.

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