Ellen Byron and the Real Gaynell Bourgeois

Edith/Maddie, north of Boston and glad the weather has broken a little.

NEWS FLASH: Laurie Pinnell is Ellen’s lucky winner! Check your email, Laurie, and congratulations.

I’m so excited to welcome my dear friend Ellen Byron back to the blog. Cajun Kiss of Death, her seventh Cajun Country Mystery came out last week. I just finished my copy and loved it as much as the first six.

In Pelican, Louisiana, Valentine’s Day has a way of warming the heart, despite the February chill. But the air at Crozat Plantation B&B turns decidedly frigid when celebrity chef Phillippe Chanson checks in. And when the arrogant Phillippe–in town to open his newest Cajun-themed restaurant–perishes, Maggie Crozat’s dear friend JJ lands in very cold water.

Did JJ, proprietor of Junie’s Oyster Bar and Dance Hall, murder Phillippe because he feared the competition? Might Maggie’s mother, Ninette, have bumped off the chef for stealing one of her cherished recipes? Or was the culprit a local seafood vendor, miffed because Phillippe was somehow able to sell oysters for a remarkably reasonable price, despite an oyster shortage?

Maggie receives a series of anonymous gifts that begin as charming but grow increasingly disturbing. Does Maggie have an admirer–or a stalker? And are these mysterious gifts somehow related to Phillippe’s murder? Blood may be thicker than water, but this case is thicker than gumbo. And solving it will determine whether Maggie gets hearts and roses–or hearse and lilies–this Valentine’s Day.

The Real Gaynell Bourgeois

Readers often ask authors if their characters are inspired by real people. There’s someone in my life who inspired me so much I named a character after her.

I first met the real Gaynell Bourgeois Moore when she was the tour guide at Ashland-Belle Helene, a derelict plantation on Louisiana’s River Road. (The manor house has since been restored by the Shell Oil Company, but it is not open to the public.) I was taken by Gaynell’s charm and vivacity, and we struck up a friendship unaffected by the decades of difference in our ages. But life eventually intervened and after a few years, we drifted apart.

Cut to 1997. On a visit to New Orleans, my husband and I took a day trip up the River Road. We stopped at the Houmas House Plantation gift shop, and I mentioned to the sales associate I’d lost touch with a friend who once worked at Ashland. “Do you happen to know a Gaynell Bourgeois?” I asked. “Know her?” the woman said. “She works here!” She pulled out a walkie talkie – remember, this was the late 90s – and moments later, Gaynell came bounding down a flight of stairs holding up the hoop skirt of her tour guide costume. Our rekindled friendship has been going strong ever since.

In addition to being a general delight, Gaynell is extraordinary on many levels. A proud Cajun woman, she’s a self-taught artist, musician, and writer who uses these talents to chronicle her life and the Cajun culture she grew up with. I’m the lucky owner of her CDs, memoir, and a brick from Ashland-Belle Helene she decorated with a lovely painting of the grand home. I bought the brick when we first met, and it’s traveled with me from New Orleans to New York to Los Angeles.

You’ll find hints of Gaynell all over the place in my Cajun Country Mystery series— in the culture, the warmth of the characters, the atmosphere. You’ll even find hints of her in the food. She shared her own Gumbo recipe with me for the Agatha Award-winning Mardi Gras Murder.

Back to that character I named after her. When I began the series, I told Gaynell I wanted to honor her in this way.  I said, “You can either be the eightysomething grand-mere or the nineteen-year-old musician.” Without missing a beat, Gaynell responded, “Oh, I’ll be the nineteen-year-old.”

So she is.

Readers: is there someone in your life who might inspire a fictional character? Comment to be entered to win a copy of Cajun Kiss of Death, the seventh book in the award-winning Cajun Country Mystery series.

Ellen’s Cajun Country Mysteries have won the Agatha award for Best Contemporary Novel and multiple Lefty awards for Best Humorous Mystery. She writes the Catering Hall Mystery series, under the name Maria DiRico, and will debut the Vintage Cookbook Mysteries (as Ellen) in June 2022 . 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.

Purchase link: Cajun Kiss of Death by Ellen Byron: 9781643857381 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

Newsletter link: Cozy Mysteries | Ellen Byron | Author

51 Thoughts

  1. Very interesting post today Ellen!

    The mythical story I keep threatening to write does have a couple of characters that are inspired in a small way by people I know. One is a mix of a couple of people while another is inspired by this one person but is completely different in what they do.

    Whether any of this ever gets written is another story.

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  2. I LOVE this series and every character in the book! It’s been so much fun to read about life in Louisiana and all the customs and sayings. As for a character, I immediately think of a library patron I once knew. She was about 85, but came in all gussied up everytime she visited us. Turned out, she had led quite a life and having lived all over, she had so many wonderful stories to tell! (Her son’s godfather was Alex Haley, the author of “Roots”!) She was such a joy to talk to and always made me smile. She also had the best collection of hats; very vivid, bold Sunday church hats. She was a Southern lady transplanted to Wisconsin, but never lost her style. I will always think fondly of Miss Thelma!

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    1. Andrea, my dear friend Annie was a southern lady who also dressed with style into her eighties and never lost her Virginia accent despite living more than half her long life in Massachusetts!

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  3. Super post, Ellen. It is great to know more about the real Gaynell whom you mention in the credits but whose background was a mystery, until now! I just bought a copy of Cajun Kiss of Death but then realized I was a bit behind in your series, so I’ve been catching up. Fortunately, the other books are in my Kindle already;-)

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  4. I love this post. I’ve gleaned bits and pieces of the real Gaynell from your acknowledgements, but this is the first comprehensive work with pix. What a great and true friend!

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    1. She is! We just saw her in May. She lost her partner of many years, Denis. He was her HS boyfriend but her father chased him off, and they reconnected as adults. Her book title is about him!

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  5. I love this story, Ellen! In my Chloe books Joaquin Diaz and his husband Michael are based loosely on Kristopher Zgorski and his husband Michael Muller. In the garage sale mysteries Angelo DiNapoli is based on a neighbor Luigi DiNapoli.

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  6. How cool is this story! It makes me have a whole new appreciation for the character. I don’t know that I know one specific person who would inspire a character, but rather several people and traits that combined would contribute to an interesting character.

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  7. My niece, Ruth. She is a Senior Environmental Scientist at NPN Environmental Engineers, Inc. She also raises goats, has dabbled in beekeeping, makes homemade soap, bread, jellies etc. She is a mom to a teenage boy, a scoutmaster and is active with her church. I think being that busy and in so many different places wearing so many different hats would give me a perfect character to develop for a series.
    I love yours by the way.

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  8. Thank you for sharing this story, Ellen and congratulations on the release of Cajun Kiss of Death! I modeled the Snugg Sisters in the Maine Clambake Mysteries after my parents’ neighbors, Agnes and Betty Gregson. They were my parents’ friends, not mine, which meant I didn’t know them intimately and was free to make up stories for my fictional sisters. There really was a real Gus and to dine in his restaurant you had to be someone he knew or arrive with someone he knew. I ate in the restaurant, but didn’t know Gus as a friend, so again I could make up a personality and back story to suit the books.

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  9. Gaynell reminds me of our Cajun neighbors when I was growing up. What great memories I have of being around them! My freshman English TA in college would make a great book character…she certainly made freshman English even more fun than I thought it would be. Fresh from NYC working on her masters in the Southwest, she brought new ideas into the classroom broadening our past limited view of the world.

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      1. Yes, Mrs. B would make such delicious food, such that we had not ever experienced. Once another neighbor gave Mrs. B a fish he caught and she baked if for us. My father talked about that fish dish his whole life. She gave me my first cookbook: First You Make a Roux!

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  10. Gaynell sounds like an amazing person. I think both my mom and dad would make great fictional characters.

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  11. It’s always fun to hear the behind the scenes story. Thanks for sharing!

    And, yes, this book is wonderful!

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  12. This is a series I just discovered but I love it! It’s fun to meet the people who inspire authors to create the characters in their books.

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  13. I love this series! I’ve been to Houmas House a couple of times and that’s the picture I have of the Plantation in your book. I like Gaynell in the book and it was interesting to get to know the real Gaynell. Looking forward to reading “Cakun Kiss of Death”.

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  14. Gaynell sounds like an amazing person. I checked Amazon for her book, but it’s not there. Do you know if it is still in print?
    As for characters, my family covers a wide range, they’d make great characters. OCD, neurotic, forgetful, clumsy, funny, a worrier (about everything), insecure, pompous, the list goes on and on.

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  15. Wow, this is so awesome, your book character is based on a real person, ! I enjoyed reading your post, thank you so very much for sharing about your friend and your book. I love your book cover! Have a great day and a great week and stay safe.

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  16. I actually have three people. My Grandmother Roy who left an abusive relationship with her youngest daughter to come to Ohio. My Aunt Evelyn who raised children while her husband was on board of a ship. My Mom who left the mountains of West Virginia to live in Ohio. She took care of my Grandmother as she was dying, survived a diviorce and breast cancer. God bless you.

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  17. Ellen, your latest book sounds fabulous. I look forward to reading it. I don’t have one person I would model a character after, but many,many years ago I lived in a garden apartment with 5 other units. A sitcom could have been written about the other “characters” who lived there.

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  18. Congrats on your new release! I look forward to reading it. Thanks for providing the backstory, it’s always so interesting to learn more. Gaynell sounds like a fascinating person. Both of my grandmothers, who were quite opposites, would make for great characters!

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