Guest Post: Ellen Byron

Imagination Unhinged

In the late 1970s, I saw a terrifying psychological thriller based on William Goldman’s book, Magic. Anthony Hopkins played a ventriloquist who thought his dummy was alive. Needless to say, this did not end well for him.

The movie has stuck with me all these years because of how perfectly it illustrated the power of an unhinged imagination. I like to think of myself as possessing a relatively hinged imagination. But sometimes I wonder…

image001As an author, I’ve created a fictional village where my Cajun Country Mystery series takes place. Pelican, Louisiana, was inspired by real locations – a couple of charming Cajun Country towns and the ever-bucolic Litchfield, Connecticut, where I spent many summer weekends at a nearby lake. But mostly it was inspired by St. Martinville, Louisiana. Or so I thought.

In the mid-eighties, I meandered through South Louisiana on my own as I researched a play I was working on. I wound up in St. Martinville. The town’s crown jewel is The Church of St. Martin du Tours, a lovely edifice over two hundred years old. It’s fronted by a green park that inspired the town square in my fictional village. (That’s also where Litchfield comes in, with its iconic town green and bandstand.) The square was ringed by charming historic buildings, some featuring wrought iron balconies similar to New Orleans. I remember wandering through a senior center to a back room where I discovered a stunning display of handmade Mardi Gras ball gowns worn by local girls during the town’s holiday celebrations.

image002Over the years, St. Martinville morphed into a sort of Cajun Brigadoon in my imagination, lively and bright. On a recent trip to Louisiana, I was determined to visit the real-life village that inspired the fictional one in my books. The church was there, still lovely. The historic buildings still ringed the square. But everything was, well… different. Faded. But was it? Or had my imagination toyed with me, creating a fantasy location that never really existed? And where was that museum I visited? Because when I mentioned it, no one knew what I was talking about.

The visit to St. Martinville disturbed me. Not because there’s anything wrong with the town – it’s a lovely place in its own right. But the trip created a disconnect between the real world and the imaginary one in my books that I so very much wanted to be real.

I’ve had years of therapy, so I’m pretty confident I can cling to sanity. But then I remember Anthony Hopkins’ tortured relationship with his dummy, which makes me contemplate how often I totally immerse myself in the fictional world of Pelican, Louisiana. And I wonder if the dividing line between a hinged and unhinged imagination is thinner than I think.

What about you, fellow authors and readers? Has a fictional world ever become a little too real for you?


Ellen Byron’s novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery, was a Library Journal Debut Mystery of the Month, and nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards.  Book two in the series, Body on the Bayou, was recently released to enthusiastic reviews. TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and many network pilots; she’s written over 200 national magazine articles; her published plays include the award-winning Graceland.


15 thoughts on “Guest Post: Ellen Byron”

  1. This is fascinating, Ellen—and no, I don’t think you’ve lost a grip on reality. But it is indeed funny, and common, I think, how our mind remembers things that may have happened differently, or in a different place. The good news: The place you created on the page seems completely real, and that’s what’s important! Looking forward to the next book.


  2. I remember that movie. Scared the crap out of me.
    I haven’t had exactly that happen to me, but I created a town in a manuscript and months later we were driving to a flea market and when we drove through this one town I scared my husband because I yelled, “Stop the car!” The town looked exactly like my fictional one.


  3. So I’m not alone? Ellen, thank you for bringing up a subject that haunts me. Yes, sometimes I do think it’s too easy to slip into that fictional world and let its reality overwhelm you. Escapism can be wonderful for creativity, but sometimes …WOW! could I get lost. And when that happen I generally switch it up and write a short story or something of an entirely different genre.


  4. No, wait! Maybe I have. I made up a restaurant in the town of Confluence (real place) that is my protagonist’s favorite local place to eat. I went down for one of my periodic field trips. Lo and behold, my “fictional” restaurant did in fact exist!


  5. Great post! Pretty sure I heard Hemingway say in A MOVEABLE FEAST that all past is fiction. I’m working on creating my own little version of Adams, Massachusetts for the historical series that is battering around inside my head and I plan to go back again probably next year for a week or two of research.


  6. Wonderful post, Ellen! My cozy takes place in Seattle, and it surprised me when I visited there after writing the first draft. I definitely had to go back and tweak a few things, mainly that my MC kept wearing heels despite all those steep hills! I think the biggest thing that comes to mind with this, though, are places from my childhood–they just seem smaller now, and maybe not so vivid. Interesting how perceptions change 🙂


  7. Love William Goldman, Plantation Shudders, and you! Magic is indeed haunting. But I have to say that you did such a great job creating Pelican that I caught myself wishing I could go to Fais Dough Dough for a snack more than once.


  8. Glorious post, Ellen. I remember Magic. It still gives me chills to recall it. Hum, time to check it out on Netflix?

    Plantation Shudders sounds WONDERFUL. I can’t wait to dig in. Definitely on my TBR.

    The first book I wrote-it lives under the bed, but friends read it-had a hurricane hitting Sint Maarten and the sea crossing the town and meeting the Salt Pond. Several years later Hurricane Marilyn hit Sint Maarten and the event happened. One of my friends who lived on island and who had read my book called me to ask me never to write about catastrophic events again.


  9. Oh, how fascinating! The mind is such an interesting place; memory so malleable. As I read this, I thought of all those twisty psychological thrillers, and also how useless witnesses can be in criminal investigations. I’ve had several events in my life where I would have sworn that something didn’t happen, but months later, the memory of the event appeared in full, vibrant color. Or, something happens and it feels as though its the second time–is it? Wild and weird and wonderful, our minds.


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