Solving Mysteries and Dodging Bullets Way Off Broadway with Cindy Brown

Cozy mystery author Cindy Brown is slightly silly, but also very serious about writing stories that matter to her.

50 Cindy BrownIn this wide-ranging interview, Cindy mentions some great writing advice she got from a Star Wars screenwriter and how that has informed her Ivy Meadows mysteries.

She also shares some fascinating facts about Annie Oakley. When Cindy was researching her latest book, Ivy Get Your Gun, she discovered that Annie was not only a cracker-jack shot, she was a determined and brave business-woman who was reportedly kind and generous despite her fame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This reminded me of how much fun it is for writers like Cindy (and me) to weave real life events, people and places into our fictional stories. And of course, we sincerely hope it is as much fun for our readers when they get our books in their hands!

You can find out more about today’s guest, Cindy Brown, and all her books on her website CindyBrownWriter.com. You can also find her on Twitter @friendlybrown.

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

  • Click on any of the book covers to go to Cindy’s books on Amazon

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcription of Interview with Cindy Brown

Alexandra: Hi mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor, this is It’s a Mystery Podcast. And I’m here today with Cindy Brown. Hi Cindy.

Cindy: Hello. How are you doing?

Alexandra: Very well. How are you?

Cindy: I’m good. I’m good. It’s a beautiful day, the birds are singing and the terrier is quiet for now, which is kind of a warning he you just like buff me a little bit.

Alexandra Okay. So if we hear that in the background we know who that is?

Cindy: Yes. I’ll introduce you at that point because he’ll probably come running over to me too.

Alexandra Okay. Cool. All right. Well, let me give our listeners a bit of an introduction to you.

Cindy BrownCindy Brown has been a theater geek, musician, actor, director, producer and playwright since her first professional gig at age 14.

Now a full-time writer, she’s the author of the Agatha-nominated Ivy Meadow series, madcap mysteries set in the off, off, OFF Broadway world of theater. Cindy and her husband live in Portland Oregon, though she made her home in Phoenix Arizona for more than 25 years and knows all the good places to hide dead bodies in both cities.

I love that little introduction. That’s awesome.

Cindy: And it’s true.

Alexandra: Your Ivy Meadows mysteries have a theater theme.

Why don’t you start by telling us about your beginnings in the theater? You said you started when you were pretty young.

Cindy: Yeah. Well, I was actually a musician, to begin with. And I loved music, I loved being in bands, in symphony. And I was actually…I was good. So, I started actually working professionally at age 14. And one of my first gigs was playing as a pit musician for a little night music for an orchestra for a little night music which is the Sondheim when where Send in the Clowns comes that’s the most famous song from there.

Alexandra: Okay.

Cindy: And I just kind of fell in love with it, so I kept doing music for theater until probably college and then I suddenly realized I kinda wanted to be on stage instead of under the stage.

Alexandra: Right.

Cindy: I was learning to sing at that point, I hadn’t really been singing before. I started out then acting in musical theater.

I went from being a musician to an actress in musical theater and then started getting more serious about theater. I love music and I still do. But the great thing about theater is you get to practice with other people.

You learn your lines and work and your character and things by yourself, but it’s such a collaborative effort, that I just loved it. And I loved that whole idea of being put in somebody else’s shoes and transported to another world which is, you know, kind of like reading or writing. I think it’s really similar.

Alexandra: Yes. Exactly. And that made me wonder, you know, I was thinking…we’ll talk a bit about Ivy of course today. And the thing I was thinking of is that Ivy wants to be an actress really badly and then has had sort of her day job. She’s working as a waitress at the beginning. She works for her uncle’s Private Investigator Service.

The parallels between being a writer and most writers of when we begin of course we have a day job as well.

Cindy: Yeah.

Alexandra: I thought that’s kind of similar with Ivy. She’s pursuing her passion, her dream, and her creative projects.

Cindy Brown MacdeathCindy: It’s very true. And I think actually it’s probably true in all the creative careers, which is I think actually being an actor and then a director and writer I mean, playwright, really, what’s the word about. You know what?

One of the things I love about being a writer is I have all the right words because I like I remember them later and when speaking sometimes I like that word is gone, man. Prepared me that’s the word. I think being an actor really prepared me for a writer’s life because, you know, there were reviews, there were, you know, public people publicly looking at your work and reviewing your work.

There was the never sure exactly how much money you’re gonna be making in the coming year, holding down a day job and explaining to your day job people about your other job and trying. You know, sometimes it was interesting because you kinda had to hide your passion for, you know, for theater or writing or creative your music because I said that my people who have the job would be afraid that, you know, you would be given your all. It’s kind of interesting too.

Yes, I thought that…but I think it’s really prepared me and also the other thing I love about theater that I think has made me a good writer, there’s two things. One as an actor, you’re always trying to actually get into somebody else’s character. Get into the pad and find out why they’re doing what they’re doing and how they would do it differently than you.

I love that part of it. And then as a playwright you really focus on dialogue and timing. And I think that’s helped me a lot in my writing too. Although, you should to see my first draft of Macbeth because I came from a playwriting background, right?

So I’m writing the dialogue, blah, blah, blah and I took it to my writer’s group, I just met a couple people and we just made the writers script. And were like, “Oh, great dialogue,” I have no idea where we are and who’s speaking.

Alexandra: Oh, yeah. Right.

Cindy: Yeah, because in playwriting and screenwriting, you just…you don’t have that you have a character and you just say, you know, interior, you know, small apartment with the funky picture in the background. And that’s it.

Alexandra: Yeah.

Cindy: And so, it took me a long time to figure out how to add description and kind of ground the reader because I was so used to being able to tell everything either with dialogue or with like a screenshot, you know, in screenwriting.

Alexandra Yes. And so the visual element of the story will be told by someone else, right? The camera operator, it would be told visually, whereas in writing we have to do all of that.

Cindy: Right and exactly. And even screenwriting helped. In fact, there is a great exercise. One of my screenwriting teachers maybe did because I was so dialogue-driven.

He said, ‘Take this one scene and do the exact same thing with this scene. No dialogue.’ And I remember it really well because it was actually a scene about somebody running out of money, and not being able to afford the rent.

And I did it with a couple different shots of somebody with a stack of top ramen in their kitchen covered. And then you kept seeing stacks go down and down. And so you realize that she’s down, if you’re down to your last stack of top ramen you’re in trouble, right?

Alexandra: Right. Yes. Yeah.

Cindy: Yeah. So it helped. But again, even then, you know, it’s like interior covered stack of ramen. It’s not the kind of thing that’s why people don’t usually read screenplays unless you’re doing one. So, yeah, it took a long time.

I was really lucky; Portland is a writers and readers town and I had just moved here. And there are a lot of workshops, a lot of great writer’s, really generous people that helped me a lot. I don’t think…I don’t know if I wouldn’t have the same support for writing anywhere else that I have had in Portland.

Alexandra: Oh, that’s so nice to hear it. Yeah. Portland has always struck me as being quite a creative place, but it’s nice to hear that it’s nurtured that for you.

Cindy: Yeah. Oh, definitely.

Alexandra: Yeah. Very cool.

Let’s talk about Ivy. Tell us about her. She’s working as a waitress in the first book and has just been cast in a play as an acrobatic witch in a circus themed-performance of Macbeth, which just cracked me up.

Cindy: Yeah.

Alexandra: So tell us about her.

Cindy: Okay. Well, Ivy is the reason I started writing mysteries because she just kind of came to me. This may happened to you. She just came to me kind of full blown a character in my head.

Alexandra: Nice.

Cindy: And I knew she was an actor, I knew she was going to be a part time PI. Now, waitress job goes away pretty quickly as day jobs tend to when acting schedule was conflict.

Alexandra: Right.

Cindy: So she’s gonna be part time PI and I knew she didn’t really fit into a play or a screenplay which is what I’d written before because I wanted her to have a bigger arc. I love Ivy and people always ask if, you know, I’m Ivy. They ask you all about your books if you’re the character?

Alexandra: Yeah.

Cindy Brown Sound of MurderCindy: Yeah. And I would say, you know, I’m definitely part of Ivy but I’m also on the ballot and I’m probably, you know, the killer and I probably everybody a little bit.

She’s starts out, she’s good hearted, she’s got a high emotional EQ emotional quotient. And so she’s very good about people. She’s a little ditzy in the beginning. She’s a little easily distracted, and which is where a lot of the humor comes from in the beginning.

One of the things I really want to have happen is I want to have her grow over a series. So, she started out that way on purpose. And as the series grows, the fourth book, Ivy Get Your Gun just came out in May. And there’s gonna be two more for sure.

So, she definitely gets a little more grounded, a little less ditzy, she learns a lot. I made sure that she has a three different arcs in every book wrote a whole series.

She learns to be a better actor because she’s really kind of starting out in the very beginning to the gig in Macbeth is like her first big gig. So she’s getting to be a better actor and that’s really fun to play with to find out the kind of different things she learns to do.

She’s getting to be a better PI through the books, and that’s been really fascinating because I connected with a private investigator in Arizona, and he’s been helping me. And it was really great because I actually… I belong to this listserv called Crime Scene Writers. And it’s this great listserv; really good resource for mystery writers.

It’s first responders and private detectives and writers and doctors and forensic experts and you can ask them any questions you want. But at one point as Steven Brown who is a writer and a private investigator he said, ‘You know, Arizona is where my books are set.’

He said, “They have an odd laws.” And so, you really should probably connect with somebody, you’re PI there. So I did, John Hopper. I have to give a shout out to him.

And I chose him, I just kind of went online and looked Arizona Private Investigators and I chose him because one of the reviews said he had a sense of humor.

Alexandra: Right.

Cindy: So it’s been fun because Ivy now grows as a PI that I’m learning a lot more about the business too, and what people are able to do and not able to do and some of the roadblocks of things that happen.

But the biggest thing that I love about Ivy and the thing that I think that probably most people connect with is she has a personal arc that she grows through the different books.

In Macdeath she’s got a little arc. I can’t give too much for way. If you haven’t to read the book there’s a twist that I can’t say too much about halfway through the book. But she learns to accept some things about her past we’ll say in the first book. And that past which has dogged to her whole life, she starts accepting other things throughout the different books.

And then in Ivy Get Your Gun it’s a little different because she’s finally got a boyfriend and she kind of keeps sabotaging it. And you’re figure out why she’s sabotaging, you know, the first real relationship she’s had a long time. And that’s really fun.

The book I’m editing right now which is coming out in January called the Phantom of Oz, deals a lot with body image and so Ivy is or she had a friend comes back to town she’s obviously well, she’s too skinny. She’s obviously got something going on in terms of some kind of eating disorder or something.

And that whole book explores a couple of different things. One of them is the way that Ivy and we ourselves, you know, accept ourselves physically or don’t. So that’s been really interesting this whole time to kind of keep these different…don’t like books. Don’t give you wrong. You know, they’re light books.

Alexandra: Yeah.

Cindy: But, you know, there’s always a theme that I really respond to throughout all of them and I think the readers do too. And that’s been, that’s been really fun to do.

Alexandra: I was reading some of your reviews on Amazon and more than one person said they really like it because Ivy makes mistakes.

Cindy: Yeah.

Alexandra: She’s a real person and I’m sure that readers can connect with that. She’s not superman.

Cindy: Oh yeah, she makes a lot of mistakes. Even if she gets smarter, you know, you’re still there, you know, I was smart about everything.

Alexandra: No. Exactly. Let’s talk about the most recent book Ivy Get Your Gun. You wrote an article for Jungle Red about Annie Oakley. And there were so many fascinating things that you discovered about her.

Tell us a little bit about Annie Oakley and your inspiration for Ivy Get Your Gun.

Cindy Brown Ivy Get Your GunCindy: Okay. Well, the original inspiration and to backup really quickly because the original inspiration actually leads into this too or ties in.

In Tombstone Arizona where the O.K. Corral, the gunfight of the O.K Corral which was fought. They reenact that gun fight a couple times a day during tourist season. And about a year and a half ago, one of the actors actually shot the other actor. He had real bullets in his gun instead of blanks. And he didn’t kill anybody with that air back him out and it was this big deal. And my mum sent me an article and I went ‘Wow, there’s my opening to my book, right?’

I’m not giving away; it happens pretty quickly. I knew I had this and I wanted to set it at a western themed town which is very Arizona. And I wanted to kind of just be a little bit more outdoors. And also one of the things I love is exploring the different ways that actors make a living. So this is one thing.

I was talking to my editor and Kendall the acquiring editor at Henery and she said ‘What play are you going to use?” And I said I was just gonna use a melodrama. She said, “Oh, I really would like a play that everybody recognizes to be tied in that went well.” Annie Get Your Gun makes complete sense, right?

Alexandra: Yeah.

Cindy: So that’s what I decided to do. I thought, well I tried this and somehow and I ended up some of this gets…you’ll see some of this Ivy runs into the same problems in the book.

I had a really hard time getting a hold of the script in the video. And there’s a reason behind that that has to do with royalties and rights and some people not. It’s a long story, but I had a hard time.

I had put them on hold at the library. I actually ordered a copy of the play from, it was New Zealand. I don’t know, and in the meantime, I did all this research on Annie Oakley. And she was amazing. She’s my new role model.

Cindy: She grew up on a farm. Her father was died fairly early on. He got stuck in a blizzard, came back, died a few days later. And her mother could not hold the family together, so the kids were parsed out to poor farms at that point where they were working.

Annie at one point was actually kind of sent to work somewhere else. It was awful. She escaped, ran back to the poor farm which tells you how awful the place where she was working.

But the whole time, she had learned early on when she was like six or seven maybe, to hunt to use a rifle and to hunt. She loved the outdoors. And so what she started doing or she kept doing all along was hunting, game to try to make some money to get to her family.

She ended up being so good at this that because she could do a clean and I’m not a hunting person by the way. But she could do a really clean shot that what happened is, the restaurants and the butchers and things around the town and around the area, started hiring her to do this.

Alexandra: Wow. Oh, okay.

Cindy: And so she ended up making enough money to get all of her siblings out of the poor farm, get her mom back to a house and then pay a mortgage on the house. And she was like 15 by the time she did this.

Alexandra: Wow.

Cindy: So, I was very impressed with somebody that had that kind of not just skill but perseverance to do that. And that also, you know, didn’t run off and do it for herself, but got her whole family back together.

Then was a shooting match. There was a gentleman, Frank Butler who came through who was doing shooting matches in each town. You know, I’ll go against your best shot and everybody had bet on him and right. And so, they put him up against Annie Oakley.

She was 15 or 16 at the time and she won.

And he was just smitten. And the kind of rest is history. She ended up marrying him about a year later, traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

She was the most famous woman in the world for I think around almost 10 years. She traveled to Europe she met Queens, she met all sorts people. And so, the whole time she kept this wonderful modesty. She was Quaker which is interesting about the guns but I think it was different then but she, for example, said she would insist on sewing her own costumes because she didn’t want to be put in the big busty costumes.

She was very kind to all of the people traveling with her always. She was just really pretty much an example of what you would like to be.

So I read all these wonderful things that are watching these videos blah. And then I got the video for Annie Gets Your Gun. And there’s lovely music it’s like…there’s great music it’s Irving Berlin. There’s No Business Like Show Business is in there. And Anything You Can Do, I can Do Better and there’s other some wonderful music.

But the play is very dated. In fact, actually, it’s still done although they take out a lot of sequences involving Native Americans because that’s…we’ll just say it was up its time.

Alexandra: Okay. Yeah.

Cindy: But the thing that really bothered me and I ended up having it bother Ivy too when she had that same issue, is that Annie Oakley was portrayed as just a dumb girl. And I mean, really just not smart. Not bright in any way.

They had her wearing costumes she would have never worn. The thing that really, really bugged me was that she loses the contest to Frank Butler and they had her do it on purpose so she would get her man.

Little_miss_sunshine_posterMichael Arndt, a screenwriter who wrote Little Miss Sunshine, he’s done some Star Wars things too [ed note: Michael Arndt co-wrote The Force Awakens, episode 7 in the Star Wars saga]. I took class from him once and he said write about the things that piss you off.

Alexandra: Oh, wow great advice.

Cindy: And it pissed me off not just for Annie but it pissed off because I feel like a lot of times women especially through history, have been this. You know, they’re not getting what they deserve or their stories have been twisted to fit whoever wants to tell them.

I really wanted to tell Annie Oakley’s real story and I wanted Ivy…this is one place where Ivy and I are like really close because I have heard you have the same epiphany and the same desire to do that. So Annie Oakley’s story and her spirit is definitely woven through this book.

Alexandra: Oh that is so great. I love hearing that. And I love learning more about her just now when you were speaking. And I’ll link to that article that you’ve got on the Jungle Read website so people can read it.

Cindy: Thank you.

Alexandra: The other thing I noticed, you mentioned too in the article is that you were always attracted to Westerns and you watched John Wayne movies with your dad. And my books are Westerns too, my adult mysteries. They’re set in 1890.

I’m a bit of a fan of Western movies I would say, I’m not an aficionado by any stretch of the imagination but there are some that I really love. But I never really have been able to figure out why it is that I like to write about that time period. And then in your article, you said you think you were drawn to them because of Justice. Because everything concludes in sort of a just way in a Western. And I really related to that when you said it.

Can you say a bit more about how you feel about that?

Cindy: Yes, but then I want to hear how you related to it too.

Alexandra: Okay. You go first. 😉

Cindy Brown Oliver TwistedCindy: Yeah. I’ll start. I don’t always agree with them on politics or things but I think they instilled a real sense of right and wrong from the very beginning when I was a kid.

And then also like probably a lot of creative people, I was an eccentric child. I wasn’t bullied, but I was definitely an outsider. And I think, first of all, being an outsider makes you feel an injustice.

But secondly, it makes you an observer. And it was one of those things that always the unfairness of life always bothered me. It always still does bother me. And really hard time reading news, I mean or watching news or anything. I have a hard time with that.

I always want to take those stories and make them turn out okay for the people that need the justice. And I realized early on that yeah, Westerns are one of the things because I couldn’t figure out my attraction to them either because I’m not much into guns I’m actually afraid of guns.

I think I finally figured it out somewhere along the line when there was a wave of superhero movies in the late ’70s early ’80s. The early Superman with Christopher Reeve, and then later there was the Batman movies, the early ones, not the Dark Knight.

And I really liked those two and I thought okay, what is this? Why am I liking these boy movies? And I realize, it was the same thing, it was that good triumph.

Alexandra: Yeah.

Cindy: I’ve been reading mysteries all my life too. And I realize that’s one of the things I love about them and, you know, it doesn’t always completely triumph. Often somebody gets off a little bit or something doesn’t turn off round right. But there’s often justice and the bad guy gets caught.

There are some the bad guys don’t get caught. I don’t like them. I want the bad guy to get caught. I want the good person to have justice. And it’s just something really innate in me that I find I’m drawn to over, and over, and over again.

So now how did that relate to you? How did you realize that that’s one of the reasons you like writing in that period?

Alexandra: Yeah. You know I think for so many very similar reasons. Injustice is something that I can’t really tolerate at all either. And any movies or TV or books or anything where there’s lots of injustice just…it just rip to me apart.

I think there is some sort of simplicity about the Western. You know, it’s just a little bit…I don’t want to say black and white, but there is a bit of a simplicity that I appreciate. And maybe it is a little easy to see that, you know the good guys versus the bad guys, right? Black hats, white hats so that kind of things.

I really resonated with that it was really interesting to read that. And so, just before we go I’ll have one more question.

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about the next book in the series that’s coming out early next year you said?

Cindy: Yes, January 30th. That’s called the Phantom of Oz. And this will be the first time I’ve spoken about it.

What happens is Ivy has a friend Candy who’s been in several other books. She’s been out of touch because Candy’s gone to LA to be in the film business. And she calls Ivy says, ‘Hey, I’m back in town. I am playing at a place called the Grand Venetian Theater. And you know, can you can you stop in and see me?’

And Ivy is like, “Well, this is great.” Until she sees Candy who is sick then, and she’s beginning to worry about her and that’s a lot of what goes on in the book. The other thing that happens though is that yeah, I’m gonna have to really work on this. Its set in the Grand Venetian, which is a haunted theater.

Alexandra: Oh cool. Okay.

Cindy: Yes. And I don’t know if you know, I mean one of the cool things about theater is every theater is a haunted theater. There’s something about theaters that an actors, every theater has its ghost stories. So I actually mixed a couple of the ones I knew and this.

The Grand Venetian is famously haunted. And so, Ivy has gone to go see our friend who is performing in a piece called The Wizard a Space Oz Opera. It’s the Wizard of Oz set in space. Like I said, I can set things where ever I want. So she’s going to be her friend who’s in this pain.

She’s going to see a rehearsal where they’re auditioning some munchkins. And they’ve come back into the audience to get notes, and suddenly the chandelier falls on them. And that’s where I will leave you. So there’s a ghost, there’s a reality TV star and Ivy has to figure out how to help her friend who has kind of fallen under the Hollywood spell of never too thin, never to that kind of thing.

But that’s the thing. You know you said write about something that pisses you off. That’s the thing that pisses me off in this one. The way that we all feel that there’s a certain lesson especially in the entertainment business that people have to ascribe to.

Alexandra: Right. Yes.

Cindy: So, yes. So I hope that tells you a little bit about it. And yeah, I’ll get my spiel work out better.

Alexandra: No that was an awesome spiel. That sounds amazing and I can’t wait to learn more about it once it comes out. Well, this has been awesome Cindy. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Why don’t you tell our listeners where they can find out more about you in your books?

Cindy: Sure. I say I have a website, its cindybrownwriter.com. Don’t look to theaters to the Browns, there’s book in a basketball star, a bunch of other people. So cindybrownwriter.com and I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram kind of.

But the other thing I like to tell people is I have a newsletter; it’s called The Slightly Silly Newsletter, and they can look at my website. And one of the things I love about it talking about dead bodies there is it’s honestly just slightly things of little quiz and a little bit of book news.

One thing I have every month is the best place to hide a dead body. And I take pictures of the best place to hide dead body. Usually, the people passing and I have group and people started to send me, you know, good place to hide the body. So, if you want to find some good places or just have some fun, and I hope people look at that too.

Alexandra: Oh, that’s great. Thank you so much for mentioning that. Yeah, I saw one of the posts on your website it’s hilarious. All right. Well, thank you very much, Cindy. Take care. It was great chatting with you.

Cindy: Yeah, thanks for having me. Yeah. It was great to chat.

Alexandra: Bye-bye.

Cindy: Bye.

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