Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Writers' Wednesday Welcomes Mary Ellen Dennis

This week, I’m happy to welcome author Mary Ellen Dennis. Former singer/actress and perennial rule-breaker Mary Ellen Dennis is the author of several award-winning historical romance novels and culinary mysteries. She is married to novelist Gordon Aalborg (aka Victoria Gordon), whom she met online through a writer's group; they live on Vancouver Island.

She has two books in stores this month, released by Sourcebooks Casablanca: THE GREATEST LOVE ON EARTH, set in the exotic world of a 19th century circus, and THE LANDLORD’S BLACK-EYED DAUGHTER, a fast-paced and passionate retelling of the story of two timeless lovers who would die for each other. This gorgeous romance gives the poem a whole new depth and a happy ending.

Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us, Mary Ellen. Good to see such great reviews for both books. You’ve said one was inspired by Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” The other is an 1875 circus romance. These are two very different themes. What intrigued you by each?

The seed for my circus romance was planted when I researched my 1893-1923 generational saga, HEAVEN’S THUNDER, and learned that the circus had visited Denver in the early 1900s. A big circus. With elephants! And what was then called a cameleopard (giraffe). Curiosity piqued, I began to research traveling circuses. Although no one circus is the basis for THE GREATEST LOVE ON EARTH, P.T. Barnum's comes close.

Emmett Kelley, arguably the most famous clown ever, was a friend of my dad’s. Emmett would appear in centre ring, in the middle of a huge spotlight, a white, upside-down smile dipping toward his chin. In his white-gloved clown hands he’d carry a broom and dustpan. He'd step outside the spotlight and start sweeping it into a smaller circle. Then, smaller. When the spotlight was no bigger than a dinner plate, he'd sweep it into his dustpan. To me, a little kid, it was magic! My heroine, Calliope Kelley, is named for Emmett Kelley.

Yes, at one time traveling circuses carried magic to rural areas throughout the country. My mother told me one used to set up every summer in her small town’s fairgrounds. She said my uncle and a couple of his friends would help set up for free tickets. How fortunate you were to see the iconic Emmett Kelley. He is a legend.

THE GREATEST LOVE ON EARTH came out of research you did on an earlier project and your unique connection to the circus. What drew you to the theme of “The Highwayman” for THE LANDLORD’S BLACKEYED DAUGHTER? And please tell us it has a happy ending.

When I was in grade school one of our assignments was to read a poem in front of the class. I couldn’t decide between “The Highwayman” and Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” (I love horses). Why yes, I was an overachiever, why do you ask?

I chose Alfred Noyes. The bell rang before I finished and no one moved. At that moment I decided I’d be an actress when I grew up. And I’d write a romance inspired by my favorite poem. I’ve achieved both goals, although THE LANDLORD’S BLACK-EYED DAUGHTER took longer (I played Nellie is South Pacific at age 19).

First, I want everyone to know that THE LANDLORD’S BLACK-EYED DAUGHTER has a happy ending. And now, here’s an excerpt:

1 April, 1787
Elizabeth Wyndham gazed at her reflection in the mirror above her dressing table. Dispassionately, she scrutinized her ink-black hair, which fell in ringlets on either side of her face, not unlike a spaniel’s ears. A scowl caused her delicately arched brows to descend toward her dark brown eyes—so dark that from a distance they looked like lampblack. “You’re a fraud,” she said to her image. “A cheat.”

“What did ye gabble, Mistress?” asked her servant, Grace.

“I wasn’t gabbling,” Elizabeth fibbed, her lashes thick dark crescents against her cheekbones. “I coughed.”

“It didn’t sound like a cough t’ me.” Grace regarded her mistress with disapproval. While no one could deny that Miss Elizabeth was an attractive woman, Grace wondered how much longer her looks could possibly hold up. After all, she must be close to thirty. And yet she acted as if men would always flock ’round her, like pigeons. Truth be told, Elizabeth Wyndham should have been married for a good decade now, and mother to at least five children.

“What are you staring at? My gown?” Elizabeth allowed a thin smile to tug at the corners of her mouth. “In truth, this gown is so out-of-date, ’tis moss-grown.”

“Ye never fret over fashion when we’re at home.” Grace’s gaze touched upon Elizabeth’s powdered white shoulders, which contrasted dramatically with the red brocade of her gown—her very low-cut gown. “If ye want the naked truth, Mistress, yer bosom’s practically fallin’ on the table. What would yer mother—”


“—say if she saw such a thing?”

With a shrug, Elizabeth turned back to her reflection. She was aware of her shortcomings and strengths, and considered her beauty her most important asset. But only because of society’s dictates. Her quick intelligence, which would last far longer than her face and figure, would ultimately serve her better. Until that time, however, she would display her physical attributes, turning a blind eye—and a deaf ear—to the servant, chaperone, or even stepmother who expressed dissatisfaction.

“God blessed me with a generous bosom,” she said, “and I see no reason to hide it.

Grace’s face flushed. “Ye’re an authoress, Mistress, not a . . . one of them . . . improper ladies.”

“Whores, you mean?”

Grace looked as if she were about to faint. “Yer language,” she reprimanded. “Wait till I tell your mother—”


“Wait till I tell somebody,” Grace cried, stomping toward the bed.

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said. “It’s just that I’m so nervous.”

It’s just that you’re a fraud, her reflection mocked. How could she face the 150 guests gathering in the ballroom below? Tonight was supposed to be the crowning moment of a career that, in all modesty, had been enormously successful.

She cradled her face in her hands. Her cheeks were so hot. While she prided herself on her iron constitution, her body was sometimes bothered by a variety of vague aches and pains. She attributed their origin to tension, unhappiness, confusion, and a host of the womanly maladies she had always disdained.

Perhaps I’m coming down with a fever and will die in the next few minutes, she thought hopefully. Then I won’t have to encounter all those smiling faces, and listen to all those compliments, and pretend I’m still the darling of Minerva Press.

She had already decided that her writing career was over. Pretending otherwise was artifice.

Grace captured two black velvet ribbons and lifted them from the four-poster’s gold counterpane. “What do you want me to do with these, Mistress?”

“Tie them around my neck and wrist, please.”

“I’d rather fetch yer shawl.”

“No.” Elizabeth extended her wrist, but her servant just stood there, holding the ribbons gingerly, as if she’d caught two mice by their tails. “All right, hand over the damnable things. I’ll put them on myself.”

Grace gasped at the word “damnable.” Her thick brows shot up toward her mob cap. Without further comment, she thrust the ribbons at her mistress.

Elizabeth's fingers felt like chips of ice as she fumbled with her accessories. She knew she shouldn’t snap at Grace. Her servant wasn’t responsible for B.B. Wyndham’s inability to finish Castles of Doom, and Grace certainly wasn’t responsible for Elizabeth Wyndham’s related problem, or more precisely, her obsession.

“My obsession,” Elizabeth whispered to her reflection.

She squeezed her eyes shut, but it didn’t help. Behind her closed eyelids, she conjured up the raven-haired knight whom she hated and feared and loved—the raven-haired knight who existed only in her imagination. His face remained elusive, but the more she wrote, the more frequently she caught flashes of him—the width of his back beneath his surcoat, his thick hair curling over his ears and brushing his nape, the way he held his lithe body so straight and tall. She had fled the Yorkshire Dales in a virtual panic. That way she wouldn’t have to confront her knight’s forthcoming death. Yet he had followed her here to London, invading her publisher’s palatial townhouse. She now knew he would follow her everywhere.

It sounds wonderful, Mary Ellen. I can't wait to read it. May we have a taste of the circus story, too?

While researching THE GREATEST LOVE ON EARTH, I discovered that one circus’s animal act included both lions and tigers. I built a whole scene around that. My hero, Brian, is injured rescuing horses from a train wreck and my heroine, Calliope, is determined to “pirate his act” and perform his role as cat tamer.

Here it is:

Calliope tucked her shirt more securely into her breeches and her pant legs into her boots. She had bound her breasts and her hair had been stuffed into one of Brian’s caps. Her best idea was to invade Clown Alley and fashion a handlebar mustache beneath her nose. Maybe it wasn’t her best idea. She kept stifling the urge to sneeze.

“I don’t anticipate trouble,” she said. “I’ve known these cats since they were cubs. I’ve fed and watered them.” She wrinkled her nose and adjusted her mustache again. “I’ve even cleaned their cages.”

“It’s different inside the ring,” Brian said.

“I’ve watched you hundreds of times and memorized your every move. I’m not scared.”

“Tigers are the most cunning. Lions give warning, since they have a slow way of turning before they strike. The black panther is a killer.”

“We don’t have a panther. You only mention the word ‘killer’ to frighten me.”

"Will you not agree to either lions or tigers? It’s far less dangerous.”

“No. The posters announced both together.”

Calliope strutted into the ring-sized cage and slammed the door behind her. The chute’s wooden entrance panel opened. The first tawny lion appeared, followed by another. Leo and Duchess. Six tigers entered the cage. Although Calliope had played with them all, even petted their smooth coats, she felt her stomach tighten. The knuckles of the fingers that held her whipstock and hickory club stretched white. She snapped her whip and the beasts settled.

So far, so good.

Not so good. One of the tigers was slinking toward her, his ears flattened, his tail swishing softly. Plato. Sweet, lovable Plato, whose lips were now curled in a nasty snarl.

She snapped her whip.

Plato’s ears twitched forward. His muzzle seemed to expand in a tiger smile as he mounted his pedestal. Calliope could almost hear him purr. Triumphantly, she tossed her head. The cap flew free and her hair tumbled down. At the same time, she sneezed, losing her mustache.

"It’s a girl!” screamed a woman.

Calliope slanted a glance toward the seats. Movement surged like a tidal wave as some women pitched forward in faints while others stood, trying to get a better view. Swooning women outnumbered the avidly curious ones. Clowns climbed the guardrail, carrying vinegar and salts.

Damn and blast!

She returned her gaze to the cats. Plato chased his tail, exciting the lions. Calliope could sense the old lion-tiger jungle hatred flare. Sure enough, Leo sprang from his high pedestal, landing within inches of Plato. They both locked together, struggling fiercely for tooth-and-claw advantage.

Calliope brandished her club at the flailing cats then gave Leo a generous clout on the top of his head. The lion let go the tiger’s neck, and Plato scampered through the chute.

Eyes smoldering, Leo turned, glared, and growled.

How can you leave us hanging like that? Now that you've thoroughly hooked us, what’s your next project?

I’m working on a romantic suspense called GYPSY ROSE LIEBERMAN, about a Vaudeville ghost who was—oops—sawed in half by her magician husband. She lives “Up There,” or as John Belushi calls it, “Corpses R Us.” Think: Ghost meets The Lovely Bones. Gypsy’s (live) counterpart lives “Down There.” Can you guess how they communicate?

And I’m almost finished with the first draft of an historical romance, THE MIDNIGHT BRIDGE. While traveling to London, my heroine’s, coach is held up by a highwayman named “Conky Blue.” His real name is Trev Kendal, he’s a Cambridge law student, and he robbed the coach to win a wager (he returns the stolen goods). He’s also the adopted son of self-proclaimed Texas emperor, Michael Kendal. When my heroine leaves England to join her uncle’s household, she’s dismayed to find herself falling in love with Trev, who is now Michael’s lawyer. Because even though she’s never seen his face, she loves Conky Blue…

Ah, another story where a highwayman plays a major part. Sounds great, Mary Ellen. Hope we see it in print soon.

What tip would you offer writers?

Although it’s almost become what I call an “enigmatic cliché,” I truly believe an author must “show” rather than “tell.” What do I mean by show vs. tell? Here’s an example:

"I'm impressed with the work you've done," said Mr. Boss.

John Hero dropped his eyes and smiled. "Thanks, sir."

John had begun working for Boss & Co. six months ago. He had earned the nickname "workaholic" after his wife's sudden death...

Now try this:"I'm impressed by the work you've done," said Mr. Boss.

John Hero smiled. "Thanks, sir."

His smile faded as he stared at Mr. Boss's Wizard of Oz paperweight. He remembered how his wife had loved the song "Over the Rainbow," how he had sung it to her every night as she lay dying, how she had said, “John, you can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” her voice a caress. There was no doubt in his mind that Laura's sudden death had turned him into a workaholic...

The first way isn’t wrong. It’s just that I feel no empathy for John because the author told me about his wife’s death. Add the paperweight, or any personal detail from John’s POV (Point Of View), and I know the character better, feel his pain. Do you see the difference?

An excellent example of the difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell.’ I’m making a copy of it for future reference.

And be careful about a character dropping his or her eyes. They could get stepped on.

Yes, those dropping body parts can get messy. It’s been great talking with you, Mary Ellen. Good luck with your new releases. Thanks, again, for joining us today.

Thank you for inviting me.

For more information, please visit Mary Ellen at http://www.maryellendennis.com/.


  1. Hi Mary Ellen,

    I'm so glad you are here today. You've so much going on right now--the releases, your new projects. Good luck with everything.


  2. I am so envious of those who can work on multiple books at the same time. And these draw you in immediately. Great job and great interview. Now I'll have to get them so I can read... the rest of the story.
    Diana Locke

  3. Great interview! It's a pleasure to meet you, Mary Ellen. LOVED the excerpts - now I have more books to add to my TBR list:) The covers are wonderful too.
    Wishing you continued success!

  4. I remember reading the Highwayman as an impressionable middle-schooler and being seduced by the hopeless romance of it all. I was seriously into Romeo and Juliet too, so unhappy endings were no problem then. Now I love my HEA's. Thanks for making your endings happy!

  5. Hi Diana,
    I know just what you mean about multiple projects at the same time. Once my mind in one 'groove' I seem stuck there!

    Thanks for stopping by.

  6. I totally agree about the covers, Jennifer. Lovely, aren't they?

    Good to see you!

  7. Mia, you were totally a better reader than I at a younger age. Even then, I hated when the h/h couldn't get together--for whatever reason.

    I'm so glad Mary Ellen has given our Highway man an ending we can love now :)

    Hope your current blog tour is going well. Cheers.

  8. Great excerpts and wonderful interview! Stunning book covers and congratulations on all your success :)

  9. Mary Ellen has emailed me to say she's tried to post, put can get Blogger to cooperate. Sorry everyone. But she sends 'Hellos' and 'Thanks.'

  10. Sorry my post is so late, but I had to say both books have caught my fancy and I am eager to read them. Thanks, Barb for having Mary Ellen on your blog.