In a fictitious version of Ashland Plaza, the delightful Torte bakeshop on the corner is the family business of protagonist Juliet, who seems to stumble upon murder as often as she whips up an artisanal delicacy.
Eleven books into her bakeshop mysteries, author Ellie Alexander considers Ashland, itself, an essential character for her stories that juxtapose cozy cups of mocha lattes with cold-blooded murder.
Ellie Alexander is the pen name of Ashland resident Kate Dyer-Seeley, who moved to town four years ago, though she started the bakeshop mysteries in 2012.
“My dad was an English teacher and a huge Shakespeare buff, so we would come to Ashland every summer,” says Dyer-Seeley, who grew up in Vancouver, Wash.
“I thought it was like a quintessential English village, perfect for setting a mystery series. One of the gifts of Ashland is the influx of tourists from all over the world descending on this little Shakespearean town,” she says. “For a mystery writer, that’s gold. I can weave in new suspects with each book.”
The bakeshop mysteries, which glory in punny titles, is one of four book series that Dyer-Seeley has written.
She also has an ongoing mystery series about a brewpub set in Leavenworth, Wash. Combined, Dyer-Seeley has published 23 books. She’s currently working on the 14th book in the bakeshop series.
“For me, writing more than one series is better for my creative energy,” she says. “I will write a fast, horrible first draft in about six weeks. Then I don’t look at it for three or four months. The gift of multiple series is that I go into another world and then come back to that first draft and dive deep into editing and layering.”
Dyer-Seeley writes 2,000 words each weekday. Additionally, she manages a busy social media profile, including videos from the Torte Test Kitchen and walking tours of her story settings. Readers often ask her if Ashland is as magical and charming as it seems in her books, and she is happy to say she believes it is. Anyone familiar with Ashland will recognize landmarks, streets and events she lovingly details.
“I use real places in my books, with my only caveat being that if I write anything negative, like murder, that will be fictional,” says Dyer-Seeley.
“Most of the people in my books are figments of my imagination or amalgams of people I’ve known,” she says. “But everything I pepper in historically — like in book nine, ‘Live and Let Pie’ when they find a body in Emigrant Lake and discover there once was a town now covered by water — is all true.”
The bakeshop and brewpub series are a genre of mystery called “cozies,” which downplay the violence and CSI-like forensics. Dyer-Seeley says she grew up a fan of famous mystery madams Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and P.D. James.
“The cozy mystery is a bit of a modern-day fairy tale; something horrific happens, but everyone comes together to bring right to the world and justice is served — which is not always true in the real world,” she says. “That resonates with the readers, allowing some light escapism.”
Dyer-Seeley was 40 years old when her first book was published. A self-starter, she previously had a successful online business and also worked as a communications and public policy director for the Alzheimer’s Association Oregon Chapter. As a full-time author, Dyer-Seeley has found another outlet for her restless energy.
“Writing centers me,” she says. “That’s good not just from a professional standpoint, but for my mental health. It can be cathartic. In my most recent book, there is a flashback, origin story to Torte’s early days and remembering a parent who has died. I wasn’t expecting the layers of grief that got unpacked, and I cried through the last half of the book.”
Food is a love language in Dyer-Seeley’s home, remembered fondly from her childhood. She incorporates recipes of her own invention in each of her books. Though she has always dabbled in baking, Dyer-Seeley invested research time working in commercial kitchens with professional bakers and baristas to create authentic expertise for her characters. She’s done the same for her brewpub series, learning to pour a perfect pint and other brewery secrets of the trade.
In a normal year without a pandemic, Dyer-Seeley would be making the book tour circuit. This year, she’s taken to social media with interactive choose-your-own-adventure-style mysteries with her readership.
“I would pose a question every week and readers would vote,” she says of the bakeshop short story. “We collaborated for two months this spring. I’m doing another this summer for the brewpub readers.”
Dyer-Seeley also is working on a mystery series masterclass taught through videos and worksheets.
“This is the biggest project I’ve ever done; it’s harder than the mysteries,” she says. “The goal is that it will take someone from the seed of an idea for a book to query letters, agents and more.”
What’s next for Juliet and Torte?
“The Rogue Valley is lush with options,” says Dyer-Seeley. “I’d love to send her up to Mount Ashland or maybe further afield to Crater Lake or the Applegate.
“On a more personal level, I think what’s been so surprising to me over the years is how connected readers feel to the stories. It’s a heartwarming and rewarding part of writing for me.”