Ellen Crosby, an Oak Hill resident who writes books that combine mysteries with histories set in Virginia wine country and the surrounding area, says her favorite adult beverage isn’t a local wine, but Champagne. Real French Champagne. She and her husband, who’s French, lived in Europe for many years, and they traveled to the Champagne region frequently. She won’t name a specific label, leaving the choice to her husband.
So far, her books have included two mysteries featuring international photojournalist Sophie Medina (Crosby’s working on the third); Moscow Nights, a stand-alone; and 12 books in the wine country series. (The latest is Bitter Roots). The New England native’s background includes time as an economist for a United States senator, a Moscow reporter for ABC Radio News when she lived in Europe, and a freelance reporter for the Washington Post once she and her family returned to the States. They settled in Northern Virginia because of the beautiful countryside and education system for their sons.
Although her books include a lot of reality, the plots are fiction. (There’s an fictional plot point about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis buying paintings when she spent her junior year in France.) “As I began to realize I was going to write more,” says Crosby, “I began to appreciate the amazing amount of history in Virginia; that would be the spark to keep me intellectually interested. There’s always some history angle that would happen in the past and still connect with current times,” including the effects of climate change on the local wine industry. Her wine research is extensive and she frequently picks the brain of Lucie Morton (Virginia Wineries Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner, viticulturist, ampelographer, rootstock expert, author, historian, educator), the person Crosby considers “the best expert in the world. She can look at a grape leaf and identify the grape.”
If you’ve not read any of her books, rest assured you don’t have to read them in order. Yes, it might make a little more sense, but Crosby includes enough background for you to realize that in the current books, winery owner and amateur detective Lucie Montgomery is engaged and about to be married. “I like to make it fresh, but familiar enough that new people get it.”
Crosby says she doesn’t have an “idea store” for plot ideas, but she always has a notebook. “I eavesdrop, read the paper. I read about a place in England where they’re collecting seeds before they go extinct, and I thought, ‘what if?’” That was the basis for her second Sophie Medina book.
“I’m a planner, so I’ll have a rough outline, do some more research, then someone will tell me something I didn’t know that will hit a point. When a book is due, I’ll do a few months’ research, then start writing 1,000 words a day. I’ll have multiple drafts.” Before the pandemic, she’d visit places for research. “What are the sounds you can hear? You can’t get that from Googling. It’s an amalgamation of writing and research. I’m aware of where I need to be. If it’s April and the book is due in November, I know where I’m supposed to be so I’m not staying up late nights trying to make a deadline.”
This story originally ran in our August issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.