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What Thickens a Plot? Festival’s Winning Playwright Shares Clues

Elizabeth Orndorff
Photo by Bryan Leazenby/OnSite Photos

“I think no matter what you’re writing, you can’t go wrong if you concentrate on the characters and let the story come out through them,” says Elizabeth Orndorff. “If you know your characters, they will talk to you.” That approach to mystery writing certainly worked for Orndorff. Even though it was the first whodunit this Danville, KY resident had written, her play Death by Darkness was chosen Best New Play at the 2007 International Mystery Writers’ Festival, and Orndorff was named Most Promising New Writer. (You can see Orndorff accepting her awards in Whodunit/Whowonit, a 2007 KET production of the festival awards ceremony, which is available for online viewing.)

Among the captivating characters who spoke to Orndorff as she created Death by Darkness are two real historical figures: Stephen Bishop, an African-American slave who explored and led tours of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave in the 19th century, and British novelist Charles Dickens. The play is set deep within the passages of the cave, where fact and fiction meld in a tale of murder and revenge.

Orndorff, who had written novels, short stories, and a couple of shorter plays as well as advertising copy before she entered the festival competition, wrote Death by Darkness specifically for the festival. “I thought that for $10,000 [the Best New Play prize], it was worth a try,” she says.

She knew that she wanted to set her play in the past. “I have no knowledge or interest in the forensic aspect of mysteries.” And she thought that since the festival was being held in Owensboro, it would be fun to set the play somewhere in Kentucky.

“My son came to visit, and they had stopped at Mammoth Cave on the way,” she said. “He started talking about the character of Stephen Bishop,” she recalls. Orndorff’s imagination took off. The cave itself offered a “locked room” feel, and when she learned that one famous rumored visitor, Charles Dickens, hated America and slavery, “That gave me conflict to work with,” she says.

In her extensive research—“one of my favorite parts of writing,”—Orndorff was never able to confirm that Dickens actually visited Mammoth Cave. The national park had no indication he was ever there, although an 1880s history of an inn near the park alleged that he had been a registered guest in the mid-1800s. In Dickens’ own book about his travels, he wrote about visiting Louisville, but made no mention of Mammoth Cave.

“So I asked myself, if he did visit the cave, ‘What could have happened there that was so horrible that he never wanted to mention it again?’” Orndorff says. And key elements of the plot for Death by Darkness—a murder occurs and Dickens is accused—began to take shape.

In writing the play, one of her biggest challenges was finding the structure for suspense. “You have to figure out what kind of information to let out at what point. At the end of Act One, you want to leave them hanging.” She turned for help to books on playwriting—one of her favorites is Naked Playwriting by William Missouri Downs and Robin U. Russin—and kept listening to her characters. Writing the play took about a month.

Orndorff says she was thrilled with everything about the staging of the play and has since written another mystery for the stage, this one a comedy.

For those tempted to try their hand at writing a mystery for the stage, she recommends, “Start going to plays. And read mysteries, although in my opinion reading them is not as good as seeing them.” Orndorff said she grew up reading Agatha Christie mysteries, although she got away from the genre as it became more violent and police procedure-oriented.

She adds that the International Mystery Writers’ Festival itself is a great experience for would-be mystery writers. “We met people from all over the country.... So go to Owensboro.”

The Kentucky Muse documentary “Murder, They Wrote,” shows scenes from rehearsals and a performance of Death by Darkness at the 2007 festival in Owensboro.