Deni Dietz has been in the book business for more than twenty years. Published in crime fiction, women’s fiction and historical romance, Deni’s novels include the bestselling Ellie Bernstein/Lt. Peter Miller “diet club” mystery series, Footprints in the Butter, an Ingrid Beaumont Mystery co-starring Hitchcock the Dog, and Beat Up a Cookie. Deni’s The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter (written as Mary Ellen Dennis), was selected as one of Booklist’s Top Ten Romances.
Deni works primarily with first-book authors and published authors new to Five Star Publishing. She is looking for crime fiction and romance (all sub-genres), as well as women’s fiction. Deni’s long list of authors includes Kate Flora, Maggie Sefton, John Lamb, Beth Groundwater, Earl Merkel, Richard Helms, Maria Hudgins, Sheila York, Maggie Toussaint and Lonnie Cruse. Deni says that when she offers a first-book author a contract she does a Snoopy dance. It’s easy to be inspired to do a Snoopy dance of our own – as Deni shares her wit, tips and tools of the writing trade and why she looks forward to attending Killer Nashville 2010 this weekend.
PC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
DD: When I was very young I developed a love for Alfred Noyes’s poem, The Highwayman, and the Angélique series by Sergeanne Golon. My fifth-grade teacher was gobsmacked to hear me state that someday I’d write novels inspired by my favorite poem and favorite series. It has taken years to achieve my goal, but my mantra has always been: “If you drop a dream, it breaks.”
In high school I wrote a children’s book about a giant who lived in a town of nearsighted people, so nobody knew he was a giant—until a peddler came to town selling glasses. Along with my desire to become a writer, I wanted to be a famous singer. To that end, I sang with a British rock ‘n roll group. Our biggest gig was on a cruise ship, our most popular song “Happy anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Abramowitz…”
PC: What do you think makes a good story?
DD: Characterization, pacing and concept—in that order. I once wrote a scene set in an opulent apartment. I described the living room in detail, including the eclectic collection of paintings on the wall. It was written from the viewpoint of the protagonist, an actress. An author I admired read the chapter and complimented me on my narrative. She said she felt like she was right there, in the apartment. “But,” she said, “how does Delly FEEL when she walks into the room?” I rewrote the scene, keeping all my details. Except, when Delly looks at the wall she wishes she could step into a painting. Here’s the rewrite:
Delly stepped into an enormous living room and blinked at the brightness. The walls and ceilings were pure yellow, the floor highly glossed parquet. An eclectic mixture of paintings crowded the walls. Delly recognized Andy Warhol, Peter Max and Renoir. Her gaze lingered on the Renoir and she wished she could step into the painting. In a Renoir there were no cameras panning for a close-up, no directors screaming for another take, no rejection. Renoir’s flowers have no smell, she thought, but they live forever. Once she had believed that actors lived forever.
From that day forward, I’ve asked myself how a character feels when he or she appears in a scene.
PC: Are your characters real to you?
DD: Very. For example, Ellie Bernstein, my diet club leader, has auburn hair and she lost 55 (and a half!) lbs. I have red hair and lost 55 (and a half!) lbs. She likes to solve mysteries. So do I ?
PC: Is there a message in (any of) your novels that you want readers to grasp?
DD: My mystery novels have no socially redeeming values whatsoever. They were written to entertain. My historical sagas—penned by my alter ego, Mary Ellen Dennis—embrace issues. Readers will grasp that I am fervently anti-war and anti-slavery, that I am against any form of bigotry, that I am pro-human rights. However, I’m careful not to “preach.” By word and deed—and misdeed, of course—my characters get my message across.
PC: Who do you see as the influences on your writing?
DD: My mom, Bea Dietz. Mom was Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were. She fought hard for what she believed in and taught me to do the same. She also encouraged me to read anything that caught my fancy, so I grew up devouring Black Stallion books and, at the same time, Isaac Singer. I read Jane Eyre and the letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I learned history through Leon Uris and McKinley Kantor and John Steinbeck. I traveled on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki. I had a very exciting childhood.
My second “who” is my sister, Eileen Dietz. Eileen inspired two of my books: Fifty Cents For Your Soul, a fictional account of events that occurred during the filming of The Exorcist (Eileen was the Demon and played many of the possession scenes), and Soap Bubbles, a “glitzy mystery” about three women affiliated with a soap opera (Eileen had a major role on General Hospital).
PC: What is your favorite aspect of being a dual author?
DD: Deni is a bit of a goofball, and has been told, more than once, that she should do stand-up comedy. There’s a stand-up routine in Soap Bubbles that conveys how Deni feels about that! Mary Ellen is more serious and tends to cry over certain scenes. She feels if she’s not moved emotionally, her readers won’t be either. Deni and Mary Ellen came together for one book, Eye of Newt, which goes back and forth between the present and the Salem witch trials. They are now working on a sequel, Toe of Frog (a.k.a. “The Da Vinci Toad”). Frog takes place at a horror convention and includes a “reincarnated rottweiler” who is afraid of doorbells and songs from the 1970s.
PC: How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
DD: I don’t plot my mysteries. I start with a concept and let my imagination take over. For example, my first “diet club” mystery, Throw Darts at a Cheesecake, was the result of wondering what would happen if a maniac was killing off dieters when they reached their goal weight. As far as my plots are concerned, I rarely go with my first impulse. Instead, I try and find a unique, less clichéd motivation—and conclusion. I’m known as an author who writes twist endings. I love to paint myself into a corner then figure a way out before the paint dries. That can be tricky but it’s part of the fun. Writing should be fun! For the record, it was difficult to contract my diet club series. Editors kept telling me it was “too funny.”
The best part of writing, for me, is surprising myself. By that, I mean writing something in Chapter Two, but not knowing why until it comes together in Chapter Seven. My latest mystery, Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread, has a character named Trenton (Trent). Just a name, right? Later, I built a family around him: Los Angeles (Angel) and twin sisters, Kenner and Metairie, and his baby sister, Boca Raton—all named for the cities in which they were born. While talking to Angel, my sleuth says, “I bet Boca Raton will change her name when she’s older, like you did yours.” And Angel replies, “No, she likes it.”
PC: How do you keep your dialogue authentic and relatable?
DD: I read it out loud to my chocolate Labrador, Magic. If I stumble over a word or sentence, the paragraph needs a rewrite. I also believe that less is more, especially when it comes to dialect. In most cases, foreign or regional dialects require a mere hint of an introduction. My Mary Ellen Dennis 1861 saga, STARS OF FIRE, stars a Scottish lassie. When we first meet Jenny as a child, she speaks with a burr (the hero says she has the “purr of a kitten in her voice”), but I’d drive my readers bonkers if I kept the burr throughout the book, so she only lapses into a Scottish br-r-r-rogue when she’s agitated or fr-r-r-rightened.
PC: You have a heroine who is a diet guru – is Deni a health nut, too?
DD: I’m not a health nut, but I do try to eat balanced meals. At one time I thought a balanced meal was fried chicken, fried okra, cheesecake and ice cream (meat, veggies, cheese and dairy). But nowadays I “kill” anything fried and substitute frozen yogurt for ice cream.
PC: What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing? Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
DD: When I first began writing, I typed up a goal list:
2] See my books in a bookstore window and, especially, on a library shelf!
3] Make enough money from my writing to retire from waiting tables!!!
4] Sign an audio contract.
5] Make the NY Times bestseller list (amended later to “make a bestseller list,” after I made a bestseller list).
6] Sell my book to the movies.
I am lucky enough to have realized all those goals, even signed one film option. For the immediate future I want to finish writing Gypsy Rose Lieberman. Gypsy stars a Vaudeville ghost who was—oops!—sawed in half by her magician husband. Gypsy lives “Up There,” or as John Belushi calls it, “Corpses R Us.”
PC: What advice would you share for aspiring writers? What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
DD: My advice is to THINK THINGS THROUGH! I’ve read way too many books and manuscripts where the writer uses illogical motivations in order to fit his or her plotline. Sometimes the author practically screams, “I’m not sure this works, but maybe the reader won’t notice.” Try not to make your characters TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) by sending them into danger without, at the very least, a rottweiler. Never have someone on the phone say, “I know who killed Fred, but I don’t want to say it over the phone. Meet me in the graveyard (deserted warehouse, lonely road) at midnight and come alone.”
An aspiring writer needs the following “tools”:
2] A loner’s temperament.
3] An unhealthy preference for the company of people who are imaginary or dead.
PC: What cautionary advice do you have for writers?
DD: It sounds like a cliché, but show rather than tell. If a writer simply tells me about a character, I feel no emotional connection.
Now, what do I mean by that? Here’s an example:
“I’m impressed by the work you’ve done,” said Mr. Boss.
John Hero 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…
Okay, 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 “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” There was no doubt in his mind that Laura’s sudden death had turned him into a workaholic…
Number two would be books that start with a “weather report.” There are always exceptions, but if you tell me it’s snowing, there had better be a [dead] body part sticking out of the snow. Third would be overuse of a word. Writers should check their manuscripts for the words “just” and “well.” And here’s a “trick” I use. If your character is named “John,” do a search-and-replace and change it to “Bruce.” When you proof your ms, Bruce should stand out like the proverbial sore thumb, and at least 50% of the time it can be changed to “he” or “his.” Oh, and be careful about a character dropping her eyes. They could get stepped on.
PC: You’re coming to Killer Nashville this year, what sets it apart from other conferences? What event are you most looking forward to attending? What sets Killer Nashville apart?
DD: Two words: Jeffery Deaver. I’m an avid Jeffery Deaver fan.
I’ve been asked to sing during the banquet. I love to sing. And, I’ve never been to Nashville. I’m really looking forward to introducing myself to Nashville. I’ve heard the food is fantastic, so I think I’ll go back to my original balanced diet of fried chicken, fried okra, cheesecake and ice cream. But at the risks of alienating potential fans, I don’t “do” grits.
Visit Deni at: http://www.eclectics.com/denise/index.html