Welcome to the one hundred and fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with historical / mystery writer Mary Ellen Dennis aka Denise Dietz. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello, Denise. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Denise: In high school I wrote and illustrated a children’s book called “Herbert the Giant,” about a giant who lived in a town of near-sighted people. No one knew he was a giant until a peddler came to town selling glasses…
Upon graduating from University, I worked as an actress, a professional singer, and a journalist. I wrote short fiction for fun, but decided to write a novel when I was working part time as a lecturer for Weight Watchers and watching members weight in. I thought: Wouldn’t it be funny if some maniac was killing off diet club member when they reached their goal weight? What if people were eating as if their lives depended on it? For the title I used a line from a Gilda Radner quote about dieting: Throw Darts at a Cheesecake. That book, starring diet club leader Ellie Bernstein, was followed by Beat Up a Cookie, Chain a Lamb Chop to the Bed, and Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread.
In 2006, as Mary Ellen Dennis, I wrote The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter, inspired by Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” Mary Ellen’s bibliography also includes Stars of Fire (American West, 1860-61), Heaven’s Thunder (1893-1923, with an emphasis on Colorado’s silent film industry) and The Greatest Love on Earth (1875 circus historical).
Morgen: Wow, what a beginning. 🙂 Can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Denise: Absolutely. I was a “library kid.” I’d come home with stacks of books anchored by my chin—picture a plump Shirley Temple with red curls—so it was pure serendipity when I was finally able to land my feet in the place that got me hooked on books in the first place. I was so excited, I shouted, ‘Me! Me! Me!’ as I ran up and down aisles. People stared at me. I changed my chant to ‘Come! Come! Come!’ and herded them to the shelf of new fiction. ‘Me! Me! Me!’ I explained, pointing to a copy of Throw Darts at a Cheesecake.
Morgen: I love that image… and those titles. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do?
Denise: For many years I wrote during the day and waited tables at night, and I’d give out bookmarks with the bill of fare. Nowadays, every time I travel I wear a green T-shirt that says FOOTPRINTS IN THE BUTTER (in white letters) on the front and An Ingrid Beaumont Mystery co-starring Hitchcock the Dog on the back (I have another dark green shirt that says BEAT UP A COOKIE). I’ve never walked through an airport, or even taken an elevator, without at least one person asking me what my T-shirt means. Whereupon, I give out promo material. That said, the best promotion is word-of-mouth. I truly believe cream rises to the top, so I try and write the very best book I can.
Morgen: I think you’re braver than I am but then my eBooks aren’t ready yet. 🙂 Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Denise: I’ve been a finalist for “most humorous mystery,” an award given by the Left Coast Crime convention. Sales spiked for that book, Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread, and my publisher was very happy. However, I have conflicting emotions when it comes to competitions. Years ago I entered the first draft of my 1875 circus historical in RWA’s Golden Hearts. The opening chapters include a circus train. I received the lowest score possible and was told it was because trains hadn’t been invented yet (in 1875!)
Morgen: How infuriating (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rail_transport is a great page by the way). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Denise: I don’t have an agent. I use a literary attorney to go over my contracts. I’m not certain agents are vital to an author’s success, but it really depends on the author.
Morgen: I tend to agree and would go the same route (although I’d probably forward any contracts to my novelist friends in the first instance then go legal if they thought I needed to, but yes better to be sure). Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Denise: My backlist is available at various e-venues. Yes, I do read eBooks. However, I’m an associate editor for a major publisher and have been reading electronic submissions for several years, so I consider it a “treat” to read paper books.
Morgen: Ah, so you have good legal contacts, that makes sense. And yes, paperback are treats. 🙂 What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Denise: In 1991, the senior editor of Walker & Co. phoned as I was getting ready to leave my house and wait tables at a restaurant called The Olive Garden. He offered me a two-book contract. Heart soaring, walking on air, I arrived at the restaurant without my pens, my corkscrew wine opener, my “bank” (the money a server carries in order to make change), even my apron! My manager chastised me severely for being “out of uniform”…so I made him a corpse in my second “diet club” mystery, Beat Up a Cookie.
Getting accepted is still a major thrill. I was over the moon when an offer was made for my saga, Heaven’s Thunder, which took 10 years to research and write, plus another 10 years to market (publishers kept telling me readers didn’t like sagas).
Morgen: Wow. Kudos to you for the staying power. 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Denise: It took me 7 years to sell my first book. Editors said it was “too funny.” I didn’t want to kill the humour (my trademark), so I kept deepening the mystery. After every rejection I rewrote my book. One night a restaurant hostess cocked her head and splayed her hands across her hips. “Seven years?” she said. “You’ve been trying to get published for seven years? I would have given up by now!” I replied, “If you drop a dream, it breaks.”
The Greatest Love on Earth, my 1875 historical romance, had two rejections. The first editor wrote: “I don’t like circus books.” The second wrote: “I LOVE the writing and I felt like I was really there, at the circus, but I wouldn’t know how to market this book.” I still remember, word-for-word, a rejection for Footprints in the Butter. The editor said, “The heroine is engaging, the plot works, and I love the dog, but I didn’t find anything special about the book.” How about engaging heroine, workable plot and lovable dog? Published in hardcover by a small press, reviewed favourably, it had excellent sales and made some bestseller lists. Then it was published in paperback by Harlequin. Then Thorndike (US) and BBC Library (UK) put out large-print editions. Now the book is at all eBook venues. It is also available as a FULL-CAST audio book, and readers of this blog can get a discount if they go to Siren Audio – http://www.sirenaudiostudios.com/footprints – and use the code: Foot511.
Morgen: Ooh great, thank you for that. 🙂 “If you drop a dream, it breaks.” I love that. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Denise: A brand new mystery, 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.” I’m also working on a new historical romance called The Midnight Bridge.
Morgen: Gypsy Rose Lieberman sounds hilarious. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Denise: I write from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Then I take my chocolate Labrador retriever, Magic, to the park and we play tennis. If Magic could hold a racquet, she’d win Wimbledon.
Morgen: Ah bless. I can’t see my Jack Russell-cross doing that although he would have chased the balls when he was younger (he’s 10½ now). That said he loved the sea when we went last week (only his second visit) and he hates the bath so who knows? Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Denise: I rarely if ever plot my stories, but I do need an idea/concept.
To explain what I mean, I’m going to use The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter as an example.
Concept: A highwayman feels that his true love, an innkeeper’s daughter, betrayed him 500 years ago. Will she betray him again?
Characters: Elizabeth (Bess), beautiful and intelligent, a successful authoress who writes Gothic romances. John Randolph Remington (Rand), who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. Walter Stafford, a despicable lawman who wants to wed Bess so he can bed her.
Physicality: Bess looks like British actress Claire Foy. Rand looks like Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans. Walter looks like Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd.
Before I start writing, I need a title. “The Highwayman Came Riding”? No. Aside from a possible innuendo, it’s not memorable. How about “The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter.” Yes! Visual and evocative.
Armed with a title, the main characters, a concept, research materials, and a map of Newgate Prison (so I can plot Bess and Rand’s escape), I’m off and running.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable (yours certainly sound like they are)?
Denise: My characters tend to create themselves, leading me hither and yon, but almost always in the right direction. What makes them believable is a lesson I learned from historical romance author Maggie Osborn, bless her generous heart. She complimented me on a scene I had written, where I described an opulent apartment. Then she added, “Now, how does your heroine FEEL when she enters that apartment?” Ever since, I’ve asked myself how my characters feel, no matter what the setting. It sounds simplistic, but it’s the difference between “tell” and “show.”
Morgen: Absolutely. Tells are so easy to write without realising. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Denise: My husband, novelist Gordon Aalborg. I met Gordon through an on-line authors’ list. He lived in Tasmania, I lived in Colorado Springs. We decided to write a romantic suspense together and fell in love. He asked me to marry him. I said, “I think we should meet face-to-face, first.” He suggested I fly to Australia. I said I had a deadline. He said (and I quote), “Silly wench, I have a computer.” I applied for a passport and flew to Tasmania. The honeymoon worked out fine, so we both sold our homes and bought a heritage cottage on Vancouver Island. And we said our vows at a writers conference.
Gordon writes romances under the pseudonym Victoria Gordon – http://www.victoriagordonromance.com – and I’ve got to admit, you’ve never been romanced until you’ve been romanced by a romance author. In two months we’ll celebrate our 11th anniversary!
Gordon not only inspires me, but I write my books in the beautiful office he built for me; an office that includes research books, a framed poster of Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, a chiseled rock that says CREATE, a merry-go-round horse (merry-go-rounds play an important part in my circus historical, The Greatest Love on Earth), and a stuffed “deadline vulture” named Michael—after my first editor.
Morgen: “vows at a writers conference” – I love the thought of that. 🙂 And boy what a story… a plot. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Denise: I always do lots of editing…and lots of revising. I’d still be editing and revising my published books if they hadn’t been published. 🙂 I rewrote my backlist—from start to finish—before putting them up on Amazon’s Kindle.
Morgen: I think most writers could go edit forever. I tend to do 3-4 edits then send it to my editor and then just look at the changes she suggests, nothing more. I don’t have time apart from the fact that I’m more than ready to move on. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Denise: I’ve never written on paper. I started my career with a typewriter, but now I’m grateful every day for my wonderful computer.
Morgen: Me too. 🙂 What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Denise: No music. I’ve been a professional singer. If background music played, I’d jump to my feet and replicate that scene from Risky Business where Tom Cruise sings, “I love that old time rock and roll,” only I’d wear knickers rather than tighty whities.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Denise: If they are relevant to the story, I like prologues. However, in 20 published books and stories, I’ve only written one. Instead, I tend to write “Introductions.” Here’s an example of the brief intro I wrote for The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter:
6 April, 1766
Seated beside the open coffin, the watchers waited. They waited to see whether Barbara Wyndham’s body moved. They watched intently while mourners trailed past. Blind belief said that if Barbara’s body began to bleed, ’twould identify her murderer.
There was some question as to whether Barbara had suffered a seizure of the heart and fallen and hit her head on a rock. Or had she been struck by some unknown hand?
Seven-year-old Elizabeth Wyndham watched with the watchers, but her mother remained motionless.
“Mama,” Elizabeth whispered, “are you sleeping?”
“Your mother sleeps evermore, my Bess,” said Lawrence Wyndham, lifting his daughter up into his arms.
Elizabeth pressed her tear-streaked face against his shoulder. At the same time, she wondered with a twinge of fear how it would feel to sleep evermore.
Morgen: Isn’t amazing how much can be conveyed in a short passage, and we really feel for Elizabeth. I’d love more sleep but not ready yet for evermore. 🙂 Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Denise: Yes, because I always seem to be ahead of my time. Seventeen years ago I wrote a story called The Last Great American Beauty Pageant about a TV reality show. People said, “What kind of show?” My crime fiction novel, Eye of Newt, stars a witch, and it’s filled with my trademark humour. “Witchcraft is too dark,” an editor said dismissively, never realizing that in a few years we’d have Buffy and Charmed, Twilight and Harry Potter. When I first wrote Eye of Newt, the most egregious thing a witch did was twitch her nose.
Morgen: Perhaps not too late to update and release them now. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Denise: First, aspiring authors should remember that the name of the game is emotions. If the sad bits don’t make you shed a tear, you’ve likely done it wrong. If the sexy bits don’t turn you on, they likely will fail to do it for your reader. You need believable characters in believable situations, with REAL emotions your readers can share. Second, try not to make your characters TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) by sending them into danger without, at the very least, a rottweiler.
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.
And be careful about a character dropping his or her eyes. They could get stepped on.
Morgen: I can safely say I tick all three boxes, thank you Denise… and I’ll watch out for those eyes. 🙂 What do you like to read?
Denise: What don’t I like to read? 🙂 I devour books like I devour chocolate-covered pretzels, except books are less fattening.
Morgen: Yum. I don’t think we can get those in the UK. Plain or sour definitely. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Denise: I recommend Stephen King’s On Writing, and a wonderful essay on Self-Editing, written by my husband Gordon: http://www.gordonaalborg.com.
Morgen: If I had a pound (or a dollar, I’m not fussy) for every mention of ‘On Writing’… and every time I said that I have it and must read it (it’s got as far as my bedside table). In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Denise: I’m based in Canada, my books are set in England and the United States, and except for Harlequin, my publishers are in the States. That’s not a hindrance in this age of electronics. Just look how many avid, intelligent readers I’m “meeting” today by posting on this blog. Hopefully, some of you will give my books a try.
Morgen: I hope so too. 🙂 Speaking of which, where can we find out about you and your work?
Denise: The best way is to visit my website – http://www.denisedietz.com – or my Denise Dietz Amazon page.
Morgen: Which is http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=denise+dietz. 🙂 Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Denise: My daughter Sandi is caring, feisty, and intelligent, as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. Although my heroines may have different coloured hair, different coloured eyes, even a dusting of freckles, each and every one of them is my beautiful Sandi.
Morgen: (a great picture) Thank you Denise. 🙂
Denise Dietz, a.k.a. Mary Ellen Dennis, developed a love for Alfred Noyes’s poem “The Highwayman” when she was very young. She memorized all the verses, but changed the ending to a happy one. During a grade school speech class, she recited her adaptation. Before she could finish, the bell rang, signaling the end of class, but none of the mesmerized students moved. At that moment in time, Denise decided two things: She’d be an actress and she’d write a novel inspired by her favorite poem (with a happy ending). She has achieved both goals.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
** NEW!! You can now subscribe to this blog on your Kindle / Kindle app!
or http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008E88JN0 for outside the UK **
You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internet, view my Books (including my debut novel, which is being serialised on Novel Nights In!) and I also have a blog creation / maintenance service especially for, but not limited to, writers. If you like this blog, you can help me keep it running by donating and choose an optional free eBook.
For writers / readers willing to give feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.
As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do. I welcome critique for the four new writing groups listed below and / or flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays. For other opportunities see (see Opportunities on this blog).
The full details of the new online writing groups, and their associated Facebook groups, are:
- Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group (http://novelwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/508696639153189)
- Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group (http://poetrywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/388850977875934)
- Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group (http://scriptwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/319941328108017)
- Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group (http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/544072635605445)
We look forward to reading your comments.