Diane Vallere’s mysteries are for women who like “shoes, clues and clothes” – think The Devil Wears Prada with an amateur sleuth on staff. But that’s not the only thing they have in common. They’re also full of humor. Perhaps not so surprising for a writer who lives by one of Coco Chanel’s favorite sayings: “You live but once; you might as well be amusing.”
Hi there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Diane talks about how Doris Day movies brightened her life after divorce and how binge watching TV makes her a better writer.
Six Things you will learn from this podcast
- How Dianne came to love Doris Day as a feisty role model
- Her role in discovering Spanx
- How she keeps five different series alive and pumping
- Why humor is important
- What she’d do differently second time around
- Revealed: Her favorite “binge read” authors
Where to find Diane Vallere:
Facebook and Twitter https://www.facebook.com/DianeVallereAuthor/ and @DianeVallere.
What follows is not a word for word transcript but “near as” repeat of our conversation with links to all the important points.
Jenny: But now, here’s Diane. Hello there Diane, and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Diane: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
Jenny: Beginning at the beginning- was there a ‘Once Upon a Time’ moment when you realised you really wanted to write fiction, and if you didn’t achieve that goal your life would be the poorer for it? If so, what was the catalyst?
Diane: I grew up loving children’s mystery series, and for a long time I had wanted to write a children’s mystery series, like a Trixie Belden. But I didn’t have any ideas, so it was more a general thought.
Then I was working in retail one day, and I had an idea for an adult woman who discovers the dead body of her boss on the first day of her new job. It was kind of like an adult version of a children’s mystery series, and once that happened it all clicked; once I had that idea, I became very driven to sit down and write it. It wasn’t just this general thought cloud anymore.
Jenny: It sounds like a slightly psychological situation. Did you secretly want to get to your boss!
Diane: My first victim was someone I worked for, so there was a bit of working through aggression I guess!
Jenny: You’ve now got five series which range from cosy mysteries to comedy and “Chick Lit”. I guess that’s going to encapsulate quite a long story in a fairly short frame, but how did you evolve to five different series?
Diane: Well I started writing about the former fashion buyer turned amateur sleuth. That came very naturally to me, because my background is in fashion and retail.
I felt those were the books I could write, but when I got the idea for Madison Night- the interior decorator who has modelled her life after Doris Day- those were the books I didn’t know I could write.
I had grown up a little in that time – I had gone through things emotionally in my personal life, and that was reflected in the series. It allowed me to see that different parts throughout my life connected to different emotions of a character so when I came up with an idea for someone, I could then identify with a time in my life and say “this is what this character is feeling and working through”. That’s what allowed me to keep coming up with different people and keep them separate.
Jenny: Sure. Perhaps if we mention that the first series was the Samantha Kidd ‘Style & Era’ series, and you’ve now done seven books in that sefries. When they were initially launched, they were described as “Devil Wears Prada meets Murder She Wrote” which is quite a neat little way of encapsulating them, isn’t it!
Diane: Yes, it is. I’m delighted with that quote!
Jenny: And then Madison, she’s 47 – I just happened to notice that she is perhaps a little older than some of the heroines of these types of series, and she is going through a stage of life that is relevant for a mid-life person, so I found that also very interesting. I love the Doris Day aspect of it too. It sounds like you’re a Doris Day fan yourself, or you wouldn’t be able to write it quite so convincingly; is that right?
Diane: Yes, it is true. Now here’s what’s interesting about that – I didn’t see my first Doris Day movie till I was 39, and I was going through my divorce in a very emotionally isolated place myself. I was watching a lot of Hitchcock movies, and the first Doris Day movie I saw was the ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’.
As soon as I saw that movie, I thought “wow, Doris Day is nothing like I thought she’d always be like”. I thought she was going to be very fluffy and sweet- she wasn’t. She was this multidimensional character and I just really liked her, so I immediately rented all the movies that I could get my hands on, and just fell in love with her.
I think that’s where the Madison Night books came from- there was that emotional darkness I was in, but there was this brightness and happiness as I was discovering this whole world of Doris Day movies. I think that’s what kind of fused together to create that Madison Night world.
Jenny: It’s really interesting to me that you’ve described it this way, because you do sense with the books that they each treat a different aspect of life. I wonder when you were writing them, were you adopting different personas?
Diane: I’m kind of putting on whatever the emotional core of each character is when I’m writing the book. I always try to have the character grow in each book – Samantha will grow from book to book but Madison’s growth is very different from book to book. I always have to find what it is that makes that character who they are, and what would be the next thing for them to develop, so that they’re constantly learning, maturing and changing from book to book.
Jenny: Sure. Now you’ve got quite a coveted position – you’re both Indie published and traditionally published, and I love the name of your publishing press, the Polyester Press. I don’t know whether that relates but the name of your ‘Material Witness’ series heroine is Polyester Munroe – I thought that’s a wonderful name!
Diane: Yes! I took a lot of heat for that. A lot of fabric people and sewers said “why did you have to name her Polyester, couldn’t you of picked a better fabric?” and I thought that’s just the key. Someone who grows up with the name Polyester is going to have gone through a certain amount of ribbing in her life. So it worked very well!
Jenny: Which came first; the Indie publishing or the traditional, and how did that develop?
Diane: The Indie publishing came first. I had been trying to sign with an agent for a couple of years, and while I was on that it felt like a hamster wheel- you’re running and trying to get to some place but you’re actually not getting anywhere.
I was hearing about Indie publishing and I got to the point where I was really excited about the idea of taking control and trying to do it myself and forging a whole different path to what I had anticipated.
What turned out to be the case was in doing that, it opened the doors for traditional publishing for me. When I started Indie publishing, my goal was to not look back and regret having indie published. Everything I thought I was going to get from traditional publishing, I wanted to try and provide for myself.
So I asked other authors if they would give me quotes for the book, and an author took my book and gave it to her editor at a traditional publishing house and said “you’ve never seen this book, it’s going to be self published. I think you should read it, it would fit your line”.
The publisher wrote to me and asked if I would consider pulling my plans to self publish and rewrite the book for them. At that point I said I was really happy with what it was, and I did have other ideas. That’s how I got a foot in the door. That was at Penguin Random House, and that’s where the series came from.
Jenny: Great. And Penguin – that’s one of the top houses to be with, so you really have smashed it on both levels. Your books also have been nominated for awards in a number of categories haven’t they?
Diane: Yes. People seem to like the humour of them.
Jenny: Yes they are all funny, and that brings me to one of your favourite quotes I saw online from Coco Chanel- “if you live but once, you might as well be amusing”. You really do seem to live by that yourself!
Diane: Well I think it’s so easy for us all to take ourselves very seriously. I’m as big of a victim of this as anybody, but I do think that quote is great because it does tell you to have fun. Whatever you’re doing, try and find a way to have fun with it, try to find the enjoyable part of anything. If something’s really awful, just know it’s temporary and focus on other things if you can. Surround yourself with colour, and yes, always try to be amusing even if you’re just amusing yourself.
Jenny: So give us an idea of the time frame here; when you started writing Samantha Kidd, how many books did you self publish and then when did you start introducing Madison Night?
Diane: I published the first Samantha Kidd book and then the next book I published was the first Madison Night book. I wasn’t sure I was going to do that, but I felt very strongly about both characters and so I didn’t want one set of characters to be more important than the other. So I was alternating the series.
What happened was a small press in Texas, Henery Press, was interested in Madison Night and that was around the time Penguin approached me about the material witness books. I thought, I don’t know how much I can do on my own, so it made sense to turn Madison over to Henery Press, so that’s when I diversified.
At that point I kept Samantha because I loved having complete control over that series, and I do love the indie path for that reason. But it also took a big burden of work off my plate to have Henery Press and Penguin Random House get those other books out as well.
Jenny: What does a yearly schedule look like for you at the moment?
Diane: I’m trying to write five to six books a year. That’s a lofty goal – it’s January so I don’t know if I’m going to hit that goal, but I’m certainly going to try. That doesn’t mean they’re all going to come out this year- some of them are going to come out early next year, but I always have to work pretty far ahead of the game. Traditional publishing is definitely further out than self publishing.
Jenny: Does that mean basically one book for each series; is that how it works?
Diane: Pretty much, yes. There will be a new series I want to start later in the year if I can, and I’m not writing any additional material witness books right now. Although I do have an idea for another one, but I’m not planning on writing it right away, so that’s on the back burner.
Jenny: Tell us about your latest one, Sylvia in Outer Space. That’s sounds out there!
Diane: I had the idea for that a couple of years ago, just writing a cosy mystery that was set in outer space. This was another one of those things where it just felt so unusual that it won’t feel like I’m writing the same book that I’ve already written over and over.
That’s something I was worried about; I don’t want one series to sound like another series, so having one set in outer space felt fresh. I am a fan of Star Trek and Gerry Anderson outer space things, so I didn’t have a hook for it and once again it was just in the back of my mind for a while until one day I woke up and thought “she is the uniform manager”.
As soon as that clicked, that was that. I always have that clothing tie in with each book, and as soon as I knew she could manage uniforms I thought that was the tie in with the clothes they wear, and she’s in charge of that. She then will pick up clothes based on what markings people have on their uniforms, and what rank they are and things like that. So it all fell into place, and it was so much fun to write.
Jenny: I’m glad you mentioned that because your tagline on your website is “for woman who like shoes, clues and clothes”. And that passion really does shine through in your work. I imagine when you were working for your retailer you were a very good buyer, because you can tell that you just adore fashion and one of the other little factoids that I picked up looking at various websites was that one of your heroes is Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. You were the buyer who placed the first ever order for Spanx in your store. That’s a pretty nice little accolade to be able to claim!
Diane: It was a very nice accolade! I was new in the job as a hosiery and lingerie buyer, and I had appointments with tons of people who wanted to show me their samples and see if they could get me to write an order. I remember when she came in and I had said no to so many different people just looking at the product. She was nervous and she pulled her sample out of her backpack, and I think she said she thought she was losing me. So she actually said, “can we go to the restroom and I’ll give you a before and after demonstration?”, and she changed in and out of them. I thought it was a great idea, so I called my boss.
My boss said ‘I don’t get it, but if you think it’s a good idea go ahead and write an order”. So I wrote the order, and we sold out very quickly and it just snowballed from there. We had it exclusively at my retailer for about 6 months.
Jenny: Fantastic. Have you got any other designers that have featured in your work?
Diane: One of the things I love about writing the Samantha Kidd books is that she is the most “fashiony” of the characters that I write so I actually get to dress her in all sorts of wacky things. If I were her age and her build, I would want to wear and have the money to blow. So I can have her wear vintage from the 80’s, and I put her in camouflage pants in one book and all different things.
Sometimes I will actually go online shopping to find outfits- I will then describe these on her in the book. I try not to drop too many designer labels because I want it to be more about the actual clothes than the label in the clothes. I do make that distinct.
Jenny: Perhaps now in more general terms, moving away from specific books- is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Diane: I think probably always driving towards whatever the next thing is. So never being satisfied with “it’s done, it’s over”, but always thinking “how can I make it better, how can I improve, what else can I learn”, and constantly trying to improve. The number one thing was not waiting to be perfect. I think it’s so easy to get hung up on trying to be perfect and trying to have a perfect book, and it’ll never be perfect.
You’ll always want to edit it, you will always open onto a random page and find a word in there that is missing a letter, or something else you didn’t notice and you want to change. So I think being able to let go and publish that first book, even though I did have to go back and I did make some changes, that was a big thing. Just being able to say that moving forward is more important than standing still.
Jenny: Sure. You’ve blogged very amusingly, and I might add intelligently about binge watching TV and what it’s taught you about story structure. To just get a little bit serious for a moment- a lot of people are saying that the initiative now has passed to TV instead of books, and setting the cultural agenda. That piece that you wrote really made me think “wow I really think Diane understands that process”.
Diane: Well I find that binge watching on TV helps you understand story structure, and it pulls you out of your own work a little bit. You start to internalise a pace and start to see conflict, getting engaged in these characters. You might not immediately know why you’re engaged, but as you start to study it you become more drawn into it and I think that can translate very well into books.
Jenny: And I suppose the episodic TV feeds quite well with the series thing doesn’t it? You’ve got the same characters but you’re developing new things.
Diane: Yes absolutely. That’s the fun and the challenge of writing a series- each book has its own conflict, and the conflict gets resolved at the end of the book. But then if you’re going to write another book in that series, you have to come up with a new conflict because the characters are still dealing with the same conflict, and I think readers will get bored. I think it’s important to always find the next thing that this character is conflicted by.
Jenny: Do you think that the whole thing of binge watching on TV and Netflix and those networks has encouraged binge reading of e-books? Is that a whole technical resolution that’s taking place?
Diane: I think a little bit yes. At the end of Thanksgiving every year I start binge reading a series- I pick a series, and my only rule is that it has to have at least 15 books in the series. I just start with book one, and I read until I’ve read all the books in that series.
I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and there’s something educational without actually having to study it that you start to realise when you’re reading the same characters over and over again. You’re just completely in their world and enjoying their world but you’re getting to see how an author can keep it fresh for 15 different books. It is very much the same as binge watching a TV show- as soon as an episode ends, you want to go and start the next one. So I think there is something about being able to do that- it’s very attractive.
Jenny: That brings us very nicely into talking about Diane as reader, so tell us a little about your reading in the past- first of all earlier in your career, but I’d love to hear about these ones that have 15 books you’ve been binge reading the last couple of years!
Diane: I used to love reading children’s mystery series growing up; Nancy Drew, Connie Blair and Trixie Belden were really my favourites.
I also used to love Judy Bloom and a series called Sweet Dreams Romances and Beverly Cleary. So between all of that I think that’s where my voice came from- you had a lot of those coming of age stories, but then you also had a lot of mysteries and adventures. That’s how I really wanted to put together female amateur sleuths solving crimes but also having personal lives; things they were trying to navigate.
I had a period of time where I wasn’t reading that much- it was earlier in my working career, and I don’t know why because I always loved reading but I got away from it. When I moved from Pennsylvania to Texas, I was very much a fish out of water and I discovered the public library was a block away from where I worked. So I went on my lunch break and that was the day I discovered Janet Evanovich.
A light bulb went off in my head, and I thought this is what I want to do, but a grown up version. From that moment, that’s where I got the idea for Samantha Kidd. From then I just really enjoyed reading humorous mysteries- I do like thrillers and some darker things but I definitely liked the humour mysteries the most. I do like Womens’ Fiction and Chick Lit as well.
Jenny: That’s fantastic. So the Stephanie Plum ones are the least cosy aren’t they, slightly more on the crime thriller edge?
Diane: The Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum ones are humorous- the first three are less cosy, but the Janet Evanovich is the most humorous of them. Sara Paretsky is on the darker side, so they’re not really humorous but they are Private Investigator and they really deliver on that person who’s out there whose profession it is to dig into these cases. There’s something fun about that. I write amateur, but I love reading these characters who know what they’re doing and have the resources to find things out instead of sometimes bumbling along with sheer determination.
Jenny: Mystery and Thriller- that broader category- are extremely popular these days, just second behind the Romance. Do your readers tell you why they like reading mysteries?
Diane: I know a lot of people really enjoy the puzzle. Mysteries have that puzzle to solve and I think a lot of mystery readers have that analytical part of their mind and they like to try figure out “whose done it”- trying to beat the amateur sleuth to figure out the crime. I know some people like having romance in their mysteries, and some people don’t. Personally, when I’m reading I do enjoy that, so I try to put that into the books that I’m writing because I think that represents my characters’ lives.
Jenny: Sure, it gives the emotional connection doesn’t it?
Diane: Right. And sometimes because things don’t always go well, it can lend itself to the humour. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you can’t really make the murder part funny. That doesn’t work, so you need other elements in the characters’ lives that can be funny that lift the story up, so that when you go into the murder and the crime part which is naturally dark, you have these ups and downs, emotional peaks and valleys.
Jenny: But the romance is more of the sub- plot isn’t it?
Diane: Yes, absolutely yes.
Jenny: So swooping around perhaps from the beginning to the end- at this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again what would you change, if anything?
Diane: I think I was very impatient for a long time. I was in a hurry, and I wanted to get where I wanted to be fast and I got frustrated. I’m glad I learned as much as I did along the way there, but it was good I learned a lot along the way because it made me understand the process more because I decided to try and do it myself.
So I think it would have been great to have that time, and really appreciate that time for the education that it was.That’s kind of the main thing I’d tell myself, if I could go back and tap myself on the shoulder. Don’t be in such a rush, it’s all going to work out.
Jenny: So what’s next for Diane the writer- what projects do you have under development?
Diane: Well right now I’m writing the sixth Madison Night book- the fifth one comes out in February but I’m writing the sixth one. After that I have Samantha Kidd number eight, and after that I’ll have Sylvia Stryker On The Moon number two. Those are the immediate things I’m working on, and then I have a couple of brand new things I’m hoping to develop by the end of the year.
Jenny: And tell me, just that thing about outlining and pantsing; how much of a planner and a plotter are you, and how much are you a pantser?
Diane: I’m a complete pantser. I tried to plot a book in December- I took a course in it, I thought “everybody says outlining and plotting is a way to do this, maybe I’m just not being smart and I should learn”. I tried to do it, and I froze up, and I couldn’t proceed on the book. I thought, this is wrong. So I set that book aside and started writing Madison number six which I’m writing now. I sat down that day and I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen; I only knew the title. I just sat down and wrote ten pages, and I thought I’m not going to try and plot anymore. That didn’t seem to work for me. So I am very much a pantser.
Jenny: It’s interesting isn’t it, that individual thing. You’d think the logical thing with a mystery would be to have careful plotting points; that you’d need to do a bit of outlining, but obviously not. This is a subconscious thing that’s happening there. You’ve probably written so many now that you’re very familiar with what needs to happen.
Diane: Well I do rely on a spreadsheet where I count my word count every day, and I know how long I want the book to be. I know when I’m getting to the 25% mark, when I’m getting to the halfway point. So I know at those percentages that something big has to happen. So as I’m writing and I see I’m coming up to that part in the manuscript, I don’t now what that is that’s going to happen, but I know something’s going to happen. Sometimes the thought will pop into my head before; it’s almost like it happens in a flash and I surprise myself. Then I’ll get excited because I didn’t it see coming. I feel if it’s exciting to me, then it’s exciting to a reader.
Jenny: I totally agree. I feel if it’s fresh and exciting to you, then it’s totally communicated on the page. So Diane, we are coming to the end of our time now. Can you tell us, where can readers find you online?
Diane: I feel like I’m everywhere online! I have a newsletter I send out weekly on Sundays, called the Weekly Diva. I’m also on Facebook, a little on Twitter, and I do put videos up on YouTube for my books. The videos are the new thing I’ve been trying to do.
Jenny: Great. You have quite a bit of free material and gifts that you give away online too, don’t you?
Diane: I try to. I try to always treat readers well because if there were no readers, there wouldn’t be any need for books.
Jenny: Do you find that people want to communicate?
Diane: I do. I wasn’t sure if they were going to or not when I started sending out the newsletter, but I made some wonderful relationships and friendships with people who write back to me. It’s great, it makes the world feel a little less small and a little less big because we’re scattered all over the place but we all share this enjoyment of mysteries, so I do enjoy that part.
Jenny: Yes, and writing can be an isolating job can’t it?
Diane: Very much so. So that interaction helps to pull me a little out of that world.
Jenny: Do you have people suggesting developments for your characters and what they’d like to see happening next?
Diane: I have not had that much of that. Every once in a while someone will say something, toss something online out there saying “in this book she could do this”. It’s usually not a mystery, it’s usually a tiny thing with Madison because she does mid century decorating and often finds things at thrift shops. People will say “oh she should find something on the street corner” or something like that, but it never has anything to do with the actual book. It’s more the fact that they’ve gotten into the lives of the characters more.
Jenny: Also, it’s always interesting to follow what’s happening or not happening with the romance.
Diane: Right, exactly! Just when you’ve think I’ve made a decision for one of my characters, I still reserve a right to change their mind!
Jenny: Well look it’s been wonderful talking to you today, we’ll certainly have all of the details for where you can be found online on the show notes that’ll go up with this episode. There will be a transcript of our conversation and with links to all of the things we’ve been talking about. It’s wonderful to have had a chance to chat, thanks so much.
Diane: Thank you Jenny, this was really a lot of fun.
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