It’s A Mystery: Footprints in the Butter

Why does an elephant hide behind trees? — To trip ants!

I can still feel myself smiling.  During my sixth or seventh grade year, someone bought me a shirt with plump, funny, elephants all over it.  Underneath the pachyderms were the popular “elephant jokes” of the day, and I wore that top with loving enjoyment of the sillies it brought on.  I think I literally wore the thing out.

"Footprints in the Butter" cover design.

Denise Dietz’s first Ingrid Beaumont mystery, “Footprints in the Butter” — introducing Hitchcock the dog.

Reading Footprints in the Butter by author Denise Dietz transported me back to those days of elephant jokes, flower power, and hippies in a delightful murder mystery that is really set in present day Colorado Springs.  How can this happen?  With a high school class reunion gone awry.

Protagonist Ingrid Beaumont is a singer-songwriter who started her career with a high school group called the Clovers, as in four-leaf.  The group split apart as most groups do, but Ingrid kept writing her songs and music.  She just gave up on making political statements in favor of making a paycheck.

Unfortunately, a different alum of the Clovers took his art, and his love of corny elephant jokes, too far into the world of the “establishment.”  Now Wylie Jamestone has been murdered, and his good bud, Ingrid, is left sifting through the clues of Jamestone’s paintings, jokes, and messy relationships, to figure out who killed Wylie.

The story opens after the latest class reunion is over, and Ingrid has gone to a Bronco’s game, where she’s gotten herself on TV with a rude gesture that would normally embarrass  most old-enough-to-know-better people.  Lucky for Ingrid, that recorded gesture proves her alibi when the police come to her door to tell her that her good friend, Wylie Jamestone, has been murdered. Bludgeoned with a replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”  During investigation of the scene, police find a note attached to a Jamestone painting that reads, “Give this to Ingrid. Let the treasure hunt begin.”

Soon Ingrid’s mind is rushing through song lyrics, old expressions, new phrases dropped by old friends to develop suspect lists among some of the people she was closest to in high school.  One of those suspects is her first love, Ben Cassidy, who has come back into Ingrid’s life in a big way.  Ben is a veterinarian, which is important, because the other love of Ingrid’s life is a gangly mutt named Hitchcock, who is ever faithful and trying-to-please, mostly to dubious success.

The tension rises as Ingrid is nearly poisoned to death, runs off to Texas in search of a fortune-cookie manufacturer, and returns to chaos in the form of her ex-not-quite-ex-husband running from the mob.

This book will challenge anyone who likes a clear step-by-step murder, as Ingrid’s mind and phrasing fire off in a hundred directions at once, but stick with this and you’ll have a great, fun, earthy read.

ABOUT DENI DIETZ

I met Deni as a visiting editor during the 2010 Colorado Gold Conference.  She led me through my pitch session (a five to ten minute meet & greet) with the generous type of listening and questions that helped this nervous author to articulate a little better what my own story was about.  Since my own experience, I have talked to several other authors who have nothing but great feelings for her.

Deni, also known in romance writing as Mary Ellen Dennis, has an impressive collection of books she’s written, including the Ellie Bernstein diet mysteries.  More than 15 novels and contributions to short story anthologies will have you entertained for a long time to come.

Title: Footprints in the Butter
Author: Denise Dietz
Publisher: Cengage Gale

The Brainstorming Process in Creative Writing

I love the process of coming up with ideas.  To me, its like a big party in my head.  If you’ve ever read P.D. Eastman’s, Go, Dog. Go!  you’ll know what I mean.  Just replace the word, “dogs” with “ideas” — Big ideas, little ideas, red ideas, green ideas–well, you get the point.

For many people the brainstorming process takes them way outside their comfort zone.  They are used to going into business meetings to “brainstorm,” but then sit in the same seats they always sit in, use structure fed to them by the management team, and run with ideas presented by someone else.  They might start to say something, but more often than not, an idea not fully formed and researched is judged and shot down. Pretty soon, the room falls silent except for the droning of a bigwig’s voice.  I’m sorry, but that is NOT a brainstorming process that works for me.

Brainstorming process on paper

Brainstorming is messy…and fun!

That’s why I like creative writing.  Each day, the idea is to come up with as many new notions on your subject as possible.  Big notions like, “What if my character, who wants to be a writer, has to overcome dyslexia to do so?” Or small notions like, “what is my character’s favorite snack?” Every day the brainstorm process has you asking questions that are both silly and insightful.  You play in your journal instead of always attempting to write like Shakespeare.

PREPARING FOR YOUR BRAINSTORM PROCESS

One of the biggest keys to brainstorming success, I have found, is to feed your brain lots of new experiences every day before asking it to come up with something “brilliant.”  Some ways to do this include:

  • Reading — right now I have four books I’m reading, and a stack more to charge into when I’m done.  Have you joined Goodreads?  Great, fun site for readers.
  • Watching movies and television — My mom used to yell at us for sitting in front of the “boob-tube”but as she received a new television for several birthdays and Christmases in a row, I think we can ignore her concerns, at least a little bit.  Personally, I love watching the talking heads on MSNBC, then, of course, mystery shows like NCIS, Psych and old reruns of Monk or Murder, She Wrote.
  • Get out of the house — as a person who works from home, this is a very difficult thing to do, but I go to ballroom dance a couple of times a week, and take Prophet to Chatfield State Park daily, where I hear stories of other people’s lives and enjoy the interpretations and antics of lots of dogs and dog owners.  It’s amazing how this can stimulate new thinking.
  • Have conversations — Here again, do it often, but listen with a writer’s attitude.  If someone complains about their heater malfunctioning, and the landlord won’t fix it, there is instant conflict and story ideas can jump off from there.
  • Go onto the Social Media sites and browse around — People are so open with their lives and passions, there is no excuse for an unproductive brainstorm session.  As writers, our main job is to reveal the human condition.  We are indeed living in a lucky time to witness this.

THE BRAINSTORM SESSION

After feeding your brain, and letting your experiences stew for a while, ask your creative side to perform.  Write a question at the top or in the middle of a paper or white board.  Then scribble  all the answers that pop into your head on that paper.  Don’t worry if it’s a good or bad idea–the goal is volume.  Set a timer so you don’t end with a petering off, but with the timer stopping you.  That way you’ll have the thought that “I could have gone on for hours more” instead of “Gee, I don’t have so many ideas.  Maybe I’m not creative enough.”

EVALUATE AND GO!

With the ideas all out on paper, you can scratch off what my old college professor called “moose poop” — things that were good in the moment, but don’t really work anymore. Usually what’s left when this weeding out process is done, are a bunch of solid ideas, and a few surprises.

When an idea surprises a laugh out of me, I know it’s usually quite good.  Something worth building on.  I might even do a second brainstorm session (usually no more than 5 minutes) on the subject.  Suddenly, I can hardly wait to hit my keyboard and put that new thought into play.  Watch out, Daisy.  You’re in for a new wild ride.  Heh, heh.

If you are a brainstorm loving person, what sort of processes do you use?  Can you share your thoughts here?

Happy writing, my friends, and thanks for visiting my site today.

Creating Timelines for Your Story

Yes, yes.  I remember Ms. Hashman’s third grade class where we stuck butcher block paper all around the room in an effort to create a timeline of all human events.  I was totally lost.  Time is a difficult concept for little people.  Heck, given the amount of missed appointments, late meetings, and speeches that drag on forever, seems like time is a difficult concept for everyone.  So why bother tracking it?  And why, especially, track time in a piece of fiction?

Great question.  To me, time is the anchor or plausibility check for my work.  It keeps my characters in appropriate frames of mind and levels of maturity for the story I’m working on.

For example, in “Faith on the Rocks,” Daisy is in  her early fifties, complete with menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and insecurities.  As she goes through more books, I don’t want her stuck in that yuck time of life forever.  Can you imagine?  How cruel!

Kitty, on the other hand, is living in her mid-twenties with “Faith.” I want her growing up more and becoming a wiser, successful woman (maybe even a published author).  That can’t happen without the passage of time and the life lessons learned as a result.

Now, I understand there are several good timeline software packages out in the world, but I’ve always enjoyed the Keep It Smart and Simple principle (notice the nod to Valentines Day here – K.I.S.S.).  I need two ways to record time, but have only recently been building the second one.

TIMELINE ONE: EMPTY BLOCK CALENDAR

Original calendar notes of events for "Faith on the Rocks"

Original calendar of events for “Faith on the Rocks”

This is a great way to map your story so that it isn’t too long or cumbersome to get done.  Learned about this in an RMFW Gold Conference session a few years ago, with author Peggy Waide.  This timeline can be either a calendar or a map of events in your story.  I use a 7 x 5 chart printed landscape on an 8.5″ x 11″ paper.  I saved this map as a blank in my writing notes because when it comes time to mapping my story, I like to work by hand.  I print the calendar a couple of times if necessary, then jot in plot notes.  This way, I can tell at a glance whether the story works or not.

This came in particularly handy when an editor said my story started in September, but we were suddenly nearing Halloween in another part.  I sent her the “calendar”of events, and she was satisfied.  We tweaked a line or two and the novel is good to go.

Ms. Waide’s historical romances take place over longer periods than a month so she uses the blocks to help jog her into plot twists.  End of a “week”? Make something “up the stakes” in your story!  Very cool thought process.  If you ever get a chance to hear Ms. Waide talk, be sure to take it.  She is so full of energy and the spirit of fun, you’ll be sure to learn a lot and have a great time.  But now, back to timelines.

TIMELINE TWO: THE EXCEL SPREADSHEET METHOD

In the final review of my book and beginning of “Sliced Vegetarian,” questions kept popping into my head about what was going on in Daisy’s life, but outside the story area.  I wondered how old Gabe was, and Sam Waters, Daisy’s dog park friend.  The biggest questions came around Ginny’s age and when exactly she and Daisy were together at Independence High.  And when did that Colby Stanton incident occur? Hmm.

Notes weren’t particularly helpful, and thinking things through in my own post-menopausal brain weren’t successful.  I turned to a trusty old friend from my marketing days–Excel.

Now don’t go screaming from the room!  Excel is a really cool tool, and for creative writing it needn’t be complicated or scary.  Here’s what I’ve started:

  1. Set up and save the spreadsheet workbook.  Just hit the save and name your work. Easy-peasy.
  2. I added columns for Year, Event, Notes, and Daisy Books where this is referenced.
  3. Other than the year, I knew I would want to wrap text inside the columns, so I selected the columns by clicking on the letter at the top, then found the Format-> Cells menu item and a pop-up menu showed an Alignment page option.  I clicked on that.
  4. In the lower options box on the Alignment page there’s a little check box for “Wrap Text.”  I clicked that, then returned to my spreadsheet.
  5. In the Year column I put in as my first number, Daisy’s birth year — 1959.  This sort of fit with my story, so that became Daisy’s official birth year.  And, because I think Daisy is so full of jokes and silliness, I gave her a birthday of April 1.  Can you see how suddenly it is so much easier to tell what’s going on in her life?  I have a tangible birthdate–even if Donald Trump would have me if he requested her birth certificate. Heh, heh.
  6. Did you know that once you’ve put a number in an Excel cell, you can click and drag on the lower right corner and advancing numbers will flow right under your mouse?  Pretty cool. Daisy aged in a snap.  I even played with making her 100 years old, before I got down to business.
  7. Next I dragged out the column widths on my sheet to a comfortable size for me. Nothing specific, I just eyeballed what a column width with text should be, and left it at that.
  8. Lastly, I went through my “Faith on the Rocks” outlines and notes and put in important “back story” items.  If something was mentioned in this first book, pop! It got a line on my spreadsheet.

You can play with colors and highlights if you have a complex string of novels, and use the Move or Copy function (right-click on the sheet tab) to create timelines for other characters.  What a fun way to “write” without long, time-consuming, notes!

Hope this helps.  How do you track time, either in life or in your stories?