Dianne Freeman: Guides the Reader to Murder
Interview by Amy Lignor for Suspense Magazine
Dianne Freeman’s well-researched debut places her in a very unique category. Not only do her characters live in the upstairs/downstairs world of the Victorian age, but they are also extremely fun “whodunits” that readers can sink their teeth into and have an entertaining ride while being awed by the historical ‘sleuthing’ set against true Victorian scenery.
Tinkering with writing most of her adult life while her career path focused on the financial industry, Dianne came upon retirement and her hobby of telling tales (thankfully, for readers) turned into something far more. Taking time out to sit down with Suspense Magazine, Dianne spoke about her debut title, the series that is being spun, as well as how she transitioned from the avid reader to the delighted full-time writer.
Suspense Magazine (S. MAG.): Let us begin with you telling readers exactly what draws you to writing historical mysteries? Have you always been partial to “whodunits”? And why is the Victorian era so fascinating to you?
Dianne Freeman (D.F.): History is all about people, and people are fascinating. We all have the same basic needs and desires, but the era dictates how we go about fulfilling them. I’ve always loved learning how people lived in different eras and trying to put myself in their shoes. Socially, people tended to follow the examples of their leaders and the Victorian era was a little confusing. The queen had a strong moral code and strict social rules, but her son ran with a fast crowd and was a lot more fun. That’s why I think life among the upper class in the Victorian era lends itself to mystery: under society’s watchful eye, everyone is the model of good behavior, but in private, they’re up to something.
MAG.: Your plotline and characters are a whole lot of fun to read; in fact, they will remind many of the beloved Agatha Christie. So…tell us all about your debut, “A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder,” and how it came into being?
D.F.: First, thank you for the lovely compliment! The story is about Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh, whose mother got caught up in the American heiress craze and traded her daughter for the prestige of gaining title in the family. Nine years have passed and Frances is now a widow yearning for independence. With her young daughter, she moves away from the family home to live on her own for the first time in her life. From that point, everything that can go wrong, does—including a shortage of funds, a series of burglaries, a visit from her marriage mad sister, and a murder. Though she has no idea what she’s doing, Frances faces these problems with aplomb, calling on all her resources—including gossipy friends and a handsome neighbor—to flush out the killer.
Writing has always been a hobby for me. Once I retired, I decided to try my hand at a novel. As I mentioned, the Victorian era is a favorite of mine and the American heiress concept came from reading Edith Wharton’s “The Buccaneers” long ago. Further research showed me the real women in Wharton’s world didn’t all meet with such wretched ends. I liked the idea of a more upbeat version where my heiress pushes some boundaries. And because I love a good mystery, I thought I’d give her a knack for solving crimes.
MAG.: Will this be a series? If so, what was it about these particular characters and/or location that made you want to explore them further?
D.F.: “A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder” is the first in the Countess of Harleigh series. I’m working on the third book now, and I’ve really enjoyed exploring Frances’ growth. She was born to a privileged family and the price she paid was duty to that family. She married the man her mother chose, she learned how to be the grand lady of the house and shouldered all the responsibility that entailed. At twenty-seven she thinks she’s paid her dues, and with her husband’s death, she sees a chance for independence; a chance to be her own woman.
I love watching her grow into that role. She still has to live by the strict rules of society. Her outward behavior must be above reproach, but with a little ingenuity, she can work her way around the rules. She’s become creative and cunning, but ever watchful of her reputation.
MAG.: Do you have personal favorites in regards to authors who write in this genre? Is there one who you wish you could sit down with and talk to? If so, who would it be and what, above all, would you want to know about them and their career?
D.F.: I’m lucky to have two wonderful mystery-centric bookstores nearby—Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop when I’m in Michigan, and The Poisoned Pen when I’m in Arizona, so I do have the chance to talk with some of my favorite mystery authors. Since I began writing, my questions tend to involve balancing work and life. I write every day, and it can be difficult to pull my head out of the 1890s and pay attention to the here and now.
MAG.: You speak on your website about attending writers’ conferences. Can you tell readers how they help and what they add to your writing journey?
D.F.: Writers’ conferences are a great opportunity to learn more about our craft and the business of publishing: What can an agent do for you? What should you put in a query letter? What are editors looking for? But the best part of a conference is time spent in the company of other writers. Whether they’re published, in the query trenches, or just starting out, it’s both a joy and a relief to talk with people who completely get you and your need to write.
MAG.: What made you get back into writing and decide that now was the perfect time to put your pen to paper (or, rather, your fingers on the keyboard)?
D.F.: This is an easy answer—I retired. I know many writers who have full-time jobs, are raising children, and still manage to write, but I don’t know how they do it. I could never find the time to write on a regular basis until I retired. As soon as that time became available, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.
MAG.: Besides conferences, are there other things you do that help you learn and grow as a writer that you would recommend to others?
D.F.: I read—as much as possible. Both in and out of my genre. I also work with two critique partners. It’s amazing how much I learn by helping another writer with a manuscript. I find it so much easier to find a problem (and often a solution) in someone else’s work, and once I do, I can bring that clarity to my own edits. The reverse is also true. Having their eyes on my manuscript is invaluable.
MAG.: Along those lines, what advice would you give to the up-and-comers who are struggling to begin a writing career: something you think they absolutely should do, as well as one thing you hope they absolutely will not do?
D.F.: I’d advise anyone who wants to make writing a career to seek out other writers, not only for the purpose of critique, but for support and advice. If there are no writers’ groups in your area, get online. With all the writers’ Facebook groups and the Twitter writing community, this does not have to be a solitary pursuit.
Something a writer should never do is a little more difficult because everyone works differently, but I think this is good advice for most of us—don’t agonize over your first draft. First drafts are for getting the story down and are not meant for anyone’s eyes but your own, which leads me to a “don’t” that should apply to everyone. Never submit a first draft to an agent or editor.
MAG.: Are you the type of writer who “schedules” a certain amount of hours that you will work on a book per day, or are you one of those who sits down and writes when the feeling strikes them? With your books being set in the Victorian era, do you spend a lot of time researching facts so that your backdrop—from fashions worn to what locations looked like back then—are as real as possible?
D.F.: I don’t actually schedule my writing time but I do try to write every day—anywhere from two hours to several, depending on whether the words are flowing or dribbling. And I love research. I can lose myself in the newspaper archives for hours researching crimes, policing, and the court system. Since I use very specific time periods, it’s also good to know if any major events took place that the characters should be aware of, as well as what technology was available and in use by the average person. I tend to go overboard and dig up details I’m unlikely to use, but the more I immerse myself in the history, the better I can convey a sense of the era to readers.
MAG.: What projects are you currently working on?
D.F.: I’m currently working on the third book in the Countess of Harleigh series, tentatively titled “A Lady’s Guide to Weddings and Murder,” where a dozen relatives of the bride and groom are gathered at a country house party that turns deadly.
After reading the first title, meeting up with the colorful Countess of Harleigh, and delving into what is sure to be an incredible series, readers everywhere will be extremely pleased that Dianne Freeman never let go of that desire and passion to tell a fantastic story. This is one example of “retirement” that we can all benefit from. For more information on upcoming events and titles, check in with Dianne at www.DiFreeman.com. ■