When I read Darlene Dziomba’s description of her work, “Writing Mysteries. A dog is my muse. Humor is my guide,” I knew I wanted to interview her. I’ve never been able to resist a dog, humor, or a good mystery, and Darlene’s work combines all three! Below are her responses to my interview questions, followed by her bio, buy/contact links, and a blurb about her latest release.
First off, congratulations on your newly released UP CLOSE AND PAWSONAL, the second book in your Lily Dreyfus Mystery series. Can you tell our readers a bit about the book and what inspired your series?
My series comes from my volunteer work at the Animal Welfare Association, a no-kill animal shelter in Voorhees, New Jersey. I walked dogs, made enrichment toys, and cleaned. I’ve washed a lot of floors and cleaned more kennels than I can count. One of the volunteer coordinators organized information sessions and had different staff from the shelter talk about their roles. It was fascinating to learn about the behind-the-scenes operations as well as what avenue of life brought people to their jobs.
In Clues From The Canines, I introduced Lily, who gets drawn into investigating the suspicious death of her boyfriend. She met Pete after he adopted a dog from the shelter. They ran into each other on one of New Jersey’s many nature trails, and nature took its course. At the end of Clues From The Canines, one of Lily’s meddling friends chooses Pete’s memorial service to fix her up with a new man.
Up Close And Pawsonal opens six weeks later with Lily on a date with the man, Jim. They are at an outdoor concert, and a drive-by shooting kills two band members. Lily discovers that one of those band members is her coworker Ingrid’s nephew and becomes determined to find out the root cause of the shooting. Lily gains insight into the motivations behind the shooting from her friend Lucinda. Lucinda is an auditor tasked with auditing grant funds given to the Camden County police department for use in the war on drugs. Lily will leash together a series of seemingly unrelated events to make the perpetrator heel.
Lily, your female sleuth is the Adoption Coordinator at an animal shelter. To what extent is she modeled after you or folks you’ve known with the volunteer work you do with animal welfare?
Lily is modeled after me in that she is an introvert who is far more comfortable sitting on the couch with her dogs than interacting with people. Aside from that, I intended to create a character that I admired. Lily had a prestigious career working for a very prominent hospital. While she excelled at her work, she was frustrated by the limitations the bureaucracy placed on her and felt her mental health suffering. On the advice of a good friend, Lily applied for the job of Adoption Coordinator. She takes a professional and financial risk that pays off in her overall well-being.
The person in the book most modeled after someone I knew at the shelter is Lily’s boss, Martin. He represents the person to whom I reported as a volunteer. Michael had an enormous personality with a sardonic sense of humor. One day I arrived for my volunteer shift, and he flippantly asked me if I was there to clean. I squinted my gaze at him and answered, “No, I’m here for your charming personality. I have to clean to experience that.” That remark cast a dye that set the tone for our relationship as boss and volunteer. Staff would wait for me to arrive to see what type of verbal sparring Michael and I would engage in. Michael has moved on to another career, but in every scene with Martin, I think of him and laugh. Our interactions made being a volunteer enormous fun.
In a series, there’s the overall arc of the series, but there’s also a character arc for each book. How has Lily changed from your first book in the series, CLUES FROM THE CANINES?
Lily gains an understanding that she needs to drop the façade of confident and impenetrable and be vulnerable. She is early forties and single because she couldn’t get past her social awkwardness to build a long-lasting relationship. The love interest, Jim, is determined to forge a bond. In Up Close And Pawsonal, Lily suffers from PTSD after the drive-by shooting. She tries to hide her anxiety, but Jim can sense the underlying issue. He encourages her to talk with a friend’s wife, who is a psychologist. Spoiler alert, Lily and the wife will team up in book 3.
I loved your description of your work: “Writing Mysteries. A dog is my muse. Humor is my guide.” Have dogs and humor always been important parts of your own life?
Humor is an enormous part of my life. It is how I cope with being stressed or nervous. When you make people laugh, it eases the tension of any situation. I was chosen to be on a panel at Malice Domestic 2022. I was telling some coworkers how nervous I was. One said to me, “I don’t know why you’d be nervous. You’re incredibly entertaining.” I thought about that sitting on the dais and used my sense of humor to entertain the audience.
When I adopted my dog Tugger, people told me I smiled more than they had ever seen me smile. Tugger had a host of personality quirks, and It became clear how he ended up in an animal shelter, but I would turn the messes he made of my home into stories that made people laugh.
This may offend people, and I apologize, but coming home to a dog whose tongue is hanging out, and they’re ecstatic to see you is the best feeling you can have. Whatever crappy meeting you had to be in at work or thinly veiled insults you had to tolerate are erased when that dog’s face lights up, and you are all they need to make their life complete.
When Tugger crossed the Rainbow Bridge, I was devastated. Six months later, I was on a dog walking shift at the shelter, and Billie made it very clear that I was who she chose as her human. I adopted her and took her to Dr. Howe Smith for a check-up. Dr. Howe Smith told me it was good to see me, and I said, “I’m a better person when there’s a dog in my life.” He had eight dogs at the time, so he understood.
It is a true statement. I am a better person when there is a dog in my life.
I read that you’ve had a long career in finance. What led you to mystery writing?
I was at Bouchercon, Toronto, in 2017, listening to a panel of authors who all had protagonists in some animal-related career; dog walker, pet sitter, groomer. This thought popped into my head, “I’ve never read a book where the protagonist worked in an animal shelter.” Then I stopped listening to the panelists. (My apologies if you are one of them and reading this.) I started thinking about the story of a worker at an animal shelter becoming an amateur sleuth.
To this day, it still shocks me that I said, “I’m going to write that.” I am very glad that I did. I have discovered that I possess this completely different skill set and enjoy the creative process.
What steps did you take to develop your craft as a mystery author?
I joined Sisters in Crime and the Guppies. I lurked out on the listservs reading how other authors developed their craft.
Then I participated in a Writers Workshop held at a local Independent bookstore. With a laundry list of feedback, I started taking courses offered by Sisters in Crime to improve my WIP.
Clues From The Canines was at around 40,000 words, and I was stumped. I did not know what to do to build the story. I reached out to a librarian I knew with a well-known published daughter. He offered to introduce me to other librarians, either publishing books or critically reading and providing feedback to authors.
His introduction was, “If the book is half as funny as Darlene is, it will be hilarious.”
Merrily Taylor was one of the people willing to take up the challenge of coaching me. I tell her I would not be published without her counseling. Through much email correspondence, she assisted me in fleshing out the story, making the characters more realistic, and expanding my descriptions.
The first time that Merrily and I met in person was at Bouchercon Dallas. She said, “You are really good at accepting criticism.” After I caught my breath from the intense bout of laughing that consumed me, I said, “There’s a big difference between willingly accepting criticism and having no idea what you’re doing and grasping the lifeline of someone willing to help you.”
So Merrily amended her statement to, “You’re smart enough to know when you need help.”
What is your writing process like? Do you consider yourself a pantser, planner, or somewhere in-between?
Once I have the base idea, I build the plot in a spreadsheet. I use the spreadsheet to track my POV characters, the sub-plots, and the tension points. I also have tabs in the spreadsheet for the characters. I keep track of their biographical information, backstory, and what drives their motivations within the book.
My plotting spreadsheet is as much a WIP as my book. As I discover different attributes about the characters, I add them to the tabs. It seems obsessive to compile information like this, but it does augment my memory. I will never remember all of the minor details for each character. So when I need to type in what car Matt drives, or the names of Lily’s siblings, it is easily accessible.
My first draft is a three-step process. First, I get the basic story on paper, well Word document. I write the action, the dialogue, and basic descriptions. Second, I go through and set the scene. I add in what the weather is like, what the rooms looks like, and add periphery elements. Third, I go through and monitor emotions, are the characters coming across appropriately, and whether there is enough tension. As I do this, I usually discover I need additional scenes or characters. I add in as I go along, but whatever I add to the WIP, I add to the spreadsheet.
What is next for you writing-wise?
The third book in the Lily Dreyfus series, Fire And Dalmatian, is currently being beta read. Merrily has already read it twice and given me feedback, but I have a few other readers who assist me.
I have an idea for a Suspense mystery that I want to develop. I’ve thought about the plot but haven’t fully developed it. I am in awe of writers who have multiple series and produce multiple books a year. I hope to one day find myself in those ranks. I am not there yet.
Have you, or are you considering, making the transition to become a fulltime writer?
I will become a full-time writer in 2024. I have assessed when I can financially support myself without the benefit of my full-time salary. Once I reach that point, I can devote myself to better developing my audience and fan base. I have spoken with many self-published authors who earn from their talent. I know it is possible if I have the time to devote to the Marketing and Publicity needed.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, or wish I’d asked you that I didn’t?
I want to encourage people to explore the unexpected. I never thought about writing a book until an idea came to me. I have had a lot to learn, and I still have much to learn. There have been times when I’ve been frustrated, but I refused to give up on the idea, and I’m grateful for my persistence. I truly enjoy crafting books, and I would have never tried if I hadn’t thought, “I’ve never read a book with a protagonist that works in an animal shelter. I should write that.”
Darlene is a member of Sisters in Crime National and several regional SinC groups. She combined her passion for the written word and animals into the Lily Dreyfus series. Darlene volunteers at the Animal Welfare Association, a New Jersey animal shelter, where she chats with the dogs while completing her assignments. She has a 30-year career in Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and is an avid reader, gardener, and traveler. Darlene lives in New Jersey with her four-legged best friend, Billie.
Up Close And Pawsonal blurb
A casual evening of listening to music by a local cover band turns into a murder investigation when a drive-by shooting destroys the tranquility of the night and critically injures two of the band members. Lily Dreyfus, stressed and unsettled from having been at the concert, realizes one of the dead band members is the nephew of her coworker at the Forever Friends Animal Shelter. Lily will leash together a set of seemingly unrelated events to seek the perpetrator and make them heel.