Before retirement, Charlene Bell Dietz never planned to be an author. But with so many stories to tell, after a long-term career in education and decades of volunteering, she devoted herself to learning the art of storytelling. She published the first novel in her flapper/scientist series in 2016 and the second in 2017. The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut (2019) is her newest installment. You’ll find Charlene on her website at InkyDanceStudios.com and on Facebook. Read more about her writing in her 2017 SWW interview.
What do you want readers to know about the story you tell in The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut?
Sometimes we all have an inspirational moment of not knowing what we know. The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut takes readers on a dream vacation to the Caribbean with a bio-medical scientist and her rather neglected husband. Beth, an obsessive and inquisitive scientist stirs up an angry nest of islanders. She’s unnerved when she discovers some of her fervently protected truths may not be truths at all. Beth, up until now, has always defended the hard-cold evidence of science. Similarly when things are not as they seem, the impossibility of it all baffles her—such as poisonous fish that appreciate music, an old woman whose cups of tea change everything, and then there’s the business of objects and people reappearing in unexpected places. Beth, perplexed by the nut, struggles to merge her scholarly beliefs with these strange new events in her life.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
This story became a blending of four cultures: islander, voodoo, Rastafarian, and tourist. When each of these groups appeared and interacted with each other, I didn’t want to write my characters with stereotypical behaviors. I strived to unveil the unique humanism within each.
Tell us how the book came together.
My first two books (The Flapper, the Scientist, and the Saboteur and The Flapper, the Impostor, and the Stalker), both stand-alones, had a central unanswered question concerning the main characters. I knew when I wrote the first book that this new book would need to be created. Essentially, while writing the others, I was thinking, plotting, and researching this third story. I guess you could say it’s been in my writer’s mind since the very beginning.
When I finally sat at the computer in July 2017 and started writing seriously on The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut, I was in the final stages of writing book two. It’s strange how this happens, but I never seem to only write one story at a time. However, before my books go to a professional editor or publisher, I have a critique group as well as a select handful of wonderful beta readers look them over. They are ruthless and don’t hesitate to send me running back to my computer. I’m forever grateful for their sharp eyes and high intelligence. With their help, the book was published in November 2019.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
There’s no counting the number of times and different ways I’ve experienced the magic of the Caribbean. Unfortunately, in September 2017 two category five hurricanes (two weeks apart), Irma and Maria, devastated many of the islands and some of the places in this story. When I started writing the book, the Internet showed Mad Dog Saloon on Virgin Gorda had been totally destroyed, and Little Dix Bay was pretty much wiped out. The charming Hotel 1829 on St. Thomas suffered severe damage.
With a heavy heart, I kept writing and checking the Internet. I started following blogs about people who may have been hurt or missing. Next, the lovely Hotel 1829 lost all its charm when someone turned it into a storage facility. I finally finished The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut and again, with heavy heart, checked the island news one last time. Someone had rebuilt Mad Dog and reopened it for business. A company had purchased Hotel 1829, and it’s now being restored. Reservations and rooms are being booked at the newly renovated Little Dix Bay. In some private, tiny magical way in my mind, my story helped participate in the rebirth of these wonderful places.
The titles for all your novels are intriguing. How did you choose the title for this latest book?
Ah, the titles! Conundrum comes to mind. It all started with the unending search for the title of my first book. This novel took forever to write, and in the final hour it still didn’t have an appropriate title. A solid title should tell the reader what to expect from the story without giving away the plot. The title possibilities left me totally flummoxed because this book had two story lines. One night, I sat next to the husband of a good friend at an awards banquet. He leaned over and said, “So, I understand your book is about a flapper and a scientist.” And—BAM!—there it was. I answered, “Yes, and a saboteur!” Not only did I have the title for this first book, I now had a format for the other two in the series: The Flapper, the Impostor, and the Stalker and The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut. Right up front the reader knows the strange array of characters who populate the story as well as a hint about the plot. (I liked the word play for nut—it could refer to a person or to part of the plot.)
When did you know the story/characters were strong enough for a series?
Way back in 2005, I sent my draft of book one (under its first title Behind Smoke and Mirrors) to a New York editor. He came back with high praise for my characters and voice. However, he informed me I had three books in one. He told me the book would never be published in its current form and sent me back to my computer to do a complete rewrite. He also told me I hadn’t a clue about plotting. Plotting? Well, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. He offered to help me learn, but warned that writing novels or any book has to be out of pure love, not out of expectations to be published. He insisted all my characters, even secondary ones, needed to learn and grow throughout their journeys.
Right from the first, I knew my material would have the strength to become three books. This was validated when I learned both The Flapper, the Scientist, and the Saboteur and The Flapper, the Impostor, and the Stalker had received Kirkus Starred Reviews and were named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2018.
Besides novels, you also write short stories. What is it about the short story form that draws you to it?
Writing short stories helps me focus. Whenever I puzzle over some plot point or some confusing concept that needs to be developed, or I just need time to think, I write a short story. Some of my award-winning short stories took me only a few hours to write—but days to polish. These short stories never have anything to do with my other works-in-progress.
Now that I’m forced to think about it, I believe it’s the control of the short story that attracts me. Every single word must be necessary. If it doesn’t drive the story forward, it needs to be cut. Still, you have all the elements of a novel to work with except for numerous characters, subplots, and multiple settings. Usually it doesn’t take long to develop the story, so there’s the reward of quick closure on the task. I have so many ideas, incidences, and exciting experiences dancing around in my head, it’s a relief to organize them, fictionalize them, and then corral them into something readable.
Which do you prefer: the creating, editing or researching aspect of a writing project?
Creating can be energizing as well as exhausting. It uses parts of the brain that require divergent thinking that must be presented in an intelligent, readable form. My books require abundant research, which I really enjoy. Except there’s always underlying fears with research: “Do I have it right? Have I left something important out?” Editing has many hats: looking for typos, misspellings, faulty word usage, grammar and punctuation, or plot holes. I detest this type of editing. I’m terrible at it and can’t spell worth a plastic banana.
However, I absolutely get lost in revisions. Revising is the whipped cream on top of it all. Thoughtful, mindful, careful revisions can make or break a good story. They help a plot flow more logically with a simple tweak such as moving a sentence or paragraph around. Reading the words out loud helps discover if the sentences are smooth and have an engaging cadence with the right tone. If the out-loud reading reveals rough passages, then rewording or finding a more powerful or correct word can make all the difference. Out-loud reading also lets the author actually hear the various characters speak. The last thing a book needs is all the characters sounding the same. Distinct voices can make the emotional parts of the story soar. If an author loves revision, the reader will love the book.
Tell us about your writing process or your writing routine.
I have no daily ritual. When I am inspired with an idea, I check to make sure it can actually be a good book. I do this by drafting a beginning (which always changes as I get into the story), and I draft the ending in my mind (because I want to know where I’m going but understand at this point the trappings of the ending will change). Then I do some research, if needed. When I’m satisfied, I start by jotting down several plot markers between the beginning and the end. If it’s a murder mystery, I can guarantee that the person I select to be the killer, won’t be.
And I think, research, and think some more. Long walks and driving helps this process. When the voices start talking to me, when I can actually hear the characters get emotional and discuss their conflicts and desires, I start to write. Halfway through each book, the characters wake me up in the middle of the night, screaming at me that I’ve got the wrong assassin. It happens every time. Unfortunately, they leave me to figure out who really dunnit.
What writing projects are you working on now?
My current project, a historical biographical novel, takes me away from the flapper-scientist series. Margaret Brent, one of thirteen children, was born in England in 1601 to an aristocratic Catholic family. She became a powerful-driving force to insure the security of Maryland. Today the American Bar Association still recognizes her accomplishments through a yearly Margaret Brent Award given to talented women attorneys who mentor other women. Little is known about her early life in England, and she left no diary or letters. As a spinster in 1638, she and a sister and two brothers sailed to the coast of Maryland to become part of the first 400 Englanders to settle there. Others share my questions about her: What motivated her to make the dangerous voyage across the ocean in a time when Catholics were prohibited to do so, probably on penalty of death? Why did she never marry? How did she gain the skills to present case after case (over 100 documented) to the Provincial Court and the General Assembly? Her aptitude to discuss political and legal matters reached the degree that Leonard Calvert, the Governor of Maryland, on his deathbed appointed her as his executrix.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
If you’ve read a book you enjoy and want to show gratitude for the author’s work, there is no better way than to leave a book review. Authors love their readers, especially readers who let the world know how much they enjoy our stories.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.