Linda Hengerer talks with Christine DeSmet about her Fudge Shop Mystery Series, Belgian chocolate, writing, and creating recipes.
Linda Hengerer talks with Christine DeSmet about her Fudge Shop Mystery Series, Belgian chocolate, writing, and creating recipes.
Christine DeSmet is the author of the Fudge Shop Mystery Series and the novella series, Mischief in Moonstone Mystery Series, both set in Wisconsin. She is a writing coach as well, and spent several years as a Distinguished Faculty Associate in writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies where she created the Writers' Institute conference and the Write-by-the-Lake Writers Workshop & Retreat. Christine's shelves are now lined with the books of her adult students in her past Master Classes. Christine is also an award-winning screenwriter who has optioned material. She belongs to several professional writing groups including Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Wisconsin Writers Association, and Writers Guild of America/East.
Find out more at ChristineDeSmet.com.
Get to know Christine - The Tart Words Baker's Dozen:
1. Plotter or Pantser? Combo? Combo.
I'm a writing coach, so my advice to myself and others is always to do whatever moves you for that story and those characters at that time. Often, we writers are both plotters and pantsers just to get one chapter completed. I sometimes outline scenes, and
sometimes I just let the imagination fly to see what comes of it.
2. Tea or Coffee? Both.
3. Beer, Wine, or Cocktails? A nice oaky chardonnay.
4. Snacks: Sweet or Savory? Not a snacker much, but when I do it's usually savory, such as a great Wisconsin cheese.
5. Indie Published, Traditionally Published, or Hybrid? Traditionally published with all of my books, with large and small publishers.
6. Strict Writing Schedule: Yes or No - Yes.
7. Strictly Computer or Mix It Up? Computer, but make hand-written quick notes all the time when an idea strikes.
8. Daily Goal: Yes or No - Yes, when writing a big project. I usually assign myself a scene or chapter a day.
9. Formal Track Progress: Yes or No - I don't formally track progress. I don't look back when on a project. I'm always looking ahead.
10. Special Writing Spot? My office. It's where I'm serious.
11. Writer’s Block? Never had it. I have two degrees in journalism and that teaches you the secrets for meeting deadlines.
12. File of Ideas: Yes or No - Yes, many files! I love my files. I just reviewed them about two weeks ago and found gems. Now I just have to find the time to pursue these new projects.
13. Favorite Author(s)? I'm an author but also a writing coach, so my favorite author is any recent writer I worked with who finished their project in a quality way and shepherded it to publication. But when I'm reading on my own, my favorite author seems to be the last book I read, whatever that is. I read widely and enjoy all genres and age categories and love a spark of humor in whatever I'm reading.
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Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos or grammar errors.
Episode 451 - Christine DeSmet
Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader, and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them, chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors, and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words.
Today my guest is Christine DeSmet. Christine DeSmet is the author of the Fudge Shop Mystery Series and the novella series, Mischief in Moonstone Mystery Series, both set in Wisconsin. She is a writing coach as well, and spent several years as a Distinguished Faculty Associate in writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies where she created the Writers' Institute conference and the Write-by-the-Lake Writers Workshop & Retreat. Christine's shelves are now lined with the books of her adult students in her past Master Classes. Christine is also an award-winning screenwriter who has optioned material. She belongs to several professional writing groups including Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Wisconsin Writers Association, and Writers Guild of America/East. Find out more about her at www.ChristineDeSmet.com.
Welcome to the podcast, Christine. I'm looking forward to talking with you today.
Thank you, Linda.
Tell me about your latest book.
My latest book is called Undercover Fudge. It is about a first…I should say that I have the Fudge Shop Mystery Series and it is about fudge gone wrong. I guess it takes place surrounding a wedding. And there are some thieves who travel the country who like to interrupt weddings and funerals and those kinds of events so they can steal the envelopes and the gifts and this one happens to have a special gift in the form of a dead person show up at this wedding. And from there we go on with who did the crime including maybe Ava's Grandpa or her boyfriend, they are both implicated. So it gets serious right away. But there's also a sense of caper and fun about the book too, because we have a goat that gets on the loose at the wedding and a dog chasing the goat. And there's a lot of fun aspects because it is after all a cozy.
Yes. And I like the idea of fudge gone wrong. I mean, really, can fudge go wrong? Is that such a thing?
Probably not. We all love fudge. But fudge can actually it's tricky to make if you're doing the old fashioned methods of boiling, you know the liquids and using the thermometer and all that there's a lot of people who can report that their fudge did not turn out well.
It can be grainy, it can be not cohesive, and not as delicious as you would like it to be.
Exactly. But a lot of people will also tell you that they just put it back in the pan and reheat it or put it in something else like a cake or cupcakes.
Yes, it's I mean, the ingredients can certainly be repurposed if it doesn't come out the way you'd like it to be. Do you include recipes in your books?
Yeah, I do include recipes. And that's what's fun. I love testing the recipes. I get a lot of ideas from friends, but the internet is filled with fudge recipes, you wouldn't believe how many are out there. But I do like testing the recipes and including those in my books. The recipes in my books are named after fairy tales because that's her specialty. She specializes in a fairy tale themed fudge shop. So I've had fun with Cinderella and Rapunzel and others. And right now I'm working on a Christmas story. So I'm trying to figure out which Christmas Story fairy tale I should use. And I'm looking into Belgian stories, Swedish stories, Norwegian, you know, there's so many fairy tales with every country in the world. So I'm looking into all that and having a lot of fun.
I bet. I know my husband likes to do the – I don't want to say he likes to do the research, he likes after I do the research, and I present him with things to taste test. He's all about that.
Well, of course.
Where did you get the idea for doing a fudge shop mystery?
It was interesting because an agent had contacted me and he was interested in finding a writer who knew something about chocolate. And he was also interested in finding somebody who knew about Door County, Wisconsin, and that is the Cape Cod of the Midwest and I just happen to fit the bill. I proposed my series to him and he said that's exactly what I'm looking for. So that's how it came about. It was pretty straightforward that way. Belgium – so I knew about Belgian chocolates. So that was some, a little bit of a love of mine was Belgian chocolate. So he appreciated that because I told him that Door County is about Belgian chocolate, beer and booyah. And he got a kick out of that. And from then, yeah, we developed our, our series.
And I think everybody knows, you know, hears about Swiss chocolate, but Belgian chocolate has quite a well-deserved reputation too.
Oh, yes. And there's a little bit of a rivalry and jealousy between the two kinds of chocolates. And of course, the Belgians say theirs is the original chocolate, the original process chocolate, it's better than Swiss chocolate, that that's what they say. Anyway, Belgium, the country is very proud of their chocolates. When I went there for a brief vacation, they have chocolate at breakfast, they have big, you know, cubes of chocolate that you can carve off the chocolate and put it in your way you can dress your fool with it if you want practically. But they like to put it in coffee. You know, really, really rich chocolate has special cups that you use to sip it.
Because it's so rich you don't need a lot.
Absolutely. It’s very rich. Yeah.
I don't know why I didn't know that Belgians eat chocolate at breakfast, but you have given me a very good reason to visit there.
Absolutely. And I grew up with chocolate cheese, too. They put chocolate and everything. So there's chocolate cheese. I mean, you just name it, and there's probably chocolate in it. It's definitely a specialty.
And I do like I like mocha. So I already like chocolate in my coffee. And I will add if I don't have a hot chocolate mix, and it's nothing special. It's just from the grocery store. But I'll put a spoonful of that in. But I have grated up a chocolate bar, chunked up a chocolate bar, and put it in my coffee too if I didn't have any of the mix available.
Perfect. You sound like you're Belgian.
I don't know that I couldn't be! How did you come to be writing about cozy mysteries in the first place? Because you also teach school, you teach at college.
I've taught at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for many, many years, the cozies I've always liked because I like humor. I've always written humor into the things I've done. I've done screenplays, whatever. And I always like including humor. And when I started writing fiction, I also was writing romance novels. And I always put humor in those and they became capers. And I realized that I was really meant to write something more humorous. And so when I found out that cozies, which came about really in the 90s, were becoming popular, I wanted to try and write one, but I didn't actually write one until around 2011-2012, I was working on a series that I had to put aside because the chocolate one came about, the fudge shop mystery came about, at the same time. And I couldn't do both at once. But I think I might return to the original series. And I'm sorry, but I'm not going to say what it is because I want to work on it first before I say too much about it. But I've always liked humor and cozies are filled with humor.
They are, and I think that you can still have murder and see that justice is done without seeing the gore and violence on the page.
Oh, absolutely. And that's the way of cozy is designed. Everything that's gory is off the page, you don't see that in the new book I'm working on and taking a little bit of a risk because there's a slight hint of gory stuff happening in the first chapter. And I've got to I got to think that through because I know my readers don't expect that or don't want that they'd rather have something funny happened to Grandpa, which is what usually happens so I'm trying to get the funny stuff in there with Grandpa and play down any bloody things that go on.
I like with cozy mysteries too, that often a lot of them – particularly in the culinary cozies – they have recipes.
Oh, yes. And they're getting so they have recipes throughout the books too. That's not usually you'll find them at the end of the book. But now and including myself, I want to put more recipes within the book as we're writing the scenes and as people prepare food I would just as soon have the recipes explained right there as they're preparing the food. So I'm thinking of doing more of that in my own books and you'll see it more and more I think in other books as well, where there are more recipes throughout the book instead of just in the back.
I think the key is putting the recipe so that they don't slow the action of the story.
Yeah, exactly. And you know sometimes when you sneak those recipes in they can be part of the humor in the fun too or part of the love and warmth that goes on in a cozy you know, when we're making a meal or making something special. It signifies the, the love and the caring we have for the other characters around us in the story. So I think I think you can weave them in pretty well and I think readers will appreciate that.
Yes. How many books are in this series?
I have six. I'm working on six right now with the Fudge Shop Mystery Series. Number six is going to be a Christmas story. I'd love to write it fast and get it out by this Christmas, but I don't think it's going to happen. I think it might have to be for next year, it's a longer book. And that's always a little dangerous too, because cozies are generally short books. And I'm going a little longer and I kind of get kind of hitting myself with the long side, the head going up, you can't have it that long, you're gonna have to cut this down a little bit.
Well, when you say it's longer, what is the normal length for your cozies? And how long is this one running?
This one is running around 98,000 words right now, which is way too long, because the normal cozy is going to be closer to 80 to 85,000 words. So I'm well above and almost 20,000 words above where the shorter cozies are. So I'm in the dangerous territory. However, I've been at this for a while, and I'm not afraid of editing. So I'll get in there. And I'll be cutting words like crazy on that second draft.
It's funny how editing is a separate part of writing, you know, they're two halves of the coin when you're writing a book, but they are separate skills.
Oh, definitely. And I do because I also coach and teach writers, myself, I there's a lot of tricks you have to use. When you're revising, you have to analyze everything you put on that different hat and you become an editor and you have to look at every little thing like the plot points, or the scenes in a good format. And do we like the characters and you know, on and on, there's just so many questions you have to analyze when you get to that second and third and even fifth or sixth draft of your novel.
How long have you been writing? You mentioned that you started writing romance when you started writing fiction. How many romances did you write before you started writing a cozy mystery series?
I wrote at least four manuscripts, a one was published before I started veering more toward the suspense in the mystery area. I started out with romances back in the 80s and 90s, when that was a whole world that was exploding and looking for authors and women were buying romances like crazy back in the 80s. And that's when the Romance Writers of America formed.
The heyday of the Silhouette category romances.
Absolutely! There were so many of those lines that came out the – Candlelight Ecstasy line. I mean there's all of these lines that were available to writers to write for.
Yes. And it's interesting to me that a lot of cozy mystery writers or mystery writers that I've met through Mystery Writers of America either still are members of RWA or started as romance writers. And I will say that when I first started writing, I didn't know about Mystery Writers of America and I read a lot of romance. So RWA seemed like a natural fit. And while I did learn a lot about writing, I was never comfortable writing for the category romance. I was not comfortable making people fall in love. But I'd also always read mysteries, and I was very comfortable killing people. So when I discovered Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, I'm like, oh, here are my people.
Yeah, I have the same experience because my very first manuscript in the romance area was a mystery, was a suspense, that won a prize. I didn't end up publishing that book. But you're right, I veered toward the mystery myself, and I liked killing bodies. And, you know, like killing people myself, it was a lot of fun developing that puzzle. That is the mystery. I guess. I love puzzles.
Yes. And it is fun, you know, you think of how the story starts. And for the reader, their journey is very different from the journey of the writer who figured out a lot of things, almost had to reverse engineer things, whether they did it via outline in the beginning, or did it through draft and edit, you have to set things up so that it's fair for the reader to figure out the puzzle, but also fun and interesting for the reader so that it's not so blindingly obvious that, you know, this is the bad guy.
Oh, yeah. That's what makes our job so hard in mystery writing, you know, people think we can just knock these off sometimes. And it's not that way at all. We think these things through a lot and we have beta readers that help us out and we have friends in writing groups that help us out. Coming up with the clues and the red herrings and the suspects is a lot of hard work. And I enjoy it. It's the kind of work I enjoy because it is that puzzle and I am trying to always remember how smart the reader really is. And I want to please the reader. I want that puzzle to be so entertaining that they will come back for more.
Yes, and to feel satisfied with the ending that even if it's not what they expected, you know, you were able to surprise them at the end with a twist, that it is satisfying to the reader in a way that they feel that justice was served.
Absolutely, the justice was served. And also, I also tried to have a twist with the emotional part of my cozies. Because there's always this relationship between Ava and her Grandpa that develops in each book. And I always like to have a twist at the end, my books usually end with something between those two because they're very special to each other and help each other out so much. So I do a dual twist, I do a twist with Ava and Grandpa, and I do a twist with the mystery itself.
And I think that's fun when you're building your brand. As a writer, you want to reach the readers who enjoy what you write, and I think that there is a lot of emotional resonance for readers of cozy mysteries more so than for thrillers, which I think tend to focus more on the action. I think cozies do tend to focus a little more on the personal interaction between friends and family.
I think that's true, very much so, because mostly these are written for women readers, they're written by women. And we are used to focusing on the emotional side of life. So that emotional side comes out in our characters in the way we set up in small towns, in our stories in small neighborhoods, it all has to do with emotion.
Yes. I think that's a natural segue from romance writers into mystery, or into cozy mystery, specifically, because romances are about the emotion.
You're absolutely right on Linda, because it is a good segue between those two types of writing, the romance versus the cozy mystery, very much so.
Do you have a writing routine or schedule?
I do when I'm hot to finish a novel, I tend to work in the morning for two to four hours at a time, and then I take a break, then I might go back for a couple of hours, I tend to be a marathon-type person, when I'm in the middle of writing a book, it's gonna come hot and fast. Because I know what my scenes have to be, I know what my plot is, I'm writing toward the ending, I know what the ending is. So I do tend to write fairly fast, and I write for long hours at a time to get it done. I always know what I'm writing the next day, I always reread the last scene before I start the next scene to kind of refresh myself. But I always have a good idea what's happening next. Now, I don't fully outline. There's a lot of people fully outline, I do not do that. What I do know is I do know the ending, but then I will outline maybe a scene or a chapter ahead at a time, I will propose to myself what I think will happen, and then I will try and write that scene, and nine times out of 10 it writes itself that way, I let my imagination fly, my creativity, I let it go. And it writes itself. But you know, I also know my characters really well. So I know what my characters will do and how they will act and react. So that helps a lot.
Yes, it's funny when you're six books into the series, a lot of your character decisions have already been made, you know what their internal and external lives are like. And while they may change, as you know, as everybody lives, their life changes happen because of either things that happen or move or whatnot. It's different writing book six, when you've already got established characters than it is in writing book one of a series when you are establishing those characters.
Oh, absolutely. And right now I'm struggling with book six, because I know Grandpa wants to make a big change in his life. And here, I've had five books where he's been pretty much the same kind of person. And now he's ready for a big change. And I'm struggling with that because I don't want to let him change. And I don't know if he should or not. So I've got this little fight with Grandpa.
That's funny. And how would his change affect Ava? I mean, there's your tension.
Yeah, absolutely, because in she's not wanting him to change. She suspects he's got all kinds of things figured out for his life. And she doesn't like the idea of change because that forces her to change too. And that's what I'm after. I want Ava to change a little more and a little faster now that I’m at the book six. So there is a conflict happening between her and Grandpa.
That's interesting. You mentioned that you test recipes for your books. So is that the creative outlet that you have to give you a little respite from your writing or do you do something else creative also?
I am a nature person. So what I do I go for walks, I go traveling, I do that sort of thing. And I love to read. I do like to make the fudge recipes but I'm not a cook. I do love experimenting with desserts and those sorts of things. But I'm not a creative person in the kitchen, believe it or not.
I think it's a different skill. And I think it depends what your focus is. I like to make things up in the kitchen, not with baking because baking is scientific. So you have to keep your proportions the way they should be to make things rise and things happen chemically. But with cooking, I will just think of something and see if it works. And sometimes it does. And sometimes it doesn't. I'm not afraid to try because I can always send out for pizza, if I have to.
Yeah, it that's exactly the truth. Yeah. And maybe that's why I like making fudge and those kinds of things because they are scientific. And it doesn't allow me to make huge mistakes, I have to stick with the recipe and figure out the recipe, or it'll flop really fast. But you're right, you can experiment more with cooking when you've got a pan on the stove, and you're throwing spices in and experimenting that way. But with baking, you can't do that quite so much.
No, but with fudge and things that are similar to that you can experiment with the different flavors that you're using and the different add-ins, like at Christmas time I like to do a fudge with cranberries and chopped pistachios because the red and the green is very Christmassy.
Absolutely. And now you can do you can do all kinds of colors and do all kinds of experiments. So one of the more fun ones I did was a rose petal fudge. And the reason that was fun for me is that I use a neighbor's rose petals. Of course they you don't want them treated with any kind of chemicals. They have to be pure rose petals. That was so fun in the Rose Petal fudge is so pungent and sweet and lovely. I loved it. Now some people don't like that intensity of smelling roses as you're eating, but I found it quite lovely. And that was so much fun to use the neighbor's roses to make that fudge.
And how did you use the roses? Like did you do like a chiffonade like you would with basil? Or did you dry them and then use like the dried rose petals?
Yeah, I dried them and crushed them up and use them in right in the ingredients. But then I also had rose petals that you can put on top edible petals if you want to do that. But yeah, I dried them and crushed them. And it was pretty easy.
That sounds very interesting. Fudge and other things just really lend themselves to being a canvas that you can make your own with the different flavors and I would not have thought of roses and I could see where it would be tasty with a chocolate fudge. And I think it's smart to put a rose petal on top so that people know what they're getting. I'm a big believer in garnishing the top of something with what's in it so that people can look at it and say, oh, okay, it's got whatever, you know, it's got cranberries and pistachios or it's got roses or it's got marshmallows and chocolate chips.
Yeah, candy makers, I always look to candy makers for that because the individual candies that you can buy in the fancier shops do that same trick they put the ingredient on top and I did take cues from that. So I I love going to candy shops and you know chocolate shops where there's hand-dipped candies and getting ideas from those people. They're just there's so many options for fudge.
Yes. And that's the kind of research I enjoy.
Oh, yes, Linda. I love to go into a candy shop. I got into inside the kitchens of some candy shops and tasted some things and watch them make the things and make the wonderful candies and the fudges and all that. And yeah, tasting and getting inside the kitchens with all those smells and the warm presence of chocolates and cooking is really fun.
You're making me hungry.
I hope so. And now I'm looking into there's a special school on how to work with Belgian chocolate. There's one in Chicago now. And they're opening up schools around the world. And I would love to go to one of those schools.
That would be so fun. I like doing like the behind the scenes and seeing how things are made and learning new skills, even if I don't use it a lot going forward. Just having the knowledge is helpful.
Yeah, and that's every writer. We all do our research, that's very important that we all do authentic research. And that's part of my journalism background, too. I have degrees in journalism, and we know we have to go out and find the real thing we can before we can write a report.
Yes. I think on that note, I will say goodbye for today. I would love to have you back on either for another fudge shop mystery or for your new series when you have it out. But I really appreciate you coming on the podcast.
Oh, thank you for having me, Linda. This has been joyful and fun. Thank you so much.
You're quite welcome.
Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit tartwords.com/tart451. Before you go, Follow or Subscribe for free to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Follow now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for Bakers, Readers, and/or Writers at tartwords.com/about. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Words.
Christine DeSmet is the author of the Fudge Shop Mystery Series and the novella series, Mischief in Moonstone Mystery Series, both set in Wisconsin. She is a writing coach as well, and spent several years as a Distinguished Faculty Associate in writing at University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies where she created the Writers' Institute conference and the Write-by-the-Lake Writers Workshop & Retreat. Christine's shelves are now lined with the books of her adult students in her past Master Classes. Christine is also an award-winning screenwriter who has optioned material. She belongs to several professional writing groups including Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Wisconsin Writers Association, and Writers Guild of America/East.