Many novelists also write short stories, and Dawn Dixon is no exception. Winner of the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers, Dawn went on to complete and hone her novel, Faux Finished (coming May 2021), while working full time in the corporate world until this past year. Her short story “Under the Boardwalk,” in the anthology, Peace, Love, and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the ’60s, beat her novel to the marketplace.
Welcome, Dawn Dixon
CAM: Congratulations, Dawn, on the forthcoming novel, Faux Finished.
So, how did you feel and what did you do when you got the acceptance for “Under the Boardwalk”?
DD: Thrilled to pieces on Sandra Murphy’s acceptance. She’s a wonderful editor and does so much, I can’t even imagine how she has time for everything. Made me feel like a real writer. After doing features and then withering away in cubicles in corporate communications and financial editing for donkeys years, one gets numb to the creative side.
BTW, I’ve had another story win a short story contest eons ago, and it was published in a literary magazine. I’ve got stories stifling in folders. Poor things. I’ll let ‘em out someday.
CAM: “I’ll let ’em out someday.” I like that way of looking at it. Those old stories sometimes need time to mature so when we do take them out, we can whittle away and carve out a refined piece of work.
Which came first for you … the story about Mary Lizzie and Ruby that you fit to the song or did the song somehow inspire this tale? Tell us about how that came about.
DD: I live in the Low Country of South Carolina, so “Under the Boardwalk” came to mind as there is a boardwalk and marina only a hundred yards from my front door. Mary Lizzie was a spinster grand aunt I never knew, but her photo on a genealogical website inspired me to bring her to life. Ruby is a combination of some of my stepmothers. Once I brought them to life, Mary Lizzie and Ruby just seemed to fit this locale. Y’all. ?
CAM: What were the challenges you faced in crafting a compelling story that fit someone else’s overall vision, i.e., writing to a theme?
DD: It made it much easier to write to a theme, tailoring the story to the title. A fun challenge, I thought.
CAM: There’s a bit of a dark edge to your story … “boardwalks, boats, and booze,” as it says in the Kings River Life review of the anthology. What were you feeling when you took your characters down a dark path?
DD: Darkness is something you can’t see sometimes. It shadows certain people. Both of these women dealt with life in alternate, less acceptable ways. Could they feel sympathy, empathy? Were they sociopaths who crossed paths? I didn’t have to take them down the path. They were already running full tilt in that direction.
CAM: Wow, that’s a fascinating take on it.
If you could meet The Drifters, who performed that hit song, is there anything you would ask or say to them?
DD: I would thank them for composing a lovely song, full of life, sunshine and romance. The words are easy to sing, the melody evokes happiness. But I’d also tell them I’m sorry for using their cheerful song to illustrate such a dark story. However, I believe the juxtaposition of these two elements made the tale compelling.
CAM: Yes, that is what makes the story. My mind was drifting along with the song, then wham!
Let’s talk for a minute about your forthcoming first novel. Can you share with our readers what it’s about, what genre it is (mystery, romance, other?), and how it’s going
DD: Boy, how to explain this?
Faux Finished, which should be available in May from CLASS Publishing, is a cozy mystery set in Chapel Hill, N.C. Bridget O’Brien is a faux painter turned amateur sleuth when her teenaged daughter confesses to murder. Despite the murder and ensuing mayhem, it’s humorous in the same vein as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels or Carl Hiaasen’s wonderful parodies. Bridget, her sidekick, and various characters give it the feel of Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory…on steroids.
Yet, it’s also a story of grandmother-mother-daughter bonding and redemption and best of all, we get an insider’s glimpse of Chapel Hill during the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry. What else could you ask for? Who says women don’t like sports?
CAM: Do you have a “writing process” … something that helps you stick with it through the days when the story isn’t coming along or that keeps the words flowing on a good day?
DD: Every weekend, I say I will sit down Monday-Friday from 10-12 and 2-4 and create, create. Every day. Argh. I’m a lazy girl. I work best to deadlines. I guess I thrive (and agonize) under the pressure.
CAM: Working best to deadlines and thriving under the pressure sounds like your corporate life still inhabits you. It takes a long time to undo that.
DD: When I do write, I usually have an idea that’s been germinating and written in my head, maybe for years, for heaven’s sake. I’ve saved pieces of paper, post-its, napkins headed Fiction Idea. The actual writing process is occasionally a miracle. When I’m writing, whether it be gel pen to legal pad or on the computer keyboard, that’s when ideas spark. They may be lousy, but they often spark better ideas. Next week, I plan to start on Monday at 10 a.m.
CAM: I’m crossing my fingers for you on that!
You left corporate life behind more than a year ago, but has that really given you more time for writing or are your days still full with other things? How do you carve out your writing time?
DD: The past year has been filled with the novel. Getting it done. Getting it ready to be published. Being terrified about all that.
Yes, I have more time to write now and, as I say, I will start on Monday at 10 a.m. Really. Of course, there are other things. I have six rescue animals that don’t care about my writing. Litter boxes, feedings, walks and fighting pet hair in the house. I have a partner who hasn’t retired yet and is active in local business promotions and the council in town. I have to talk to my girlfriends for therapy. I have a brand new grandson in California, and I moan and angst about seeing him and my daughter. I try to garden, but I’m not good at it, and I usually buy a fully grown flowering plant, plant it and hope it lasts until winter.
To carve out writing time, I have to bellow at the top of the stairs that “I’M WRITING NOW, OK?” He always answers yes. Next thing I know, he’s asking me to make one of my special salads for his lunch as I do it better than he does. Sigh. Guilt. Why can’t I manipulate like that? It seems that I’m better at carving out reading time instead of writing time. I read as if it’s my last chance to do so. All the time. I guess it feeds my writing.
CAM: What works for you? What doesn’t? Is your writing process different for short stories versus novels?
DD: I don’t worry as much about short stories. I guess because they’re short and I probably have most of the story worked out in my head. I only have to worry and work for so long. A novel is a whole ‘nother thang. I usually have to give it a broad theme. I’m working on the sequel to Faux Finished, so at least a lot of that work is done. I have to worry about who to kill, of course. And worry about why my protagonist would be investigating it, but I think I can come up with that. So, as you can see. I am a process-less person. I am a seat-of-the-pants writer. An outline for me would be something like this:
Chapter 1 – Great first sentence. Set up murder scene. Preferably some innocent place where no one would think a murder would occur.
Chapter 2 – Murder victim. March in suspects.
Chapter Last – Tie up loose ends. Not sure what they are yet, but will add to outline as I go.
I’ve actually tried more formal outlines and matrices and such. It never works. I have to be writing to advance the story.
CAM: I’m the same way. Some people call it being a pantster—writing by the seat of your pants. One author friend calls it the deer in the headlights method—she only sees ahead as far as she’d she a deer in her headlights on a dark night. I call it being an organic writer—the story evolves and flows, but there is a bit of going back later to make sure everything connects properly.
If you could go somewhere to just write, for about a week, where would it be? What would you need to take with you?
DD: I’d go to a beach house with an ocean view. Kind of rough and violent seas, yet beautiful. Like Carmel, California. A place where I could walk into a small village for food, local used bookstore and a bit of shopping. I like to buy earrings and wonderful used books. Preferably with signatures or names in the front and bookplates. I would have my laptop, extension cords, legal pads, bold gel pens, multi-colored Sharpies . . .
CAM: Can you share any writing advice you’ve received that just really clicked and has helped your writing or your attitude toward the whole process?
DD: Ah, all the advice. Butt in chair. Just do it. Write it no matter how bad it is and then you have a place to start. What clicked for me finally was a passion for something.
Before my novel, I wrote a screenplay about a queen of England. I studied screenplays. I got a certificate from UCLA. I went to a pitch festival out there. I ended up getting honorable mention in one contest but was discouraged by the response from agents, etc.
They said no period films. As if. After that, Gladiator and King Arthur and a gazillion other period movies came out. I guess I sort of gave up. But I plan to dust the movie off and try again. I’m anxious to tweak a movie I’ve written about three brothers. As far as novels go, when I read Janet Evanovich’s first book, I knew I had the ability to write. First person especially. I loved the quirky humor and characters.
CAM: What other talents do you have up your sleeve? Feel free to let us in on your creative side a little more.
DD: I would make a great tour guide to England if anyone wants to hire me. We could wander the moors and search for Heathcliff. Or we could stand in the field where the Battle of Hastings was fought. I swear I’ve gone there, closed my eyes and heard horses hooves. Hand on my heart. I should have been a medieval scholar. I messed up not knowing that. But at least writing is fun again now. And Monday always comes around!
CAM: If I ever book a trip to England, I’ll call you.
Bio: Dawn Dixon (Cotter) won the 2007 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers and a short story award before “Under the Boardwalk” was published in Peace, Love, and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the ’60s. Her first novel, Faux Finished, is scheduled for May 2021 publication. She’s written for local, regional and national publications for 20-plus years and worked as a communications specialist and financial editor in corporate America. She adores writing screenplays and really bad poetry, and wanders happily in the mists of England’s medieval history.
Dixon claims Charlotte, N.C., as home, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as her personal utopia. She plans to hunt and gather her ancestors someday in Ireland, England, Scotland, and France. For now, she and her partner rock on the front porch in South Carolina’s Low Country, where she swears the lizards and alligators roam. Her website www.dawndixon.net is under construction and will be available soon. Or you can email her at [email protected].