by Lori Andrews
Armed with a JD and PhD in political science, Wendy Watson might have chosen to give Scott Turow and John Grisham a run for their money. Instead, Wendy chose to follow a different one of her passions: ice cream. September 7 marks the release of the second in her series of mysteries involving Tally Jones, proprietor of Dalliance, Texas’s ice cream parlor, Remember the A-la-mode. In the first Tally book, I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM (Signet, 2009), Tally swallows her pride and agrees to provide ice cream for her ex-husband’s company luau. Her ex’s arm-candy girlfriend is murdered and Tally becomes the prime suspect.
In the new book, SCOOP TO KILL (Signet, 2010) Tally’s niece Alice, who is a student at the local college, stumbles over the body of a murdered graduate student. When Alice’s favorite teacher becomes the prime suspect, Tally helps Alice follow the evidence to solve the crime. A third book, tentatively entitled A PARFAIT MURDER, is due out in June of 2011.
Now Wendy is tapping into her darker side, writing a thriller about a woman whose best friend was murdered when they were children. She’s exploring the effect of that earlier murder on the surviving woman’s psyche.
While she does not commit–or solve–murders in real life, Wendy can kill a pint of ice cream in nothing flat. She’s also passionately devoted to 80s music (the Cure, Depeche Mode, Banshee), Asian horror films, and reality TV. Like all writers, she suffers for her art. But in this case, that “suffering” involves trying new flavors. You can read more about Wendy at www.wendylynwatson.com.
How did you decide to center a series on ice cream?
When I decided to write cozies, I needed a hook. There are flower shop mysteries, knitting mysteries. My agent asked me, “What do you like?” I said, “Food.” But there are so many culinary mysteries. Pastries. Chocolate. Cupcakes. But no one had done a series about ice cream. And I’m sufficiently crazy about ice cream, I’ve often said ice cream should have a restraining order against me.
Why did you set your books in small town?
Part of the expectation of the cozy reader is having a group of characters that continue from book to book. The small town provides a certain feel–folksy and old fashioned without feeling contrived. Plus, it helps in the investigation. People have access to one another. If you want to find out about someone, you can ask a neighbor what that person is up to.
My father was a petroleum geologist and we moved around a lot when I was a child. When I started teaching in colleges, I moved around. I don’t have that sense of permanence that people who live in small towns have. Growing up with people and living next to them your whole life. In a small town, everyone is defined by their relationships to one another: “Roberta’s boy,” or “Junior’s ex.” You’re never able to shake the nickname you got at age 10. You can’t recreate yourself, like I could do with each move.
In my books, I play a lot with that notion of being defined by the people around you, both your relationships to them and their expectations of you. On the one hand, I find that sort of belonging seductive. On the other, I can see how it could be stifling, oppressive. For Tally, it’s both.
Was there a pivotal event in your writing career?
The moment it all changed was when I was in Minneapolis between buses on a freezing winter day. I ducked into the Loft Literary Center to warm up while I waited for the second bus. I saw the notice for readings, classes, and studio spaces. Even though I hadn’t written fiction I’d graduated from college a decade earlier, I signed up for a class and was hooked. The class spun off into a critique group, which lasted for two and half years until I left Minneapolis for a new job.
Do you make an outline or plot synopsis before writing a book?
I wrote two complete manuscripts, which I outlined pretty carefully, and they did not sell. My third attempt, I SCREAM, sold based on a proposal–three chapters and synopsis. I never wrote a detailed outline for it. I just launched into the book in a haphazard fashion. That’s possible with cozies because they’re shorter books, around 70,000 words long. There’s not a web of subplots.
I’m outlining the suspense project. It’s challenging to think you have to put so much of your life into writing a whole manuscript before you can sell a thriller. And I’ll have to write under a different name to not disturb the expectations of my cozy readers.
How do you create your secondary characters?
Secondary characters are incredibly important. To sustain a series, the secondary characters have to pull their weight. You can’t rely solely on your heroine to keep things interesting. When secondary characters become suspects, they have to be complex, even if they’re only in a few scenes. They have to be capable of murder, but not downright evil. Developing characters to the point that readers can say, “yes, pushed in just the right way, I can imagine this person committing the ultimate crime,” that takes a little effort.
Writing is often incredibly lonely. What sort of support system do you have?
I’m part of a closed yahoo group of 25 cozy writers from across the country and Canada. We spit ball ideas with each other and we cross promote. If I am doing a signing or attending a conference, the other authors send me their bookmarks and I pass them out. We have a blog together.
Your blog contributions to www.killercharacters.com are written from your characters’ points of view. Why did you choose that over your own voice?
Some of the authors in my group were already blogging under there own name, so we created a character blog. Writing in my characters’ voices is a hoot. Sometimes I include passages that I’d written for a book, then cut because it took me away from the main story line. We comment on each other’s posts, also from the point of view of our characters. And with 25 authors, I only need to blog once a month.
What advice would you give to debut authors?
I didn’t believe people when they said how much time promotion would take. You need to take your highest estimate multiplied by 6. Start promotion six months out to build word of mouth. The month before the release date, plan on doing nothing but promotion. You need to build momentum, because the sales figures from first two weeks are the ones that matter most.
You are now working on a thriller. Is the creative process different when writing a thriller than a more traditional mystery?
Very different. My natural voice is lighter and goofier. When I started writing cozies, I wasn’t a cozy reader myself. I’ve now learned what they are looking for. It is a clearly defined genre and readers are fiercely loyal. They prefer wacky characters and humor. For my thriller, I am putting much more emotional energy into it, writing scenes that are grittier and darker. To write suspense I have to get into a darker place in my head, and no one wants to be around me then. In a thriller, I get to be evocative in a different way. I get to use harsher language. Cozy writers are not allowed to use swear words. I used “bastard” in my first mystery and readers were distressed. I’d broken a rule. In thrillers, readers are less concerned the likeability of the main character and more concerned with the excitement factor and having a plot that is compelling and larger than life.