By John Clement
In preparation for this piece, I sent Leslie Budewitz, author of the Food Lovers’ Village Mystery series, an email asking if there were any questions she was absolutely sick of being asked. She told me the only thing that makes her sweat is when people ask how long it took to write CRIME RIB, the follow-up to her Agatha Award–winning first novel, DEATH AL DENTE.
She told me keeping track of her time isn’t easy, largely due to the fact that she is, for lack of a better word, busy. She’s published short stories in numerous magazines (including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock), she’s working concurrently on two separate mystery series, and as if that’s not enough, she’s also a practicing lawyer. In fact, her book on how to write accurately about criminal law won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction—making her the only author in history to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction.
Perhaps I’m a sadist, but all that did is make me want to ask.
How long did it take to write CRIME RIB? Or, more specifically, what is your writing process, and how in the world do you juggle the demands of life, work, and your different writing projects?
When you’re not yet published but hoping to be, published authors often say, “Don’t rush—you have all the time you need for the first book, but once you get a contract and face those deadlines, it gets a bit crazy.” And while it turns out to be true, every aspiring author hates hearing it.
So I won’t say it.
Every day presents a different set of challenges. I do still practice law—personal and business litigation, and some employment matters—but part-time, with a small firm here in western Montana. When we’re busy with a case, or a client has a pressing need, I have to take care of that first thing in the morning. Only then do I feel mentally free to call up my imaginary friends and play.
And that’s what writing is to me: play. It’s also passion and privilege. It isn’t always easy, but I try to remember that it’s a gift to be able to do what I love and call it my job.
Thirty years of legal work turn out to offer a few benefits: I’ve been writing on deadline a long time, and you can’t tell a judge you have writer’s block. I’ve learned how to look at a project, break it down, and plan ahead. Like lawsuits, no novel ever goes according to plan, of course, but for me, a plan gives me some assurance that I’ll be able to manage. Especially now that I’m promoting one series and writing another. The plan—including a chapter outline, the journal I keep for every novel, and my series “bible” with details on the characters, names, and setting—helps me remember which friends are coming over that day, and what games we’re going to play.
But I’m still learning, and it’s great to try something new. I began both my last manuscript and the WIP (work in progress) on retreat—one with a writers’ group, the second solo. That’s been a terrific way to dive right in to the manuscript, away from the demands of other work, the house and family, and my own willingness to be distracted. My new challenge: Even when the day seems totally taken up by other things—travel, a family visit, writing a blog tour, or celebrating a new book—can I get in one hundred words a day? That isn’t very much, and I usually write more, which feels terrific—and gives the next day a nice boost.
Your heroine, Erin Murphy, has returned to her small hometown to help run her family’s century-old food market, Murphy’s Mercantile. As the story develops, hidden layers of Erin’s character begin to unfold. Can you talk a little bit about Erin’s life, how you came up with her, and perhaps give us a hint as to where you see her going in the future?
I love the process of discovering a protagonist! As authors, we make a few initial choices—Erin is thirty-two, born and raised in Jewel Bay, Montana—but after that, they start to tell us the details. Or perhaps a better way to say that is that the choices we make for our story people then lead, organically, to other aspects of their character. She’s defined in part by her family—half Irish, half Italian—and in part by her own choices. Like a lot of Montana kids, she felt she had to leave to make her own life—and get a decent job. (Or, as my father told me thirty-some years ago, “You can’t come back if you don’t leave.”) But while she headed to Seattle, she stayed in the family business, working as a buyer for a competitor of Costco. So when her family’s hundred-year-old grocery in the heart of the village is in trouble, her widowed mother turns to her. She’s not ready to come back, but gradually, the idea takes hold. In DEATH AL DENTE, she’s newly returned, still finding her way. In CRIME RIB, she’s more confident of her place in the village, and keenly aware of her responsibilities. When the crew of the TV show Food Preneurs comes to town to film the annual festival and grill-off, she’s thrilled at the opportunity for publicity. But when the show’s producer is killed, and the host reveals a less-than-camera-ready side of himself, she’s got to grill a few suspects to keep the town and its reputation from going up in smoke.
And you know, I think that aside perhaps from solving murders, that’s a realistic portrayal of a thirty-two year-old. It’s a time of reassessment, of choices and change. Erin will be making a lot of choices in CRIME RIB and in the third book, which takes place the next winter at a Food Lovers’ Film Festival. Some will involve the Merc; others will involve men and cats. All, I hope, will both surprise you and feel just right.
Readers have asked me whether the mystery of Erin’s father’s death in a hit-and-run during her senior year of high school will be solved. I promise you, it will—but not quite yet.
A lot of the character and color of the series comes from Erin’s home-town—Jewel Bay, Montana—which turns out to be a food lover’s paradise. Where is the real Jewel Bay?
Jewel Bay is a state of mind. That said, if you head west out of Glacier National Park, take a left and drive about thirty miles, you’ll come to a most surprising little village. Out on the highway, it looks a lot like other small towns in the west—you’ll pass the hardware store, the grocery store, the Dairy Queen. But when you see the big lake, before you cross the bridge over the bay, take another left and head back in time. Many years ago, when the pressures of development got too much for the original part of this one-hundred-plus-year-old town and many businesses found they had to expand and move to stay competitive, the original village remade itself into a splendid food and art lovers’ paradise.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard visitors say, “I had no idea.” Other Montana towns have their arts and music, of course, but this is a town with a dude ranch and a dozen galleries. Mouth-watering restaurants and a million acres of wilderness in the backyard. It’s perfect for a cozy mystery because it is so unexpected. Contrast and surprise—and plenty of characters!
At the end of CRIME RIB, there’s a section titled “Tasting Notes,” which contains truly mouth-watering recipes for all the dishes that we encounter throughout the book. Where do you find the recipes, how do you develop them, are there tasting tests, and if so can you invite me to them?
I confess, it’s easy to get carried away with the recipe sections! Some are classics I’ve been making for years, like the Olive Tapenade and Baked Stuffed Brie. My husband gets credit for the filet with huckleberry-morel sauce—the recipe that triggers the mystery. The S’more Sandwich Cookies I created after I realized National S’mores Day is August 10, right in the middle of this story. And then I had a S’more cookie to die for, and if I ever wanted to eat another, I had to figure out my own recipe.
Not everyone loves to cook, but everyone eats, so I wanted to write recipes that both experienced and novice cooks could follow, accomplish, and enjoy. Readers are saying “yum,” so I’m happy!
And yes, John, next time you and Dixie are in Montana, come on over!
Leslie Budewitz writes The Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in Jewel Bay, Montana. “It takes a village to catch a killer.” The books feature Erin Murphy, proprietor of The Merc, a market specializing in regional foods, in her family’s century-old former grocery. Erin’s passion for pasta, retail, and huckleberry chocolates leads to an unexpected talent for solving murder. Recipes included. New York Times bestseller Laura Childs says “Small town charm and big time chills.” DEATH AL DENTE, first in the series, won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her second mystery, CRIME RIB, will be published July 1, 2014.
To learn more about Leslie, please visit her website.