By Karen Harper
While Wendy and I were doing this interview, I found an excellent review of A MUDDIED MURDER in Publishers Weekly, so I was able to send it to Wendy. PW also included a picture of the cover with fresh veggies, which made me wish winter was over so I could get going in the garden. Not only is this an excellent who-done-it but also an intriguing why-done-it. The timing could not be better for this excellent read by a multi-talented author.
What is A MUDDIED MURDER about?
A MUDDIED MURDER features attorney-turned-organic farmer/amateur sleuth Megan Sawyer. When Megan gives up her big-city law career to care for her grandmother and run the family’s organic farm and café, she expects to find peace and tranquility in her scenic hometown of Winsome, Pennsylvania. Instead, her goat goes missing, rain muddies her fields, the town denies her business permits, and her family’s Colonial-era farm sucks up the remains of her savings.
Just when she thinks she’s reached the bottom of the rain barrel, Megan and the town’s hunky veterinarian discover the local zoning commissioner’s battered body in her barn. Megan is thrust into the middle of a murder investigation—and she’s the chief suspect. It’s up to Megan to dig through small-town secrets, local politics, and old grievances in time to find a killer before that killer strikes again.
You stress on your excellent website that you admire and write about strong women in your mysteries. How does your main character in A MUDDIED MURDER, Megan Sawyer, fit that description?
While “strength” can be defined in several ways, when I think of strong women—or people, for that matter—I think of individuals who are able to overcome difficult circumstances. Megan hasn’t had an easy life. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she was brought up by her father and grandmother in the small town of Winsome, PA. After finally getting her life on track, she loses her young husband while he is serving in Afghanistan. Returning to Winsome and starting the farm and café is, for Megan, a show of strength and determination and an act of faith. Not only does she have to overcome the very tangible obstacles presented to her—starting and maintaining the farm, dealing with local politics, managing her limited financial means, finding a killer—but she has to recognize and help to heal her own emotional scars as well.
Your website bio (and the picture of your garden on your micro-farm) suggest you have a personal stake in Megan’s career and the subject matter of the GREENHOUSE MYSTERY SERIES. How have your personal pursuits helped to frame this launch in your new series?
The idea for the Greenhouse series grew from a personal love of organic gardening and a passion for whole, “real” food and cooking.
I’ve been interested in gardening for most of my life. When the market took a downturn almost a decade ago, my husband’s business was impacted. We started gardening more robustly as a way to continue eating organic produce on an affordable basis. We were astonished at how much food we could produce on our small suburban lot. When the economy started to recover, my husband accepted some work overseas. We did a lot of traveling during that time and noticed the small “kitchen gardens” grown by many people in developing countries, especially in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. These tiny, fruitful gardens reinforced the idea that you could eat fresh, nutritious food economically if you had a little bit of space and some determination. We brought a number of ideas and techniques home with us. Then, a few years ago we decided to start our own urban farm/CSA. The farm didn’t work out (for now), but we continue to grow most of our own produce at our house outside of Philadelphia. Although I’m not running an actual farm presently, I’ve been able to use what we learned to write about Megan’s Washington Acres farm and café.
Your bio mentions that you were once a therapist. Has that “psychology” background helped you to create characters and plots? And, in a way, is writing a sort of therapy?
Someone once said that the most important thing you can do as a fiction writer is to study human psychology, and I would agree. Psychology offers insight into the reasons why people do things, and it’s taught me to pay attention to not only what people say, but to their body language and what they’re not saying, which can be just as important as actual dialogue. Humans are complicated, and their relationships even more so. Grasping that can help an author create characters who are multi-dimensional.
Is writing therapy? Absolutely. Before I went to law school, I worked with disadvantaged youth and their families in a variety of social service settings. I saw the worst humanity has to offer, but I was also given a glimpse at the resiliency of the human spirit. Writing helps me make sense of those experiences. While there may not always be justice in real life, when writing mysteries, I can make justice prevail, even if only on the page.
Mysterious Reviews gave one of your earlier novels 5 stars and said, “A real treat for fans of well-written, superbly crafted mysteries.” What, in your opinion, makes a “superbly crafted mystery”? Is there a particular structure, or what advice can you give other writers?
In my view, a good mystery provides the right amount of well-timed clues, with an ending that is not obvious but is completely logical. If an author is able to work in a twist (again, logical) at the end, that makes the mystery even more satisfying. Of course all the normal elements of good fiction, like character and pacing, are important too, but plot is critical. A mystery is a puzzle. We feel cheated if all of the puzzle pieces aren’t on the board or if the resulting image has gaps.
I prefer to read and write complex plot lines with multiple subplots—mysteries within mysteries. That can be hard to pull off cleanly if you don’t pay attention to structure. My advice to aspiring crime writers? Pen your first draft and then go back and outline the mystery portion of the book, chapter by chapter, to make sure you have tightly crafted the plot points leading to the ending and that the mystery elements are well-paced. Ask yourself: Do all of the clues add up when you reach the denouement? Are there missing elements? Is the ending plausible? Can I add a twist that is both believable and suspenseful? Make sure the puzzle is complete.
Also, several rave reviews of your earlier novels suggest your books are great for book clubs. What do you think makes your novels good book club picks?
I was extremely honored to see that Killer Image (Allison Campbell mystery no. 1) was named a best mystery for book clubs in 2014 by Examiner.com. The series, especially Killer Image, deals with some difficult topics, like teen mental health, trafficking, and Alzheimer’s. Plus, with an image consultant/psychologist as the series protagonist, the Campbell books lend themselves to themes related to image and the ability for people to change. Those themes often resonate with readers. Ultimately I find that readers are interested in the whydunit, not just the whodunit. Book club members want a fresh story, and they often want to dig deeper into the characters and their circumstances.
A March 29th release date sounds well-chosen for a gardening/greenhouse mystery since many people are starting to really think about spring gardening then. Did you ask for that pub date or did your publisher plan that?
We were all on the same page regarding the release date. My publisher, my agent and I agreed that there was no better time to release A MUDDIED MURDER than spring!
Are you still an “issues” writer in any sense of the word? Your thriller The Seduction of Miriam Cross dealt with human trafficking, a current and terrifying topic. Or have you gone a bit lighter now and, if so, why?
I never really thought of myself as an issues writer, although I care passionately about a number of global issues, including human trafficking and the impact of commercial agriculture on our food supply, health and the environment—two problems that are often interconnected. If people learn something when they read my books, I view that as an accomplishment. And if I can raise awareness or educate readers while entertaining them, all the better.
A MUDDIED MURDER is a bit lighter in that it’s more of a “cozy” mystery. There is very little on-screen violence or sex. That said, the topics of organic farming, the humane treatment of animals and the benefits of whole foods are subtly woven throughout the story in a way that I hope will remind people of the beauty of the natural environment and the importance of sustainable agriculture.
I decided to make a shift toward the softer side of crime fiction after a series of horrific current events, including the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I realized that as global citizens, we’re all constantly inundated with information about actual crimes, often levied against the most helpless among us with a cruelty that is, frankly, inconceivable. Fiction, including crime fiction, often provides a needed respite from the harsh realities of today’s world, and a cozy mystery can be as therapeutic as it is enjoyable. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up writing edgier fiction, but for now this feels like the right approach.
You have a busy “real life” household with 3 sons, 3 dogs, husband… Can you give other writers any advice on how you balance the demands of daily reality with your fiction?
I do have a busy “real life”—full-time job, kids, dogs, etc.—and finding time to write can be tough. That’s why it helps to set aside time each day for writing and to be disciplined about maintaining a schedule, whatever schedule works best for you. I’m sharpest early in the morning, so I write for an hour or two before work each day, on weekends (in the mornings) and during vacations. I also use my off time—long car drives, waiting room delays, etc.—to think about my characters and storylines and jot down notes. In some ways, I’m always working on my books.
In the end, writing is no different than any activity you feel passionate about. If you want to be a writer, you need to make writing a priority.
Wendy Tyson is an author, lawyer and former therapist whose background has inspired her mysteries and thrillers. Wendy has written four published crime novels. The first in the Allison Campbell series, Killer Image, was named a best mystery for book clubs in 2014 by Examiner.com. Dying Brand, the third in the Campbell series, came out on May 5, 2015. Wendy is also the author of the Greenhouse Mystery Series, the first of which, A Muddied Murder, is due to be released on March 29, 2016. Wendy lives on a micro-farm near Philadelphia with her husband, three sons and two dogs.
To learn more about Wendy, please visit her website.