by Grace Topping
Wendy Tyson’s wealth of experience as a lawyer, therapist, and organic farmer brings a richness to her writing that is hard to match, especially in her Greenhouse Mysteries series. Wendy loves determined, gutsy women who aren’t afraid to speak up, laugh, or fight for the underdog, and Megan Sawyer, the main character of her Greenhouse Mysteries, is just that kind of woman. Read Wendy’s books, and you will find yourself rooting for her terrific main characters. The third book in her Greenhouse series, Seeds of Revenge, will be released in November and definitely won’t disappoint. It was a pleasure talking to Wendy about her upcoming release and her writing career.
Welcome to Writers Who Kill, Wendy.
With your background in law and therapy, what inspired you to write mysteries?
Like good fiction of any genre, mysteries require complex characters, a compelling plot, and relatable themes. But there’s also a right brain puzzle component to mysteries. The pieces have to fit together, and characters’ motives must make sense. So often character and the mystery element of the plot are closely entwined. In fact, mysteries are often as much about the whydunit as the whodunit. Both occupations—law and psychology—require that type of thinking, and mystery writing has felt like a natural fit. Plus, I love reading mysteries. A former agent told me to write what I love to read. It turned out to be excellent advice.
In your Greenhouse Mysteries, big-city lawyer Megan Sawyer turns to small-town organic farming? Why the dramatic change?
When we first meet Megan in A Muddied Murder, she’d agreed to return to her hometown of Winsome, PA, at the request of her father. He was leaving their farm and store—and Megan’s octogenarian grandmother, Bibi—for Italy to be with his newest flame. Megan had recently lost her husband, Mick, while he was serving in the Army, and although her law career was lucrative, she’d found it wasn’t as emotionally satisfying as she’d hoped. Her father’s request gave her the reason she needed to make a change. Ostensibly she returned to Winsome to help her grandmother, but it was really Megan who needed a fresh perspective and some familiar faces.
I always enjoy books where I learn something new. You nicely weave in information about running an organic farm and a café. What is it about organic farming that inspired you to write about it in your series? Is this slightly autobiographical?
It is! My husband and I are passionate organic gardeners. A few years ago, we started our own small vegetable farm with the intention of developing it into an organic CSA (community supported agriculture). Unfortunately, things fell through with the land we were leasing and the farm never made it past its first season. During a book signing in a small town in North Carolina about a year later, I was moved by the interactions I witnessed between the shop owners, their children, and the townspeople. It dawned on me that a version of our small farm could live on in a fictional small town. Thereafter Washington Acres Farm and the fictional town of Winsome, Pennsylvania were born.
The latest book in this series, Seeds of Revenge, you have a number of very plausible red herrings. I suspected everybody in the book, and you still managed to surprise me. Do you plot your books carefully, or do you just write by the seat of your pants?
I’m more of a pantser on the first draft, but I do go back and loosely outline after I have a finished (or mostly finished) initial version to make sure all the loose ends are accounted for and those puzzle pieces fit together. I also take notes while I’m writing. I put reminders and idea in brackets within the manuscript—things like “[remember to provide Megan with motive for this!]”—and when I’m ready, I do a bracket search and address those things. I tend to binge write, and when you write a lot in a shorter amount of time, it’s easier, I think, to keep it all straight in your head.
Family relationships and women helping women are common themes throughout your books. How does fiction help to address these issues?
Fiction provides a wonderful medium for exploring themes and ideas and social issues. A book is a large canvas, and a series an even larger one. Over the course of a book or a series, I can explore the theme of women helping women—something I see often in real life—in a way that’s not possible in a short fiction or even creative nonfiction.
In your various works, your characters deal with multiple social issues such as addiction, emotional abuse, unfaithfulness, possible patricide, unethical medical practices, and human trafficking—to name just a few. How do you keep from getting depressed writing about the challenges your characters face?
I think ultimately my books are about justice, reinvention, and rebirth—and hope. While many of my novels do touch on some pretty tough topics, it’s my intention to show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I saw a lot during my days as a therapist, things that have haunted me, but I also saw great kindness and resiliency.
I recently wrote a short story called “Soap” for Betrayed, a fiction anthology that’s coming out this October. My story deals with domestic violence, but it’s really about the bonds that form between people, often seemingly unlikely bonds, and the lengths people will go to in order to help another person. Likewise, the characters in my novels—an image consultant who helps people create new lives and an organic farmer who nurtures life in the most basic sense—are champions of good. That keeps me going.
Shameless plug for Betrayed: The anthology is the brainchild of Authors on the Air’s Pam Stack and it’s about crime survivors. The contributors are many well-known crime writers, including Allison Brennan, who has written a bonus novella. Sales proceeds will benefit victims of domestic violence. The anthology is on NetGalley now. I hope your readers will check it out when it’s released this fall.
In addition to the Greenhouse mysteries, I understand that you’ve written the Allison Campbell series, a standalone thriller, and short stories. Please tell us about them. Do you find one category of writing pulling at you more than another?
The Allison Campbell Mystery Series features Allison Campbell, Philadelphia’s premier image consultant. A dissertation shy of a PhD in psychology, Allison spends her days helping others reinvent themselves, but her biggest transformation was her own. Allison had a troubled childhood. Determined to overcome an abusive family life, she decided to become a psychologist. While in graduate school, she grew close to a teenage patient who ran away and was presumed dead. Allison blamed herself. Eventually Allison moved to the Philadelphia Main Line and reinvented herself as an image consultant. She’s able to use her understanding of human nature and her own experiences as an outsider to assist others (and solve crimes).
I do write short fiction as well. I’ve had stories published in a number of literary journals, and as mentioned above, I have “Soap” coming out in Betrayed in October. I also have a short story coming out in another anthology, Night of the Flood, in 2018.
I love writing all forms of fiction. Novels are probably my favorite, but I get great satisfaction from writing short stories. They’re containable. You need a beginning, middle, and end, of course, but a short story is something I can write in one sitting and then edit and polish over time. I recommend short story writing to aspiring novelists. Writing short fiction sharpens your skills and forces you to be efficient with language.
One reviewer at Examiner.com said in 2014 that Killer Image, the first in your Allison Campbell series, was a best mystery that year for book clubs. What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned from reviews?
To read them with perspective! While congratulating me on a great review when Killer Image debuted, a wise reader once reminded me not to get too excited about the good reviews or too upset over the bad reviews. Indeed, not everyone will love my work and that’s okay. (At least I tell myself that’s okay—I’m still trying to internalize this.)
Now that you have several books in two series, what do you find is the greatest challenge of writing a series? Do you find it easier or harder to start the next book in a series?
I think the greatest challenge is keeping it fresh, but at the same time staying true to your characters and the vision for the entire series. How many murders can take place in Winsome? Do I set some of the crimes outside of Winsome—perhaps have Megan on vacation? How do I portray Megan’s growth over time in a way that’s believable to readers? What if she gets emotionally stuck, as real people often do? These are questions I ask myself.
In some ways it’s easier to start the next book in the series. I know the characters well. I know the town well. I know my characters’ emotional arcs. On the flip side, I need to keep it fresh and entertaining, so there can be no complacency, and that takes diligence.
Tell us about your journey to publication? What’s the most important thing you’ve learned along the way?
I’ve been writing since I can remember. As a kid, I was always penning short stories or journals or family newsletters. In my teens and twenties I started writing literary short stories, and I had a number of stories published in literary journals. I wrote my first novel, a work of contemporary women’s fiction, in my thirties. It landed me an agent, but not a publishing deal. That agent suggested I write what I love to read. I switched to mysteries. Two novels later, I had a new agent and my first publishing contract.
I’ve learned many lessons along the way, but perhaps the most profound for me has been the degree of stick-to-itiveness that’s required in this field. You have to really want to be an author. And that means sacrifice (for me, television was the first thing to go) and a willingness to put in your time practicing craft without any immediate reward. You have to write because you love the act and art of writing. Financial success may or may not follow, but if you love writing, if you have something to say, the time you spend in front of that computer will never be wasted time.
I’m a big fan of recorded books. Any plans for your books to be distributed in audio format?
I’m grateful to say that the Greenhouse Series is out on audiobook through Dreamscape, and the Allison Campbell Series Mystery Series will soon be out in audio as well.
Who do you enjoy reading when you have time? Which writer has influenced you the most?
My favorite books are (no surprise, perhaps) thrillers and mysteries. I love the works of Elizabeth George, Tess Gerrittsen, Jonathan Kellerman, Louise Penny, and so many other crime writers. I also read nonfiction, especially when I need a break while completing my own manuscript.
Many writers have influenced me. I grew up on James Herriot’s novels, and Dr. Denver Finn in the Greenhouse Series is my homage to the British veterinarian. I think Stephen King was probably the most influential writer for me. I consumed his novels. King is a master at creating suspense, but he’s also a master at characterization. I’ve read The Stand a dozen times, and every time I learn something new.
Writing is such an isolated activity. How do you stay connected to others?
With three kids and a full-time job, I don’t have a lot of dedicated writing time. I need to schedule writing time, and I often use vacation days to complete projects. As a consequence, I tend to have the opposite problem—how to stay disconnected long enough to finish my work. I really have to make a concerted effort to avoid social media, turn off my phone, and ignore the siren’s call of my email in order to get my words in.
Describe your favorite place to write. Not necessarily your most productive spot.
I love to write in ski lodges. My husband and boys enjoy skiing, and while they’re hitting the slopes, I take advantage of the bustle of a busy ski lodge combined with what are often amazing views. I use the time like a writing sprint: I nab a window seat and write as much as I can while the boys are skiing.
What’s next for Megan Sawyer and the characters in her world?
Rooted in Deceit, the fourth book in the Greenhouse series, is due out next September.
Thank you, Wendy.
Seeds of Revenge Jacket Copy
It’s the holiday season, and the mood in Winsome is anything but jolly…Megan Sawyer is determined to farm year-round. She’s braving a December snowstorm after pitching her greenhouse greens to Philadelphia chefs when she sees a stranger stranded on the side of the road. It’s Merry Chance’s niece Becca, who’s headed to Winsome to sell her “love potions” at holiday events—or so she thinks.
Merry has an ulterior motive in inviting her niece to Winsome, but Merry’s plan to reunite Becca with her estranged father goes awry when Becca’s father turns up dead. Megan soon realizes that Becca was not the only person in Winsome who despised her father. When Megan’s aunt, the famous mystery author, is implicated through her novels, things become personal. Megan must follow the literary clues while sifting through the victim’s sordid past, but can she uncover the truth before someone else in Winsome is murdered?
Seeds of Revenge is available for pre-order. Follow Wendy Tyson on Facebook and at www.watyson.com.