by Sandra Murphy
In honor of Earth Day we thought it would be great to review a mystery series that has an environmental element to it. This week we are reviewing Mystery at Windswept Farm By Wendy Sand Eckel, and we are also interviewing Wendy and have included a question about the environmental aspect of her books and why she feels that is important. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book and a link to purchase it.
Mystery at Windswept Farm: A Rosalie Hart Mystery by Wendy San Eckel
Review by Sandra Murphy
Rosalie owns the Day Lily Café in Cardigan, Maryland. It has an authentic farm-to-table menu that locals and visitors alike appreciate. Her farmland is leased to Tyler, who recently became more than a friend. The organic certification for the farm is due, but there’s a problem. The neighboring farm is now run by landowner Ronnie Kline’s nephew, and he plans to dust the crops with a pesticide so toxic, it should be banned. If the wind changes, residue will be blown onto Rosalie’s land, and Tyler will lose his organically grown certification. They could lose everything. Bini works with Tyler and is furious about the chemical spray. Tyler tells her not to confront the men but is sure she’ll do it anyway.
Rosalie has expanded her café thanks to funding from her brother, Oliver. He’s on his way to visit both his sister and his investment. Things are coming together. Alessa owns a local winery. Her cousin, Marco, a well-known chef, is coming to visit. He’s willing to teach a class at the Day Lily could be a huge benefit to Rosalie and her business. Rosalie’s able to sign up a motley crew of students, some she knows, some not. Marco charms every one of them.
However, there’s another problem she hadn’t even considered. Ronnie Kline is dead, just inside his front door and Bini is the one who found him. Rosalie’s hopes are dimmed when it’s announced that Kline had been poisoned. When a second poisoning happens, it’s much too close to home.
Suspects would include anyone who ever met Kline, Bini who found the body, his nephew, and a mysterious woman seen driving a red Porsche around town—it’s always best to suspect a stranger, rather than someone you know!
I enjoyed the twists and turns, red herrings and real clues, and reading the details of the cooking class. While no recipes are shared, cooks who know their way around a kitchen will know what to do. These are characters I’d like to see again.
Interview with Wendy Sand Eckel:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Wendy: I have been writing for a little over 20 years.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and would you tell us a little about it?
Wendy: My first novel, Educating Tigers, was published by a print on demand publisher in 2001. I am a licensed clinical social worker and had my own private psychotherapy practice at the time. When my youngest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade, I worked long and hard to find the best way to help her. Being a social worker, I thought I understood a lot about learning disabilities, but the more I learned, the more I realized what I didn’t know. Once I got her in the right school and she began to thrive, I wanted to write about our experiences. I started writing the book as nonfiction but stalled out pretty quickly. When I decided to write a novel instead about a family with a dyslexic child, the words flowed. And I fell in love with writing fiction.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense and if not, what else have you written?
Wendy: I wrote the above and a sequel to it, Eventide. I found an agent for Eventide because I vowed to be published traditionally, but not long after, my agent left the agency and that book, as they say, fell through the cracks. Next, I wrote a mainstream literary novel, Three Skips of a Stone, that won the Maryland Writers’ Association Best Novel contest, but, again, was unable to find a home for it. That’s when I decided to write in a genre that was marketable and began my Rosalie Hart Mystery Series.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Wendy: My series is set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The Eastern Shore is a flat, lush part of the world that stretches between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. The towns are small, most date back to the pre-revolutionary war period, and one is never more than a mile away from a large farm or a tidal waterway. And the people are quirky but lovable. I live in a small town on the Shore, and I enjoy writing about this place. I never run out of content. My office overlooks the Chester River, and I noticed today the ospreys have returned. I also had an eagle in one of our trees who was most likely planning to steal whatever fish the osprey pulled out of the river. This is a beautiful part of the country and I delight in populating my stories with a wide array of memorable characters.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Wendy: My goal is for people to first, enjoy the ride, and second, to feel something. I love books where I laugh, cry, worry, and smile. And I insist on a satisfying ending. When the first book in the series was published, I decided I’ll know I’ve reached my writing goal when a reader dog ears a page in one of my books. I was recently interviewed by a life-long learning class. Julie, my interviewer, said when she sat down to read Mystery at Windswept Farm, she was worried. She hadn’t been able to complete a book in three years. After losing her mother and husband, and fighting a battle with her own cancer, she had lost the ability to concentrate. When we first talked she announced not only had she finished my book, but the first one also, and had just started book two, Death at the Day Lily Café. This is why I write.
I have had two other women, one who lost her husband suddenly, and another who had lost her mother, who said my book was the first one they were able to finish after their losses. I think part of the reason for this is my readers know I won’t take them somewhere they don’t want to go and that we establish a sense of safety in the first few pages. In our interview, Julie read her favorite passage from Mystery at Windswept Farm. Now that’s a dog-eared page and that is definitely why I write.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just work whenever you can?
Wendy: The counters need to be cleared, cats fed, house de-cluttered, to-do list pretty much finished, and then I settle in, usually in the afternoons when my mind is clear. And then I can write for long stretches, sometimes skipping dinner if I’m on a roll.
KRL: What is your ideal time to write?
Wendy: Afternoons and evenings, sometimes until bedtime.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Wendy: I have a basic outline in the beginning and allow myself to stray from it. The characters often take me to surprising places and I go with it. I choose my suspects, but I don’t decide who is the killer until I am almost finished with the book. Then I invite a few writer friends over for the night and we drink wine and decide ‘who did it.’ I’m writing the fourth in the series right now and a character recently popped into one of my scenes. She just sort of walked onto the stage, a sixteen-year-old girl with heavy eyeliner, a tattoo of a golden retriever inside her arm, and a nose piercing. I liked her instantly and have already given her a story arc.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Wendy: I explained a lot of this above, and the answer is YES! When I finally found an agent for the first two books in the series, he secured me a deal with Minotaur Books. I was over the moon. But during production of the second in the series, my editor found another job and I was assigned to her assistant who had never read my books. It wasn’t hers to champion, which I understand, and so no third book deal. I found ANOTHER agent who was worried about finding a home for the series because it was ‘mid-series,’ but signed me up. I got the rights back to the first two books, and Dawn queried Level Best Books. Turns out my current editor and I have been on several panels together and we have established a wonderful working relationship.
KRL: What are your future writing goals?
Wendy: I am close to finishing the fourth, Killer in a Winter Wonderland, and have a contract to write the fifth as well. In addition to the mystery, my books are about food and the narratives surrounding it. I recently discussed writing a companion cookbook for the series with my editor and she is all in. I adore finding secret family recipes and publishing them in my newsletter. The cookbook will include these recipes and more. Each recipe will have a narrative about the dish, the grandmother, the culture, etc.
KRL: Who are your writing heroes?
Wendy: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy is the best book I ever read in terms of making me feel deeply. He writes with an intense emotion that I greatly admire. When I’m feeling a little stuck, I read passages from East of Eden, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Charlotte’s Web. After graduate school, I was burned out on reading until my mom gave me, The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I read it in one sitting. I read just about all genres and love to be immersed in a unique setting, my senses engaged, transfixed by beautiful prose and dialogue, and having someone to root for.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Wendy: In Mystery at Windswept Farm, Rosalie has the opportunity to study with an Italian chef at her café in a five-day cooking school. I had a head start on this one when I went to cooking school in Tuscany a few years ago. As they say, write what you know. But I still had to do a lot of research on Tuscan food, the recipes, the history, the culture. I found some amazing stories on the internet and also studied countless Italian cookbooks. I made every dish I included in the book and had a dear Italian friend vet all the passages written in Italian. Let me just say, this research was not unpleasant to do.
I also research the murder/weapon/crime scene to ensure it is authentic. I have a writer friend who knows everything about guns, and met a woman at Malice Domestic who is an expert on poison. There are great manuals on murder investigations, crime scenes, how bodies decay. The Washington Post recently had an article about what annoys readers. Not doing the research was up there. We owe it to our readers to get it right.
KRL: What genre do you like read?
Wendy: Mainstream, mystery, memoir, and history. I stay away from dark thrillers.
KRL: What are your favorite TV show or movies?
Wendy: Again, I love movies that make me feel. A good story with an evocative soundtrack has me every time. The last movie I liked was Elvis. That guy can act! My husband and I don’t watch much TV except Jeopardy and baseball. We did watch Only Murders in the Building and really enjoyed it.
KRL: Have you any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Wendy: I write the advice column for the Maryland Writers’ Association quarterly newsletter, and am passionate about mentoring aspiring authors. My advice: start by asking yourself why you write and what is your goal. Allow yourself to write badly, just get the words on the page. As Ann Lamott says, it’s okay to “write shitty first drafts.” Seek feedback on your writing and listen. Don’t defend, listen to the wisdom out there, whether it’s a critique group, editor, agent, beta reader, helpful friend. Be a nice person when interacting within the industry and meet your deadlines. And lastly, look for the Big Magic. Your muse will visit now and then and you have to grab it when it does and write the magic. For me, writing is definitely the agony and the ecstasy. Writing poorly isn’t fun but worth it. Tweaking and editing can actually be a lot of fun — the hardest part is over. Having a visit from your inspirational muse? Exhilarating.
KRL: It will be Earth Day when it goes up and I see that your book does have a tie in to the environment, could you share a little about that and why you felt it was important?
Wendy: After her husband has an affair, my protagonist escapes to a farm on the Eastern Shore bequeathed to her by her dear Aunt Charlotte. The farm had been leased by Tyler Wells (enter love interest) and he farms organic. This is all in the first few pages of the first book, Murder at Barclay Meadow, but I continue the organic theme with the farm as they upgrade to sustainable and acquire chickens and then goats in future books. The mystery in Windswept surrounds a neighboring farmer who is getting ready to crop-dust his winter wheat with herbicides. Barclay Meadow, Rosalie’s farm, is about to have their soil tested to renew their organic certification. The crop dusting could contaminate their soil test. When Bini Katz, their only employee, confronts the farmer, she finds him dead inside his front door.
I have my own organic garden which is key when you live on the water. My husband and I buy as much organic food as we can. We go to the farmers’ market every Saturday (it’s open all year) and I drive a hybrid. We have at least 30 solar panels on our roof. And we aren’t doing enough.
Wendy: My daughter, who has an animal rescue farm, found two male orange tabby kittens in a soybean field here on the Shore. I was in the market. Frodo and Sam will be nine on the Fourth of July.
KRL: Where can people find you online?
To enter to win a copy of Mystery at Windswept Farm, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “farm” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen April 29, 2023. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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Sounds interesting! Count me in!
Sounds good! I would love this!
Let me know what you think once you’ve read it, Joannie. You can message me on my website.
Sounds like a great book. Adding to my TBR list.
Hi Dianne, I hope you enjoy Windswept!
I love discovering authors who are new to me. i enjoyed the interview with the author.
Thanks, Nancy! I hope you enjoy Windswept.
New author and series for me! tWarner419@aol.com
Hi Teresa, I hope you enjoy the series! Number four, Killer in a Winter Wonderland, will be out in the fall. You can let me know what you think on my website if you’d like.
We have a winner!