Please welcome Melissa Lenhardt to the blog! Her new book, Sawbones, just came out, and she kindly answered a few of my questions about the book, and more!
Will you give us a teaser for Sawbones, and tell us what inspired you to write it?
Outlander meets the American West.
My father loved watching Westerns, especially Lonesome Dove. When he died in 2008, I spent the summer watching his favorites, and read Lonesome Dove for the first time. Being a writer, I wanted to read more Westerns but the books I found were traditionals featuring male heroes with token women. (I didn’t discover Sandra Dallas until later.) So, I decided to write what I wanted to read, and SAWBONES is the result.
What makes Dr. Catherine Bennett/Laura Elliston a compelling character? Why do you think readers will root for her?
What makes Laura compelling is the same thing that makes readers want to root for her: modern day women can relate to her. It has been revelatory, and a bit depressing, to realize the challenges Laura faces in the 19th century are similar to challenges women face today. Laura wants to have a profession and make her own way, but society has different ideas. She has to be better than her male counterparts to receive half, or less, of the recognition. She has to balance her femininity with a masculine independence and assertiveness. If she’s too feminine, the men won’t take her seriously. If she’s too competent, she will alienate her male counterparts, who she relies on for admission into their professional ranks. Not to get too spoilery, but the reaction to the murder accusation and Laura’s flight from NYC is precisely the same sort of reaction women receive today. I won’t deny that women have made great strides in the last 150 years, but I think modern women will nod along in understanding at the sexism and misogyny Laura faces.
What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?
I read. A lot. When I started this book in 2008, I had no real intention for it to be published. I wrote it in fits and starts, and researched the same way. I would get an idea, write the scene, then research to fill in the historical details. It was a little hodge-podge, and the MS reflected that. I decided to take a few months off from writing it and read as much as I could about the time period. I read a book about the West Point class of 1846 to get an idea of the mindset of military men who served in the Civil War. I read a book on medicine during the Civil War. I read probably every article available on the Texas Historical Society website about the Red River War. I visited Fort Richardson State Park numerous times, talked to the park ranger there about the fort’s history. I took a road trip to Palo Duro Canyon and hiked the Lighthouse Trail, sat at the rock formation that is the setting for the climactic scene, and choreographed the scene in my head.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I fell into writing, honestly. I started when my sons were toddlers. Creating stories in my mind helped distract me from poopy diapers and temper tantrums! One day I decides to write the stories down. Before being a stay-at-home mom and writer, I worked in the restaurant industry, and in human resources.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
The first scene I wrote for SAWBONES was Laura and Kindle, in an Army tent drinking whisky and flirting. I don’t even know how that turned into SAWBONES, but it did. I suspect I might be a romance writer at heart.
Why mystery? What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, the genre?
Writing mysteries is a challenge. Making sure the motivations are realistic and understandable, dropping clues along the way without telegraphing the resolution. I don’t want my readers to figure out who the killer is, but to look back on the clues in the book and say, “Yep. That makes sense.”
What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
Character, character, character. I can hand wave away weak writing or a thin plot if the characters are compelling enough. The one thing that will make me put a book down, especially a mystery, is predictability. If I can figure out the killer before the halfway mark, I’m out (and that happens a lot).
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve. The last page of the book threw everything that went before into a new light. Absolutely unpredictable, and I loved it.
What are you currently reading? Are there any books you’re looking forward to diving into this year?
I just finished reading Styx and Stones, a mystery by James Ziskin, and Fallen Women, a historical fiction novel by Sandra Dallas. I can’t decide if I should read the second in Ziskin’s series next, or another Dallas novel. I loved them both, and want to read more of their work.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’ve been working on the two sequels to SAWBONES for the past year and haven’t had a chance to think of anything but Laura and Kindle. I will probably start working on the third STILLWATER mystery. I have a fair few historical fiction novel ideas and STILLWATER stories in my head, as well as long percolating serial killer mystery I really, really want to write.
Outlander meets post-Civil War unrest in this fast-paced historical debut.
When Dr. Catherine Bennett is wrongfully accused of murder, she knows her fate likely lies with a noose unless she can disappear. Fleeing with a bounty on her head, she escapes with her maid to the uncharted territories of Colorado to build a new life with a new name. Although the story of the murderess in New York is common gossip, Catherine’s false identity serves her well as she fills in as a temporary army doctor. But in a land unknown, so large and yet so small, a female doctor can only hide for so long.