Judith Gonda is visiting Ascroft, eh? today to tell us about Murder in the Community Garden, her latest novel in the Tory Benning Mystery series.
Welcome, Judith. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel. Is it part of a series? If so, please tell us about the series too.
MURDER IN THE COMMUNITY GARDEN is the third book in the landscape architect Tory Benning mystery series. The series is set in fictional Santa Sofia, California, a small coastal town in northern Santa Barbara County, twelve miles north of the city of Santa Barbara. A luxury resort, the Hotel Santa Sofia, whose grounds Tory designed and installed, is featured in each book, along with the town’s two main drags, the Avenue, where the upscale boutiques, trendy restaurants, and art galleries are located, and the Promenade, the road that hugs the curvy coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean and local pier. Recurring characters include Tory’s best friend, Ashley Payne, a lawyer, Ashley’s on-again/off again boyfriend, SSPD lieutenant Adrian Ramirez, and Jake Logan, a Santa Barbara based PI. Other recurring characters are Tory’s paternal uncle and his wife, both semi-retired from the family’s landscape business, and her maternal aunt, Marian the librarian. Tory has a cream sable Pomeranian named Iris and a black cat name Otis. A new canine character, a red Pom, is introduced in MURDER IN THE COMMUNITY GARDEN, where one of the inaugural gardeners is found murdered and a friend of Tory’s becomes a prime suspect.
Where did the idea for the mystery that is central to the story come from?
I’ve been fascinated with the concept of community gardens ever since I discovered Wattles Farm, a large organic community garden in Hollywood. Gardening is the definition of nurturance and growth and the idea of a community garden where so many different people come together to set up their own unique plots intrigued me. I liked the shock value of a seemingly safe and serene setting being the site for a murder. As for the plot idea, nothing is as it appears to be, and it always starts with the victim for me. Are they who everyone thought them to be? The story is set post-pandemic, but there is mention of the effect it had on everyone’s life and how that plays into the story.
Is there a theme or subject that underlies the story? If so, what prompted you to write about it?
Tory’s search for truth and her quest for justice is the overall theme of the series, but in terms of her character development it’s all about resilience. I try to write characters that are realistic and relatable, people the reader wants to hang out with. Tory is basically an optimist despite all the emotional trauma she’s experienced and even though she struggles and is far from perfect, her basic inner strength and the support she and her friend Ashley provide one another as they each blaze their own trail is comforting and always hopeful. In addition to the core murder mystery central to each book, we also follow Tory’s and the other characters’ development in each new book. The first book, Murder in the Secret Maze, dealt with Tory’s loss and how she dealt with her grief. The second book, Murder in the Christmas Tree Lot, dealt with putting her grief behind her despite moving two steps forward and one step back. The third book, Murder in the Community Garden, is where she becomes reflective and considers her options more carefully.
How do you create your characters? Do you have favourite ones? If so, why are you partial to them?
I have two daughters around Tory’s age and seeing the issues they and their friends face in their thirties gives me lots of food for thought. All my characters are amalgams of people I’ve known or read about. I like my main character, Tory, and her best friend, Ashley, the best because both are strong, professionally-accomplished females, yet neither of them take themselves too seriously and both would readily admit they have a lot to learn. Plus, they are kind-hearted, express appreciation for one another, and apologize when they mess up. Oh, and both are somewhat boy crazy, because I wanted to show their many facets. That they are not one or the other, serious or flighty, they can be both, smart and silly. Much like real people have many, and often inconsistent, sides to them.
How do you bring to life the place you are writing about?
Santa Sofia is based upon my idealized version of Santa Barbara that includes the best parts of Santa Barbara plus other characteristics from some of my other favorite places like Los Angeles, Carmel, and the San Francisco Bay area.
What research do you do to provide background information to help you write the novel?
For the setting, my frequent visits to Santa Barbara, particularly the Four Seasons Biltmore where I’ve stayed, and upon which I based the Hotel Santa Sofia. In terms of landscape architecture, my older daughter is a landscape architect, and my husband is an architect, so those worlds are very familiar to me, and I ask them when I need advice. For everything else, online research is my first go-to.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about the book?
Above all, my books aim to entertain and intrigue readers. Tory is a smart and cautious sleuth, in general, and caring. MURDER IN THE COMMUNITY GARDEN is a murder mystery that becomes intricately entangled with new developments in Tory’s personal life that are overall hopeful and positive.
Thanks for answering my questions, Judith, and good luck with Murder in the Community Garden, the latest book in the Tory Benning Mystery series.
The novel is available at the following online retailers:
About Judith Gonda: Judith is a mystery writer and Ph.D. psychologist with a penchant for Pomeranians, plants, and puns, so it’s not surprising they all pop up in her amateur sleuth mysteries featuring landscape architect Tory Benning.