Melissa Whitley Lenhardt’s writing career continues to flourish.
The 1998 Winnsboro High School graduate published her first novel, “Stillwater: A Jack McBride Mystery,” last year, shortly followed by its sequel, “The Fisher King.”
She quickly inked a deal for a three-book series of historical novels centered around a single, female physician who is forced to flee New York City after being falsely accused of murder.
“Sawbones,” the first novel in the series, is currently available in e-reader format.
Lenhardt is the daughter of Linda and the late Henry Whitley. She and her husband of 21 years, Jay, a sports business consultant, live in Frisco with their two boys, Ryan, 17, and Jack, 14.
“Sawbones” is dedicated to her father, who loved Westerns, especially “Lonesome Dove.”
Lenhardt took a break from writing to answer a few questions about her strong female character and the writing process.
From the Author’s Note:
My dad loved watching Westerns. He was partial to John Wayne, but he would watch any Western, any time of day. His favorite, by far, was “Lonesome Dove.” You knew Henry Whitley liked you if he asked you to “watch a little ‘Lonesome Dove’’ with him. When he died in 2008, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to honor him by watching his favorite show. That, of course led me to reading Larry McMurtry’s classic for the first time and spending the entire summer watching any and every Western show on TCM and AMC, which led me to writing a Western.
Catherine/Laura’s story is framed around historical events in 1871 – Sherman’s tour of Texas forts, the Warren Wagon Train Massacre and the resulting shift in the Army’s Indian Policy, Fort Richardson and the trial of Santana and Big Tree. I have tried to stay true to the tone, atmosphere and attitudes of the frontier of the time, but took creative license with some events, specially the Warren Wagon Train Massacre, to enhance the fictional story I wanted to tell.
The list of sources I used while researching “Sawbones” can be found at melissalenhardt.com
The Winnsboro News: The Author’s Note goes into a little detail about why you chose this subject matter. Now that you’ve spent some time in the Wild West, do you think it’s one similar to your father’s vision? Why? Why not?
Melissa Lenhardt: The West was a myth from the beginning. Newspapers, land promoters, railroaders and politicians used Manifest Destiny and a fair amount of purple prose and sometimes outright lies to entice pioneers to the west, and Hollywood and historians did their job of whitewashing all of the horrible things we did in pursuit of our coast to coast empire.
There was nothing noble in the way we settled the west and it shouldn’t be boiled down into the white hat/black hat dichotomy that we’ve been fed through 150 years of tall tales and Hollywood myth making.
TWN: Laura Elliston (Catherine Bennett in her earlier life) was a physician. You did extensive research for these books. Were there female doctors in the Wild West?
ML: Not that I found.
TWN: Catherine Bennett is accused of murdering the husband of one of her society clients in New York City and has to flee west. I was surprised to find how quickly the news followed her. Did media outlets have wire services in 1871?
ML: Western Union laid the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, and the first trans-Atlantic telegraph line was laid in 1866. The telegraph, along with the increase in railroads across the country, meant that news could travel quickly. Not instantaneous like today, but within days.
TWN: How did your characters develop as the book went along? Did they lead you or did you know where you were headed with them from the get-go?
ML: I’m not sure where I stand on the writing theory that characters lead the writer along, or “tell” the writer the story. A writer has to be in control of the story, to know where they want to end up, or the plot will be a mess.
I do believe characters drive the story in the sense that they should always behave true to their personality, to their beliefs and act in a realistic, human way, even when those actions might be frustrating or off-putting to the reader (and sometimes to the writer).
TWN: There is a lot of violence in “Sawbones.” It’s certainly well-placed and not gratuitous, but there is a lot of it. What was it like writing those scenes, especially the wagon train massacre?
ML: I should probably say that it was difficult, that I cried while I wrote it, but it wasn’t, and I didn’t. I wrote the scene through Laura’s eyes, the eyes of a doctor who was in shock, but still managed to see the scene at a professional remove.
The specifics are actually pretty sparse and matter-of-fact. There is no lingering, no metaphoric descriptions of what Laura sees. I think the scene is so vivid for people because the reader experiences the carnage through every one of Laura’s senses — smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch — and because we are deep in Laura’s point of view we feel what she feels.
The scene about 3/4 through the book was more difficult to write, even though I describe nothing of the events by the Canadian. It is all told through Laura’s emotions, her reaction.
It’s the scene that gets the most visceral reactions from readers because I leave it all up to their imagination.
TWN: Talk a little bit about writing a series as opposed to writing stand alone stories.
ML: “Sawbones” was a standalone. It became a series when the publisher offered a three book deal. With a series like “Stillwater,” you have to be careful not to front load the series with details that you have to be sure and remember and stay true to later.
TWN: Laura was always plucky. She was determined to become a surgeon, even disguising herself as a male orderly during the Civil War. But she faces true danger and tragedy on the plains. How does she find courage to go it alone in a man’s world?
ML: By the time Laura arrives in Texas, going it alone in a man’s world is second nature to her.
She survived the war, survived losing her father, survived (and thrived in) medical school when everyone was against her, and scraped and fought to start her practice. Laura is confident in her abilities and her intelligence, and she’s a fighter.
She assumes achieving success in the West will be no different.
By the time she realizes the danger is on a different level in the West, she’s too far in to turn back, though she will start to question her decision to run in “Blood Oath.”
TWN: You’ve got two more in the Laura Elliston series.
Laura has a love interest named Kindle. Will their story end with the third book.
ML: The title of the third book is “Badlands.”
It might be my favorite of the three because I love, love, love the new characters I introduce.
Right now I don’t have any plans to continue Laura and Kindle’s story. I’ve been writing them almost non-stop for a year and a half and I need a little break.
But if one day I get a wonderful story idea, I’m sure I’ll write it.
TWN: “Sawbones” is only available on Kindle right now, but it is coming out in trade paperback, along with the other two?
ML: The tentative release dates for the print editions are:
“Sawbones” – April 11; “Blood Oath” – May 23; and “Badlands” – June 27
They’ll be available digitally and I’m crossing my fingers they’ll be available on audio, as well.
Melissa’s books can be found at barnes and noble, indibound or amazon.com.
Follow Melissa on Facebook or Twitter. For more information, check out her website,