How the ‘Olive Grove Mystery Series’ Came to Fruition With Brief Backstory about Southern Olive Farming
Truth be told, the idea for my cozy mystery ONE FOOT IN THE GROVE, first in Berkley Prime Crime’s Olive Grove Mystery Series, began with my literary agent, John Talbot. I was putting the finishing touches on another cozy mystery proposal when John called to say that he had a great idea for a cozy, did I want to give it a go? There were just two caveats, he said.
First, I needed to have a proposal ready for him to submit to editors within a couple of weeks. Secondly, I needed to let him know within a few hours whether or not I’d take-on the project, or he’d contact another author. He explained that the series geared for the “culinary” cozy sub-genre featured a premise about “olive oil” with a California setting. Each book would include recipes.
Of course I jumped at the opportunity!
Still, the project was riddled with issues for me. For one, John’s idea for the California setting – where land and climate lend themselves perfectly for olive farming – was particularly problematic. An East-Coaster all my life, I’ve only visited California twice, and knew very little about what it’s like to live and work on the West Coast. Of course, I’d never been to an olive farm. And getting out to California to investigate olive farms wasn’t affordable or feasible in the short time I had to come up with a proposal.
Moreover, I considered myself a relative neophyte when it came to olive oil. Although I can cook, coming up with my own recipes – which I thought should be based on olive oil – was especially daunting. And by anyone’s standards I’m a total kitchen klutz – for example, regularly I burn myself … I even cut off my fingertip once!
We were pushing it.
On the plus side, I used premium extra virgin olive oils all the time in my kitchen. I’d written and published articles about the value, versatility and health benefits of olive oils around the home. And I knew that the olive oil industry was known for scandal and corruption since early Roman times – a perfect, built-in backdrop for murder!
So I started googling. Maybe, just maybe, someone was farming olives on the East Coast.
Eureka! I couldn’t have been more excited when I learned that a small group of Georgia farmers were just a couple of years into growing a brand-new crop of olive trees. Using jury-rigged blueberry harvesters, cold-hardy tree cultivars and newly developed super-dense planting methods, these farmers were busy producing Georgia’s first commercial offering of olive oil since before the Civil War. What a great story! Moreover, the story got even better when I learned that centuries ago, olive trees were plentiful in the southeastern United States.
According to my research, Portuguese and Spanish explorers brought olive trees to the New World more than 500 years ago. Two hundred years later, Franciscan missionaries established olive groves in the areas we know today as Mexico and California. During the 1590s Spanish settlers planted olive trees at missions in what is now southeast Georgia. In the 1700s, British colonists led by General James Edward Oglethorpe discovered these Spanish olive trees in the Georgia Colony. Olive trees were then planted in Savannah’s Trustees’ Garden.
Later still, Thomas Jefferson arranged for new olive plants to be shipped to America from Europe. He planted some at his Virginia home at Monticello and encouraged commercial olive growing in South Carolina and Georgia as well. Jefferson envisioned olive trees flourishing up and down the Southeastern seaboard. In fact, plantations on Georgia’s barrier islands – St. Simons Island, Sapelo Island and Cumberland Island – grew many olive trees for quite some time. Nearly six hundred olive trees planted by Nathaniel Greene on Cumberland Island remained productive throughout most of the nineteenth century.
Only it was not to be. Despite best intentions, folks in the Southeast were ignorant regarding planting methods and disease. In the case of Monticello, Jefferson’s trees were killed off by less-than-optimal native soils and climate. And the Civil War brought destruction for many olive farms and plantations. There were disagreements by garden caretakers that left trees neglected. In the case of the Savannah trees, squabbles and neglect lead to the eventual – and tragic – razing of olive trees so the land could be used for housing. Then after the Civil War, wealthy industrialists purchased old plantations to use as winter getaways rather than working farms, which resulted in more trees being overlooked and forgotten.
Still, as I live just minutes from Jefferson’s historic Monticello home in Virginia, I couldn’t help but think that my olive oil series was meant to be. In fact I was fascinated by this “new” Southern crop. And it was exciting to learn how Jefferson’s vision was – finally – taking hold.
So I continued my research and became an olive oil aficionado of sorts. The more I learned, the more I loved the topic. And a few weeks later, I’d created the fictional town of Abundance, Georgia, where Eva Knox and her family farmed a new crop of olive trees on the family’s antebellum plantation. My proposal for the culinary cozy “Olive Oil Mystery Series” was sent off and accepted by Berkley Prime Crime, just days after submission.
Only, my series proposal story wasn’t over yet. More than a year after my proposal acceptance, when ONE FOOT IN THE GROVE proofs came back for me to review, I saw for the first time that the publishing team had changed the series from a culinary series about “olive oil” to a setting-based series about an “olive grove” in the South. I was thrilled that the team at Berkley was as excited about the setting as I was. And soon, the “Olive Grove Mystery Series” would be hitting the presses. Now everyone’s dreams have come to fruition!
Kelly Lane is an author living on a farm near Charlottesville, Virginia. She has penned as a copywriter, journalist and worked as a business writer, editor and public relations consultant for Fortune 500 companies. Set on an olive plantation in Southern Georgia, ONE FOOT IN THE GROVE is the first book in Kelly Lane’s new Olive Grove Mystery series published by Berkley Prime Crime. Each book includes original recipes inspired by dishes in the story. Visit Kelly Lane at kellylanewrites.com.
About ONE FOOT IN THE GROVE
First in a delicious new mystery series about Eva Knox and her family’s Georgia olive plantation.
In the sweet Southern town of Abundance, Georgia, home of the Knox family’s olive farm, gossip isn’t the only thing that can kill you…
After leaving a man at the altar for the second time in her life, Eva Knox decides to head home to her family’s plantation to regroup and soak in some Southern charm. But hiding from her woes is a slipperier proposition than Eva imagined. For one thing, most people in town still haven’t forgiven her for leaving local boy Buck Tanner at the altar and hightailing it up north eighteen years ago. For another, a death on her family’s farm soon makes her the lead suspect in a murder case—and the sheriff investigating is none other than Eva’s old flame Buck.
With the police putting the squeeze on her, it’s up to Eva and her sisters, Pep and Daphne, to figure out who could have possibly left a dead body in their olive grove. And they’ll have to catch the greasy killer quickly—because it looks like Eva has been picked as the murderer’s next victim…