The First Draft by Karen Shughart

I started writing the first draft of the third mystery in the Edmund DeCleryk series several months ago. It’s entitled Murder at Freedom Hill, and as with the first two books, the murder is linked to an historical event, this time the Abolition Movement and Underground Railroad. Both are part of the history of the village where I live in upstate New York, as are the historical backstories with the previous books, portrayed with a bit of poetic license.

When I start writing a draft, I know the setting (it’s always the fictional village of Lighthouse Cove, NY), have chosen the victim and other characters.  There will be a trip or two to Canada, it’s right across Lake Ontario from Lighthouse Cove; the communities bordering it on both sides are intricately linked by related historical events.

Photo by cottonbro on

I’ve contacted my technical experts with questions on investigative procedures and sentencing guidelines. I have the basic trajectory of the story in my head, and usually have identified the murderer. And I plan for the recipes that will appear at the end of the book, courtesy of Annie, Ed’s wife.

After that it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Structured chaos. The road not taken. Once the first draft is finished, I start to think about changes I want to make in the plot. Sometimes that means getting up in the middle of the night and writing down idea so that by morning they haven’t been erased by a dream or two I may have had in the interim.

I’ve been asked if I create an outline or use index cards when I’m writing a book. I don’t, although I know many authors who do. For me, it’s too confining. I’d rather go where the story leads me instead of being boxed in by my own rigid expectations. Case in point: since starting the first draft of Murder at Freedom Hill, I’ve changed the murderer three times, added a few twists and turns, and lengthened the time it takes to solve the case. It’s a true, excuse the cliché,  work in progress.

The first draft is messy and meandering, and it’s now that the hard work begins. I know I’ll need to clean it up, cut and paste, do a significant amount of wordsmithing, expand the investigation, eliminate overused words, and insert the historical backstory chronologically and strategically. I’ll also need to decide which recipes to include.

The first drafts of Murder in the Museum and Murder in the Cemetery ran about 40,000 words. My background is journalism, so I learned to write sparingly. I think I’m finally getting the hang of it, this draft ended at 55,000 words, a lot closer to my goal of 70,000+.

Writing the first draft is lots of fun, I go with the flow and see where the story takes me.  But now, the real work begins.

12 thoughts on “The First Draft by Karen Shughart

  1. Karen, Great post! While I don’t change the murder, I do like to keep all the other options open and don’t outline or use index cards. I have to trust my instincts that the story is going in the right direction. To the end! LOL However, after 50 books, my first draft just needs a once over to make sure all the clues and timing are correct and then it’s off to my critique partners. I finish the first draft at my word count.


    1. Thanks, Paty.
      I am so impressed that you have written 50 books. I expect I could learn a lot from you!


  2. Karen, thanks for sharing your process. Learning how other writers do things can be very helpful. I’ve learned to let my unconscious deliver important ideas, lines of dialogue, and plot twists on its own timeline. But at the end of the first draft I still have a lot of work to do, and that is for me the most challenging–adding and amplifying without destroying what I already have.


    1. Thanks, Susan, for your comments. The first draft, as we both know, is the beginning of a lot of hard work as we move forward.


  3. Karen, I’m passing your message on to a few other members of the RMSCC
    who have inquired about your next novel. We’re all looking forward to it.


  4. Hi Karen, Interesting to read how you process your story. I wasn’t surprised you forego index cards since I’ve seen your eclectic thought processing in action. You think like women shop, never in a straight line. That’s why it’s difficult to determine who is the culprit in your books and why the books are hard to put down. Looking forward to book three! Mary

    Thanks for the cookbooks.

    On Mon, Apr 19, 2021 at 11:16 AM Ladies of Mystery wrote:

    > kshughart47 posted: ” I started writing the first draft of the third > mystery in the Edmund DeCleryk series several months ago. It’s entitled > Murder at Freedom Hill, and as with the first two books, the murder is > linked to an historical event, this time the Abolition Movement ” >


    1. Thanks, Mary. I hope you’ll want to be one of my beta readers again. You’re welcome re: cookbooks. Both were purchased as souvenirs when we were traveling, and although there are some interesting recipes in each, I just don’t use them. I know you are an adventurous and creative chef, so hope you enjoy them.


  5. I enjoyed hearing about the structure you use around your story and the way you allow freedom and flow within that. Especially, I loved hearing how much you enjoy that messy first draft! It’s inspirational to me 🙂


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