Acknowledging Technical Support by Karen Shughart

police motorcycle in middle of road
Photo by Jimmy Chan on

I write mysteries. They’re Cozies, which means they don’t include graphic violence, explicit intimate scenes or coarse language.  But they do have a sleuth who investigates the murders, and although the books are fiction and there’s a lot of sway in writing them, I want them to be at least somewhat technically correct.

There’s wiggle room, of course there is. No one is holding my feet to the fire if I miss a detail that a real detective wouldn’t. But my aim is to make the books as realistic as possible, so that’s why I decided to get technical support.

Technical support offers credibility to any work, and it’s important to me, as an author, to feel comfortable that what I’m writing has at least a semblance of investigative reality. Plus, it’s a fun way to meet competent experts in a wide variety of fields, in my case criminal justice.

Before completing Murder in the Museum, the first of the Edmund DeCleryk Mysteries, I attended an eight-week class sponsored by our county sheriff’s office. I learned all the ins-and-outs of our county’s criminal justice system, everything from investigative procedures to arrests and bookings to how a K-9 unit works. There are also a number of other services provided to the community by our sheriff’s office that have nothing to do with solving crimes; services to the elderly and children, for example, and learning about those gave me an appreciation for all the fine work our sheriffs do.  When I had additional questions, I was delighted when the sheriff and two of his undersheriffs offered to meet with me to answer those questions.

A retired commander from a sheriff’s department in another county, two retired police officers-one a professor of criminal justice at a local community college-helped me not only understand how our legal system works but also the steps in conducting a solid investigation. It was high praise, once the book was published, to get an email from one of my contacts who said the investigation in the book was “spot on”.

Now I’m working on the second book in the series, Murder in the Cemetery. I’ve kept notes and all the information from those wonderful and talented folks who helped me with the first book, but in this one I needed additional support. Our district attorney who is a former physician’s assistant, provided valuable insights and information. A possible connection to the murder with the CIA resulted in a lengthy and productive conversation with that agency’s public affairs director. A retired beat cop and friend gave stellar examples of how law enforcement agents can be compassionate.

blur close up focus gavel

Writing a book takes a lot of work. Keeping track of details, making sure the plot flows and keeping characters straight are part of the process, but  including realistic investigative procedures results in not only a better book but also one that passes the test for accuracy.


The Importance of Setting by Karen Shughart

aerial view, architecture, autumn

As I write this, it’s raining. Heavily and steadily. And there’s a bit of a chill in the air. After all, it’s fall, a transition month of warm days, cool nights, brilliant sunshine and cloudless skies; apples, pumpkins, red orange, rust and yellow leaves and a profusion of brightly colored mums. And, of course, there’s also the rain, wind and a sea so noisy we can hear it with our windows closed. I’ve worked all morning on Murder in the Cemetery, the second book in the Edmund DeCleryk series, which is set in the fictional village of Lighthouse Cove, NY. I imagine Ed, and his wife, Annie, sitting in front of a roaring fire at the end of the day, drinking red wine and discussing the case.

Yesterday was different. It was one of those days when you just want to be outside enjoying the crisp fall air and the smell of the decaying leaves. I imagine a reflective Ed, walking on a deserted beach, waves lapping onto shore, cup of steaming coffee in hand.

In the winter my characters take long walks in the snow and meet friends at cozy pubs with wood-beamed ceilings that have parking lots filled with snowmobiles.  They eat hearty food and settle in with a good book in front of the fire.

In the spring the roads they drive on meander through acres of fruit trees covered with fragrant, fuzzy pink and white blossoms, and in summer, you might see them sailing on the teal blue waters of Lake Ontario or watching a splendid fireworks’ display from their decks.

Each season of the year has its own beauty and inspires me to interject that beauty into the plot of the Cozy mysteries I write. I have an affinity to Cozies because of their charm, but also because the reader gets to know not only the cast of characters but also the towns and villages where they live.

Think about Louise Penny’s Three Pines series- would it be as engaging if it weren’t set in a small, quaint Canadian village? And what about the works of Martha Grimes, whose character, Richard Jury, gets help solving cases from friends living in the quirky village of Long Piddleton.  If you’ve ever watched Midsomer Murders (one of my favorite “cozy” TV series), you’ll remember the festivals, concerts and fairs as well as the enticing Midsomer County woods, fields and streams that help set the scene for those murders.

The setting of a book is crucial to drawing the reader into the plot. “It was a dark and stormy night, ….” although comically trite, really does warn the reader that something ominous is about to occur. But then there’s also an intriguing juxtaposition between a day when the birds are singing, the sunrise glorious and all’s right with the world, and a horrific murder that occurs that same morning in dark and swampy woods.

What Inspired You?

me at Marti's class.

Many of us can look back and remember that defining moment when a person, event or experience inspired us to do what we do best. For me, it was a high school English teacher and a college professor.

I wrote my first poem at the age of five, and for months my parents hung it on our refrigerator. That was great encouragement, but as much as they appreciated my creativity and were pleased when I brought home “A”s in English, they  looked at writing as something I could never turn into a career. You can’t earn a living that way was the message I got, but when my mother died last year at the age of 92, I found poems and short stories she had kept that I had given her for birthday presents along with books and articles I had written or edited.

When I was growing up, girls in my neighborhood were expected to go to college and major in something that, after we found ourselves husbands who would support us throughout our childbearing years, we could use as a fallback when our children were grown, or if our spouses died unexpectedly. That never made sense to me, and I chose to major in English. My parents were dismayed. I did it anyway, confident I would be able to support myself when the time came.

And yes, I’ve spent my entire adult years working in jobs that required me to write, and now I’m writing fiction. Recently I’ve been reflecting on the circumstances that inspired me. And what I realized is that, in some small measure, I do what I do today because of those two teachers who had faith in me.

The first was Mr. Oshry, my ninth grade English teacher. Relatively young, he was brilliant, creative, encouraging and fun. He demanded excellence and pushed his students, including me, to do our very best. Many years later our paths crossed, and I was able to tell him how much he had influenced me.

The second was Professor Taube. He criticized fairly, praised lavishly, and championed those of us who had a passion for the written word. He also was a hugely supportive. I was in my senior year, getting ready to graduate. I already had a job lined up when my advisor informed me that through a clerical error I was one credit short for graduation. I panicked.  He suggested I contact a professor who might be willing to work with me to get that credit. I contacted Dr. Taube, wrote a thesis on the themes in the collected works of D.H. Lawrence and passed with flying colors. And I graduated with my class!

So, think of what gives you pleasure, what you excel in, and try to remember what or who inspired you. Hopefully we can show our gratitude to those who cared by inspiring others.

The Road to Writing is Paved with Good Intentions

Photo of Sea WavesMy book, Murder in the Museum, was published in the spring by Cozy Cat Press. I resolved to spend at least twice a week promoting it and several more hours writing the second book in the series, Murder in the Cemetery.  I was feeling positive about my progress. The first, in all formats, was selling well, and I had written 15 chapters of the second book. Then spring turned into summer, here on Lake Ontario a season that starts with the July 4th holiday. And that’s when my resolve crumbled.

You must understand that we live in a resort area where summer days are long and the sunsets, spectacular. Where our days are filled with fishing, boating, beachcombing, golfing, swimming, festivals, parades and fireworks. Oh, and did I forget to mention the parties and picnics?  And the intimate get-togethers with friends at waterside restaurants? And outdoor concerts and theatre performances? And gardening?  And farm markets? This summer I also coordinated multiple events and activities for a family destination wedding that was held here, and we had three weeks of non-stop company. Get the picture?

I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather and activities with friends and family, and that was the point when my resolve to write and promote on a regular basis crumbled. But I wasn’t feeling very good about it. I felt guilty and was losing sleep. Then one night, while tossing, turning and fretting, I took a deep breath and acknowledged that I was putting too much pressure on myself. I calmed down and faced reality.

The reality was that while not doing as well online, book sales were brisk at the multitude of seasonal gift shops, museums, visitors’ centers, bookstores and other outlets in our village and nearby communities. The reality was that I’d enjoyed several successful book signings and, as a local author, had been asked to attend various book group meetings.   And when I thought about it a little more I realized that life’s experiences make us better writers. Good and bad, they help us craft our stories with authenticity and richness. When I sit down to continue writing the second book, I’m sure I’ll include some of this summer’s celebrations in the story.

So, I decided to stop fretting and enjoy this bountiful season. I understood that it was okay for me to take some time to not only smell the posies I’d planted or cultivated over the years, but also weed them and feed them. And to do the same for myself.

Summer is now almost over, and fall is on the way. Soon I’ll settle down and get back to work on a more consistent basis. But I’m also going to enjoy the bonfires, apple-picking, grape harvests and wine tastings, festivals, hikes and cozy dinners with my husband, friends and family.  And I’ll weave these experiences into my stories, as well.

The First Sentence

Shughart,Karen-0016_ADJ_5x7 (1)I’ve spent my professional career writing, sometimes as a newspaper columnist and feature writer; other times where I contributed to or edited professional journals, brochures, quality of life books and newsletters. I also wrote two books of non-fiction.

I knew that every good piece of writing starts with a good lead, that the first sentence or two can entice readers to read more. But when I started to write my first work of fiction, Murder in the Museum: An Edmund DeCleryk Mystery, I forgot what I knew. The first several drafts weren’t bad, but something was amiss. Then one day it hit me. I had written a prologue, but the first sentences were boring. Truth be told, the prologue was boring. I reminded myself I knew what to do, took time to rethink it, and started from scratch, happy at last with the results.

I belong to a book group. At the beginning of the year we choose the books we’d like to read, and then each person commits to leading the discussion at least once during the year.  The book we discussed for June was the National Book award-winner Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, a book of such depth and lyricism that when we discussed it, many of us did so with tears in our eyes. Ann, our discussion leader, asked how the first sentence related to one of the book’s themes, death, and to the title. The book is narrated by a young boy who says, straight out, “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” Succinct and enticing, wouldn’t you agree?

When I got home from that meeting I started thinking about first sentences and the impact they can have on the reader. Consider, for example, Charles Dickens’ first lines in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” How prophetic, those lines.

Then there is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This classic coming of age novel is set during the first two decades of the twentieth century and begins, “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better.”  If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand the context.

Perhaps you’ve read books by James Lee Burke, of contemporary southern crime fiction fame. His novel, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, starts out, “Growing up during the 1940s in New Iberia, down on the Gulf Coast, I never doubted how the world worked.” Powerful words, these, if you know the story.

So, as I knew all along, first sentences matter. They set the scene for what’s to come. And I’ll remember that when I start book two in the Edmund DeCleryk series.

Promoting a Book

Shughart,Karen-0016_ADJ_5x7 (1)

Promoting books today is very different than it was twenty years ago, when my first book, a bed and breakfast guide and cookbook, was published. It was available in paperback. Period.  There were no eBooks; audio books were available, but only as tapes or CDs.

We used computers back then, and the internet, but mainly for emailing and to do online research. There was no social media. We relied on press releases, appearances on local radio and TV talk shows, notices on the publisher’s website (most of us, other than some best- selling authors, didn’t have one), and through book signings at small indie and occasionally local chain booksellers. Sometimes a newspaper or magazine would publish a review if we, or our publisher, had the right contacts.

Today most authors are expected to help promote their books, and the methods for doing so are varied.  Yes, we still send press releases and if we’re lucky, our local newspapers will carry the story. We still are interviewed on broadcast media shows. But now we also have our own websites and a presence on social media that enables us to get the word out about our books to a vast international market. We blog, a word that didn’t even show up in a dictionary until 20 years ago and was not commonly utilized as a promotional tool until some years after that. And we obtain reviews from those who may live continents away.

We continue to do book signings, but now not only in book stores but also in a multitude of non-traditional venues.  In our county, for example, authors are encouraged to speak and do signings at local libraries, museums, tourist gift shops, visitors’ centers and historical societies.  Now, the creative ways of promoting a book are endless.

We also host book launch parties, another great way to promote our books to friends and family. A festive occasion, with food and drink, a book launch party can be held just about anywhere that makes sense: a firehouse, community center, library community room, restaurant, pub, or even on a beach or in the middle of a vineyard.My launch party for Murder in the Museum: An Edmund DeCleryk Mystery, was held at our local golf and tennis club, in a room with spectacular views of  Lake Ontario and the bay, which is the setting for the book.

The world has changed in the past twenty years, and our pace of life much faster. The good news is, as authors, we’re lucky to have so many different options available to us to help us promote our books.

Working with Law Enforcement Agencies

In our area of upstate New York, county sheriffs’ offices, local police departments, and our state police work tirelessly to protect our citizens. They also do a whole lot more.

Shughart,Karen-0016_ADJ_5x7 (1)

Last fall, our sheriff’s office invited citizens to participate in a comprehensive, eight-week course about their programs and services. If interested, all we had to do was complete a simple application form and pass a background check. I was delighted to be among those chosen.

Each session lasted about three hours, and then we were treated to lunch and a Q&A. One week, after touring the jail and observing inmates working with staff to help them, once released, take their places as productive members of society, we ate exactly what the inmates ate! Another beautiful, sunny, autumn day, we stood outside to observe officers working with the German Shepherds that comprise the K-9 crew.

But that wasn’t all. We also learned about the drug task force; how officers issue warrants and make arrests; handle domestic violence, hostage, and terrorist situations; do criminal investigations; work in tandem with other law enforcement agencies; and provide a myriad of broad-based community outreach programs to families, schools and senior citizens.

I gained a huge amount of knowledge that helped make Ed DeCleryk’s criminal investigation in Murder in the Museum: An Edmund DeCleryk Mystery more authentic, but I also had specific questions that were not addressed in class.

The sheriff, deputy, one of his undersheriffs and I met for almost two hours a couple weeks after the course ended to address those questions, much to my pleasure and satisfaction. To a person, I found these folks professional, approachable and warm.

It was for me, in the final stages of writing my mystery, an invaluable experience.   The women and men who work at our sheriff’s department, as well as those from other state and local law enforcement agencies, commit to serving their communities and sacrificing their own lives, if necessary, to protect the citizens they serve.

Our communities offer many resources to those of us who write mysteries, among them criminal justice agencies, medical personnel, historical societies, district attorneys and prosecutors. For our readers, having access to these professionals and organizations helps add a level of authenticity to our stories.