Reflections on Winter by Karen Shughart

When I was growing up, we lived within walking distance to a large, public park. Our local recreation department held a Twelfth Night bonfire where families brought their Christmas trees and, as we watched the dazzling flames light up the night, we sang seasonal songs and drank hot chocolate.

After a snowfall, my friends and I would drag our sleds to a large estate at the end of our block that had been willed to the city and was now part of that park. The mansion had been transformed into an art gallery, but the grounds were perfect for sledding. We’d form a chain and with our feet moving forward in tandem, push our sleds off the top of a bluff down a steep hill to the bottom. We shrieked with laughter, sometimes tumbling in a heap before we landed, and when we were chilled to the bone, we trudged home for steaming hot chocolate and cookies.

Around that same time, I discovered a series of books that were set on Lake Superior, and while the author and the titles completely escape me, I remember vividly that most of the books were set in winter, the main characters a family whose lives centered around outdoor activities near the ice-encrusted lake. I was completely enchanted.

When my own children were young, their friends would convene at our house after a snowfall and make snow angels and build snow forts in our backyard, laughing and chattering until they, too, were chilled to the bone. Then they’d all waddle into our mudroom to remove their boots and wet jackets, snow pants, scarves, and mittens, and like my mother before me, I’d serve hot chocolate and cookies.

A few years ago, at the end of the summer, my husband and I took a cruise to the Canadian Maritime Provinces and Greenland. You’d probably not be surprised to learn that my favorite part of the trip was Greenland, where the temperature was in the 30s and 40s, and we were walking around wearing down jackets and mittens in early September. I loved the starkness of the landscape and the view from the shore of small icebergs brightening the dark sea with brilliant light.

I have thought often what it is about winter that I find so compelling, enough so that in retirement we moved north rather than south. We now live in a village on Lake Ontario, where the winters can be cold and and snow-covered for at least several weeks or months during the season.

There are complex reasons, I am certain: as an introvert I like settling in with a crackling fire in the fireplace, to read books, a warming cup of tea in hand. I enjoy cooking comfort meals, walking or snowshoeing in the snow, and meeting friends at cozy pubs that in summer months are filled with happy, noisy tourists. And I’m thrilled when I catch a glimpse of ice boats gliding across our bay.

Winter is a time for reflection, too, and a time when I give myself permission to just be without having to purposely shut out the extraneous noise and activity that’s so much a part of my life during other seasons.. It’s also when I am most productive with my writing, and quietude and solitude recharge my weary body and soul.

Karen Shughart is the author of the Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mystery series. Her third book, Murder at Freedom Hill, was released in November.

Fiction or Fact: That Is the Question by Karen Shughart

If you’ve read any of the books in my Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mystery series, by now you will have noticed that with each murder there’s a historical back story that gives clues as to why the crime occurred.

When I conceived the series I decided to write about what I knew, which meant describing the beauty where we live up here on the southern shore of Lake Ontario: the beaches; fruit orchards; quaint homes and cottages, and the stunning weather that changes with each season. There’s also our close knit and friendly community and a rich tradition of history.

Across the lake lies Canada and in the middle of it, where the depths can reach 800 feet, shipwrecks occurred starting long before the Revolutionary War. The British invaded our village and burned most of it down during the War of 1812, and an active and committed abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad helped to change the course of history. In the 1920s, rumrunners from Main Duck Island in Prince Edward, Ontario piloted across the lake to Chimney Bluffs-drumlins created by icebergs with a broad beach below-to supply the speakeasies here with booze. During World War II, several prisoner-of-war camps housed German soldiers, one of which has been converted to a state park near our home.

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

I’ve been asked numerous times, at books talks and signings, about the inclusion of history into my books and the incidents are real. While the historical events are based on actual occurrences, I remind my readers that I write fiction, so history is merely a way to enhance the plot. Mostly, the characters are fictional and the details surrounding the events are figments of my imagination, although I do occasionally slip a real character into the mix.

In book one, King George, III had a minor role; in book two, I name-drop Morgan Lewis, the fourth governor of New York and quartermaster general during the War of 1812, whose father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In Murder at Freedom Hill, I mention Abe Lincoln  once or twice along with Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, but only to provide context to the back story.

I just started writing book four in the series, Murder at Chimney Bluffs. It’s early days, so at this point I have no idea who my historical celebrity will be, but whoever it is will have either supported Prohibition or opposed it, or be one of those mysterious crime bosses who organized the trips back and forth across the lake. I’ll figure it out as I move forward.

What I tell my readers is that what I love about writing fiction is that I can pretty much do anything I want with the plot, name dropping and historical events notwithstanding.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

November: A Prologue by Karen Shughart

After my first Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mystery, Murder in the Museum, was published, I decided to play around with the concept of having two prologues for subsequent books and contacted my publisher to see what she thought. She basically told me to ” go for it”, and in book two, Murder in the Cemetery, that’s what I did: the first to set the historical back story that alerts readers to why the murder may have been committed, and the second to describe the seasonal tone for the crime.

In book two I described the month of May in Lighthouse Cove, with its profusion of flowers and abundance of sun, a fitting backdrop to the crime that’s about to occur. In Murder at Freedom Hill, the third book in the series (now on sale in paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon and other book outlets) the second prologue is entitled “November”. I thought it was appropriate for this month’s blog, so here goes:

  For residents of Lighthouse Cove, NY, November was always a month of mixed emotions.  

There was a yearning for the blazing colors of October, the cool, crisp nights, starlit skies, bright days. For a low-hanging sun that could still warm the bones and ease the joints.  For the farm stands, now shuttered until spring, that had offered up a bounty of ripe produce, local honey, homemade baked goods and jams, fresh herbs.  For the hayrides and bonfires and deer spotting among the apple orchards. For the unbridled joy of chattering, costumed children extending small hands for treats as their parents kept a watchful eye; glowing lights illuminating their way.

There was also the peace that comes with tourists gone for another year and the ease of getting about.  The sound of waves, ambling onto the beach like lazy sloths. The geese and swans gliding effortlessly around the bay, no longer competing for space with boats and bathers, and the eagles soaring silently above on currents of wind. The rumbling and grumbling of street noises now muffled by a thick carpet of brown, fallen leaves.

 There was excitement and anticipation, too, in November.  For a day, later in the month, when families would gather to give thanks and then soon after, start to prepare for the hustle and bustle of the upcoming holiday season. For the hunters who had been looking forward all year to donning their camo, retrieving their guns, and stalking their prey in fields and woods, hoping to bestow upon their loved ones a largess befitting of their labors.

For some, November was also the month of grieving. A month of decay that precedes death.  Where what was past was past and would be no more, and what lay ahead was the chill and dark of winter.

A Quiet Life by Karen Shughart

When my husband and I decided to move from Central Pennsylvania to a small village on the south shore of Lake Ontario it was because we agreed that in retirement, we wanted a quiet life. We knew it was a trade-off. In Pennsylvania we had easy access to cultural events and were within minutes to shopping and restaurants of every sort. But we also had to contend with gridlock traffic on the highways, light and noise pollution, a drive of between 15 and 40 minutes to visit with our friends and the hustle and bustle that goes with living near a state capital.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Up here, along the lake, we have a traffic jam when there’s a car at each stop sign at “four corners”, the four-way intersection as you enter our village. We travel a distance for symphony, ballet and opera performances, the nearest mall is a 45-minute drive, and supermarkets between 15 and 30 minutes from our home. But we have an abundance of restaurants, farm markets, small grocery and liquor stores, a post office and hairdresser, the beach and even a golf course within walking distance.

There’s music everywhere in the summer, concerts on a bluff overlooking the water, and groups performing at restaurants and parks. Friends live nearby, and the longest drive to visit them is at most five minutes. What some might call noise soothes my soul: waves pounding upon the shore, the morning cacophony of birdsong, the chittering of squirrels, the soft chirping of crickets on a late summer’s eve, and the mournful call of the loons.

The quiet here is also a balm for me as a writer. A short time ago I took part in a discussion with a Cozy writers’ Facebook group where the administrator asked how many of us write with music playing in the background. I discovered that I am in the minority, most of those who responded are stimulated and feel more creative with background music of every sort. Some were surprised when I said that I get distracted, it’s hard for me to concentrate when there’s too much “chatter”.

It was an interesting discussion, and as I thought more about it, I realized how creative juices are stirred in so many ways. Writing for me is meditative, I can write for hours without paying attention to the time, and sometimes without taking a break. My husband teases that he knows not to try and discuss anything important with me when I’m writing. If he tells me he’s leaving to play golf or run errands, I’ll nod and later not remember a word he’s said and wonder where he is.

As I thought more about it, I realized that as I’ve aged I choose not to multitask as much as I used to.  I can cook and listen to rock and roll, show tunes or jazz at the same time, and do word puzzles or Sudoku while watching TV, but for some reason, writing, reading, or listening to certain types of of music are activities I want to savor individually. There’s immense pleasure and something to be said about immersing oneself in quiet pursuits.

Nova: A bright star….by Karen Shughart

I remember sitting on the wet tarmac in the parking lot of PetSmart. It was a cold, rainy day in April a year into the pandemic. Both my husband and I smiled when a man came walking over to us with a tiny Blue Tick beagle on a leash. I opened my arms and she walked into them, and from that moment it was true love.

We hadn’t wanted another dog, our dear Gretchen had gone over the Rainbow Bridge years before, but when we saw Nova on a no-kill shelter website where other friends had recently adopted dogs, we were smitten. The shelter staff was honest. Nova had been severely mistreated as a breeder at a puppy mill, and when she was of no more use to them, they threw her out. By the time the shelter found her, she had tick disease, ear and eye infections, had been shot multiple times with a BB gun (and had the pellets in her body to prove it) and had not been spayed. They didn’t know how long she’d live, given her health challenges. We decided that that we would love and cherish her for as long as we could.

From the beginning she must have sensed the strength of our love, and we provided her with the best medical care possible. After a few months she got a clean bill of health; her eyes sparkled and her coat was shiny . She loved her kibbles, green beans, and pumpkin, and each morning my husband shared a small piece of banana with her while he was eating his.

Nova

She learned to enjoy her daily leash walks and to not be afraid of grass, she’d never seen it before. Within weeks she was patrolling our yard in search of adventures, attempting to dig under our fence to see what was on the other side, and if truth be told, to find whatever goodies she could forage, she was a beagle after all. When we went out for an evening without her, she watched cartoons on TV and nibbled at a Kong filled with frozen green beans. She adored food puzzles and could solve them faster than we could say her name.

One of my favorite things was winter cuddling. On a cold, snowy day, we’d crawl onto the loveseat in our living room, fire blazing in the fireplace. I’d read with her head on my chest, both of us under a cozy throw; she’d fall asleep and snore softly, a paw on my shoulder. She loved being warm and when we tucked her in on a chilly night, I covered her with a soft blanket. She’d sigh and would lick my nose.

At first, we thought it was the heat, we’d had a warm summer, but this year in late August something changed.  She resisted her walks; when she went outside, she stayed on the deck instead of exploring the yard. Her high, squeaky, indignant howl(that had been suppressed by a bark collar at the puppy mill) to let us know she wanted to come back inside was replaced with her sitting in front of the door waiting patiently until we let her in. She started pacing at night, she couldn’t find a comfortable place to sleep, even with two of her beds in our room. Then we discovered several large nodules on her neck. We made an appointment with our vet, but before we could see her, Nova started having serious breathing issues.

That same night we drove to an emergency clinic, where a technician was waiting to admit her. It turns out she was riddled with cancer; the nodules were obstructing her breathing. Steroids to minimize the symptoms were one option; chemotherapy, too, but with either choice her life would be extended by only a few weeks or months.  We couldn’t bear to lose her, but neither could we bear for her to suffer. We made a choice.

At 2 a.m. that morning we gave her a snack of pureed chicken, talked and sang to her, petted and kissed her; with Lambchop, her favorite stuffed toy, and her “blankie” helping her on her journey to the Rainbow Bridge. Before she passed, she nuzzled us once more and gently fell asleep.