Overused Words by Karen Shughart

There is something I want to tell you. As absolutely awesome and nice it is to see you, often when we’re together it’s because I really find you interesting and amazing which isn’t bad; in fact, it’s good and fine and makes me a bit happy. Really.  But therefore, I hope you are well and will continue to be thereafter. So long.

If you’re completely puzzled after reading the above paragraph, I admit I’m guilty. It’s terrible, and I wrote it, but there was a method to my madness. Read further, and I’ll explain.

I’ve been working on the second book in the Edmund DeCleryk series, Murder in the Cemetery. After several drafts, the process of editing and polishing has begun, and for me, this is the hard part. After writing everything I could think of that will create and enhance the plot, I start

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winnowing it down. First, I look for inconsistencies. For example, in book one, Murder in the Museum, one of the characters and his wife had recently welcomed their second grandchild. A year-and-half later, in this second book, the grandchild is in kindergarten. Whoops!

As I read through the book, I also look for extraneous narrative. Annie, wife of Ed, the investigator and a sleuth in her own right, provides an intern who is working on a project for her with contact information for her friend, Charles, who lives in Canada. Charles, who had a large role in book one, has expertise in the field the intern is researching. As much as I wanted him to reappear in book two, I realized that the intern didn’t need Charles’ help and never would, the task was simple. Goodbye, Charles.

I’m pretty good at spelling, grammar and punctuation. I was an English teacher, for gosh sake. That said, I always find errors. Sometimes my brain works faster than my fingers as they pound away at the keyboard; I make mistakes. This is the phase in the book where I read carefully and slowly; I don’t want my publisher to think I’m illiterate or careless, heaven forbid.

Now we come to the reason for the sentence at the beginning of this blog. I know from experience that it’s easy to overuse certain words, as I did above. Sometimes we get attached to phrases, we use them to pad the word count, or our overuse of words is completely unintentional. If we want our writing to flow, if we want it to look professional, these must be deleted. At least most of them.

Using computer software, I can search my document for a certain word, and it’s highlighted every time it appears. It’s frustrating because the computer can’t distinguish the as in was from the word as. Still, it’s a good tool. It takes time, but once I’ve identified these overused words, I can rewrite sentences that are original, creative. And, hopefully for you, the reader, much more compelling.

Why it’s Okay Sometimes Not to Write by Karen Shughart

We traveled a lot this past spring and summer: family gatherings, a wedding, visits with our children who live on the east and west coasts, a reunion with friends in Florida and a very long trip last month to the Atlantic and Maritime provinces.  I don’t use a laptop but instead write with a desktop PC, and during those times we were away I didn’t write, not a blog, not a newsletter or social media posting, nor a chapter of the book I’m working on now. At one point we were on a ship, so not only didn’t I have use of a computer, I also didn’t have internet. Talk about being removed from the world!

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At first, I felt pressured. And guilty. Many of us authors try and write something every day. It makes good sense, keeps us in the flow of our current work, and keeps us on our feet. Not writing for several days was anathema to me, and I was uneasy that I wasn’t producing at least something on the written page.  But then it hit me.

After a couple big sighs, I gave myself permission to take a break. In fact, in my estimation taking some time off can result in better writing. For one, I was able to enjoy and experience our trips and register those experiences both in my mind and with photographs that I might, someday, be able to weave into my story lines for other novels or blogs. I was able to be in the present and savor those moments and experiences with family and friends.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think about writing. On occasion, I mulled over chapters I’d been working on or thought about topics for this blog. But I didn’t spend all that much time doing it. The “ah ha”! moment came when I realized that not writing for a while cleared my head. And that was a good thing.

Once we were back home from our trips, the laundry done and bills paid, we settled back into our routine. I turned the computer on and started writing again. What I realized was that I was able to approach my work with a fresh perspective, and I could be more objective about the chapters I was writing and more critical of what was working and what was not.

I discovered that taking a break made me more creative. I’ve added chapters that should have been written in the first place and removed others that didn’t add much to the plot. I’ve diversified language, and dialogue has become brighter and more interesting. By reading my own work with a fresh eye and committing to making changes, the book is better.  Taking a break from the writing for a few weeks wasn’t the disaster I had portended; in fact, it helped. My perspective has changed, my energy level  has increased, and I’m much more at ease with tackling the tough parts with relaxed determination.

 

 

Keeping Track of Details by Karen Shughart

Well, I’m almost there. I’ve been slogging away at writing book two of the Edmund DeCleryk mystery series, Murder in the Cemetery, for upwards of a year and now I’m in the editing, polishing and cut-and-paste phase of the book. There are more details in this one than Murder in the Museum, so way more things to keep track of:

For example, in an earlier chapter, Annie DeCleryk, wife of sleuth Edmund DeCleryk, invites a friend of hers to speak at an evening event sponsored by the Historical Society where Annie works. Low and behold, a later chapter indicated that it was a luncheon event. Boy, was I glad I discovered that one!

At another point I write about an unidentified set of tire tracks at the murder scene, that’s early on in the story, but as I reached the end of the first draft I realized I’d never come back to it and explained why they were there.

There are a set of historical letters written into the plot, they take place in the 1800s. I have them interspersed throughout the book in chronological order. At least now I do. When I scrolled through the manuscript, I discovered that in a couple places they were in the wrong order.

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Then there are chapters. As I write and revise, I sometimes remove chapters or move them to another location. Sometimes I divide one chapter into two. I spent one afternoon making sure the chapters were in order and correctly numbered. In a few cases they weren’t.

I also try and eliminate redundancy. Ed and Annie take a trip to England, you’ll learn why when you read the book, and they discover there’s a connection with something that happens on that trip and the murder in Lighthouse Cove. I explain it fully in that chapter and yep, I had Ed explaining the same scenario, multiple times, to other characters who were helping solve the crime. You, the reader, probably don’t want to revisit the entire story more than once, so in subsequent explanations I went back and had Ed summarize.

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I was a journalist once and as a result, my fiction writing, at least those early drafts, is typically very succinct. So, then I go back and expand the plot. Once done, I usually realize I’ve written more than I need, so then I cut.  What that means is that sometimes I get rid of a chapter I’m emotionally attached to, because as much as I like it, it really doesn’t enhance the plot.

Writing a novel takes a lot of work, not just making sure the plot makes sense, but also keeping track of all the details that make a book flow the way it’s supposed to. I do that on handwritten notes, charts, notes in my computer and, also, in my head. Phew! But I’m gratified when the finished product finally goes to print.

 

Acknowledging Technical Support by Karen Shughart

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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.

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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

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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.