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.

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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.

Mud Season by Karen Shughart

If you’ve ever read any of my Cozies, you may have noticed that the month of March doesn’t figure prominently in the narrative. Don’t get me wrong. We live on the south shore of Lake Ontario in New York state, and it’s spectacularly beautiful here almost year ‘round. That is to say: it’s spectacularly beautiful eleven months during the year. Not so much March.

March is the month of transition. One day the temperature plummets into the teens, the next day it rises into the 60s. We can have winds of 50 miles an hour. Then, waves up to 15 feet crash turbulently against the beach, roaring so loudly that they obliviate other village sounds. When the winds die down, there’s an eerie silence, and the lake looks like glass. .

We have snow squalls and rain, sometimes in the same hour. Snow that’s accumulated throughout the winter now starts to melt; quickly, in torrents and rivulets that make our backyard a swamp. I wear my old Wellies to stomp around to view the changing landscape. We don’t have many sidewalks here, and a stroll through the village can be challenging, to say the least. Many of us refer to the month as Mud Season.

Mid-March along the lake by Karen Shughart

Gray days seem to dominate, but it’s not all doom and gloom. You can smell the ripening as the tree buds start to swell and begin turning red or pale green. Snowdrops bloom, and our daffodils stretch up through the melting snow. The sun rises earlier, casting rose gold streaks over the bay; on rare days it is piercingly bright, with a clear azure sky. Those are the days when our middle-aged dog, Nova, sleeps in sunbeams that move from room to room.

We hear lots of birdsong. Robins live here year ‘round, but mostly in winter they hunker down out of site. Now, they make their presence known. A couple weeks ago, I peered out our living room window and spied two sparrows, a male and a female, chattering away on the winter wreath of twigs, pinecones and berries that hangs on our front door. I believe they were having a conversation about whether to build their nest there. It’s a perfect place, protected from the elements and predators.

They returned to that same spot for several days in a row. Don’t get me wrong, I love the birds. I just don’t want them nesting against our front door. Regretfully, I removed the wreath, to replace it later in the spring with one that’s more seasonal. I expect they were surprised when they returned to find their building site was no longer available.

I’ve purposely not written much about March in my Cozies, but now, after writing about this month of so many moods and faces, I begin to wonder why I’ve been avoiding it. Winter is ending, spring is on its way, and change happens rapidly. Hmm, could this be a metaphor, perhaps, for my next Cozy?

The Wine Blog by Karen Shughart

I’ve always believed that it’s easier to write about what you know, which is why wine features so prominently in my Edmund DeCleryk mysteries. Like my husband and me, Ed, and his wife Annie, live in the northern Finger Lakes region of New York, the second largest wine producer in the U. S. Wine is very much part of the lifestyle here.

Our own wine journey began many years ago. Our kids were in college, our careers at their peak, and we came home each night exhausted. We made the transition from workday to evening by having a glass of wine (or sometimes for Lyle, a Scotch) before dinner.  We caught up, chatted about our day, and even when my husband traveled for business, we designated a time to call each other, evening drink in hand. Although now retired, we continue the tradition to this day.

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One weekend we were invited to a dinner party at some friends’ house. We were asked to bring a dish to share and a bottle of wine to pair with it. It was the genesis of a gourmet group that met quarterly for many years, rotating hosts. A specialist at a wine store helped us choose the wines to go with each course. We quickly learned that to enjoy wine is to slowly sip and savor it.

Some of us took a cruise together from San Francisco Bay, along rivers that led to the Napa, Sonoma and Carneros wine regions of California.  Each evening we’d dock and before dinner attend a wine education session. The next morning we’d board a bus that would take us to charming towns for vineyard tours, wine tastings and to explore galleries and shops.

One weekend Lyle and I traveled to the Finger Lakes; a short drive from where we lived in Pennsylvania. We were enchanted by the wineries and restaurants, the vibrant jazz scene, and postcard-picture beauty.  We purchased an 1890s cottage on Lake Ontario; after retirement, we decided to make it our permanent home.

We joined a wine club.  At a series of monthly classes at New York Kitchen in Canandaigua, we learned about regions around the world where wine is crafted and how terroir, the natural environment in which grapes are grown, results in differences in color, smell and taste of the same varietal.  We cleaned up our musty basement and created a wine cellar in what was once a cistern, dry as a bone with thick stone walls and floor and about 56 degrees year ‘round.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about wine, and I write about it in my mysteries. It is, after all, part of the local lore, and an integral part of the culture. And just like Lyle and me, having a glass of wine at the end of the day is a way for Ed and Annie to unwind and share their stories.

Promoting Covid-Way by Karen Shughart

I had planned to write this month about traditional ways of promoting books. My second mystery, Murder in the Cemetery, was released last February by Cozy Cat Press, and I had already lined up book signings, talks, appearances at mystery writers’ events, a book-launch party, and an appearance as a panelist at a mystery readers’ conference. But then Covid 19 hit, and one-by-one everything was cancelled. It’s a difficult time for book sales when the normal avenues of promotion are no longer available.

My publisher, Patricia Rockwell, aware of the challenges facing authors during the pandemic, produced a YouTube video, shot by my friend Tom Lightfoot, where I prepare one of the recipes from my first book, Murder in the Museum. It’s been well-received. I also hired a publicist to promote my books on social media, recognizing how important it is and how inexperienced I am.

A free-lance writer, Laurel Wemett, has been an amazing supporter, announcing the publication of book two in last summer’s edition of the lovely regional magazine, Life in the Finger Lakes; then reviewing it for the 2020 November/December issue. Later she wrote a blurb for the e-version of the magazine on how the cover of book one placed #13 out of a field of 360 in a monthly cover contest sponsored by AllAuthor. She also sent the cooking video to Mike Murphy who interviewed me in his weekly column, “Eat, Drink and Be Murphy”, about the marrying of my books with cooking for the Daily Messenger and Wayne Post print and online newspapers.

I learned about AllAuthor from Patricia, who has been instrumental in encouraging all of us authors affiliated with Cozy Cat to promote in non-traditional ways. With her encouragement, I applied and was accepted as a member of the Crime Writers Association of the UK, a lofty organization with a presence in the US.

Finally, I participated in writing one of 24 chapters for the newly released book, A Map for Murder. It was lots of fun, and I think readers will enjoy the zany, fun-filled adventure three young women have in solving the murder. We authors recently were filmed talking about the book that you can view on YouTube.

All of the above has helped call attention to and generate very respectable sales for my books, and I’m grateful for the help and encouragement I’ve received. To those of you who read my monthly blog and have sent messages of support, I thank you.

So yes, 2020 turned out to be different than I thought it would, but in times of Covid and new book releases, it turned out much better than I ever expected. Hopefully this year will be less surreal, and we’ll be able to resume a semblance of normalcy in our lives.

A Love Story by Karen Shughart

“He alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.” Khalil Gibran

In the fall of 2016 my mother suffered a series of strokes and went into a nursing home in Pittsburgh, where she lived. My father had died; I became her power of attorney and had her mail forwarded to me here in New York. That December she received a letter with a return name and address that I vaguely recognized. I opened it.

It was letter from a man named Norge Santin, who was inquiring after my mother, our family, and Leonard, my mother’s brother. Then I remembered that Norge was a childhood friend of theirs when they were growing up in Ohio.

My uncle had died earlier that month; after reading the letter I wrote back, apprising Norge of his passing and my mother’s health issues. He responded quickly, saddened by my news. He knew who I was, he wrote, we’d met when my parents lived in Ohio shortly after I was born.

What ensued was a friendship between us, for a time through letters, then by email and phone. Norge grieved with me when my mother passed three years ago and comforted me when one of my brothers died last summer. Each time we made contact, he ended by offering prayers and blessings for my uncle and mother and sending love to me and my family.

He filled in some blanks. I learned that he and my uncle were not just friends, but best friends, starting in third grade. When the two young men graduated from high school they were drafted, it was World War II, and their college plans were placed on hold. Norge returned from the war, got his degrees, married, and had children.

Leonard was not so lucky. Suffering a breakdown during the war from which he would never recover, he spent his remaining years in and out of VA hospitals and group homes. My siblings and I knew his tragic story; our parents made sure he was always part of our lives. What I hadn’t known was that Norge remained a devoted friend to Leonard throughout his life. During visits when Leonard was withdrawn and unresponsive, he’d sit quietly with him, holding his hand.

Eventually our family moved Leonard to Pittsburgh. Norge, despite living in Ohio, continued visiting my uncle until Leonard decided that he no longer wished to see him. Maybe it was too painful to be with Norge, we’ll never know. Norge respected his wishes and never contacted him again, but his love for his friend never ceased; he contacted my mother to receive updates, up until the time when I opened that letter.

By 2019 Norge’s health had declined, he had trouble reading emails and spoke haltingly over the phone. I wanted to meet this man I’d grown so fond of, so that October my husband and I drove to Ohio to visit Norge and his wife, Therese. We were warmly welcomed and spent a lovely afternoon; all of us feeling as though we’d known one another forever.

Because of Covid there were no return visits, but we talked regularly, most recently just before Thanksgiving when I promised to call again before Christmas. Before we ended that conversation, Norge confided he thought his time was near. I told him I loved him, he said he loved me back.

Two weeks ago, I received a call from one of Norge and Therese’s daughters that broke my heart. This tender, humble, gentle and honorable man had passed and Therese, despite her own grief (they were married for 68 years), wanted to make sure I knew. His death, at 94, occurred almost four years to the day of the death of my uncle.

I’m so glad I decided to open that letter, my life is immeasurably enriched because of it. Therese and I share a strong bond; I’ll keep in touch with her and visit when it’s safe. And I miss Norge already. Rest in peace, dear friend.