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.

To Prologue or Not to Prologue (#2) by Karen Shughart

I promise this isn’t a duplication of Paty Jager’s blog from last Monday. Paty and I frequently seem to be on the same page when choosing topics for our monthly blogs, and when I read her title, I was terrified that my extremely rough draft had somehow made it’s way into scheduling instead of her very well-written and polished one. Fortunately, my fears were allayed when I saw her name as the author. Whew! And while our titles are the same, we’ve written from our own points of view.

Each of the books in my Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mysteries has an historical backstory that’s related to the crime and provides clues to why the murder was committed. In book one, Murder in the Museum, the prologue introduced a character whose journal, written in 1845, was discovered at an archeological dig in Toronto, Canada. The prologue in book two, Murder in the Cemetery, ties the crime to a battle that occurred in Lighthouse Cove, NY during the War of 1812.

My creative juices really started flowing in book two, and I played around with writing two prologues: the first as described above; the other to introduce the setting, the month of May. You’ll have to read the book to learn why that’s important. My dilemma was which to keep and which to discard. I realized I was emotionally attached to both, so decided to get my publisher’s advice-few books are written with two prologues. Her quick response: “go for it,” and I did.

I’m heading down the home stretch with book three, Murder at Freedom Hill. Yet again, I’ve written two prologues: the first, the historical backstory – it takes place in 1859 in Lighthouse Cove during the abolition movement, when fleeing slaves boarded a schooner to transport them across Lake Ontario to Canada. The second is set in November, the month when the harvest is over, and the chill and frost of winter lurk just around the corner.  

What I love about writing this series is that I don’t have to follow all the rules. It doesn’t mean I am undisciplined; I certainly know how to craft a story from beginning to end, but I enjoy taking liberties with commonly accepted writing practices when it makes sense.

It’s up to us mystery writers to decide how our stories will be written. Some begin with the murder; others lead up to it, it can go either way. It’s the same for prologues. Sometimes a book needs no prologue, but at other times a prologue can set the scene and enhance the plot. And at times, two prologues are even better.

It’s All in the Details by Karen Shughart

Even in fiction, it’s important that some details are correct, especially in a murder mystery when describing an investigation and its resolution when the killer is captured. While the plot, setting, and characters can be a complete figment of the imagination, there’s got to be some accuracy when describing the measures taken to solve the crime.

Our communities offer many resources to those of us who write mysteries, among them sheriffs and police personnel, district attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors, and judges. Having access to these experts and being willing to learn from them adds a level of authenticity to our stories, and hopefully results in more reader satisfaction.  I’m fortunate that these professionals have been available to me when I’ve had questions.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

There’s wiggle room, of course, but when investigators on TV are trying to solve a crime and get DNA results in an hour, that’s not how it really works. Although technology has evolved, and today it’s possible for a speedier turnaround time- sometimes in as little as six hours-I try and stick as much to the facts as possible.

I’m working on Murder at Freedom Hill right now, the third is the series of Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mysteries.  In the last two books, the crimes were solved without my needing to provide precise details of what followed after the murderer was apprehended. This time around it’s a bit more complicated.

I’ve realized as I’ve been writing this book that my knowledge of some those procedures is a bit rusty, and I wanted to clarify the steps that must occur from arrest to sentencing, the difference between probation and parole, and the circumstances that permit the defense attorney to make a deal. A few weeks ago, I met with our county’s district attorney.  We spent about an hour together, and after, I went home and revised some sections of the book for clarity, although I must admit that I fudged a few of the details to mesh better with the story.

 The women and men who work at various levels of law enforcement and in criminal justice professions are a valuable resource to those of us who write mysteries. They help provide a framework that allows us to create a book that weaves fantasy and reality into a believable plot.

It Never Rains in Southern California by Karen Shughart

We just returned from a visit with our son and daughter-in-law, who live in southern California. There was a song in the 1970s entitled It Never Rains in Southern California, and although the lyrics did not particularly inspire joy, the title is apt, it truly hardly ever rains in southern California. As my son reminded me when I mentioned how nice it was to not have to deal with the inconsistent weather events like blizzards and blinding rainstorms like we do here in the northeast, he reminded me that California has plenty of their own climate issues: mudslides, fires, earthquakes, and damaging winds. Good point.

During our visit we sat under a pergola in their backyard and snacked on tangerines picked from a nearby tree. One night for dinner we ate freshly-caught Pacific salmon with lemon slices we plucked from another. Avocados, plentiful in that part of the world, hang heavy on branches drooping over fences A bottle brush tree with vivid red flowers and clusters of bright yellow daylilies attract a multitude of hummingbirds and Monarch butterflies. The air is redolent with sun-ripened foliage and the salty brine that drifts inland from the broad, blue Pacific Ocean.

Photo by Gary Barnes on Pexels.com

We arrived back in New York to a gray, cloudy day with a drizzle of fine rain and yet, when we pulled into our driveway, our daffodils and forsythia were beginning to bloom, the hyacinths were emerging from the earth, and nestled in among our own burgeoning daylilies were bright, purple violets, signs that spring is surely on the way. While the weather is fickle, each day here brings a surprise; now some days are warm and bright, on others, winter doesn’t want to lose its frosty grip.

I thought about how climate and weather affect writing. My Cozies are set in a small village along the south shore of Lake Ontario, much like the village where we live.  Four defined seasons provide the setting to the mysteries:  a dark, stormy, windblown night is a metaphor for what’s to come, as is the juxtaposition of bright summer days and a murder that’s occurred in a lush garden setting.

If we lived in California, I would still be writing Cozies, but they would different. Mine have a backstory based on the history of our state: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Underground Railroad, to name a few. If we lived in California, I’d choose Spanish Missions, the Mexican American War, or the Gold Rush.   The setting, too, would change. A California beach town and one on Lake Ontario have few characteristics in common, our beaches are rocky and not as wide, we don’t have sidewalks and parking lots along the water, and the distance across the lake to Canada is a mere 80 miles, compared to more than 6,000 to China. We do, surprisingly, have pelicans, but we’ve never seen a whale. Still, it’s fun to contemplate what I’d do differently if my mysteries were set in a part of our country where it never snows, hardly ever rains, and the sun shines almost every day.

Switching Horses Mid-Stream by Karen Shughart

The process of writing a novel takes a long time. First, there’s coming up with the idea for the plot, but from creation to completion there are lots of other steps along the way. Some authors set strict parameters, develop an outline, keep a set of note cards and pretty much stick to the plan. When I write, my mind never shuts off while I envision multiple possibilities. At times it drives me and my loved ones crazy, but as a result, I am able to shape what I hope will be a better story.  

I thought I’d be finished by now with writing book three in the Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mysteries series, Murder at Freedom Hill. It’s taking longer than expected because I’ve switched horses mid-stream. There’s a murder, for sure, but I’ve added a subplot that’s loosely related to that crime.

Photo by Karen Shughart

As with the other two books in the series, I created a backstory based on the history in the village where I live. For book one it was post-Revolutionary War; book two, The War of 1812; and for book three, it’s the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad. Thus, the reason for the title of this blog – the phrase was conceived by Abraham Lincoln in a speech he gave in 1864 to members of the National Union League.  It fit.

But I digress. As the result of adding a subplot, I made other changes, too. In book one, a manuscript dated 1745 provides clues to why the victim was killed, in book two it was a series of letters written between 1814 and 1817 by the wife of a soldier. In this book I had first planned to insert newspaper clippings from the mid-1850s that were discovered at the local library. Just this past week I turned those into excerpts from a research project the victim was working on. As I thought about it, it just made more sense to do it that way because I changed the secondary plot from one that was probably a bit too political for a Cozy mystery to one that’s not.

Politics in Cozies, while permitted, aren’t necessarily encouraged, and I understand why.  When people read the genre, they want to be entertained, and they want to escape. Characters in Cozies are part of a tightly knit community, and the evil that lurks is usually not something you’d read about in the news today.  We get enough of that  every time we turn on our TVs, computers and our phones, and read newspapers and magazines.

For weeks I was losing sleep over this book trying to figure out what it was about it caused discomfort. Once I figured it out, I started rewriting, and I’m sleeping better now.  Yes, the process of writing takes a long time, but to paraphrase another sentence from a speech Abe Lincoln gave, this time on July 4, 1861, “Let us renew our trust… and go forward without fear.” Just so you know, July 4 is also part of the plot.