The Year of Uncertainty by Karen Shughart

For many of us this has been a year of uncertainty, a difficult year, and a year we could never have imagined, one that took us completely by surprise and rocked our universe. For my husband and me it has meant almost no in-person contact with our children. Our son and daughter-in-law live on the West Coast, my husband and I live north of the Finger Lakes on Lake Ontario,  and although we spent time over the summer with our daughter who lives in New Jersey, she’s started back teaching. We have no idea when we’ll be able to visit with any of them again.

Zoom meetings have become part of our lives. Truth be told, it’s not a great way to mourn the death of a beloved sibling, celebrate several new births, or the milestone of a cousin’s 70th birthday.  We do it; we have no choice, but it’s been much harder than giving up dining out at restaurants or attending live cultural performances.

On the professional end, book talks and signings, and a conference for readers of mysteries where I was to be a panelist, were all canceled because of Covid-19, shortly after my second mystery was launched. Appointments for yearly check-ups and screenings have also been canceled and rescheduled, more than once.

But despite the uncertainty and sadness, there have been bright spots: The babies and birthday mentioned above, the support of friends when we were mourning the death of my sibling; the outdoor, safe distancing gatherings of a small group of us who are bonded not by blood but by heart; a cooking video on YouTube with me preparing a recipe from one of my books. And we do get to speak with and see our children on FaceTime and at family Zoom gatherings.

In early April we adopted Nova, a tiny Blue Tick Beagle, who captured our hearts from the moment we saw her photo at the shelter. A gentle, easy going and loving dog, she also is spunky and stubborn, qualities that have stood her in good stead, given the horrible neglect and abuse she suffered before becoming part of our family. Five months have passed, and Nova is a happy, healthy, increasingly confident and secure dog, just as we had hoped. It was the virus that brought us together.

To deal with the anxiety I feel because of these surreal times, I’ve been listening to guided meditation CDs, about 20 minutes daily; it’s helped. As has writing in a journal, giving voice to thoughts and feelings about all the chaos in our world. But I also write down ten things each day for which I’m grateful. Poetry and classical music, always part of my life, have assumed a greater role, calming and centering me.

Most of us have heard the old saw, “this too shall pass,” but sometimes it’s not all that easy to believe. I think it will happen, eventually, but our world, both big and small, will be changed forever.  Hopefully, when it does, we’ll find strength to pick up the pieces and move on.

August by Karen Shughart

Here up at the lake we’re surrounded by orchards, vineyards and farmland; gently rolling hills and meandering streams with an abundance of fish. It’s a beautiful place any time of the year, but the end of summer, the month of August, is special in so many ways.

Sunrise is a little later this time of year, we can hear the morning music of birds at around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. rather than 3:30 or 4:00 as in June. There’s something peaceful and magical about waking early in August to see the sun rise, it’s rose-gold rays casting brilliant diamond-like shards across the water. It’s a quiet time.

Warm days are the norm; some days the humidity rises, but on others bright blue skies, lazy white clouds, and a lake sluggishly rolling its waves onto the shore are a welcome change to the previously fetid air.  Sailboats dot the horizon, pontoons chug lazily about and motorboats slice through the undulating sea. Families play on the beach and picnic under a pavilion where long ago children laughed with delight as they rode a carousel.

A cornucopia of fresh produce offers up its bounty at a multitude of farm stands and markets. Lovely squashes, tomatoes, blueberries, cherries, corn, beans, and herbs create a riot of color far more beautiful than any still life painting.  And the fecund ripening of the fruit on trees in the orchards, especially the apples, the first of which will soon be ready for harvest, remind us that fall is on its way. The green, green grass of past months starts to brown, the flowers lose some of their bloom, and the limbs on deciduous trees, with their lush dark leaves, droop with anticipation as they begin to fade. In a month or two, their bright, warm hues will beckon an onslaught of sightseers.

Photo by Karen Shughart

Something about the light and the air bring visions of fall: bright, sunny days as crisp as biting into a just-picked apple.  It smells different, too. The air is perfumed, but in August, with a rich, heavy sweetness mingled with the beginnings of the decay that precedes fall and winter.

Later in the month, when the tourists and those who spend their summers at simple cottages here have gone, there’s silence  interrupted only by the occasional droning of a lawn mower,  the buzz of insects, the bark of a dog or the subdued chatter of friends and neighbors who pass by.

What Goes Around… by Karen Shughart

I grew up in the 1950s, a time shortly after the end of World War II when all most people wanted was a simple life that included a modest home, food on the table and a little bit of money for extras. We had one TV, a black and white at first, and sometimes we ate TV dinners, prepackaged with meat loaf and macaroni and cheese or chicken pot pie, as we sat on chairs in the living room and watched the evening news.

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Our recreational activities were, for the most part, ones that cost little money. Our family had picnics with neighbors, relatives, or friends at a local park. One of my friend’s dad had a pick-up truck and on a summer evening he’d pile 6-8 of us into the back of it and take us for ice cream, which we ate standing around the truck or sitting at a picnic table. We played hide-and-seek outside when the sun set late, board games with our parents on cold or rainy days, or put together jig saw puzzles. Sometimes we went to movies; in the summer to drive-ins in our pjs; or to a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. At least once a year we had a family outing to an amusement park with a wooden Ferris wheel and penny arcade.

One vivid detail that stands out is how bright the sky was then and how clear the air. When we couldn’t go to the community pool my mom turned the sprinkler on, and I remember loving the rainbows and diamond-like sparkles that were created by the sun hitting the water as we jumped and danced through the ephemeral spray. I remember, too, looking up at night and marveling at the carpet of twinkling stars that covered the sky.

Each July or August we went to the Jersey Shore, an eight-hour driving trip from Pittsburgh, where we lived.  All six of us (four kids and two parents) piled into our car, leaving at 2 a.m. so we could get to the beach by mid-morning, thus extending our week-long vacation by a day. My mother packed breakfast, small foil-lined boxes of Kellogg’s assorted cereals and a cooler filled with milk and fruit, and we stopped on the shoulder of the highway to eat it. Once there we played on the beach, body surfed in the ocean, ate bologna sandwiches on Wonder Bread, and at night walked the boardwalk.

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Photo by Karen Shughart

We were fortunate. For many, life wasn’t so blissful. There were scares and concerns. The Korean Conflict. The Cold War.There was no pandemic, but the epidemic of polio shattered a multitude of families, closed swimming pools, movie theatres and religious services; instead of ventilators there were iron lungs. The Salk vaccine, and then the Sabin, helped alleviate some of the concerns, but even so fears lingered, there were no vaccines for measles and mumps or other disabling childhood diseases.  Despite so-called prosperity many still struggled; there was rampant discrimination, and gross inequality. During this time a pot simmered slowly, but it wasn’t until the 60s that the pot boiled over, paving the way for the beginnings of change. Perhaps, though, not enough and it appears the pot’s boiled over again, as it should.

As we’ve woven our way through and around COVID 19, it’s been feeling a bit like the 50s to me, and, because of the recent protests that have occurred here and around the world, reminiscent of the 60s, too. Isn’t it odd how things that go around come around?

Acknowledging Technical Support by Karen Shughart

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Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels.com

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.

 

Holiday Recipes from the Ladies of Mystery

Since this is the 5th Monday of the month and we don’t have a person scheduled, we decided to make the 5th Monday or Thursday of a month a day when we gather and give you recipes, talk about our lives, or what is happening that you might be interested in as a group.

Today, because of the holidays approaching a few of us are giving you recipes. These are in the order in which they arrived in my inbox.

CANDIED SWEET POTATOES

Warning, I never measure.

As many sweet potatoes (the lighter yellow ones, not yams) as you think you’re family or guests will eat. Put this in pot and cover with water. Boil until easily pierced with a fork—but you don’t want them mushy. When cool enough, peel, and slice into half or quarters depending upon how large they are. Layer in a baking dish. On each layer put several pats of butter and sprinkle with brown sugar. Be generous. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. If you prepare ahead of time and refrigerate, bake for 45 minutes.

My recipe is something I always fix for Thanksgiving. I like these way better than the canned yams with marshmallows so many serve. My aunt always made these for our Thanksgiving feasts all during my childhood and brought them when I became the host for the big dinner. She is no longer with us, but having them brings back memories of my aunt.

–Marilyn Meredith


From the recipe box of my character Shandra Higheagle

Shandra’s Sixty-minute Cinnamon Rolls

3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

4 TBSP sugar

1 tsp salt

2 packages Active Dry yeast

1 cup milk

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup butter

Brown sugar to cover the dough

Cinnamon to cover the brown sugar

1/4 cup melted butter

In a large bowl thoroughly mix 11/2 cups flour, sugar, sale, and undissolved yeast.

Combine milk, water, and butter in a saucepan. Heat over low heat until liquids are very warm (120-130 degrees F) ( I use the microwave and a pyrex measuring cup) butter does not need to melt. Gradually add this to the dry ingredients and beat 2 minutes at medium speed of electric mixer, scraping bowl occasionally. Add 1/2 cup flour. Beat at high speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally.  Stir in enough additional flour to make a soft dough. Turn out onto lightly floured board; knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover; place in warm (98 degree F) to rise for 15 minutes.

Turn dough out on floured board and roll into a large rectangle. Spread with melted butter, cover with brown sugar, and sprinkle with cinnamon. roll up long side and cut in 1-11/2 inch slices depending on if you want fewer but larger rolls or more rolls. Place cut side down in a buttered 9″ x 13″ pan. Let rise in  in a warm, free from draft area for 15 minutes. ( I usually fill my small sink with hot water, place a cooling rack over it and set the pan on that with a towel over the top. My daughter uses the warming oven)

Bake at 425 degrees F, for 15 minutes or until done. Drizzle with a milk and powdered sugar glaze.

–Paty Jager


CARAMELIZED VIDALIA ONION DIP

2 T. butter or margarine

3 large Vidalia or other sweet onions, sliced thin

1 8 oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened (can use light)

1 8 oz. pkg. Swiss cheese, shredded (can use reduced fat)

1 C. grated Parmesan cheese

1 C. mayonnaise (can use light)

Vegetable Chips (I use Terra)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add sliced onions and cook, stirring often (30-40 minutes) or until onions are caramel colored (scrape the bits from the bottom). Combine all the cheeses and mayo in a large bowl and add and mix the cooked onions. Spoon into a baking dish and bake about 30 minutes or until the top is browned and bubbly. Serve with the veggie chips.

Make ahead: You can make and assemble the dip the day before, put into the baking dish, cover and refrigerate. Bake as instructed above but for 45-50 minutes instead of 30 minutes.

–Karen Shughart

Murder in the Museum: An Edmund DeCleryk Mystery and soon-to-be released Wheel of Death,  a mystery by 22 authors.

photo source: canstock

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.

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.

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.

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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 https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Museum-Edmund-DeCleryk-Mystery/dp/1946063509/ 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.