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.

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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.

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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.

The Second Draft by Karen Shughart

I’ve just finished the second draft of Murder at Freedom Hill, the next book in the Edmund DeCleryk cozy mystery series. Draft one is the rough draft, where I have a general idea of the plot, the main characters and whodunit, but there are a lot of gaps between the beginning and the end

Draft two is the one that takes the most time, because it’s at the point where the disparate threads of the book must be woven together, the pieces of the puzzle must fit, and the story becomes cohesive.  My brain almost never shuts off. I keep a notepad nearby to write down ideas as they occur to me, sometimes in the middle of the night and often when I’m multitasking. These are the ideas that help to fill in the gaps in the story and where the rough draft evolves into something smoother.

 I write the introduction, dedication, and acknowledgements in draft two. I add or delete characters, expand the number of suspects, and accordingly change the story line. Now’s also when I check for timeline inaccuracies, chapters that aren’t listed in order, cut and paste sections of the book and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite: the prologue, the epilogue, chapters with missing pieces.

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Then there’s what I call “wordsmithing”, changing some words to others whose meanings are more precise. Inside a folder on my desk is a sheet of paper with an extensive list of words to substitute for “said” and another of overused words. Draft two is when I make those changes, too. It’s also the time for eliminating redundancies and paring down too much dialogue.

Paying attention to detail is tantamount to having a coherent finished product, and draft two is where that occurs. Recurring characters from previous books must age accordingly- a baby can’t be a teenager three years later- and someone who is described as six-feet tall can’t suddenly shrink to five-feet seven inches. Unless they’ve changed careers, they can’t be teachers in one book and truck drivers in the next or say they were born in Rochester but in another book, Buffalo. A character with blue eyes can’t also have brown eyes . It goes on and on, I’m sure you get the picture.

After spending weeks rewriting, cutting and adding chapters, and rebuilding what I destroyed to make way for what I believe will be a better story, I’m finally comfortable with draft two and ready to move on to the final draft.

Draft three is when I polish, spend lots of time copy and proof editing, re-read recipes that appear at the end of the book, and verify that all the ‘i’s’ are dotted and ‘t’s’ are crossed, at least as much as I’m able. It’s at this point that I’m finally ready to send the book to my publisher.

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.