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.

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.

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?