Fiction or Fact: That Is the Question by Karen Shughart

If you’ve read any of the books in my Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mystery series, by now you will have noticed that with each murder there’s a historical back story that gives clues as to why the crime occurred.

When I conceived the series I decided to write about what I knew, which meant describing the beauty where we live up here on the southern shore of Lake Ontario: the beaches; fruit orchards; quaint homes and cottages, and the stunning weather that changes with each season. There’s also our close knit and friendly community and a rich tradition of history.

Across the lake lies Canada and in the middle of it, where the depths can reach 800 feet, shipwrecks occurred starting long before the Revolutionary War. The British invaded our village and burned most of it down during the War of 1812, and an active and committed abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad helped to change the course of history. In the 1920s, rumrunners from Main Duck Island in Prince Edward, Ontario piloted across the lake to Chimney Bluffs-drumlins created by icebergs with a broad beach below-to supply the speakeasies here with booze. During World War II, several prisoner-of-war camps housed German soldiers, one of which has been converted to a state park near our home.

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

I’ve been asked numerous times, at books talks and signings, about the inclusion of history into my books and the incidents are real. While the historical events are based on actual occurrences, I remind my readers that I write fiction, so history is merely a way to enhance the plot. Mostly, the characters are fictional and the details surrounding the events are figments of my imagination, although I do occasionally slip a real character into the mix.

In book one, King George, III had a minor role; in book two, I name-drop Morgan Lewis, the fourth governor of New York and quartermaster general during the War of 1812, whose father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In Murder at Freedom Hill, I mention Abe Lincoln  once or twice along with Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, but only to provide context to the back story.

I just started writing book four in the series, Murder at Chimney Bluffs. It’s early days, so at this point I have no idea who my historical celebrity will be, but whoever it is will have either supported Prohibition or opposed it, or be one of those mysterious crime bosses who organized the trips back and forth across the lake. I’ll figure it out as I move forward.

What I tell my readers is that what I love about writing fiction is that I can pretty much do anything I want with the plot, name dropping and historical events notwithstanding.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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 Take a Village by Karen Shughart

The setting for the Cozies I write is a village on the south shore of Lake Ontario in New York, and while fictionalized, it closely resembles the village where I live. If you’ve read the books, you might remember that typical of the genre, there’s a close-knit group of characters who, in addition to solving crimes, also get together for social and community events and to provide support in times of stress.

It’s no accident that I chose to model Lighthouse Cove after Sodus Point. It’s much easier to write about what you know, and while the characters in the book are mainly figments of my imagination, the preponderance of people here are as kind and caring as those, other than the villains, portrayed in the books.

Without going into a lot of explanation, a couple of weeks ago our 21-pound Blue Tick beagle, Nova, escaped from our fenced-in yard on a bright, sunny day.  My husband was out running errands, and when I discovered she was gone, I sprang to action and started walking the streets calling her name. One of my neighbors checked to see if she had perhaps wandered into her carriage house. Another, on her way out of town, took a few minutes to drive around to see if she could spot her. A young woman I’d never met was walking her dog and said she’d look, too, and would bring her home if she found her.

After my husband arrived, we fanned the neighborhood on foot to no avail. We decided to post her photo on a couple of local Facebook sites and then get into the car to continue the search, but before we did, I checked my phone. There was a message. One woman who lives about three blocks away had spotted her, and while she wouldn’t come when called, that person herded her to the home of a friend who always keeps treats and a lead at her house. Fortunately, Nova had identifying tags with phone numbers, and we were notified.  Within an hour of her escape she was home safe and sound, tired and a bit scared, but no worse for the wear.

Around dinner time that evening, my phone rang. A friend, who had heard about her escape from another, asked if we’d found Nova and said that earlier, when he’d heard the news, he’d gotten on his bike and ridden around our village looking for her. The next morning, when my husband walked her, a man he didn’t know stopped him on the street and told him he was glad we’d found our dog.

For some, living in such a tight-knit community would be claustrophobic and confining; for us it’s been a blessing. There are many more incidents I can recall where people have banded together to help those experiencing some sort of crisis that I’ll write about at a different time. But for now, I’ll end with expressing gratitude for living in a village where the call for help is always answered.

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.

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?