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.