It’s Apple Harvest Time by Karen Shughart

If you drive around our area in October, you will notice the leaves on the trees have begun to turn, colorful red, orange, and yellow instead of multiple shades of green. The air smells of sweet decay, new mown grass, and when the waves crash against the beach, a clean, verdant aroma wafts through the air, a bit like the ocean but without the brine.

You’ll notice farm markets, large pots of colorful mums clustered together at the edges of the parking lots, filled with a bounty of vegetables: squashes, pumpkins, eggplant, green beans, and apples, lots of apples.

New York is one of the largest apple-growing regions in the country, second only to Washington state. On the south shore of Lake Ontario, where we live, you’ll see acre upon acre of lush orchards, laden with the heavy, ripe fruit. What might surprise you, if you don’t know much about apples, is that not only do they come in different sizes and colors, but there are also hundreds of varieties, old favorites and those recently developed. Each year brings more choices; there’s an almost infinite selection.

Photo by Karen Shughart

Apple harvest here, in the north, is a reason to celebrate. One of our friends spent his earlier years as an MD but has become an apple farmer in retirement (the story of his journey to this point is a long and interesting one), with 100 acres of the sweet and savory fruit.  Now he can be seen-cowboy hat, jeans, and boots, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows-cheerfully working alongside his seasonal employees to pick the crop before the frost creeps in.

We love going to his farm, when on a late afternoon, with a variety of cardboard boxes and tote bags in hand, we stroll through the stands of trees, lined up in rows in military precision. We carefully choose apples that will last in cold storage in our garage throughout the winter: baked into breads, pies, and cakes, eaten with sharp cheese, or sliced into a salad.

After, we’re likely to cluster around a large island in his farmhouse kitchen, drinking glasses of wine and eating charcuterie boards piled high with cheeses, sausages, artisanal breads, and apples, yes, apples. When the skies are clear and the air is cool, he’ll host an evening barbecue for friends in his meadow at the edge of the orchard; a huge bonfire burning with apple wood. Then, we gather, to laugh, share stories and eat a meal of locally sourced food. One year a white bedsheet affixed to the side of his barn served as a screen for an outdoor movie while we munched on apple fritters and popcorn cooked over that fire.

I love October for many reasons: the cool nights and bright warm days; the quiet and calmness now that summer residents and visitors are gone; the bright colors, and the earthy pungency of burning leaves that fills the air. But mostly because it’s apple harvest time, a time for convening with friends and sharing the bounty of the season.

City Mouse or Country Mouse by Karen Shughart

Are you a city mouse or a country mouse? Does the thought of rural life make you yawn? Or does the idea of living in a city send electric shocks of anxiety through you?

I grew up in Pittsburgh. I enjoyed concerts performed by the symphony orchestra and boarded a streetcar with my mother for shopping excursions and lunch at downtown department stores. Our family went to the zoo, visited museums, and in the summer enjoyed the rides and games at big, regional amusement park. A branch of the Carnegie Library was within walking distance to our home.  I remember attending a live performance of what was the forerunner to the Mr. Rogers TV show. I loved the energy of the city, the hustle and bustle, the diversity of people and activities.

One set of grandparents lived in a small, rural town in Ohio. From their front porch you could see the Ohio River, and there were meadows and fields at the end of their road. We weren’t allowed to swim in that river, but I do remember hikes and picnics in sun-kissed fields, crowded with delicate Queen’s Anne Lace, purple thistles, and sunflowers. You could hear the train whistle and wave to the conductor from their backyard. I loved those visits, too.

 My children grew up in a mid-sized town in central Pennsylvania: safe, secure and with plenty of space to roam around, but we lived within proximity to major metropolitan areas. We exposed them to museums, concerts, historic sites, and a variety of restaurants that served food unlike the types available in our town. Those experiences impressed them, and as adults they have chosen to live where gridlock traffic is juxtaposed with economic and cultural opportunities.

There’s energy in a city that you don’t find in a rural setting. Where you can walk or hail a cab or call Uber to get just about anywhere in minutes. Where GrubHub is takeout. When visiting our children, I sometimes long for that lifestyle. But then, after a few days, I yearn for the solitude of the place we call home.

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We retired and moved from central Pennsylvania to a bucolic village in the Finger Lakes region of New York on the south shore of Lake Ontario, not too far from several large cities and on the other side, Canada. It’s a big lake, with beautiful beaches and waves that look and sound like the ocean.

Quiet three seasons, in summer restaurants, shops, and museums fill with visitors, and outdoor activities abound. Cars line our street for Sunday concerts in the park, and our July 4th celebration attracts crowds from miles away. You wait in line at farm stands and for tastings at wineries. It’s exhilarating and enervating at the same time. I hold my breath, not fully exhaling until September.

So, what am I? I’d say I’m a country mouse who likes best to feast on the grains of quiet and solitude but occasionally ventures into a city to forage for more exotic fare. What about you?

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.

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?

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.