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.

November: A Prologue by Karen Shughart

After my first Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mystery, Murder in the Museum, was published, I decided to play around with the concept of having two prologues for subsequent books and contacted my publisher to see what she thought. She basically told me to ” go for it”, and in book two, Murder in the Cemetery, that’s what I did: the first to set the historical back story that alerts readers to why the murder may have been committed, and the second to describe the seasonal tone for the crime.

In book two I described the month of May in Lighthouse Cove, with its profusion of flowers and abundance of sun, a fitting backdrop to the crime that’s about to occur. In Murder at Freedom Hill, the third book in the series (now on sale in paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon and other book outlets) the second prologue is entitled “November”. I thought it was appropriate for this month’s blog, so here goes:

  For residents of Lighthouse Cove, NY, November was always a month of mixed emotions.  

There was a yearning for the blazing colors of October, the cool, crisp nights, starlit skies, bright days. For a low-hanging sun that could still warm the bones and ease the joints.  For the farm stands, now shuttered until spring, that had offered up a bounty of ripe produce, local honey, homemade baked goods and jams, fresh herbs.  For the hayrides and bonfires and deer spotting among the apple orchards. For the unbridled joy of chattering, costumed children extending small hands for treats as their parents kept a watchful eye; glowing lights illuminating their way.

There was also the peace that comes with tourists gone for another year and the ease of getting about.  The sound of waves, ambling onto the beach like lazy sloths. The geese and swans gliding effortlessly around the bay, no longer competing for space with boats and bathers, and the eagles soaring silently above on currents of wind. The rumbling and grumbling of street noises now muffled by a thick carpet of brown, fallen leaves.

 There was excitement and anticipation, too, in November.  For a day, later in the month, when families would gather to give thanks and then soon after, start to prepare for the hustle and bustle of the upcoming holiday season. For the hunters who had been looking forward all year to donning their camo, retrieving their guns, and stalking their prey in fields and woods, hoping to bestow upon their loved ones a largess befitting of their labors.

For some, November was also the month of grieving. A month of decay that precedes death.  Where what was past was past and would be no more, and what lay ahead was the chill and dark of winter.

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 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.

My Desk is a Mess by Karen Shughart

This is the stage when I’m writing a mystery that if you visited my office, you’d gasp in horror. I’m usually very organized, but at this stage, my desk is a mess.

On the right are the first two books in my Edmund DeCleryk Cozy series, Murder in the Museum and Murder in the Cemetery. I use them as a reference for book three, Murder at Freedom Hill, because there are recurring characters: a newborn baby in the last book can’t be in elementary school two years later.

A thesaurus, usually on a shelf, claims space on my left. I’m forever scrambling to find synonyms for words I tend to overuse. It’s a weighty tome but a necessary tool, although the good news is that I recently had an aha! moment when I realized that with a couple of keystrokes and the click of the mouse, hello Google, goodbye Roget’s.  How easy is that?

That thesaurus, by the way, was published in 1962. My Webster’s dictionary in 1982. If you think that dates me, it does, think about how many words there are now that none of us who were alive 50 years ago could have imagined: truthiness; snowflake (not the one that falls from the sky); bestie; twerk. Not that I’d ever include those words in my books, none of my main characters is young enough to use them. Wait a minute, did I say 50 years? Has it really taken me that long to follow my bliss?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But I digress.  Piles of paper surround me: bills I’ve received from vendors who still, after all these years, won’t send them electronically but that I, a modern woman, have  paid online; recipes I printed from The New York Times when I could have simply opened my phone or computer when preparing them; print-outs of outdated passwords; a receipt for our dog’s latest checkup; a flyer from the local carwash announcing its wash and wax specials.

I don’t like wasting paper. “Waste not, want not” –phrase origin 1576 or 1772 — depending on your source, is my motto. I write notes to myself on the blank sides to advance the story line, a timeline I never follow, names of new characters to remember, thoughts and ideas that come to me at 3 a.m., questions I have about historical details that are always part of the backstory and the reason for the murder.

There’s a system here, a method to my madness, and it works for me. Once I make sure my historical facts are mostly correct, change the timeline yet again, check for inconsistencies, discard ideas I had at 3 a.m. — what was I thinking — I cross the items off the list, rip the paper into shreds, and toss it into the recycling bin. Then the cycle begins again. Until I reach the point when the manuscript is sent off to my publisher, my desk will remain a mess.