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.

God Winks: It’s The Little Things

Being a bombastic big mouth from old school NYC, it’s hard to get me to willingly shut up. When I do, you best believe it’s intentional, purposeful, and to hold my attention. 9/11. A sun dog. A newborn with her fantastic Heaven-scent aroma on her onesie and in my nose. A great sleep.

And . . . God winks.

Although I’d drafted this on the 27th anniversary of turning 27–that’s called “Awesome 54some!” for those of you in #RioLinda **smirk/sarc**–it’s been dreadful to find fresh words for my Casebooks, my Threesome of Magic mysteries, even this platform. We were in the biggest game of cooties I’ve seen in life via COVID. A shutdown wrecking economic havoc. The pokiness of re-opening states so people can resume their lives–or move on in them to settle loved ones’ affairs. These stupid city burnings after an unfortunate series of events in Minnesota. And still having to wear a mask, it becoming a symbol of murdering logic, common sense, and reason in favor of groupthink, fear, and forced compliance.

But I digress.

I prayed, mainly because I couldn’t take the overwhelm anymore. It was the one thing I had some control over, some input for, some say in. When I wasn’t praying, I was sleeping. A lot. No, I’ve no plans to harm myself or others–don’t tempt me on the “others” part, please! :)–but I found it a solace He was listening.

That’s when the little reminders popped up like mushrooms do overnight. Specifics only I’d know. Hoo-boy, did I know them.

Ever heard of Squire Rushnell? Oh, yes you have. If you’re familiar with Schoolhouse Rock and other Saturday morning children’s programming on ABC back in the day, that’s the name behind this part of pop culture. He put that network on the map for inspiring 3 to 7 minute animated segments in history, science, math, government (“I’m Just a Bill”), and grammar in between cartoons, much like CBS did In The News with Christopher Glenn in between theirs (and I switched channels often to not miss either one!). Anyhoo . . . Rushnell kept adding up little coincidences in his life leading to the big ones like Schoolhouse, and how that lead him to be ABC’s Children’s Programming Prez. And hey–if he helped kids do better in school with these subjects of the songs and visuals they provided, #360Win.

Mushroom #1: My husband Pete picks up flowers in bright purple and vivid yellow. I gasped, cried, then asked if he remembered if I told him of my villain’s signature colors in my TOM mysteries. He said no–he just felt he had to get them when he saw them as a sweet birthday gesture.

Mushroom #2: Somebody shares a meme on social of an entryway from the movie adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Almost immediately, a scene drops in mind for my TOM mysteries I can plenty use to move the plot(s) forward. Yes . . . I gasped in sweet surprise again.

Mushroom #3: A Times fan since my mother, God rest her, gave me a back-to-school Snoopy watch for third grade when I was seven (I skipped second, being so bright), fostering my love for analog timepieces since. Along with the flowers, my husband gifts me a watch called Vincero (pronounced vinchairro), and the brand translates in English from Italian, “I will win.” Vincero’s pretty damn close to missing-his-ear van Gogh. Vincent Price. And my Casebooks Jay Vincent. Oh, sure–Casper’s and Logan’s names’d pop up plenty of times outside of their Casebook lives in my life, but Pedregon’s seldom did . . . before that watch company came in over my transom.

Mushroom #4: A numerology newsletter I’m subscribed to, the author suggested in part of her communique for this month that, for those who draw, to keep drawing. Those who create and craft, keep creating and crafting.

And for those who write?
You guessed it: keep writing.

Squire Rushnell created God Winks when he thought coincidence did a disservice to those unexplainable-timing-in-a-good-way little things that make you take notice. It’s not a religious aspect you must believe to see the treatise behind the belief, although Rushnell is a Christian. It’s more like Chicken Soup for the Soul’s cousin or bolder little sister. I haven’t read the book, but I plan to. It’s an occasional nod you’re headed in the right direction when you’re not sure you are, to keep staying on track–or need a boost when you don’t want to stay the course, as was my circumstance, but poignantly special after a monstrously trying week in a disgustingly taxing first half of 2020.

But in the middle of our national storm, another birthday’s come and gone. That, all things considered, is the best God wink there is.

Apologies for the heavy use of adverbs in this update. “Lolly’s Adverb Store” takes full blame for that!

Acknowledging Technical Support by Karen Shughart

police motorcycle in middle of road
Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels.com

I write mysteries. They’re Cozies, which means they don’t include graphic violence, explicit intimate scenes or coarse language.  But they do have a sleuth who investigates the murders, and although the books are fiction and there’s a lot of sway in writing them, I want them to be at least somewhat technically correct.

There’s wiggle room, of course there is. No one is holding my feet to the fire if I miss a detail that a real detective wouldn’t. But my aim is to make the books as realistic as possible, so that’s why I decided to get technical support.

Technical support offers credibility to any work, and it’s important to me, as an author, to feel comfortable that what I’m writing has at least a semblance of investigative reality. Plus, it’s a fun way to meet competent experts in a wide variety of fields, in my case criminal justice.

Before completing Murder in the Museum, the first of the Edmund DeCleryk Mysteries, I attended an eight-week class sponsored by our county sheriff’s office. I learned all the ins-and-outs of our county’s criminal justice system, everything from investigative procedures to arrests and bookings to how a K-9 unit works. There are also a number of other services provided to the community by our sheriff’s office that have nothing to do with solving crimes; services to the elderly and children, for example, and learning about those gave me an appreciation for all the fine work our sheriffs do.  When I had additional questions, I was delighted when the sheriff and two of his undersheriffs offered to meet with me to answer those questions.

A retired commander from a sheriff’s department in another county, two retired police officers-one a professor of criminal justice at a local community college-helped me not only understand how our legal system works but also the steps in conducting a solid investigation. It was high praise, once the book was published, to get an email from one of my contacts who said the investigation in the book was “spot on”.

Now I’m working on the second book in the series, Murder in the Cemetery. I’ve kept notes and all the information from those wonderful and talented folks who helped me with the first book, but in this one I needed additional support. Our district attorney who is a former physician’s assistant, provided valuable insights and information. A possible connection to the murder with the CIA resulted in a lengthy and productive conversation with that agency’s public affairs director. A retired beat cop and friend gave stellar examples of how law enforcement agents can be compassionate.

blur close up focus gavel

Writing a book takes a lot of work. Keeping track of details, making sure the plot flows and keeping characters straight are part of the process, but  including realistic investigative procedures results in not only a better book but also one that passes the test for accuracy.

 

The Importance of Setting by Karen Shughart

aerial view, architecture, autumn

As I write this, it’s raining. Heavily and steadily. And there’s a bit of a chill in the air. After all, it’s fall, a transition month of warm days, cool nights, brilliant sunshine and cloudless skies; apples, pumpkins, red orange, rust and yellow leaves and a profusion of brightly colored mums. And, of course, there’s also the rain, wind and a sea so noisy we can hear it with our windows closed. I’ve worked all morning on Murder in the Cemetery, the second book in the Edmund DeCleryk series, which is set in the fictional village of Lighthouse Cove, NY. I imagine Ed, and his wife, Annie, sitting in front of a roaring fire at the end of the day, drinking red wine and discussing the case.

Yesterday was different. It was one of those days when you just want to be outside enjoying the crisp fall air and the smell of the decaying leaves. I imagine a reflective Ed, walking on a deserted beach, waves lapping onto shore, cup of steaming coffee in hand.

In the winter my characters take long walks in the snow and meet friends at cozy pubs with wood-beamed ceilings that have parking lots filled with snowmobiles.  They eat hearty food and settle in with a good book in front of the fire.

In the spring the roads they drive on meander through acres of fruit trees covered with fragrant, fuzzy pink and white blossoms, and in summer, you might see them sailing on the teal blue waters of Lake Ontario or watching a splendid fireworks’ display from their decks.

Each season of the year has its own beauty and inspires me to interject that beauty into the plot of the Cozy mysteries I write. I have an affinity to Cozies because of their charm, but also because the reader gets to know not only the cast of characters but also the towns and villages where they live.

Think about Louise Penny’s Three Pines series- would it be as engaging if it weren’t set in a small, quaint Canadian village? And what about the works of Martha Grimes, whose character, Richard Jury, gets help solving cases from friends living in the quirky village of Long Piddleton.  If you’ve ever watched Midsomer Murders (one of my favorite “cozy” TV series), you’ll remember the festivals, concerts and fairs as well as the enticing Midsomer County woods, fields and streams that help set the scene for those murders.

The setting of a book is crucial to drawing the reader into the plot. “It was a dark and stormy night, ….” although comically trite, really does warn the reader that something ominous is about to occur. But then there’s also an intriguing juxtaposition between a day when the birds are singing, the sunrise glorious and all’s right with the world, and a horrific murder that occurs that same morning in dark and swampy woods.

Understanding Your Characters

Part of what makes a great story is great characters. Any reader can tell you that. Writers talk about developing characters, fleshing them out, giving them back story, making them flawed and relatable. These are all vital steps in creating great a character.

But once the character is created, I find I have yet one more hurdle that I have to jump: I have to understand my characters.

A young couple in Galway contemplate the evening

But you created them, you might say with surprise. You wrote their background, you devised their likes and dislikes, fears and dreams. What’s left to understand?

Lots.

Characters run the show. They get away from you, the writer, taking their own story in directions you hadn’t anticipated. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous. Yet it happens to all writers.

In my current work in progress, I realized after finishing the second draft that I had the wrong killer. A different character was standing in the wings looking guiltily around, trying not to make eye contact with me. Ah-hah, I thought. That’s the real killer!

Trying to pull a fast one on me, I might add.

In several of my books I have another problem of understanding with some of my characters: I write characters who are not native English speakers.

My mother and grandmother in Warsaw

As we all know, language affects not just the way we talk but even the way we think. Writing a foreign character (foreign to me, that is) means not only understanding their native tongue enough to be able to replicate their thoughts, but also understanding the way they frame their thoughts in the first place.

A Pole, an American and an Irishman walk into a bar…. They’re all thinking a little differently and it’s my job to understand those differences.

A woman examines a grave in Warsaw. What might she be thinking?

I’m not complaining. I love that job! I spend time improving my language skills. (By the way, for anyone interested in learning French, I recommend the lessons by Paul Noble. They’re very good!). Extra bonus, it helps when I travel the world and meet new people. So it’s a good problem to have. And one that I hope I have succeeded in overcoming.

But you tell me. If you’ve read any of my books, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my foreign characters and how well I’ve captured their differences.

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski mystery series at janegorman.com.