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.

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.

Back to the Concerts by Karen Shughart

We moved from a mid-sized metropolitan area to a small village on the south shore of Lake Ontario in the Finger Lakes region of New York almost seven years ago. We love being part of a community where everyone truly does know your name, and the beauty surrounding us is inspirational. I wouldn’t be writing the Edmund DeCleryk mystery series anywhere else.

There’s lots going on here, especially during summer months, but attending monthly cultural events was an integral part of our lives where we used to live, so we decided to explore what was available in nearby Rochester and other nearby communities.  The highway system is good, and within a short drive there are a multitude of choices:  Broadway offerings performed by excellent touring companies; ballet; opera; community theatre; choral performances, and concerts of every sort. 

We discovered a wonderful performing arts venue, The Smith Opera House, in nearby Geneva, and that each year they offer a subscription to a cultural series that includes performances by both the Rochester and Syracuse symphony orchestras, world renowned dance troupes and award-winning vocal groups. This series became the opportunity for a monthly date night, preceded by dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, located a few doors away from the performing arts hall. It was something we looked forward to, especially during winter months.

Photo by Gabriel Santos Fotografia on Pexels.com

Then the pandemic hit, and our date nights in Geneva fizzled. The series was cancelled, and we found ourselves scheduling nights at home: pizza, perhaps; or takeout from a nearby restaurant; followed by streaming cultural events on TV. It was nice watching events from the safety and comfort of our home, and we agreed we enjoyed those evenings, but it wasn’t the same.

The Smith has opened its doors again, but for safety reasons there will be no subscription series this year. Each performance will be available as a separate entity, there will be no paper tickets (just an email confirmation) and patrons must order online or purchase their tickets at the door the evening of the event. Masks plus proof of vaccination will be required, plus there will be social distancing inside the venue.

We’re fine with that.  I just ordered two tickets for the first symphony performance to be held later this month. The restaurant we like has re-opened but with strict guidelines; we’re fine with that, too. We’re happy to be able to get out for an evening.

While we are looking forward to resuming some semblance of normalcy in our lives, I must admit to feeling a bit anxious about attending these performances in person as more cases of Covid and its variants seem to be gaining a chokehold on our country again.   We also realize that things could change between now and then. It’s okay, we’re willing to deal with it. Life is in flux, it usually is, but we’re hoping for the best.

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.