The Characters Keep Expanding by Karen Shughart

It’s fascinating to me how, with each successive book in my Edmund DeCleryk mystery series, the number of characters keeps expanding. With the first book there were a handful as I introduced the investigators and their families and friends, but the number grew as I included  the murder victim, witnesses and those involved as suspects or  who helped with the investigation.  While each book can be read as a standalone, because this is a series there are not only recurring characters- the support cast, so to speak- but new ones added as part of each new plot.  

For the first three books I was able to keep track of those characters without having to write their names on a chart, although occasionally I browsed through previous manuscripts when I couldn’t remember a minor character’s name. Now I’m in the process of writing book four, Murder at Chimney Bluffs, and keeping track of all the names has become much more challenging. So, to make things easier, I’ve created a list that includes old and new that I keep by the side of my computer to refer to when necessary. The list is so long that I now have two columns, divided into main and supportive characters, their friends and family, those involved in the historical backstory, or who are suspects or otherwise related to the crime or the killer.

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I’m asked if I construct an outline for my books and stick to a plot I create at the outset, but I don’t.  Instead I typically go where the story takes me. Like a train picking up cargo along the way, I add characters, or discard those who appeared in previous books if they’re not relevant to the current one. If appropriate, I’ll bring them back as the series continues.

 A former board member of the historical society and museum who retired and moved to Canada; his son; Annie’s predecessor who moved to England with her husband; a CIA agent who worked with Ed when both were Navy SEALS;  Ed’s close group of male friends from childhood ; Annie’s chums who comprise her support group; most have had at least cameo roles in all the books.

A new and influential member of Annie’s board of directors will appear for the first time in book four, and I expect he will also be a recurring character. Astonishing how the number has grown from book one to book four. At last count, I’m close to 50, some major and many minor.  As I think about it, what’s happened is that I’ve been building a community, and in the end, that’s what cozies do.

Karen Shughart is the author of the Edmund DeCleryk cozy mystery series, published by Cozy Cat Press. Her books are available in multiple formats at retail outlets and online. Read a recent interview about her writing with AllAuthor:

Imaginary Friends by Karen Shughart

When I was in elementary school, one of my best friends and I would walk home after school each day and create stories about an imaginary friend named Ponytail.  It was the 1950s, and many girls of that decade sported ponytails at one time or another. There were rock and roll songs that mentioned girls in ponytails, and TV shows and movies where the ingenues, in their swirling, petticoated dresses and bobby socks, flitted about, ponytails bouncing. Ponytails were part of the culture and fashion of the day. It was a fitting name.

I don’t remember Ponytail’s adventures, but I do remember being excited when we began our journey home to resume our ongoing saga and looking forward to continuing it the next day. Then, as my friend and I got older, the stories we created about our imaginary friend stopped, and we moved on to other discussions. Preteenagers don’t admit to having rich fantasy lives, at least they didn’t when I was growing up.

Last month I was interviewed by author LeAnna Shields on her podcast, The Cozy Sleuth. It was a lot of fun, and at the end I offered to turn the tables and interview her. Two weeks later, that’s what happened. During that interview, LeAnna mentioned that while many people have one imaginary friend, she had a multitude of them when she was growing up, which is partly what motivated her to become an author.  After I thought about it a while, it made sense. If you’re an author of fiction, that’s exactly what you do-create characters that are birthed strictly from your imagination.

As I look back, I realize that Ponytail was the continuation for me of a love of creating poems and stories that began when I was about five. It started when my brother and I were on a trip with our parents, and we had a flat tire. It was a rhyming poem about the frustrations of young girl whose trip was delayed because of that tire, and I blurted it out to my mother while my dad was fixing the tire. She loved it, wrote it down, and taped it to the refrigerator when we got home.

From the time I started to read, I immersed myself in almost anything I could get my hands on, sometimes appropriate for my age and sometimes not- my parents never censured my choices- and trips to the library were frequent,. Later, in the literature classes I took in school, I was transported from my daily life into the adventures and travails of characters created by a diverse group of authors. I became an English major in college and after that, each job I had was one where I wrote,  although back then it wasn’t fiction. But I always yearned to write stories with characters that were mine.

The idea of becoming a fiction author remained an unattainable dream for many years. For me, like so many of us, life got in the way.  Five years ago, finally retired and with children grown, I decided to do something about it.  I created and was fortunate to get published the first of the Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mystery series ( Cozy Cat Press), replete with my own imaginary characters. The mysteries take place during the present, but with historical backstories starting in the 1700s and moving ahead in time with each successive book, providing clues that help the sleuth solve the crime. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but if I keep on going, perhaps someday one of those backstories will take place in the 1950s, and one of my characters can have an imaginary friend named Ponytail.

Reflections on Winter by Karen Shughart

When I was growing up, we lived within walking distance to a large, public park. Our local recreation department held a Twelfth Night bonfire where families brought their Christmas trees and, as we watched the dazzling flames light up the night, we sang seasonal songs and drank hot chocolate.

After a snowfall, my friends and I would drag our sleds to a large estate at the end of our block that had been willed to the city and was now part of that park. The mansion had been transformed into an art gallery, but the grounds were perfect for sledding. We’d form a chain and with our feet moving forward in tandem, push our sleds off the top of a bluff down a steep hill to the bottom. We shrieked with laughter, sometimes tumbling in a heap before we landed, and when we were chilled to the bone, we trudged home for steaming hot chocolate and cookies.

Around that same time, I discovered a series of books that were set on Lake Superior, and while the author and the titles completely escape me, I remember vividly that most of the books were set in winter, the main characters a family whose lives centered around outdoor activities near the ice-encrusted lake. I was completely enchanted.

When my own children were young, their friends would convene at our house after a snowfall and make snow angels and build snow forts in our backyard, laughing and chattering until they, too, were chilled to the bone. Then they’d all waddle into our mudroom to remove their boots and wet jackets, snow pants, scarves, and mittens, and like my mother before me, I’d serve hot chocolate and cookies.

A few years ago, at the end of the summer, my husband and I took a cruise to the Canadian Maritime Provinces and Greenland. You’d probably not be surprised to learn that my favorite part of the trip was Greenland, where the temperature was in the 30s and 40s, and we were walking around wearing down jackets and mittens in early September. I loved the starkness of the landscape and the view from the shore of small icebergs brightening the dark sea with brilliant light.

I have thought often what it is about winter that I find so compelling, enough so that in retirement we moved north rather than south. We now live in a village on Lake Ontario, where the winters can be cold and and snow-covered for at least several weeks or months during the season.

There are complex reasons, I am certain: as an introvert I like settling in with a crackling fire in the fireplace, to read books, a warming cup of tea in hand. I enjoy cooking comfort meals, walking or snowshoeing in the snow, and meeting friends at cozy pubs that in summer months are filled with happy, noisy tourists. And I’m thrilled when I catch a glimpse of ice boats gliding across our bay.

Winter is a time for reflection, too, and a time when I give myself permission to just be without having to purposely shut out the extraneous noise and activity that’s so much a part of my life during other seasons.. It’s also when I am most productive with my writing, and quietude and solitude recharge my weary body and soul.

Karen Shughart is the author of the Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mystery series. Her third book, Murder at Freedom Hill, was released in November.

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.

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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.

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.