Research for a Setting

In fiction I like a strong sense of place, where the environment has shaped people and their problems. Before I begin a story, I want to have a clear idea of the real place where I’m locating my characters. I may change the name, add buildings and roads, but I begin with something real.

For the stories set in central Massachusetts, I chose the town and surrounding area where my family lived for many years. This was a farm community that had once had an industrial base at the end of the nineteenth century. The mills, small compared to some in other area cities and towns, were small, and the empty brick buildings prone to decay, as well as fires. The village where my family lived is at the northern end of the town. I know the community fairly well, since I visited my family often, but I wanted a better sense of its history, the kind that comes from having grown up there. I listened to people’s stories, looked over historical maps, but the absolute best resource was something I came across by accident.

In 1923, the local Reunion Association authorized the publication of a history of the town, which appeared either in 1924 or soon thereafter, in a sturdy cloth-bound book. The history is interesting, but more interesting from my perspective are the notes. Someone took pen in hand and added names and comments on several of the homes and what happened to them. She (and I think it was a woman) added a few historical notes as well. There was apparently a toll on the road through the hamlet, and she’s marked that page and added dates.

Several buildings marked and annotated are no longer there, but the notes give me a good idea of what kind of tiny hamlet it was—more than homes and a church. The shoemaker’s shop is gone, but I know where it was, and the post office and store are also gone. A chapel was replaced by a library, and a small school disappeared. Not included in the book is the last business in town, a second-hand bookstore that closed down probably in the 1990s. The house is noted in the book, and I visited the bookstore, but now it is only a home.

The former bookstore was also the toll house. According to the writer, “The position of toll-taker was not free from danger, as some persons denied the right of the corporation to tax persons for the use of the highways and at times insisted on passing the barrier without payment of the customary toll. This led to bodily encounters which sometimes ended with the shedding of blood.”

The history is not without its odd characters. “Uncle” Calvin Mayo “insisted that Tully mountain was at one time located where the Lily pond now is, but that some great force of nature took it from there, turned it over and gave it its present location.” The note in the margin says “Can you beat this?” Another story concerns an old cannon that was hauled up a mountain to help the miners, and brought a quick end to their work and part of the mountain.

This little book is giving me more than I had expected. First is the history, some of which is obscure; second is the tone of the writer, Mrs. Ward, who graduated from the Salem Normal School and taught in Lynn, MA. And third is the writer or writers who added details on when a house was auctioned, and who lived in it more recently. One writer made several more personal notes, such as “We lived on this road.”

I’m not sure how much of this history will make it into the next Felicity O’Brien book, but it’s already giving me ideas for a few more stories. It also has me thinking about writing an historical mystery—with lots of humor.

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.

If Wishes Were Horses…

by Janis Patterson

Hello. My name is Janis and I am a word nerd.

I love old words, convoluted words, obscure words… Unfortunately, it is definitely genetic. My father was the same way, and one of the delights of my early youth was playing esoteric word games with him. Which, I might add, gave me an everyday (to me, at least) vocabulary that did not endear me to the educational system. In grade school I learned quickly to accept that my automatic use of what were to me perfectly ordinary words would upset and draw the derision of my classmates; what I did not expect was that it would have a similar effect on the teachers, who had to have it proven that the words I used were not made up nonsense syllables but perfectly good – if not really common – English words. For several years I had to make it a practice to always carry a large dictionary with me. That was only one of the things about public education which earned my (well-deserved) contempt. I have never suffered fools gladly.

Anyway, that is an overly long explanation for why I’m on several word-a-day type daily emails. About half the time the words are too common to be much noticed, but every so often there is a really good one. Today I received the word velleity, which means “a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action.”

Wow! Who hasn’t felt like that at least once if not many times?

We all know those people who say “I want to write a novel” but never actually do anything toward it. Then there are those of us who do write who say “I would like to do a book about … (whatever subject is currently teasing our mind)” but the project never goes beyond a vague wish. There are millions of possibilities, and everyone indulges occasionally. My grandmother would have called it daydreaming.

And that’s okay. We all work on many levels at all times, and not all ideas/wishes/concepts are destined to bear fruit. Sometimes it’s little more than ‘play-time’ for our minds, which probably need it more than the rest of us. Nothing can do work all the time, and play time is essential.

It also goes beyond writing. Multiple times I personally have expressed a wish for some unknown reason to learn how to crochet, once even going so far as to buy a hook and some yarn. Both of them are now gathering metaphoric dust at the bottom of some drawer or other, as that is as far as I have ever gone. Velleity in action. The same goes for reorganizing my kitchen (where I usually spend as little time as possible), or creating an herb bed in the back yard (when I sadly possess a black thumb invariably deadly to all living plants), or any number of momentarily alluring but basically low/no priority daydreams.

However, I am a true believer that energy is never wasted, even the ephemeral energy of a transitory daydream. It merely changes form. Case in point, the herb garden. I actually did some reading on herb gardens and while a real herb garden never appeared in my life, it did in one of my books, enhancing it greatly. See? Energy really is never wasted.
So, dream your dreams – just don’t let them take over your life. You might never bring them to the fruition of reality, but someday somewhere somehow they might be just the thing you need to complete some other venue.

Now I must go, because I’m thinking about how nice it would be to paint our guest bathroom…

Settings and Seasons

This morning when I went out to walk the dog, the temperature was 12 degrees. When the breeze came along, it cut. But it’s also dry. When I think about winter I prefer cold and dry to warmer and wet (think snow and ice).

During my walk I often compose sentences to add to whatever I’m working on when I get back to the house, or just because I feel like writing a sentence in my head. This morning the cold held my attention, and I began thinking about how this degree of cold would affect an amateur sleuth hot on someone’s trail. Snowy and cold would make the situation even worse.

Since I live in New England, famous for its winters, most of my mysteries, long or short, are set in pleasant, or at least tolerable, weather—in spring, summer, or fall. Winter poses challenges that my characters don’t have to face, challenges that could change the plot, the direction of the story, the success of the sleuth and the authorities. Perhaps the sleuth has only a few minutes to reach a location to rescue someone, but it’s snowing, the roads are icy, the stop lights not working because of a power failure, the streets impassable in some places. The weather certainly ratchets up the suspense. (Sounds like my drive home from work years ago.)

In a city the sleuth could travel faster and more safely by subway, but at least in my area (Boston), that means a different kind of problem—subway car breakdowns. (To be fair, in Boston subway cars break down in every season.) Or, this could be the start of a story—the subway car stuck in a tunnel. When the car starts up again and makes it to the station, the riders trip over a dead body blocking the exit. Is the killer still on the car, or did that person somehow get off and escape through the tunnel? Will he or she survive in subzero weather underground?

I will admit that when I go about choosing the setting in a warmish season, I’m really thinking about myself—how easy it is to get around, to get things done, to get anywhere I want to go. Winter is a chore for me. And on cold days, though I don’t actually mind them, having grown up in New England, I’m aware of how much effort it takes to make the transition to outdoors—scarf, hat, coat, boots or heavy shoes, mittens, sometimes even a hand warmer for a long walk. But now that I’ve thought up a number of scenarios relying on cold weather, perhaps I’ll make a change.

The weather is going to remain well below freezing for the next day or two, and then warm up. That gives me plenty of time to work out the basic plot of a story set in bitter cold weather, with all the worries and challenges that come with that setting. And I get to write the story while I’m warm inside.

As we head into Christmas, I hope all of you reading this are warm inside with your families and friends, good food, and a pet if you have one, enjoying the season and the freedom to write whatever you want.

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

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.