A stormy August has descended upon us here in Wisconsin, my friends. Not only has rain come at last to our parched farmlands, but so has the lightning, thunder, and even tornados. We’ve had to huddle in our basement a few times in the last week around the transistor radio to hear of funnel clouds taking shape, of lightning striking power poles blocks away, of tornados destroying homes miles away. But we are all safe and well, and no deaths as of yet been reported. A prayer of thanks for that!
While storms will always trigger memories of flooding in our home, I know storms can also be an amazing inspiration for storytelling. There is something about that dark and stormy night that puts us all in the mood for a good ol’ whodunit…
…and I cannot think of a better series to tuck into during the next storm than the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series by Patricia Skalka. Not only was her first book a delight to sip on my podcast Story Cuppings, but I was happily surprised–and yet not surprised at all–to find out USA Today selected her first book, Death Stalks Door County, as THE story readers “traveling” the States through fiction should read to experience the Wisconsin setting. My fellow creatives, I am pleased as beer cheese to introduce you to the one and only, Patricia Skalka.
Niceties first! Please tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, so I’m a city girl from way back, but I have a strong connection to rural Wisconsin thanks to my mother. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish immigrants whose pursuit of the American dream led them to a small dairy farm in the north central part of the state, near the paper-mill town of Mosinee. I spent many summers on that hard-scrabble farm: milking cows, driving the tractor, baling hay, and staring at a night sky filled with stars. On one memorable night I even saw the aurora borealis flicker and dance above the horizon. To me, Wisconsin was always a magical place. I didn’t discover Door County until I was a young adult, but the majesty and sheer beauty of the area reinforced the notion.
Oh, yes, there is something magical in this land of forests and fireflies, I agree! Let’s get back to that in a moment. First, let’s explore the magic of the stories you enjoyed as a child.
When I was growing up books were a luxury we couldn’t afford. But I was a reader, and the books I enjoyed came from the library. Every Tuesday the bookmobile parked outside the neighborhood A&P grocery store and opened for business. Every week I walked in the front door –a seven-year-old proud to have her very own library card — and then marched out the back door with five books, the most you were allowed to check out. For the longest time, I was fixated by the biographies of famous women – women like Clara Barton, Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, and Florence Nightingale. Then one day, my Aunt Jean loaned me her childhood copy of The Secret Garden.
My love of fiction began with that classic children’s story. The Secret Garden took me to a different time and place in a way that the biographies did not. Maybe it was the language or the fact that the story was about characters closer to my age, but I fell in love with the book. Just as Mary and Colin discovered the door to the hidden garden, I discovered a door to a limitless universe of literature, one that demonstrated the power of imagination.
Ah, so you were a frequent visitor of the library as a kid as well. I distinctly remember getting a small illustrated version of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and that cinched it for me as far as the genre went. After going through all the Nancy Drew stories the library had on hand, I devoured Colin Dexter’s Morse stories, P.D. James’ Dalgleish stories, and of course, Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Did you experience a similar journey through the mystery genre?
Growing up I loved the Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple stories. Here were people following clues and solving puzzles, figuring things out. Then I read Dorothy L. Sayers, and my sense of what a mystery could be shifted to something more. Her books about Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane did so much more than simply solve the crime. They revealed the pain and struggle of the human heart. They were windows to the soul.
I’ve had the same experience reading other mysteries, books such as The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, and The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. In each instance, the mystery was essential to the story, but in each instance the story encompassed more. These are tales of human strength and weakness, stories of internal conflict and struggle.
Thank you for these recommendations! I’ve not read Tartt or Smith, but I’ve enjoyed a number of Le Carré novels in the last few years. Now, what of your own fascinating mystery series? Just as Sherlock tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”–
“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
–you create suspenseful tales of murder not in the urban land of Chicago, but the quiet, rural peninsula of Door County. What inspired that choice?
I always wanted to write a mystery, but I had no idea of where, who, or what it would entail. One day, I was sitting on a Door County beach looking out at Lake Michigan. It was a perfect day – blue sky, blue water, warm sun. The kind you could sell for a million dollars if only you could bottle it up. That night I sat in the same spot. Heavy cloud cover obscured the moon and stars; it was inky dark – and eerie. I kept looking over my shoulder and thinking: anything can happen here. The contrast between day and night prompted thoughts of light and dark, good and evil. And the idea was born: I’d write a mystery about a picture perfect location (Door County) where sinister forces were at work beneath the surface.
What were the sinister forces; who was responsible for them; what happened as a result; who suffered and why; who stood to benefit? I wanted to write a story in which the contemporary crimes were linked to past events. People in Door County tend to know each other’s histories. My protagonist had to be a stranger –enter Dave Cubiak. A former cop from Chicago who could track a killer, a man with his own burdens, a man who didn’t know anyone and would have to ferret out the clues and follow their trail until he stood before the culprit and asked Why?
Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a stand alone. One and done. When I began my career as a mystery writer, I couldn’t imagine writing a series. But as I was going through the long initial process of writing and revising and hoping to find a publisher, different story ideas kept popping up and slowly the notion of writing a series loomed not as an impossibility but as a logical next step. By the time I had signed a contract for the first book, I was half way through the initial draft of the second book.
Along with Cubiak, I, too have been on a journey. Writing his story, his books, has taught me two lessons that I believe every writer must learn and embrace: one, believe in your story and two, believe in your ability to tell it even as you continue to hone your craft.
Dave Cubiak is indeed on a journey! Meeting him in the opening pages of your first book gave me such a powerful picture of a man trying to hide from his grief as much as move on from it.
(If the above podcast link does not appear, you can click here for my post with the podcast episode.)
Do you find it difficult to write a protagonist of a different gender? What tips do you have for other writers who struggle to write outside of their gender?
I don’t find it more difficult to write a male protagonist than a female protagonist. Either way, I need to know them fully – who they are, where they come from, their struggles, dreams, disappointments, weaknesses, strengths, values, foibles, fears, how they walk and talk and think. Dave Cubiak evolved with the idea for Death Stalks Door County. He was an integral part of the story before I wrote a single word. In many ways, the book – and then eventually the series – is his story.
My books are more than mysteries; taken as a whole they trace Cubiak’s journey from the pivotal moment that changed his life to all that came after. One male reader said he felt they were stories of hope for anyone struggling with loss. Another man said he liked Cubiak because “he’s real.”
The challenge, then, is not to write either a male or female protagonist, but to write one that is real, one that belongs in the story.
The keys to writing outside your gender are empathy and observation. Try to understand that character; walk in their shoes; feel for them. Watch how they act; listen to how they talk. Invite them into your imagination and live with them for a while. Put them in different situations (finding an injured kitten; stumbling on a wallet stuffed with cash; getting a letter from an old lover seeking forgiveness for the unforgiveable) and see how they react. If you can do all that, you can write the character.
You mentioned earlier that Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a standalone, but your imagination created more conundrums for Cubiak and inspired you to write a series instead. A happy change in plans, I’d say! Yet I should think such a change in plans requires a change to one’s writing process. How would you say your writing process changed after publishing Death Stalks Door County?
I’d been a staff writer for the Readers’ Digest and a professional nonfiction writer for nearly twenty years when I decided to write my first mystery. Death Stalks Door County was years in the making. I’d read plenty of mysteries and literary novels, but I’d always written nonfiction articles. Even a seven-thousand-word piece pales by comparison to a book of seventy-thousand plus words. With the first book I had a lot to learn. I wrote and edited; I revised and submitted. I got rejected. Repeat. And then again. At one point, I printed the manuscript and let it sit on a shelf for two years. One day I picked it up, fully intending to toss it in the trash. But as I flipped through, I realized that (1) it was decently written; (2) I really liked my characters; and, (3) I was the only person in the world who knew the story and if I didn’t tell it, then it would never be told. Sitting on the floor of my office, I decided that I would give it one more try. One more read through; one more edit; one more round of queries. And that’s when the magic happened. The email read: “Please send full manuscript.” Music to any writer’s ears.
I wrote Death Stalks Door County as a pantser. I had an idea and started writing a book. As I struggled with the process, I slowly evolved into a plotter. I began to think in terms of chapters, then scenes. Bit by bit, I broke the story down into pieces. The smaller the pieces and the more of them that I had, the better handle I had on the story and the more confident I became.
Last month I finished book seven and what changed from writing the first book to the way I wrote the rest of the series was my approach. Starting with Death at Gills Rock, the second volume, I realized that I needed to know the details of the story before I could write it, so I began to plot every step of the action. In essence, I created a road map that carried me from beginning to end.
There are writers who shudder at the thought of plotting the story first, and it’s not a technique that will work for everyone. But many will benefit from it. There are very clear advantages: Plotting ultimately eliminates writer’s block – with a well plotted story, you never sit in front of a blank screen or empty page and wonder now what because you know what comes next. Instead of writer’s block, however, you will have thinker’s block. Working out the kinks and inconsistencies and struggling to make sense of the story line takes work. It’s not easy but ultimately it means that you don’t toss out ten or twenty thousand words because you changed your mind midway through chapter three.
I was once asked if detailed plotting doesn’t take the fun out of writing. Not for me, it doesn’t. In fact, it makes me more comfortable and confident and eager to write.
A seventh book in the works? Huzzah and congrats! I know just what you mean about pantsing. I enjoyed this style of writing quite a bit during the years I participated in National Novel Writing Month, but you’re absolutely right that when it comes to crafting a strong story–especially a mystery!–one needs to know where the clues are hidden, which characters are where and when, how the reveals happen, and so on. Having the plot planned takes a lot of the panic out of writing, to be sure.
You have been such a joy to converse with here, Patricia–thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us! May we please close with any other tips you have for aspiring writers? There are so, so many traps writers can fall into, and any trap sprung often wounds, even scars, a writer’s imagination and motivation.
Based on what I have learned from presenting and attending various workshops and listening to aspiring writers discuss their work, I’d say there are three common traps.
- Not being clear on the kind of book you’re writing – this is most likely to be a problem for first-time writers. To paraphrase Socrates, “To know thy book is the beginning of intelligent writing.” Different types of books have different rules. Something as simple as word count varies from one kind of book to another. Taking the time to figure out what you want your book to be – memoir or historical fiction, cozy mystery or thriller – helps the writer focus and start and stay on the right track.
- Misinterpreting the advice to “show don’t tell.” We’ll all heard this dozens of times. Unfortunately, many new writers interpret the advice to mean that you show everything, but that is not what is meant. As a writer, you show the important parts and tell everything that happens in between. As I see it, we have a responsibility to hand the reader a finished story on a silver platter, not to present the verbal equivalent of an unedited video of everything that happens in a character’s life and expect the reader to ferret out the story.
- Trying to please everyone. After Death Stalks Door County, my first mystery, was published I was invited to a book club whose members included both men and women. Listening to the book club members discuss my work was an enlightening experience. One woman said she really like X about the book; her husband said X was what he liked least. Then a man said he wished I had included more Y, and the woman across the table said, oh, no there was quite enough of Y for her. As the back and forth continued, I asked myself: which of these people should I be trying to please? It didn’t take long to realize the futility of trying to write to accommodate the preferences of a specific individual or type of reader. My takeaway from the experience: Write the book you want to read. Write to please yourself.
And so we shall, Patricia. So we shall. x
Blondie and I are keen to share our own writing updates! It’s also high time, methinks, for a bit of creative nonfiction crafting when it comes to those everyday absurdities. x
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!