A Mystery Writer Evolves by Patricia Skalka
Writing is a strange business. Sometimes you go looking for stories. And other times, the stories come to you. When I was a Reader’s Digest Staff Writer, I scoured newspapers and obscure publications searching for true-life situations I could mold into magazine articles. I wrote mostly medical pieces and human interest and competed with both in-house and other freelancers to uncover the next great story line. I have a thick folder of ideas, most of which caught my eye because they were interesting to me, not necessarily to my editor.
But since I turned to writing fiction full time, I find that mostly I don’t go looking for stories; instead, they come to me. The idea for Death Stalks Door County emerged from the depths of the starless, moonless night that enveloped me as I sat on a stretch of deserted beach along the peninsula’s Lake Michigan Shore. The water was quiet that night, the stillness broken by a soft shushing of waves along the sand. I held out my hand. Nothing. I wiggled my fingers and but couldn’t see them moving. I could only imagine my hand in the tarry blackness, just as I imagined shadows floating through the forest at my back. Anything can happen here, I thought. So much must have happened here I realized as I listened to the almost silent footfalls of the tens of thousands of people who had slipped along the water throughout time.
As a girl I’d spent summers on my grandmother’s farm in central Wisconsin. A city kid who learned to drive the tractor and milk cows and feed the chickens. Hard work and the kind of life many people ran away from. As an adult, I discovered Door County, a Wisconsin place that people flocked to – for vacation, for camping trips, for retirement, for a chance at a quiet life. Hours spent walking the sand, reading on the beach, nurturing the story that was forming in my head. A man flees the city; he is damaged and morose, pained with guilt and grief. He comes to Door County seeking solace and finds death instead. I had friends who were cops and my character is a former cop; he suspects the worst but wants nothing to do with the troubles of this adopted home. Until he faces the ghosts of his past and then…
The underpinnings of life are much the same in the city and the small town. Congestion, noise, turmoil, pace of living vary tremendously. But people do not. They have similar dreams; they love and hate and plot revenge on those who have wronged them. Some have kind, giving hearts; others are motivated by arrogance and greed. One by one, the characters took shape in my imagination and the plot line developed. What if? And then, what if again? What leads a person to commit the ultimate crime; How does the human heart justify the most grievous wrongdoing? And how does a stranger stop the killing?
For many years I wrote nonfiction, human interest stories that were limited by the parameters of reality; I turned to fiction because I wanted to tell stories of my own making and set my own limits of what was possible. I read mysteries, have always read mysteries, and recognized the inherent value of pitting good against evil and of understanding the extreme pressures that twist an ordinary individual into a tortured soul, capable of the vilest of deeds.
There were many discouraging moments on the path to publishing Death Stalks Door County. What kept me going was both an affinity for my characters (I would have recognized them walking down the street) and a strong sense of obligation to tell their story, because only I knew it and if I didn’t tell it, no one would. Originally I intended the book as a stand-alone mystery. But by the time I finished, I was so caught up in the fictional people and their world I couldn’t abandon them. One book would lead to another. I’d do what I’d always considered impossible: I’d write a series.
Death Book Blurb: Introducing The Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries: smart, hard-edged detective fiction on a popular vacation peninsula, a scenic wonderland surrounded by the pristine waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan
Six deaths mar the holiday mood as summer vacationers enjoy Wisconsin’s beautiful Door County peninsula. Murders, or bizarre accidents? Newly hired park ranger Dave Cubiak, a former Chicago homicide detective, assumes the worst but refuses to get involved. Grief-stricken and guilt-ridden over the loss of his wife and daughter, he’s had enough of death.
Forced to confront the past, the morose Cubiak moves beyond his own heartache and starts investigating, even as a popular festival draws more people into possible danger. In a desperate search for clues, Cubiak uncovers a tangled web of greed, betrayal, bitter rivalries, and lost love beneath the peninsula’s travel-brochure veneer. Befriended by several locals but unsure whom to trust or to suspect of murder, the one-time cop tracks a clever killer.
In a setting of stunning natural beauty and picturesque waterfront villages, Death Stalks Door County introduces a new detective series, “The Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries.”
I was born and raised in Chicago, in a little-known neighborhood called Hegewisch. Strictly blue collar, nestled along the southeastern border of the great metropolis amid belching steel mills and factories. My mother was a homemaker who passed along her many fine skills. My father was a carpenter determined that my brother and I would be college educated.
Books were scarce in my working class home and family tales were not passed from one generation to the next, so I don’t know how I acquired the propensity for putting words together into sentences and stories. But even as a young girl, I sat at the kitchen table and scrawled simple yarns on sheets of coarse lined-paper. Stories about people always drew me in. I grew up reading the biographies of famous women – Molly Pitcher, Marie Curie, Clara Barton -- and came naturally to writing about women and men who accomplished notable deeds or faced down great challenges. For my high school and college newspapers, for national weekly and monthly publications and finally for the Reader’s Digest, I wrote about people’s accomplishments, heartaches and dreams. I kept journals during both of my pregnancies so I could give my daughters a portrait of the world they were about to join.
All the while I wrote about reality, I read fiction and imagined that one day I would write a story that was entirely my own. I always loved mysteries: devoured Nancy Drew and read the Boxcar Children series to my own children, got teary eyed over Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Eventually I realized that all of life is a mystery and that in terms of books, a really good mystery isn’t just a story about who done it; a really good mystery teaches about life. That’s the kind of mystery I most enjoy reading and the kind I set out to write.