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Writing Crime

By Kathryn Gandek-Tighe
Posted on 12/2/2020 10:04 PM

Judy Copek’s newest mystery, MURDER IN THE NORTHWOODS, was just released. She tells us how she ended up writing a book set far from New England.


What was the a-ha moment that made me write this story?


My son was a camper in the North Woods for years, and then a counsellor, and finally ran the. food service for one of the camps.  He regaled us with tales of the taverns, and the people, and life far from our (then) suburban Chicago.  After one of his stories about a local woman, I had a strong image in my head, and a thought:  there’s got to be a book here somewhere. At the time, I was also involved in a company-wide re-engineering project to prepare our systems for the new millennium, and quite a bit of that project went into the book. I chose to put a shoe company in the North Woods, because there used to be a lot of them in Wisconsin and Michigan. I began to write the book, but years had passed since the kids had been trundled off to camp. My husband and I planned a week’s vacation in the North Woods to get a feel for what it was really like. One of the best (and cheapest) vacations ever.


What excited you most about writing this story?


When we arrived in the North Woods, ideas started coming like kamikazes. The fancy club, the big lake, the Victorian houses, the trailers, the casinos, the super clubs, the boat houses, the scenery. . . everything spoke to me, and I saw where my characters lived, and worked and even died.  I found the shoe factory, and the town, and the landscape of the countryside. Suddenly, the book came alive, and the story in my head had a solid base of people and places. I moved part of the geography of Newton, Kansas to my fictitious town.  The Coffee Pot Café, my character’s garage apartment, fit neatly into the town, as did the friendliness. I hated to leave this fascinating place, but I couldn’t wait to get home and put everything on paper. Places speak to me, and the North Woods were shouting.


Who is your favorite character and why?


This would be the Reverend Josephine Morris Belair Bray, an unconventional Episcopal priest who my character befriends. Her brother is one of the murder victims. Reverend Josie is modeled on a dear friend of mine who is no longer with us. She likes to throw French words into her conversation, drink Jim Beam, and is keen on helping solve the murder. She’s always up for an adventure or two. She raises eyebrows and keeps tongues wagging but is never dull. Isn’t that how we like our characters?      


What meal and drink do I think would pair with your book?


That would have to be a big juicy hamburger and fries with a tall glass of “rye and diet,” if the drinker is female.    My son explained that a lot of women in the North Woods drink “rye and diet,” and that restaurant foods come mostly fried. Of course, at the ritzy “Lake Club,” one of the men had salmon, broccoli, spinach, and a salad.  His colleague asked if he was “planning to live forever?”  Like most areas, there are a lot of class distinctions in the North Woods.


What is the hardest part of writing a book?


Plant butt in chair. You can think about writing all you like, but you need to be at the place where the writing gets done. Thoughts are good. Thoughts on paper are better. Thoughts constructing plot, dialogue, characters, and setting are best.


Sometimes one gets “stuck.”  Writers may call it blocked. I have found when this happens that a flaw is lurking in the story. Something isn’t right. Once the writer figures that out (it’s often easier than you think), the story will progress again.


You probably don’t need a detailed outline. A character arc is good, as is a partial list of scenes. Do keep a list of all the characters and the page they appear on. The list is alphabetized, both by first and last names. That was you won’t have Travis, Truman, and Terrill. Or Mary, Martha, and Mandy.


 Sometimes plots change, and that can be a good thing if they become stronger or more interesting. Characters change. My advice is to give each character, no matter how evil or bad some humanity.  Murder in the North Woods has “Darrell,” a no-good lecher and all-round bad guy. But at the end of the story, we find out he did one good deed.  Writing is hard, and each book does not necessarily become easier to write. Plant butt in chair.  


Judy Copek was born in Montana, raised in Colorado, educated in Texas, and lived in suburban Chicago for years and now even more years in suburban Boston where she became a Red Sox fan, a Patriots fan, and a writer. An information systems nerd for years, she’s a survivor of Dilbert-like projects and other high-tech horrors. In her writing, she likes to show technology’s humor and quirkiness along with its scary aspects

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