Death at the library

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Mystery author Skalka talks about her craft for Gillett audience

Warren Bluhm,

Writing a novel is like an architect designing a building — everything inside has to support the whole, author Patricia Skalka tells a Sunday night audience at Gillett Public Library. (Times Herald photo by Warren Bluhm)

It’s better to be a plotter than a pantser, author Patricia Skalka said at an Oconto County Reads event Sunday night at the Gillett Public Library Community Center.

Skalka is the author of the Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries series of books published by the University of Wisconsin Press, following a former Chicago police detective who eventually becomes sheriff of Door County. The author lives in Chicago but also has a cottage in Door.

She always wanted to write, she told the Gillett audience. When she won $25 in an essay contest, she realized she might be able to make a career of it.

“I wrote all through high school at the school paper, as feature editor,” she said. “It just was something that felt right and natural to me.”

Skalka’s “big break” came when she was hired as a regional freelance staff writer for Reader’s Digest, a role she filled for several years.

Non-fiction writing was very good practice for when she decided to try her hand at writing fiction, Skalka said.

“I was working with words; I was having to meet deadlines,” she said. “I was doing feature stories, which meant talking to people, trying to get them to express their experiences. And when I turned to fiction writing and had to develop characters and have to go through things, all of that helped.”

Door County with its scenic shorelines and vacation havens never seemed like a mystery setting to her until one specific day and night.

“I’m sitting on the shore on the Lake Michigan side. You know the cliche, ‘If I could bottle this, I could make a million dollars’ – it was that kind of day. Absolutely perfect,” Skalka said. “I was sitting in that very same spot that night, and there was no moon. There were no stars. There was heavy, heavy cloud cover … it was scary, and it was eerie and creepy.”

That made her start thinking about the contrasts between day and night, light and dark, good and evil — and the setting for a series of murder mysteries was born.

That led to “Death Stalks Door County,” based at Peninsula State Park. Intended as a standalone novel, it led to a series featuring Cubiak, the park ranger — now sheriff — which now numbers four novels with a fifth due next year. In fact, the new novel was due on her editor’s desk the morning after her talk in Gillett.

Skalka described two distinct types of fiction writer — “pantsers,” so named because they write by the seat of their pants, making the story up as they go, and “plotters,” who meticulously craft and outline their stories before they start.

She counts herself in the plotter category, saying she begins by writing a detailed description of the story that can be as long as 23 pages. That process alone can take four to six weeks.

“It’s arduous, but it’s half the work of the book,” Skalka said. “I never have writer’s block … I know what’s going to happen.”

Dave Cubiak has earned a small legion of fans, and Skalka said one of those fans helped her understand why.

“He told me Dave is a flawed human being, but he’s a man who always tries to do the right thing,” she said.

The working title of the fifth book is “Death by the Bay,” and Skalka said she couldn’t say what it’s about except that it’s based on a real story that her mother told her.

Published by the University of Wisconsin Press, the book is not yet scheduled but will be released in 2019.