‘Death Casts a Shadow’ will be last book in popular Door County mystery series

Q&A with Patricia Skalka, who will discuss her new novel at Mystery to Me bookstore on July 28 at 6 p.m.
On the left is the cover of Death Casts a Shadow and on the right is a headshot of author Patricia Skalka in a white shirt with the water behind her
Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Press.
"Death Casts a Shadow" is the seventh and final book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series.

On a frigid, blustery morning on the Door County peninsula, Sheriff Dave Cubiak discovers a wealthy widow lying dead at the foot of her stairs. She could have fallen — but Cubiak immediately suspects something more ominous, especially because he’d just been called to do a wellness check on the woman the night before. So begins the latest mystery at the heart of “Death Casts a Shadow,” the seventh and final volume in Patricia Skalka‘s popular Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series. But, like Skalka’s previous books, the story is about more than the mystery at hand.

“To me, a good mystery does more than answer the question of who-done-it,” says Skalka, who splits her time between Milwaukee and Door County. “A good mystery opens a window into the soul and reveals the true nature of the characters. It helps the reader understand the characters struggles and motivations and, hopefully, challenges the reader to wonder what they would do if they found themselves in the same situation.”

Those dual layers, combined with Skalka’s clean, smart, tightly paced prose, have allowed the author to build a loyal readership over the past eight years since she published her debut mystery novel, 2014’s “Death Stalks Door County.” All seven of her novels have been published by the University of Wisconsin Press with Madison graphic designer Sara DeHaan designing each memorable cover. During the early days of the pandemic, when everyone was stuck home reading, USA Today chose a book to represent each of the 50 states and selected “Death Stalks Door County” for Wisconsin. Skalka has also won the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and has landed on numerous best-of lists. Skalka will appear in conversation with Doug Moe at at ticketed event at Mystery to Me bookstore on Thurs. July 28 at 6:00 p.m.

Where did the mystery for “Death Casts a Shadow” come from?
I search for ideas in the world around me. I eavesdrop on conversations, collect anecdotes from friends, and clip or download interesting stories and articles from print and online sources. Then I stuff them into a folder and periodically leaf through them until a theme or event or problem asserts itself and I know that I have to write about it. This time around I was saddened and infuriated by stories about women fleeced in internet romance scams and appalled by the friend requests from totally strange men that would periodically pop up on my screen. I even connected with one or two to get a feel for the process and was appalled. How dare they? Why are so many women vulnerable? I saw it as a crisis, and with a twist it became a part of the story I envisioned writing. I wanted the book to serve as a warning — don’t let this happen to you or your sister or mother or friends! Of course, there’s much more to the book than the one issue. But the insidious nature of these scams was the foundation that the rest of the plot was built on. There’s also love, coveted and unrequited; revenge, jealousy, greed and death — death that casts a shadow back to the past where so much of the story is anchored.

Your first novel, 2014’s “Death Stalks Door County,” introduced readers to Sheriff Dave Cubiak. His character ended up launching a seven-book mystery series—what has been the driving character development beneath each book’s plot? 
Initially I intended for “Death Stalks Door County” to be a stand-alone mystery, a one-and-done. When I realized that it had the potential to evolve into a series, I decided that each book would have its own story arc — the mystery to be solved — but that the overriding arc of the series would be Cubiak’s journey of personal redemption. When we meet him in book one, he is tortured by grief and guilt over the deaths of his wife and daughter — deaths he feels he could have prevented. For him to heal and learn to live with his overwhelming loss, he needed to move through time, so the books move through time and in each one he grows older, wiser, stronger, until he reaches a stage of acceptance. Our society has a glib concept of grief. Even many experts view death and loss as events to be dealt with in an orderly, systematic fashion. But reality isn’t like that, and I wanted Cubiak’s experience as lived through the books to be real.

Do readers need to have read the previous books to enjoy “Death Casts a Shadow?”
One of the challenges of writing a series is to include enough backstory so that a new reader understands the essence of what happened earlier to the key characters but not so much that you bore the series readers with the same details in each book. It’s a fine balance. I’ve met readers who didn’t know that the Cubiak mysteries were part of a series and who started with book three or four and got along just fine, but I find that most readers, knowing it’s a series, prefer to start with the first book.

What personal mysteries does Cubiak focus on solving with this final book in the series?
One trick of the trade that I’ve learned is to limit the amount of time and energy characters spend inside their own heads. Thoughts, feelings, and even memories are stronger when they are conveyed in action or in conversation with other characters. In “Death Casts a Shadow,” Cubiak shares the heartbreak of loss and his subsequent struggles with his son, Joey. It’s a moment of real bonding between the two. Joey, at some level, understands that his father is entrusting him with intimate personal knowledge and what it is like to have to face the responsibility, guilt, and pain of overwhelming loss. Cubiak has to trust that his son is mature enough to handle this.

Door County itself is a character in your books. What is it about Door County that lends itself to providing the perfect setting?
I was inspired to write the first book sitting on a beach in Door County on a beautiful sunny day and then sitting in the same spot that night when clouds blocked out all light from the moon and stars. The sharp contrast between day and night got me thinking about the contrast between light and dark, good and evil. That was the moment I realized that the peninsula was the perfect setting for a mystery — a place with a picture-perfect veneer and sinister forces at work beneath the surface.

What role has this series played in your life?
Writing the mystery series has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. For years I worked as a nonfiction writer, but I always wanted to write a novel, specifically a mystery novel, and to have completed a series of seven books took the dream to the ultimate. There have been many surprises along the way, but perhaps the biggest is the way readers have embraced Dave Cubiak. Many have seen their own lives reflected in his struggles and his experience of loss. They have cheered him on and found inspiration in his ability to conquer his demons and get his life back on track.

Did you know ahead of time where this serious would go?
To a great extent the series evolved on its own. When the first book was completed, I envisioned a total of four — a quartet, one per season. But ideas kept presenting themselves and the series grew organically to five, then six, and finally seven. One thing I was certain of, the last book would take place in winter.

How do you construct a mystery? What did you know ahead of time and what surprised you?
I need to know every detail of the story before I start writing. It doesn’t matter whether I start with a general idea — let’s say that I want the mystery to be about three WWII veterans — or a very specific plot — a kidnapping for revenge, I need to block out the steps from start to finish. This approach puts me solidly in the “plotter” school of writing (as contrasted with the “pantser” method — those who get an idea and start writing without knowing where they are going or possibly even the identity of the killer). I don’t outline the story in the traditional sense, but I create a roadmap that that takes me through the story step by step. First this, and then this, and then this. It’s a story board with words instead of sketches. When this is finished, I’m free to focus on the writing.

What was it like to go from a nonfiction writer to a novelist?
Transitioning from nonfiction to fiction seemed like an easy move. I was a seasoned writer and knew how to organize material; I had discipline acquired from years of meeting deadlines; I had a thick skin from being edited and knew not to take criticism personally; I knew how to research a topic and interview a subject to get at the heart of a story. And I’d been an avid fiction reader for years. All of these factors helped and yet, I had much to learn. My first draft of “Death Stalks Door County” defied all the rules of writing a mystery and, not surprisingly, it didn’t work. I had to learn how to apply my skills in a new way to a different kind of thinking and writing. This took time and patience and work, but ultimately I succeeded.

What is your writing process like?
I write best when I have blocks of undisturbed time. It doesn’t matter if it’s morning or afternoon, as long as I have three or four hours to focus on my work and I don’t have to deal with anything else. Where I write best: at the cottage, sitting on the screened porch and looking out at Lake Michigan. That’s the ideal spot. But the weather doesn’t always cooperate, so if I’m indoors, I sit at the table facing the water. I don’t know why but I’ve always found the lake to be a source of inspiration and comfort. And when I’m not writing in Door County, I’m writing at my desk in Milwaukee, relying on memory and imagination to serve as my muse.

What do you wish someone would ask you?
What’s the hardest part of writing? It’s an excellent question but one I’ve never been asked. Despite the thinking and planning that go into the process beforehand, I think the hardest part is putting that first word or first sentence down on the page. That simple step represents both a leap of faith and a commitment. You’re saying: Yes, I can do this. I have the skill and I am prepared. You’re also saying: Yes, I will do this. I will do the hard work of writing the rough draft, and then I will rewrite and revise as needed, as many times as needed, until the manuscript is polished and ready to be published.

Many of our readers have connections to Door County — what are your connections to Madison?
My publisher is the University of Wisconsin Press in Madison, its director Dennis Lloyd and the dedicated staff have worked with me over the years. Madison graphic designer Sara DeHaan created the covers for all seven of the books. Joanne Berg, owner of Mystery to Me — where I’ll appear in conversation with Doug Moe on July 28 — has been a supporter from the start. As has Middleton author Tracey S. Phillips, founder of Blackbird Writers, which is a group of writers who fly under the umbrella of mystery.

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