Patricia Skalka, author of Death in Cold Water, the third installment of the Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries, speaks about her experience writing a mystery novel, interviewing the FBI, and why Cubiak is so relatable.
Death in Cold Water is the third book of your Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries. When you started writing, did you envision that you’d do a series? Not at all. In fact, the prospect of writing a series seemed quite overwhelming and far beyond the scope of anything I could imagine. I started Death Stalks Door County, the first book, with the intention that it would be a stand-alone mystery. One and done, as they say. But as the book developed, additional story lines materialized. And by the time I had completed a solid draft, I felt so close to my characters that I didn’t want to walk away from them. I saw them as real people whose lives extended into the future. By then it seemed only natural to use the first book as a stepping stone into a series.
Without revealing any secrets, what can you tell us about Death in Cold Water? There are two story lines in the book. The first involves the disappearance of a prominent Door County philanthropist who has strong ties to the Green Bay Packers. His presumed kidnapping leads to FBI agents joining the story. The second plot revolves around human bones that wash up on a beach north of Baileys Harbor. My lead character, Sheriff Dave Cubiak, uncovers the story behind them.
Is there a common motif in your books? In each of the three books I’ve written and in the fourth that’s in progress, the crime that occurs in present time is linked to past events. By this, I mean stories that span several decades and involve the kind of old secrets and misdeeds that become lost in the mist of memory and slowly ferment beneath the surface of daily life. I like to present my protagonist with complex puzzles that involve several potential and often conflicting motives and a panoply of suspects. In solving crimes, he must shift through layers of often conflicting clues and circumstances and delve deep into people’s lives before he arrives at the truth.
One of two range lights at Baileys Harbor active from 1869 to 1969. The lanterns were originally fueled by lard or whale oil, later by kerosene and acetylene gas until converted to electricity.
Is Dave Cubiak, your protagonist, based on a real person? Dave Cubiak is a figment of my imagination drawn from bits and pieces of many of the people whose paths have crossed mine over the years. His aspirations might be drawn from one individual; his story of loss from another; his physical appearance based on yet someone else. Mostly he was an idea that slowly assumed a personality and physical presence as the concept for the first book evolved. To solve the mystery and carry the reader along as clues were discovered, I needed the fresh eyes and objectivity that only an outsider could bring. When readers met Cubiak in my first mystery, Death Stalks Door County, he was a former Chicago homicide detective turned park ranger. He’s a reluctant protagonist who slowly grows into his role of hero.
I created Cubiak as the kind of sheriff I would want to arrive on the scene if I were ever the victim of a crime or in need of help. At a recent event, one reader said he thinks of Cubiak as “a man who does the right thing.” I think that really sums up Dave Cubiak.
Where do you find your inspiration for the books you write? Mysteries generally evolve from one of three elements: setting, characters, or plot. Death in Cold Water grew directly from the plot. I knew that I wanted to write a story about a kidnapping. The next step was deciding on the victim, the motive behind the crime, and the culprits, and then weaving the three together in a coherent story.
Death at Gills Rock, the second volume in the series, emerged from the characters and my desire to write a book involving veterans from World War II. I’d read newspaper articles and seen many reports on the vanishing population of veterans and knew I had to do something soon. One day, I was talking to one of my Door County neighbors about the idea and she mentioned that the Coast Guard contingent from Sturgeon Bay had served in the Aleutian Islands during the war. That was all I needed to get started.
A Door County sunrise.
The idea for Death Stalks Door County, the first book, grew directly from the setting. After spending a perfect afternoon on the beach, I found myself in the same spot on an inky black night. The contrast between day and night made me think of the disparity between light and dark, and good and evil, which led to imagining a story in which sinister forces were at work beneath a veneer of perfection. From this, I came up with the plot line and characters for my first mystery.
How much, if any, research do you do for your mysteries? Whenever I come up against something about which I know little or nothing, I do research. I don’t let a lack of knowledge about a subject stand in my way of writing about it. But I don’t fabricate facts either. Writing only what you know is fine if you’re already someone with boundless knowledge! I believe in writing about that which I am willing to learn, and I always encourage aspiring writers not to be inhibited by a lack of knowledge about a given subject as long as they are willing to do the research.
Death in Cold Water involves the FBI, and prior to writing the book all I knew about the agency was what I picked up from news articles and TV shows. I had much to learn about the FBI’s involvement in kidnapping cases and started by gathering as much information as I could from the bureau’s website and from various books and magazine articles. Once I had a sense of the story, I went through the plot and tried to imagine where and how the FBI would figure in. With this general overview pretty well laid out, I was ready to talk with real-life agents.
What was it like interviewing the FBI? Overall, I’d say it was rather intimidating. Where to start? The bureau has offices in more than fifty major cities across the county, and since my story was set in Wisconsin, I assumed I should approach the Milwaukee office first. I sent an email to the Public Information Office there, explaining who I was and what I was doing and was told that all media inquiries have to go through Washington. That gave me pause. But after a few days of procrastinating, I sent essentially the same email to the PIO at headquarters. This time, I was asked to submit the type of questions I wanted answered.
That gave me further pause. I had dozens of specific questions, but I finally came up with five or six general queries and submitted the list. Within days, I had an appointment with two agents in the Chicago office.
The author reflected in the window of her cottage.
Here were the guidelines: I could ask anything I wanted but wasn’t allowed to bring in any electronic devices. This meant no cell phones, recorders, or cameras. I entered the grounds through a small gate house where I was assigned a locker for my cell phone, which I’d forgotten to leave in the car. Once I was cleared, I walked the fifty or so feet to the main building carrying only my purse, a notepad, and a pen.
I met with two agents for more than two hours, taking notes by hand all the time we talked. They were extremely helpful, and both really liked the ending I wrote! I wasn’t allowed to mention either of the agents by name in the acknowledgements.
The books in your series move through time. Why is that? Cubiak is in a very bad place when we first meet him. He is burdened with grief over the deaths of his wife and daughter and overwhelmed with guilt because they died in an accident he feels he could have prevented. He is morose and withdrawn. Following in the footsteps of his alcoholic father, he also uses vodka to numb his feelings. He is a man apart and not very likable. I didn’t want to leave him there, and the only realistic way I could see to help him find some peace was to move him—and the stories—through time.
I envision the series covering a period of twenty years or so. Cubiak as well as the other central characters will grow older, as we do. Life circumstances will keep changing and they’ll face new issues and concerns. I thought this would be both an interesting and challenging way to structure the books.
Is there an overall arc to the series? Each book follows its own story arc but the series has an overarching story line which put simply is Cubiak’s personal journey of redemption. As I said earlier, he begins the series as a man tormented by grief and guilt, and in each book he learns a little more about how to live with the loss he has endured. His pain evolves over time but it will never really go away, and he has to grapple with the challenge of reconciling that which he cannot change. My goal is to help Cubiak reach a point where he can fully embrace both loss and life, no small challenge for anyone.
How do readers relate to Cubiak’s journey? I have been surprised and touched by how my readers relate to Cubiak. Women seem to want to take care of him; men say they like him because he’s “real.” People affected by loss are especially sympathetic to his plight. Many have told me that they appreciate the depth and ongoing nature of Cubiak’s struggle. They feel that my books speak to the truth of grief which is too often treated superficially. One reader experienced in helping others cope with post-traumatic stress said he thought Cubiak’s story was a story of hope for people dealing with traumatic loss.
Dave Cubiak, who started out rather unlikable, has developed something of a fan club. Readers ask about him; they express concern for his emotional well-being; they send emails asking when the next Dave Cubiak story will be out. For an author, there can be no greater compliment.
Watch Patricia Skalka in an interview by Chicago Public Television:
is the author of Death Stalks Door County and Death at Gills Rock, the first two volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series. A former writer for Reader’s Digest, she presents writing workshops throughout the United States and divides her time between Chicago and Door County, Wisconsin.