story & photo by Heidi Hodges
Fast forward to today, Skalka, now retired, has never lost her interest in story-telling. She is an accomplished writer, with a storied career and three books to her name.
Those three books—published by the University of Wisconsin Press and part of a series, with a fourth on the way, scheduled for release next year—are Death Stalks Door County, Death at Gills Rock and Death in Cold Water. The latter was recently recognized by the Council for Wisconsin Writers with the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award.
The books, full of mystery, murder and mayhem set in idyllic Door County, have garnered Skalka a large and loyal fan base. And those fans are eagerly awaiting the next in the series, staring the character Dave Kubiak.
“Their appeal is probably very much strongest throughout the Midwest, but it exists elsewhere, too. Regional mysteries have a very wide appeal,” said Skalka.
Even though these are her first books, the popularity of her books is not surprising. Skalka is not new to writing—in fact, her entire life revolved around it, from her very earliest memories of drawing stories at the kitchen table Her enthusiasm for writing and telling stories continued all through school, where she won a $25 prize from the local VFW for an essay she wrote about the Statue of Liberty.
“I wrote plays for my Girl Scout troop.
I just always liked doing it,” said Skalka, who was on her high school newspaper staff and was editor of her college paper at the University of Dayton.
She always enjoyed feature stories more than hard news, she explained. That interest was a perfect fit with her first job at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri. While working in public relations with the company, she had the opportunity to write features about Hallmark’s artists.
“It was really cool,” she remembered.
One thing led to another, and she began writing for Today’s Health magazine in Chicago. “When the magazine went out of business, I freelanced…anything that came my way,” she said.
And then, the one thing that came her way became her career for the next 20 years.
“One day, I got a call from someone who identified himself as an editor for Reader’s Digest. I thought it was a joke,” said Skalka, who initially imagined her husband “put someone up to do it.”
The editor said he was interested in Skalka’s talent and invited her to join his writing team.
“I went out and bought a copy of the Digest to see if the guy was actually on the masthead. It turns out, it was for real.”
During her 20 years there, she learned skills she uses today in her fiction writing. And, she also “learned to develop a thick skin with editing.”
“I had a lot of interesting assignments, human interest, medical stories and others. I spent a lot of time sitting in people’s kitchens and living rooms, listening to them pour their hearts out. (Those experiences) helped me become a better fiction writer.”
In 2000, shortly before her Reader’s Digest editor retired, Skalka decided it was time for a career change for herself, as well. And it was time to try something she had always wanted to do: write fiction.
Until that point in her career, she had only written non-fiction stories. But her background of writing profile features uniquely prepared her for her next career endeavor.
“A non-fiction writer is bound by facts,” Skalka explained. “In fiction, you are also bound by facts, but you get to make them up.”
When Skalka set out to write her first mystery novel, Death Stalks Door County, set on the familiar peninsula where she owns a lakefront cottage, she initially saw it as a stand-alone piece. “But by the time I was finished, I felt so close to my characters. How could I not (write another)? So, before I knew it, I had this whole idea of doing a series.”
Skalka, who today also teaches the craft of writing and has worked with the local non-profit writing organization WriteOn Door County, said books have three major elements—people, place and plot.
“Sometimes, one of those elements could be dominant. In my first book, it was the setting—the place. The second book was people, the third was plot. The fourth is being written...”
Skalka said she likes to plot things out before getting down to the work of writing. “I do a road map,” she said. “It’s two parts. One is the story itself, the logical part of it. It has to make logical sense and have enough elements. Once I really know the story, I turn to the other part of it, the creative part.”
Skalka said some people have asked if employing that level of structure takes away the fun of writing.
“No! It’s a relief!” she explained. “It’s like an architect designing a building. You have to have all the pieces in the right places—the windows and elevators—but then you get to make it look nice.”
“Once I’m really comfortable with the story, I get to work and dress it up. It grows organically. And it can still surprise me—it can go hither and yon.”
Skalka’s murder mystery series is set in Door County, but she has taken creative liberties, creating different locations, businesses, and, of course, people.
“That was a decision I had to make. I decided to use the real names of the towns and park and bodies of water. But not the other things.
“That’s because things change. They can be in existence for a certain amount of time, then they are gone. I didn’t want to get involved with that and didn’t want to get into nitty-gritty detail. It gives more fluidity with the stories.”
While many elements in her books are purely fiction, she does pay secret homage to someone she knew, named Ruth, with the book’s character, Ruby Schumacher. “She was a strong female character in real life, someone who always felt you should go after what you want to do.”
When Skalka was contemplating writing fiction, “Ruth would get really impatient with me and say ‘Why don’t you just do it?’”
“It’s part composite, part imagination. It’s fictionalized.”
Today, Skalka lives in the Chicago area, but spends time at her Door County retreat.
The rural landscape is familiar and comfortable, she explained. While she grew up in the big city, she was able to spend summers in the country. “My mom grew up on a farm near Mosinee. (As a child) I would spend all kinds of time on Grandma’s farm and do all kinds of work. I loved it.”
“That farm, like so many, doesn’t exist anymore,” said Skalka. “It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Door County. Door County became a gift to my children. And a gift to me, too. When I’m here, everything drops away. I do an awful lot of writing up here.”
Skalka, widowed, with two adult daughters—one an engineer and the other an organic farmer—spent vacation times in Door County when the children were growing.
Today, the Lily Bay cottage remains a retreat and a place to work on her books. “I spend as much time there as possible.”
While still open to freelance writing opportunities, she focuses most of her writing energies on the series.
“Each book as a story arc. And the series has an overall arc. At this point, I envision six books. Maybe seven,” she said.
While teaching and promoting her books, she’s been asked how long it takes to write each one.
“The first book took 10 years,” she jokes. But, after honing her skills in the new line of writing work, she’s been able to produce the books at a steady rate.
Which leads to the next question many aspiring writers ask: “How much time to you spend a day on writing?”
“Do you count just the time you sit in front of the computer? Or the time you spend thinking about it? I am always ‘writing.’ It’s always in the back of my mind,” she said.
As for promoting her murder-mystery series, set on this fair peninsula, “and killing people in Door County?” she said, laughing. “Everyone’s been marvelous, the book sellers, the reading public, everyone.”