The first time I visited the Door County peninsula, I was sure I’d followed the wrong map. This was Wisconsin? Quaint villages and cherry orchards. White sails on blue water and fishing boats dotting the far horizon. Cliffs and caves. Fudge shops and cool, quiet forests. The Wisconsin I knew was dairy country: small, family-run farms, the kind of place where you quite literally made hay while the sun shone (I drove the tractor) and arranged the daily activities around the milking schedule.
I didn’t grow up on a farm; but my mother did, and as a girl I spent many summer weeks and months helping my grandmother and uncle who ran the operation. I was one of the city cousins who counted the days to the end of the school year, eager to pack my suitcase and head north from Chicago. I thought of the farm experience as my summer vacation but in reality it was an introduction to a way of life that centered on hard work.
This was my Wisconsin until I discovered Door County. Stepping out on the peninsula – the “Cape Cod of the Midwest” – I was transfixed. The land is stunningly beautiful; the people welcoming; the pace relaxed. The county’s tourist attractions are impressive: three hundred miles of shoreline, five state parks, eleven lighthouses, a mecca for visual artists, writers and musicians.
But for me Door County is so much more than all the statistics suggest. It is where some twenty years ago pure luck handed my family ownership of a rustic cottage filled with handmade furniture and memories passed on by the previous owner. For me, having the cottage was a dream come true. By then the old farm had been sold and while I still had my childhood farm summers to treasure, I worried about how to provide such memorable experiences for my daughters. The cottage with the beach at its doorstep and summers in Door County answered that question.
The cottage never disappointed. Here on the beach my daughters discovered the freedom of doing as much or as little as they wanted. Here there was no schedule, no planned activities ─ just the simple joy of one day after another unrolling in a seamless parade of sunny mornings and moonlit evenings. Here they learned to make their own fun.
The cottage provided a bonus for me as well: for here I read. For hours, for days on end. Packing for a visit, no matter the duration, I crammed a canvas bag full of books, almost always fiction but sometimes poetry as well. Some were for me to read quietly, others to share with my family, reading aloud in the evening. The cottage was not insulated and the times I came up alone in the chilly spring to write, I’d drape wool blankets over the doors to keep out the drafts, build a fire and then pull up a chair as close to the flames as I dared and sit and read.
Reading did more than entertain and enlighten. Reading shaped me as a writer. As I transitioned from nonfiction to fiction, from magazine articles to the novel, I followed the prescribed steps to learn the craft. I signed up for classes and attended conferences and workshops. I joined a critique group and took in lectures and seminars. But beyond writing itself, the most important activity I embraced was the simple act of reading.
I always preferred mysteries and literary fiction, but it really didn’t matter what I read — historical fiction, thrillers, travelogues – as long as the writing had depth and feeling, the result was the same. Reading the words and sentences, the paragraphs and pages that others had composed made me a better writer. Something about the flow of words moving from the printed page into my brain vanquished doubt and set my imagination free. Reading was like eating; words became the vitamins that energized my writing and nurtured my thoughts. Reading dispensed courage; it cured writer’s block. The more I read, the more I wrote.
My debut novel Death Stalks Door County was spawned in the cottage overlooking the inland sea we call Lake Michigan. Chapters were written sitting before the fireplace or out on the small screened porch. The second book in the series was started there. The ideas for books three and four bubbled to life as I lounged and read in an old Adirondack chair set in the sand near the water’s edge.
There’s probably a scientific explanation, something about synapses and electrical connections between brain cells to explain how reading helps me write, how the thoughts and ideas expressed by other authors spark my own thoughts and ideas and send them flying to the page.
I think of the process as magic.
I try to read every day. When life interferes and pulls me away from books, I feel drained and grow listless. My work stagnates. In my world, writing without reading is akin to breathing without air.
It simply can’t be done.
A lifelong Chicagoan, Patricia Skalka is a former Reader’s Digest Staff Writer and award-winning freelancer, as well as one-time magazine editor, ghost writer and writing instructor. Her nonfiction book credits include Nurses On Our Own, the true-story of two pioneering, local nurse practitioners. Death Stalks Door County, released in May 2014, marks her fiction debut.