Time can be a problem for the creator of a series character. Do you keep the character the same age throughout, as used to be the case during the “Golden Age” of the mystery? Do you let her age a year for every year of real time since the character began as Jan Burke does with her investigative reporter Irene Kelly? Or or do you let your character age, but very…..very…..slowly?
Each book about Judge Deborah Knott has been set in the “present” of when it was written. Although she was 34 when first appointed to the bench sixteen books ago, she is now only 39. A lot has happened to her in those five fictional years. Even more has happened in the real world, as I am reminded whenever I return to a place that inspired one of the books.
After finishing next year’s book, I felt the need for a little R&R, so we drove down to Carteret County, to Harkers Island, a place we’ve been visiting for almost 30 years. Along with Beaufort, the county seat, the island was the setting for Shooting at Loons, about the coastal conflicts pulling at North Carolina’s waters.
The courthouse, built in 1907, hasn’t changed very much on the outside, nor has Beaufort's waterfront where some of the characters docked their yacht; but Harkers Island has.
Two- and three-story McMansions for vacationing “dingbats” and “ditdots” have edged in amongst the small scruffy houses that once sheltered the island’s watermen and boat builders. The dilapidated yellow clapboard cottage pictured on the book’s first cover, the cottage Deborah borrowed from some cousins when she was holding court in Beaufort, has been replaced by a modern modular house. Happily, the porch holds a half-dozen rocking chairs for serious porch-settin' and we can still rock and see the Cape Lookout lighthouse across the sound.
Most of the boat builders are gone from the island now, so yards are tidier, if empty-looking, without half-finished, 30-footers sitting off to the side. Stores that once catered mainly to the islanders with nets and oyster gloves and hundreds of boat fittings now carry more gewgaws and souvenirs aimed at the tourist trade.
Nevertheless, live oaks continue to be sculpted by the wind, enough natives remain that one yet hears the distinctive lilting accents in the local shops and businesses, and you can still find shrimp that were caught the night before.
And I’m told that there are still a few respectable and otherwise law-abiding matriarchs who keep a loon or two in their freezers for an occasional Sunday dinner, courtesy of a son or grandson with a steady aim. (Sorry, Michigan!)