When Mountain View author Susan Alice Bickford entered her family’s summer cottage in Vermont nearly seven years ago, she realized something was askew.
It was filled with extra furniture, moved in from the porch to avoid frost, and the air smelled cold and different. As Bickford gazed around, she suddenly envisioned a corpse lying on the couch.
"It was very familiar in the summer, but transformed by winter … with big, fat ice crystals tending to form around the house," she said. "(My protagonist) would look around and realize, Something’s not quite right."
Inspired by the scene, Bickford said she began work on a suspense novel, "Dread of Winter," about a young woman from central New York who is redrawn into the dark secrets of her hometown.
Released last fall, the book has earned rave reviews and was recently nominated for the Mystery Society of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award in the Best Paperback Original category.
Set in the fictional city of Oriska, N.Y., "Dread" tells the story of Sydney Lucerno, a woman who returns to her hometown to deal with her mother’s death. Caused by a mixture of the cold climate and her addiction to drugs, her mother’s passing plunges Sydney back into relationships and memories she has tried to suppress. Now, Sydney begins to unravel the mysteries that plagued her departure 13 years ago, like the disappearance of her ex-boyfriend, and struggles with the emergence of a half-sister, Maude.
The brutally cold climate is an element Bickford noted she took care to capture - a pervasive force she remembered from her childhood days. Bickford grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and attended Hamilton College.
"Weather is an overpowering character in this story," she said.
Oriska was born from Bickford’s visits to smaller cities in central New York and her discussions with local residents. She spoke to the sheriff of Madison County, a small county in central New York, to learn how police forces operate in lightly populated cities. As she drove through the loose cluster of towns sandwiched between Ithaca and Binghamton, she started to visualize the junction between nature and self.
"(I’m) a very visual person," Bickford said. "These towns were isolated, but not too intense. The architecture (showed) how things were built, and how people inserted themselves into the land."
As Bickford sought to portray the Native American community she had grown up among as a child, she met with members of the Iroquois Nation to ensure that she was representing the local indigenous population accurately. Bickford added that a sensitivity reader helped her with inserting subtle fragments of culture, like character Randy Jaquith’s heritage with the Turtle Clan.
After writing a first draft of the novel in six months, Bickford received a letter from her editors at Kensington Publishing asking her to change the structure of the novel. According to Bickford, it took her two more years to complete the suggested edits and polish the manuscript. Kensington Publishing released "Dread" last October.
Really big nomination
Bickford has since lost her contract with Kensington and said she felt discouraged for several months.
That changed in mid-January. Bickford arrived home late after a night of English country dancing, went to sleep and woke up to a slew of congratulatory emails.
"There were so many Congratulations! emails, and I realized that the Edgar Awards were out," she said. "It was wonderful. Getting this nomination is really big - bigger than anything I have ever imagined I would be able to achieve."
The Edgar Awards are a national prize for mystery writers in literature, theater, radio and film. According to the Mystery Society of America’s website, the Edgars, for short, honor "authors of distinguished work in various categories."
Named after famous mystery writer Edgar Allan Poe, the Edgars have been presented annually since 1948; the category in which Bickford is a nominee, Best Paperback Original, joined the roster in 1970. Four other books are also up for Best Paperback Original this year.
The winners of the Edgars are set to be announced April 30 at the 74th Gala Banquet in New York City.
"I never aimed for this. It’s already exceeded my expectations," Bickford said. "It’s just terrific."
Bickford is the author of one other novel, "A Short Time to Die," released by Kensington Publishing in 2018, as well as several mystery short stories.
To purchase "Dread of Winter," visit amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com and type "Dread of Winter" in the search bar. For more information on Bickford, visit susanalicebickford.com.