We’re so happy to help Sheila Connolly celebrate the release of yet another wicked cozy mystery! This time it’s Golden Malicious in her Orchard mystery series. We thought we’d interview Sheila so you (and we) can get to know her better.
Thank you all for inviting me to blather on about myself here—at least I feel like I’m among friends! So here we go.
Edith: You are a past president of the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime. When did you first learn about the organization, and how much grief did being president give you? Or was it all joy?
I blush now to admit that when I started writing, I had no idea writers groups or organizations existed, much less how to find one. I asked the only friend I knew who was a published writer (of historical romances) and she directed me to the local chapter of Romance Writers of America. It proved to be a valuable experience, regardless of genre, and once I was tuned in (and realized I was writing mysteries rather than romance) I found Sisters in Crime.
It took a few years for me to get over being awed by the company (for example, I loved Kate Flora’s Thea Kozak series long before I even thought about writing), but eventually I became brave enough to participate, starting with managing registration for Crime Bake, and finally I took the plunge and agreed to become president.
I definitely enjoyed it. The New England chapter is one of the largest in SinC, and has a lot of great people in it. It’s a treat to watch new members join and learn, and to share information with them.
Sherry: Excluding your main characters across your three series, who was the most fun to write and why?
Claire Hastings, from Once She Knew (Beyond the Page Publishing), my first ebook. She’s a professor of women’s studies at a women’s college, who is trying to write a scholarly paper on how women are portrayed in contemporary romance fiction (which she loathes). Then somehow she finds herself being dragged across the country by a disgraced journalist she barely knows to thwart a terrorist attack on the First Lady. In the end she saves the day and the guy—and of course they fall in love. I wrote it with my tongue wedged firmly in my cheek, and Claire gets in a lot of sarcastic zingers along the way.
Jessie: Is there another book or type of book you’ve always wanted to write but haven’t yet?
I started out trying to write romance (purely practical, since it’s a large market) and found I wasn’t very good at it. I’ve always read mysteries, but I was afraid it would be too much work to actually come up with plots that made sense. I guess I was wrong (the downside is, I find I look everywhere now for places to put bodies, unusual murder weapons, etc.). I think if I had the luxury of time (and not worrying about sales), I’d write a biography of my great-great-grandfather Silas Barton, who was a very interesting character, and who I feel I know well after a few decades of genealogy research.
Barb: I know you do a lot of hands on research–from boiling down your own maple syrup to pressing cider. Why do you do it and what do you (and your books) get out of it?
I love to learn new skills and to find out how things work (my father was an engineer who developed industrial-size mixing systems, so maybe it’s hereditary). At various times in my life I’ve tried knitting, sewing, upholstery, wallpapering, developing photographs, cross-country skiing, and working with stained glass; I’ve played music with a Renaissance consort. No, I don’t do all of these now! But the series I write let me use almost everything I’ve ever done in my varied career plus learn new things. It’s the best of all worlds.
I also can’t imagine describing something in a book based on a few Internet articles—it seems like cheating the reader. I think you need to see, feel, smell, whatever you’re writing about, to put in so that you can include details that make it more real.
Julie: I love the Orchard series. Where did the idea come from? Do you use any real locations for inspiration?
I feel almost guilty because I borrow a lot of real places, mostly from my own family’s history, as settings for my books. The Orchard Mysteries are set in a real house in western Massachusetts, built by one of my ancestors. I stumbled on it by accident when it was a B&B and stayed there several times. Now I’m friends with the owners, and I can get in touch with them and say, may I please look at the attic? Where did you put the septic tank?
Of course, I tinkered with a few things, like returning the orchard that isn’t there anymore. And I kind of moved a highway. But the town, particularly the town center, I inserted just as it is. (Yes, everybody in town knows.)
But I have to say, it is a very typical New England town, laid out in the 18th century, with the big white church at one end of the town green. It’s still fairly rural, and yes, there are plenty of orchards there.
For the Museum Mysteries I borrowed from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where I worked for several years, during which a multi-million dollar theft was uncovered. How could I not use that? And the County Cork Mysteries are a tribute to my father’s side of the family—both his parents came from Ireland.
Liz: I remember you saying the Ireland series was something you’d always wanted to write. What drew you to that place and those characters?
My father was born to Irish immigrant parents; my mother was a Yankee through and through, back to the 1600s. They met in New York, married, and had me and my sister, and then things fell apart—they split when I was twelve. Needless to say, my mother did not encourage any contact with my father’s side of the family (they all hated each other on sight, at their first meeting).
But finally I figured I’d paid my dues to my mother’s side (all that genealogy) and it was time I found out something about my father’s, which is why I went to Ireland for the first time in 1998. It’s hard to explain, but in a way it felt like coming home: it felt familiar. At the time I described it as like putting on a favorite old shoe—it just fit.
I wrote the very first version of the story not long after that—in fact, it was the second book I ever completed. The characters were entirely different, but the setting has never varied—a small pub in a small town in a corner of West Cork. By the way, the real pub was called Connolly’s. It’s closed now, save for special events, but it’s essentially untouched (and a Connolly still owns it).
Finally: Tell us something about yourself we’d be surprised to learn (and that you’ve never revealed in an interview before!).
(I think the statute of limitations has expired on this!) When I was eight, I embarked on a brief career in crime. A friend and I were building a tree house (yes, we were ambitious), and were kind of short on building materials. However, there was a new housing development being built close to her home, so one weekend we went over and kind of “borrowed” some materials, like two-by-fours. For some unknown reason, we indulged in a little petty vandalism too (nothing too destructive—we were, after all, good kids).
Not surprisingly the builders came asking my friend’s parents if they knew anything about what had happened. We looked wide-eyed and innocent, and we all concluded that it must have been some neighborhood boys. Certainly nice young girls couldn’t have done that?
Readers: Ask Sheila the question you’ve always been dying to know about her!