by Sheila Connolly
Readers of cozies know that one of the essential characteristics is often the small-town setting.
I haven’t looked up statistics about how many people live in small towns (whatever the definition of “small” is—under 200 people? Under 2,000? 10,000?) versus cities, although I’m pretty sure that cities are leading in total population. But readers seem to prefer small towns as settings.
Why? I think it’s because there is a sense of community. Everyone knows everyone else’s history, both past and recent, and their family. That might sound claustrophobic, but it’s also comforting in a way. People care about each other (even if it’s negative). Practically speaking it’s much easier to plot a murder in a small town because there is a limited pool of suspects, and people share a certain amount of basic information about those suspects, which gives them a head start, at least compared to, say, a New York City police detective.
For my most recent series, the County Cork Mysteries, I chose to set it in Ireland. This met with some resistance from my editor, although she never quite explained why. I suspect that she (or her bosses) thought that the “foreignness” of the setting would outweigh the small-town aspects.
Wrong. Ireland is the paradigm for a small town, both locally and nationally. The population of the entire country is less than five million (the last time I was in New York, it hit me that that one city holds more people than all of Ireland). Moreover, much of the rural population in Ireland historically never moved more than five miles from where they were born. When times were hard, like during the Potato Famine, people left the country altogether and never returned. In effect, they were erased, save for a few letters home now and then. Local life went on, with the same small (and often related) cast of people.
You might think that this is an outmoded way of life, but it isn’t. Sure, there is the Internet and cell phones—it’s not the Dark Ages in Ireland. Membership in the European Union has brought with it better food—and also more complex and sometimes absurd regulations about storing and serving it. People there take holidays in Spain, so they’re not afraid of travel.
But it still feels like one big small town, particularly in West Cork, in the lower left corner of the country. Historically it’s always been a bit rougher than much of the rest of the country—it was long known as the “Wild West.”
I chose to set my series in the town of Leap, on the south coast of Cork, because my grandfather was born near there. Leap has a population hovering around 200. Two churches (one Catholic, one Church of Ireland), one hotel (eight rooms; continuously operated by the same family for over 130 years); four pubs. Or there should be four—as of last year they’d torn one down so they could build a bigger one. I have to check to see if it’s open now.
And everybody is connected to you, even if you’ve never been there. Example one: the first time I visited, I had no reservations and the hotel was full, so they sent me around the corner to a place where a family rented two rooms. I walked in, introduced myself and explained I was looking at my family history, and the landlady said, “Oh, I’ve a cousin who’s a Connolly—I’ll give her a call,” and she did, and we met, and that cousin was also a cousin of mine and came with a printed genealogy in hand. And then the landlady’s mother-in-law there said, “Oh, I knew your great-uncle Paddy—he used to keep his horse behind the pub across the road.” That’s the pub that became Sullivan’s in the book.
Example two: last year I was poking around a relatively new cemetery a couple of miles away, and met a man (doing the same thing), and we got to talking, and I said I was a Connolly, and he said, “do you know Catherine Connolly?” Yes, that’s my cousin (see above). Mind you, Catherine hasn’t lived in that area for over fifty years. Things like that just keep happening in Ireland.
And that’s what makes it such a perfect setting for a cozy series. Well, apart from the problem of fitting in murders. I had a lovely chat with the police sergeant in the nearest town, Skibbereen (population 2,700), last year, and he told me that in his district they’d had all of three murders in the past ten years, and they’d known who did it in each case. I apologized for raising his crime rate in the series.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who have Irish ancestors, and a lot more who have visited—or want to. The place strikes a chord in a lot of people, and once you’ve been there, you know why. It’s an easy place to be. The pace of life is slower than ours. It’s beautiful. The people are friendly and love to talk. The food is really good these days. And I think that’s why readers like the series.
Which means I get to go back and do more research! And that’s where I am now, all things willing.