The Devil is in the Detail

by Sheila Connolly

One of my earliest memories is of my father instructing me on how to remove Japanese beetles from rose bushes and kill them (in a glass jar of soapy water). I had the right qualifications: I was the same height as the rose bushes, so I was eye-to-eye with the beetles. I was three.

A couple of years later, he showed me how to putty a loose pane on the cellar window. (This is a skill I have put to good use in later years.)

My sister was born when I was four, and I have no recollection of her—not my parents bringing her home, or installing her in her new room, not my precious first sight of my only sibling. In fact, my memories of her don’t kick in until she was about one and started walking. (You might guess that I wasn’t happy about having a sibling, but I don’t now how I could have erased all memories of her.)

My sister was three here. The photographer came to our home to take the pictures. That I remember!

Why do our brains save some memories and not others? In hindsight, it appears that for most of my life my mind has been making decisions about what to keep and what to toss, without consulting me.

Recently I had scheduled medical check-up, and I had a long wait in the exam room. Of course I had a book with me, but I decided to try an experiment. Most of us who write or read mysteries might wonder how good a witness we’d make, expecially if we’ve seen a violent crime or accident, so I decided I would pretend I was going to be interviewed by the police and I had to provide as many details of the room as possible. So I started looking at the room I was in and paying attention to small things.

So far I have managed to remember: Of the room’s four walls, three were painted white, and the fourth was painted a darkish teal blue. There were three boxes of latex exam gloves, in sized S, M, and L. But the small size gloves were a different color. (Think this will solve any crimes?)

I have a strong memory for visual details, which is certainly useful to a writer. Writing that down reminded me of another memory, from when I was five and starting kindergarten. Since I was new to the school, a teacher tested me to see where I should be placed. One of the tests involved looking at a picture of a house and trees on a windy day. The teacher asked, “what’s wrong with this picture?” I looked at it and told her quickly that the smoke from the chimney was blowing in one direction, and the trees were bending in the opposite direction. I have no idea why I remember that particular event. (Maybe I should have guessed then and there that I’d be a mystery writer.)

As writers we need to use details to make our characters and their settings come alive to readers by tapping into our shared memories. We need not only descriptions of what is seen, but also of sound and smell and temperature. And actions too: writers need to recall, consciously or subconsciously, people’s expressions, the gestures they make under different conditions, how they move. All these details may not seem important in themselves, but put them all together and you create a fictional character and setting that readers can identify with.

But it’s also a balancing act: how much detail do you need to include, as a writer? Do you need to know that Cordelia put on a sweater? A pink sweater? Or her favorite sweater, the one that had once been a vivid magenta but which had faded to a kind of Pepto-Bismol pink, but she had kept it for years because she loved its matching pink socks with sheep on them? A writer has to make choices like that on almost every page. Leave out the details and you end up with a flat story; put in too many and readers lose sight of the story.

What details do you think are important in describing a character or a place? And how how much is too much when you’re reading?

Did I Talk With a Killer?

by Sheila Connolly

Do you ever wonder what you would do if you came face to face with someone you never expected to meet, but who you know far too much about? It happened to me recently.

In July I was in Ireland, and whenever I’m in West Cork I make a point of going to the Skibbereen Farmers Market, which is pretty close to my idea of heaven. This year there was a new twist.

Somewhere in the back of that crowd…

 

I have a friend at the market who is an antiques dealer, as well as a mystery writer and a for-hire editor, and we’ve been talking for years, whenever I’m there. He always has interesting odds and ends a old books, and we chat about antiques.

My first hardcover book, Cruel Winter, came out earlier this year. It is my fictionalized retelling of a murder that took place in County Cork twenty years ago, which remains unsolved. For the book I stuck all my usual series characters plus a few new ones in the usual pub, and kept them there overnight during a rare Irish blizzard. What did they do? Talk, of course. The wild card was a stranger among them, who lived in England and was trying to get to the airport, and she turned out to be the suspect in, yes, an old murder. She was never arrested or tried, but everyone assumed she’d done the deed. So of course the gang stuck in the pub decided to give her the trial she’d never had, with her cooperation. She could finally tell her side of the story.

The crime portion of the book was based on a true story. I changed a number of things, but in my version I preserved the location and layout, the general investigation procedures, and all the forensic evidence. I spent a year researching it on and off, and despite the fact that it’s an old crime, it still makes national news in Ireland with surprising regularity (Ireland is a small country with little crime, and this remains an open case), and I read all those newspaper articles online.

The primary suspect—indeed, the only one—lived then and lives now in West Cork. So when I called on my antiquarian friend this time, he said, “He’s right over there. Want to meet him?”

Uh, you think? When the literary gods drop an opportunity like that on you, grab it! So I marched over and had a conversation with one of Ireland’s best known murder suspects. No script, no plan. We danced around how much I knew about his history, but he knew that I knew it. He was there selling books of his own poetry at a card table (of course I bought a book—autographed). He read to me a poem he’d written about the farmers market. Since he’s been kind of unemployable for a while, he’s making the rounds of the summer markets selling his book. He also raises fresh greens for sale to restaurants. And he offered to lend me his gardener for my cottage.

This was certainly a conversation I never expected to have.

I’d guess most people have forgotten about the murder, especially if they don’t read the newspapers. I’d bet that I know more about the details of the crime than the general population of Ireland. I never tried to interview him, but there he was in front of me. Older, but still recognizable. And he has a certain charm, even now. He’s articulate, intelligent and oddly self-confident.

In the book, my snowbound characters decided that the primary suspect did not in fact kill the victim. I haven’t changed my mind about that outcome, and for the book I came up with a different theory of the crime, one that fits what limited evidence there was. The “real” suspect and I didn’t discuss it—after all, the book is finished and on shelves now. I used my time to study the person I’d been reading about for over a year, who was accused of a bloody crime, and wondered what the truth was.

Ireland seems full of unexpected surprises like this, and being a mystery writer makes it even better!

What about you? What would you have done? Has something like that ever happened to you?

 

What Did I Do With It?

by Sheila Connolly

I recently came back from a trip to Ireland (yeah, yeah, I know—you’ve heard it from me everywhere. Yes, I do have a life on this side of the Atlantic, but the glow from Ireland hasn’t worn off yet.). I spent two weeks patching and filling and painting my cottage (and I hung my curtains! They fit!), with brief interruptions to get food and look for a few more pieces of furniture and do some minimal sightseeing and talk to friends. It was lovely—and it felt more like “normal life” than like a vacation.

Grass and hedge to come shortly!

I’ve lived in my current Massachusetts house for fourteen years. I lived in a house in Swarthmore for fifteen years before we moved. So the past thirty years have been pretty stable. I haven’t acquired a lot of new stuff like furniture, and the things I have bought or inherited came along one or a few at a time. Each more or less had its own place.

Then I bought the Irish cottage last year. Fifteen hundred square feet (four rooms plus small kitchen and bath), plus half an acre of land, in a different country. It was a blank canvas, and I got to make all the decisions about it.

by Avril McDermott of Union Hall–a view of the County Cork town Eyries

What I discovered about myself surprised me. The first thing I bought was a water-color painting from a local artist (who I learned about from a Facebook friend). Then I started adding furniture, piece by piece, from a variety of sources, mostly second-hand. What I ended up with was nothing like anything I had bought in the past. An Art Deco drinks cupboard? I fell in love with it (and it makes great storage, for more than drinks). A set of figural lamps, the likes of which I had never seen anywhere else? One of them has a windmill that turns, and is supposed to include running water to turn the mill (I haven’t dared tried that yet).

I outfitted the kitchen first—not hard, since it’s about the size of a closet—and its dominant color is red, which I’ve never used in a house before.

The whole process was very liberating. You think you know yourself, know your own tastes, right? Nope. There was someone else lurking inside me, just waiting to be let out. And apparently she likes Art Deco and the color red.

But another thing I noticed when I was staying there was that I kept misplacing things. How do you do that in a place that has only four rooms and little furniture, and nowhere to hide things? I don’t know, but I did. I would put down the hammer somewhere, and then spend five minutes looking for it. The same thing with my endless shopping list. What does that mean? That I’m losing my mind? My short-term memory? Or that the pathways in my brains have been scrambled, and I’m still in the process of rebuilding them to fit a new place, in a new set of circumstances.

And then there are so many things that those of us who have been settled for a while just assume are there when we need them, like tape and paper clips and pencils. Oops, not yet (I can’t explain to you how thrilled I was when I opened a drawer and found I had pencils!). I was starting from scratch, and I haven’t quite filled in everything yet. And yet, all the big pieces are in place. I’ve simplified!

I figure it’s good for me. It helps to shake ourselves up now and then. Like in writing. We Wicked Cozies know we can write books, and do it regularly. But what if you want to try something different? Without worrying whether it will sell or not? Sometimes you have to clear your mind and try something new—and if you’re lucky, it will give you a new vision, a new perspective. And something unexpected. Recharge the batteries, rotate your perspective ninety degrees, Change is a good thing! And it can be a lot of fun.

Have you tried any significant resets in your life (by choice)? How did they work out?

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I Always Wanted to Live in the Country

I’m heading to my country cottage in Ireland next week. It’s been just over a year since I signed all the paperwork, and more than six months since I’ve been there (I’m still working out a schedule).

Buying the place has been an interesting experience, and one that was relatively uncomplicated. Since I’ve gone public, I’ve learned that there are a lot of people for whom owning a small cottage in Ireland is a beloved fantasy. I’m happy to let you live vicariously through my own adventure!

There are two main reasons why I wanted to have a place of my own in Ireland. One is all those Irish ancestors calling out to me. Because of various family frictions, I never had a chance to know my Irish-born grandparents (my father’s side of the family), so this was my way of making up for it (and I’ve found a lot of new relatives!).

But I always wanted to live in the country, somewhere. I grew up mainly in suburbs of major cities, usually within commuting distance. Don’t get me wrong—I love cities. I’ve worked in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and London and enjoyed them all. But I don’t want to live in the heart of one.

My mother was a child of the New Jersey suburbs, until her father had a sort of mid-life crisis and decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer (you have no idea how absurd this was—he had no training at all, and little aptitude). He got a six-week agricultural degree at Rutgers and moved the family to Maine when my mother was fourteen. She hated it. Actually my grandmother did too: she got fed up, moved to Manhattan during WWII, and divorced her husband. My mother lasted another year in Maine, then joined her mother in New York. She never looked back, and when in later years we would drive past a farm with rolling hills and a pretty view, she’d snarl.

Mountain View Farm, Waterville,

 

So why my fascination with places and lifestyles I’ve never known? Sometimes I wonder if there’s some kind of inherited memory involved, which is why rolling green hills seem familiar to me. Other times I think it really may be all those rural ancestors (on both sides of the Atlantic) whispering in my ear, which would explain why I kept finding their final resting places in obscure cemeteries when I’m not even looking for them.

But while I yearned for those rolling green meadows early in my life, a few decades later I’ve found that I want those places for other reasons, that have nothing to do with my ghosts. I want peace. Quiet. Real darkness, where I can see the stars, and on a good night, the Milky Way. Elbow room. I don’t want to be a hermit, but neither do I want to look into my neighbor’s kitchen and watch her washing dishes (been there, done that). Glimpses of animals who are too shy to come out back home, and wildflowers that I don’t even recognize. When I think about the cottage, the little half-acre piece of the world that is all mine, I swear my blood pressure drops. It’s my Happy Place. Sure, there’s work to be done on it, and I still want to visit new places in Ireland, but what I picture most often is sitting on the patio and watching the sun set over the mountains of Kerry.

And, yes, the family cemetery is up the hill

What about you? Have you ever come to a place you’ve never been and immediately recognized it and felt at home? What places just feel “right” to you?

 

Nancy Drew Wants to Know: Plot or Words

Gather together a group of middle-aged women who read mysteries, and odds are most of them will have started with Nancy Drew. I know I did, saving up my allowance to read them in order. And that was before they were “modernized” with new fashions and slang.

To our young minds, Nancy was the perfect heroine: smart, brave, and independent. She had trusted friends, and a boyfriend who was about as bland as could be.
Just recently I finally read Melanie Rehak’s book Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, which came out in 2005. I bought it in 2005, but it languished on my TBR pile until this year. (Hey, at least I knew where to find it!).

What struck me now, on reading Rehak’s book, was that the “who wrote it” issue is not exactly simple. Edward Stratemeyer, the patriarch and founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, personally conceived of many of the early series that the Syndicate marketed. He also wrote outlines and style guides for quite a few of them. And then he farmed them out to anonymous for-hire writers, who were paid a flat rate per book. Thus the pattern was born: a Stratemeyer wrote the outline, and a deliberately nameless writer wrapped the words around it.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams

When Edward died in 1930, his daughters Harriet (the elder) and Edna took over the Syndicate, and more or less continued the pattern. Harriet managed the business end of things, but still wrote many of the story outlines (and married and raised some kids along the way—I wonder when she found time to sleep?) and for a long time insisted on complete control of the books, while maintaining the fiction of Carolyn Keene. Even her obituary in the New York Times (she was 89 when she died) credits her with writing nearly 200 books. But did she?

I’m not criticizing anyone here. Times were different, and readers were eating up what the Syndicate published, no matter who was doing the writing. We’re talking a lot of books per year here (eat your heart out, writers!). And I applaud a strong woman who could manage a major corporation and raise a family and turn out a couple of book outlines each year in her spare time. That’s outstanding for any era.

Most of us Nancy readers weren’t terribly invested in the “who wrote the books” controversies. In my own mind, I had filed what little I knew about that under “okay, it wasn’t Harriet Stratemeyer, it was what’s-her-name [Mildred Wirt Benson]” and Carolyn Keene never existed. Now I’m not so sure.

So who really wrote the books? One person (Harriet) provided a detailed outline (not just plot, but language, descriptions of characters and their clothes, etc.) A different person (usually Mildred) assembled the words that made the outline into a book. Who’s the author?

Readers, should they share credit equally? It was a joint venture, but that was never revealed at the time. But maybe more to the point, is the story line more important than the execution?

Have you ever worked with another writer, and how did that go?

 

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Sheila, on the road somewhere between Bethesda and home.

Recently I took a hard look at my website and decided it was time for some changes, even though the design was only three years old. But a lot has changed for me in that time.

When I first started writing, everyone said, “you need a website.” So I made a website, all by myself. There are plenty of programs and templates out there, and it wasn’t particularly difficult at the time. Actually I’d had a website for years before that, when I was managing my own genealogy research business, and it worked well enough to attract enough clients so I didn’t starve.

But the world of computer technology moves a whole lot faster than I do, and I was not prepared to deal with the changes. I found a professional to do it for me, after looking at a lot of other people’s websites to see what I liked.

It was fun back then to decide what I wanted to include, since the website is possibly my first or only introduction to readers. When you have a limited number of pages, how do you decide what parts of you should put out there? Your books, of course (although there weren’t many when I first set up the site). How to get in touch with the author. Where you’ll be appearing. Pretty pictures, because people like pictures, not just big chunks of text.

But somewhere in there you have to tell people about who you are. How do you make yourself come across as a real person to someone who happens to click on a link or who sees one of your books on a shelf? Who are you, and what face do you want the world to see? That’s harder to put together.

Of course I put in a section on genealogy, because that’s one of my passions, and it runs through almost everything I’ve written in one way or another. Who and where we came from made us who we are today, on some level—biological, cultural, historical. But how does that matter in your own life now? I’m allergic to ragweed (thanks, Daddy), and I have soft teeth (my mother’s contribution), and I have a knack for handcrafts (my grandmother’s gift). And I love to read (I can thank a lot of ancestors for that one!)—I don’t know if that’s genetic, but I certainly grew up with plenty of readers and books.

But readers don’t want to know about my teeth. I hope they’re more interested in the roundabout story about how I started writing at all, and how I found I couldn’t stop. And why I write what I write.

Header old

The old version

When I was putting together the new website (with the help of my talented designer Maddee James), I was surprised that it came out much simpler than the old one (just look at the difference between the former header and the new one). When I created that last one, I had no idea who I was or where I was going as a writer. Over the past few years that’s come together in a more focused way. I’ve learned a lot. And now I think that visually for a website, less is more. Fewer pictures but more interesting ones. Short paragraphs that hint at a deeper story (come talk to me at conferences if you want more details!).

Header new

The new version

How would you define yourself with only a couple of paragraphs and a handful of pictures? (If you have trouble answering this, you’re not alone: I asked my husband and he had no idea where to start.) Or make it simpler: what are the three most important things in your life, that you would want to share with other people?

[To those followers who aren’t at the Malice Domestic conference this weekend and who leave a comment here (I hope you will!), I’ll be traveling most of Monday, but I promise I will read your comments!]

In Defense of Clutter

Sometime in the past year I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. I’d read many references to it, and like quite a few people I lead a cluttered life and find it hard to unclutter.

One thing that stuck with me from the book was the idea that you should keep only those things that give you joy to wear or see or feel. I liked that idea. The problem is, I found that a whole lot of things give me joy. That’s why I got them in the first place, and that’s why I keep them. Even if I have to stuff them in a box just to get them out of the way, when I return to that box and pull the items out one by one, I am happily reminded of when and where I got them—joy in small doses. Which does nothing to solve my clutter problem.

But finally I found a book that defends the Other Side: the clutterers. I haven’t even finished reading it, but the first couple of chapters opened my eyes. It’s called A Perfect Mess, written by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman (two men!), and it was published in 2007. Actually the full title is A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder; How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place.

Our country has been obsessed about neatness, organization, cleanliness, order, call it what you will, for a long time. One result has been the proliferation of companies and consultants who charge you money for telling you or your company how to be neat and organized. But the question is, do their instructions help? Or to look at the larger question, does it really matter if we’re neat and organized? Why are we convinced that we’d be more efficient and more successful if we are? And why do we all feel so guilty because we aren’t?

Desk 3-17

My desk

One basic fact: you can spend a lot of time sorting and filing (and making sticky labels for your color-coded files), but is that the best use of your time? There are actually serious studies that show that you spend more time labeling and filing that you would if you left what you were looking for in a pile on your desk—because you know where to find it in that pile.

One section of the book I really responded to: the authors say “a messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system.” And that’s the way I operate. Yes, there are piles of things on my working desk—but I know what is in each pile, and where to find what I need quickly. Would it be more efficient to spend (or waste) time running around to my filing cabinets and plastic see-through file boxes carefully assigning each piece of paper to its very own slot? What I have (say the authors) is “a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offers far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could.”

Maybe it’s taking the logic a bit too far, but I tend to save articles and publications that catch my eye, and stick them in a pile. Over time the pile threatens to topple, so I put the the whole stack in a box. I will not tell you how many boxes I currently have that are labeled “Misc—TBF” (translation: Miscellaneous – To Be Filed). They are not filed. But when I recall that I read a pertinent article years before, I know where to hunt for it. And sometimes while I’m digging through those boxed piles, I come upon something I had forgotten, which inspires me all over again. I’m guessing that’s how a lot of writers work—you save ideas for when you need them later.

Files 3-17

The Files (and this is only half of them!)

Maybe humans have spent centuries trying to establish order, and all the rules that go with maintaining that, because they are trying to create a sense of control in their little corner of the world, in the face of a chaotic and unpredictable universe. That’s understandable. But if you ask me (and Abrahamson and Freedman), it’s kind of a waste of time.

We need to stop guilt-tripping ourselves because we’ve failed to meet some arbitrary standard of neatness. Tell me you haven’t heard almost every woman you know open the door to a guest and say, “I’m sorry the place is such a mess!”

Stop apologizing, and find joy in your mess!

How about you? Are you a neatnik or a clutterbug?

Please stop by my refreshed website at http://www.sheilaconnolly.com

and see what’s changed!