Fireworks

No, I’m not going to give you the entire history of fireworks (wasn’t China involved, a long time ago? Or was that gunpowder?) Since the Fourth is upon us, I’ve been thinking about my memories of fireworks. Then I had to consult with my daughter, who’s visiting, about what she remembers.

I’m told there are people (children and adults) who are frightened of the loud noises. Not me. I love it when I can feel the blast with my body. Are kids required to wear ear protection these days? (My hearing is intact, thank you.)

Fireworks display

Here are the highlights I remember:

—      When I was in elementary school, I had a friend who lived nearby and whose parents threw a Fourth of July Party each year. With fireworks. Modest ones, of course, but they made a big boom. If I recall correctly, nobody ever got hurt and nothing caught on fire, and we attended the party for years.

—      When I was in high school, my town held a fireworks display on the way out of town, in a field past the high school. There was never enough room to park in that neighborhood, so you ended up walking the last half-mile or so, laden with blankets or beach towels (and probably insect repellent). Quite a few people from the town showed up and reclined on the grass enjoying the show.

—      When I was doing research in France (after college, before I was married) I happened to be there for Bastille Day. I was staying in the city of Angers, where there is a river, and the town shot off the fireworks over the river. What surprised me most was the fact that the fireworks made noises (not just bangs)—mostly whistling sounds (if you want to know how this works, see this ). I’ve always wondered why we don’t do more of that in the U.S., but I suppose we go for size rather than subtlety.

—      When I lived in Cambridge (MA) for a few years I shared a ground floor apartment with two other people. One year we decided to go up to the roof of the building (I think it was five or six stories high) to watch the fireworks. We had an amazing view of the Charles River—and saw the fireworks set off by three different towns along the river, all at the same time! It was amazing (I wish I had taken pictures).

—      Now the town where I live sets off its fireworks in a small park directly behind the fire station (smart choice!). I haven’t actually attended one of these events, but I can certainly hear it and often see the lights from the second floor our our house, since it’s happening only a few blocks away.

—      My daughter was fireworks-deprived for much of her early life, something I felt badly about. But the gods were kind. One summer we were on our way back from a family trip in Indiana, I think, and we stopped for the night at a hotel somewhere along the way back to (then) Pennsylvania—I’m not even sure where. After dinner we were hanging out in our room and, lo and behold, a fireworks display started and we had the perfect view from our window. It wasn’t even the Fourth! Check one more item off our bucket list: show daughter fireworks!

One more small note: my father always kept a small leather box on his dresser, filled with those little one-inch fireworks—individual ones, not strings of them. (My sister and I were never allowed to mess with them.) He took pleasure in taking a frozen orange juice container, sticking one of those firecrackers under it, lighting it, and sending the can soaring. He even taught me how to do it (yes, I still have all my fingers). Luckily we had a very large rock to use as a blast-off point, and plenty of room in the yard. No mishaps.

Firecracker small

What about you? Did the loud noises scare you? Or did you revel in the excitement, the lights and colors? What do you remember best?

 

 

A Change of Scene

cover - birds fixed - Murder at the Mansion 12-11-17Liz Mugavero kindly offered to let me take over her slot today, because my new book in a new series is coming out today: Murder at the Mansion, the first of the Victorian Village Mysteries from Minotaur Books.

Those of you who have read any of my earlier books will know that I write mainly about New England (particularly Massachusetts) and Ireland. These are the places I know best, and in addition, I hear my relatives calling me in those particular places. (Am I kidding? I’m not quite sure.)

Why did I shift the new series to Maryland? A couple of reasons. I confess I’ve never lived there, although my parents did for a while and we did a few touristy things together in the area. In addition, the City of Baltimore was once a client of a Philadelphia firm I worked for, plus my sister-in-law lived in the city for a few years (near where they filmed Homicide: Life on the Street, if you remember that).

Silas Abbott Barton ca 1890But one driving force was my great-great-grandfather Silas Barton. No, he didn’t live in Maryland (he was born and died in Massachusetts), but he fought in the Civil War, and somehow that era and the years after the war became the focus of the new series—hence the “Victorian Village” name. I kind of borrowed my great-great-grandfather’s Barton family, and bits and pieces of his history, and even his house, and then transplanted them across several state lines. One reason I thought it was time I learned a bit more about the Civil War was because the war played such a significant role in his life (he signed up when he was sixteen, with his father’s approval). He even included his military rank in large letters on his tombstone, although he never rose past the rank of corporal.

 

SAB House 1

The more I dug into the history of that time, the more intrigued I became. Some things about that part of our history many of us share as common knowledge, but others we might never have heard of or thought about. Oddly enough, one thing that came home to me was how chaotic the war was. What was most horrifying was how badly planned so many battles were—and how arrogant the North was.

The assumption was that the Northern troops would march in and win easily over the South. As a result, nobody in government had planned adequately for a non-victory. Where was the food, the medical care, even such simple things as bandages? Where were the vehicles to get weapons and ammunition to the front, and then get the wounded and the cannons out again? Who was going to bury all the horses that died? So much of this was never considered by the planners sitting in Washington.

But Clara Barton made a real difference, and I’m happy to claim her as a distant relative 3rd cousin 6 times renewed–she never had children, so there are no direct descendants). She saw the problems, and she set Signabout doing something—contacting friends for contributions, recruiting nurses, and simply organizing things. It must have been a challenge: picture this upstart single woman telling military leaders what they had to do—and surprisingly often they did it. Even after the war she kept working: she wheedled money from President Abraham Lincoln to set up a department to help to find the thousands of soldiers who had gone missing during the war. Her Washington office is now a small museum, which opened in 2015, and which I visited a year ago. (For the full story, see http://www.clarabartonmuseum.org/)

It was such a compelling story that I had to include what she did after the war as a key element in Murder at the Mansion.

Writing about a place I didn’t know well was both liberating and challenging. I had to do a lot more research, especially because I like to get the details right. But without that research I would never have known Clara Barton’s story.

Of course there’s a murder and some romance and old friends and a quest to save a small rural town that’s rapidly going broke.

Reviewers have been more than kind:

“Fascinating read…The prolific Connolly kicks off a new series that skillfully combines history, romance, and mystery.”―Kirkus

“Amiable…cozy fans will enjoy Connolly’s characteristically warm treatment of small-town life.”―Publishers Weekly

“Connolly’s accomplished series launch avoids the tired tropes found in many cozy debuts, incorporating humor, a realistic setting, and well-developed, appealing characters. Fans of the author’s “Museum Mysteries” will welcome the guest appearance of series protagonist Nell Pratt.”―Library Journal

“Exceeded my expectations. It blew me away. I will definitely be picking up the next one.”―Night Owl Reviews

So I must have gotten the details right!

Writers, do you have a favorite ancestor, relative or friend (or even someone you hate!) who begs to be included in a book? Or a place that demands to be used as a setting? What about a single historical event that captures the spirit of an era? Readers, can you tell when some of a book’s details come from real life rather than book (or Internet) research?

For more details about Murder at the Mansion, see http://www.sheilaconnolly.com

What Have You Done?

by Sheila Connolly

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?

Last year I wrote about meeting an accused killer in Ireland, whose story I borrowed for Cruel Winter. We still chat regularly whenever I’m at the Skibbereen Farmers Market.

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Skibbereen Farmers Market–with rainbow

I’m still regretting that I didn’t visit the Teapot Museum when I was in Wales (alas, no time). I did, however, once tour a museum in France featuring the works of the local sculptor Pom-Pom (no, I did not make that up) who specialized in sculpting small animals in plaster. I remember lots of bunnies.

When I was doing research for my dissertation, on a medieval abbey in Angers (in France—and it’s now the city’s police station), I wanted to see the 12th-century sculptures in a nearby abandoned church. There was no one from the local museum to give me a tour, so the director handed me the keys. I had an entire church all to myself. (I did wonder whether if I fell and broke my neck, someone would come looking for me.) I also climbed the freestanding medieval bell tower accompanied by a toothless custodian with a thick accent. (I survived both.)

DSCN3694

Apple lovers

In pursuit of apple lore, I attended a seminar given by a national apple expert, followed by a tour of an abandoned orchard. It was very funny to see twenty or so curious adult apple-lovers grazing through the neglected (but heirloom!) trees and tasting whatever they could find, on the trees or on the ground. (Yes, I did too.) What’s more, when I made some joke about writing about murders, the tour guide promptly told me about one that had taken place on the property (a former owner had come home unexpectedly to find his wife busy in bed with someone else—wife and lover died.)

Corn sheller 4

Viintage apple shucker (assembled)

Last year I went to our local 4-H fair, where they always have a “junk” booth filled with things that people bring in, hoping to sell them (or happy just to get rid of them!). I spied a hand-cranked machine lying in pieces on the ground and spent some time trying to figure out what it was used for. I was surrounded by guys in John Deere-type hats, making wild guesses, but I was the only person who figured it out: a corn shucker.

Have I used all these factoids in a book? No, not yet, but I have a mental file of them in case I ever need one, either as a plot point or to add flavor to a story. Actually, finding potential murder weapons in relatively easy. I once purchased a collection of 50-plus vintage cooking tools because I could see so clearly how to slash someone’s throat with a curved chopper (and it’s wicked sharp!). I have a feeling that could show up sometime soon.

Choppers (or murder weapons)

What about you? Writers, what have you seen that you can’t forget and want to use in a book? Readers, what have you seen described in a book that makes you want to see one yourself?

cover - birds fixed - Murder at the Mansion 12-11-17

 

Oh, right, I have a new book (from the new Victorian Village series!) coming out on June 26th from St. Martin’s.

Find out who dies–and how!

 

http://www.sheilaconnolly.com

 

Talking and Silence

Years ago, I had a friend who said she thought in colors. This would have been handy for her, since we were both studying art history, but I never quite understood what she meant. We had different mental languages, because I think in words. I even edit as I go.

Like other Wickeds here, I attended Malice Domestic at the end of April. I don’t go to a lot of conferences—maybe three or four a year—and I’m always amazed that I can spend three days or more talking. To friends, strangers, panelists, my writer idols, wait staff, and just about anybody who is human and breathing (and even some non-humans too).

Idols! (And yes, I talked to both women.)

Which is in stark contrast to the other ninety percent of my life. I’m a full-time writer, working from home, usually without any other people around, so I spend a significant amount of my time sitting in front of my computer creating stories in my head. I’m sure you all know that any piece of writing takes more than just stringing words together: you have to hear the voices of your characters in your head before you can set their words down on paper/your screen. And then there’s the invisible narrator if you write in the third person, because somebody has to describe things like the scenery, clothes, food and so on, and then you have to have your characters move through all this clutter that you’ve created.

Plus  you have to make each character a distinct individual and differentiate between them all (and don’t even ask about using accents!). To put it simply, it gets pretty noisy in a writer’s head.

Yes, I talk to cows too. This one’s a neighbor in Ireland.

But that does not mean I work in absolute silence. I talk to my cats (there are three of them, and one or another, or sometimes two, and occasionally three will be sitting on me as I work). In fact, I carry on complete conversations with my cats (no, they don’t answer, although I can usually figure out what they want through their body language, and most often it involves food). I also talk to the neighbors’ cats, and the rare dog that wanders by, and birds, and squirrels, and anything else living that passes through my yard. It seems rude to ignore them, and usually I welcome them.

An Irish cat — my daughter and I both had a conversation with it.

At Malice I’ve shared a hotel room with the same person for several years now, but I hadn’t realized that she talks to herself too. She’s been published for a long time, but I didn’t think to ask her when she started doing this. I have a feeling there are a lot of us who talk when there’s no one there.

Writers use words. Sometimes we need to try them out, because a spoken word “feels” different than a word you think. We (and the cats) are our own first audience. And for me, at least, it makes a difference.

How about you? Do you think in words? Colors? Musical notes? Even smells? And do you talk when there’s nobody to hear you?

Happy Holidays

by Sheila Connolly

Yesterday was one of the major holidays in the religious world—Easter. This year, by coincidence, April 1 was also the fixed date of one of the silliest holidays in European and Western communities.

Easter is what is known as a movable feast, which means it has no permanent date. Years ago, when I was studying medieval art (which includes much religious imagery, about which I had to do research), I worked out how its date was once determined, which involves a lot of factors and is impossible for most of us to remember from year to year. Wikipedia boils it down to “the first Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or soonest after 21 March.”

So on the one hand we have a significant ecclesiastical holy day, and on the other we have people playing tricks on others and telling silly jokes, in close proximity, on what we call April Fool’s Day.

Years ago I happened to be in France on April 1st. There the day is known as “Poisson d’Avril.” Yes, that means April Fish. I probably wouldn’t have noticed except that I saw people on the street walking around with a paper fish pinned to the back of their shirt, so I asked someone why. I understand that the goal is to pin it on someone without them noticing, and if you succeed, you get to call the victim an April Fish.

Why a fish? Again, one theory is that it is somehow linked the the zodiacal sign Pisces—the fish. (Although that sign falls a bit before April 1.) But I’m not sure anyone knows the origins.

Bottom line: many countries celebrate this day devoted to silliness, under a variety of names, such as Huntigowk Day from Scotland (not much used any more), and that name April Fish gets around to Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and parts of Switzerland and Canada. Isn’t that lovely? We need laughter and humor in the world, and this is a friendly kind.

Does anybody know any other holidays that serve no purpose other than to make us smile?

Cozy Cats and Authors

Recently Fellow Wicked Edith wrote a great post in defense of genre books, which some cluless people consider less important than so-called literary fiction, You know, those books that the critics adore and review all over the place but that only 137 people in the world read. I might be exaggerating a bit, but you know what I mean. I’d like to think cozy writers like us have as many readers as they do, but most of them do not review for The New York Times. Many of you readers responded in defense of genre, and we thank you!

But if you walk through one of the increasingly rare chain bookstores, you will quickly see that some genre books share certain consistent characteristics. Like romances where on the cover everybody’s clothes seem to be falling off. Or, during that time when chick lit was popular, every cover for it was pink, with a pair of very long legs (no body) and stilettos.

And cozies have small furry animals on the cover. Why? There is a practical reason: if you see a book with a puppy or kitten or both from across the room, you can be pretty sure that the book is a cozy. That makes it easy for readers to find them (and buy them, we hope). So who decides on the cover design? The publisher, of course. We may write them, but often that’s the last control we have over them. And publishers generally know what sells books—it’s their business.

But recently I’ve been asking myself, which comes first? The cute animals or the story? And why do I care? Because I’m a cat magnet. I’m not exaggerating—these cats started appearing long before I started writing, most often when I travel (and no, I do not travel with a handful of cat treats in my pockets). I even have the pictures to prove it.

o 1998, Raglan, Wales, with my husband and daughter: we were touring Welsh castles (there seem to be a lot of them, mostly ruined) and I sat down on a bench to admire what was left of the castle somewhere out in the country. A cat showed up and sat next to me.

Cat Raglan

o 1999, Ireland, with my daughter: we stayed at a pleasant B&B south of the Shannon airport. They had cats. Lots of cats. I ended up clutching a tiger kitten (no, I did not bring it home with me).

Cat Abbyfeale

o 2011, Ireland, travelling with a friend I had met online through genealogy: we stayed at a small hotel in Dublin, across from Christchurch Cathedral. We toured the church, and then, since it was a nice day, I sat down on a bench outside the church and people-watched. So of course the official church cat showed up, crawled under my coat, and went to sleep.

Cat Dublin

o More recently we stayed at a nice rental in Union Hall, in Cork—a place that I picked, sight-unseen. We pulled into the parking area and I said, “look, there’s a cat.” And looked again, and there was another cat, and another—I think the final count was six. One took a particular liking to me and watched through the kitchen window.

Cat Union Hall

Those are just the cats I can remember (and that someone managed to take a picture of). I don’t recall that any dogs got quite so chummy. Cats seem to like me. I know, there are lots of cats and many are outdoor or feral cats and not particularly friendly. In fact, a lot of them run away and hide, or at least maintain a safe distance. But me they sit on.

But there may be a logical reason why cats appear on all those cozy covers. I wrote recently that we nice respectable ladies on this blog write about killing people, which seems odd when you think about it. But putting an appealing friendly pet on the cover signals that we aren’t bad people, that we are trustworthy, and that small animals like us–they send a message in shorthand. Not only are the fuzzy creatures a code for “cozy” but they signal that all will turn out well in the book.

What about you? Do you automatically reach for the book with the cat or dog on the cover?

The Big Game

by Sheila Connolly

I hear there was a big game yesterday. (Oh, all right, I watched it. How could I not? I live in Massachusetts, and before that I worked in Philadelphia.)

I’m not a big sports fan. Football is the only public sport I follow, mainly because my high school had a very successful team and half the town turned out on weekends to watch them play. That’s the only reason I know the rules of the game. Stick me in front of a basketball game and I’m lost, and forget about hockey or soccer

And then I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during the Golden Years of Joe Montana and the 49ers, and I was hooked for life.

I’m not alone—well over half the people in the country watch professional football, both men and women.

So why am I writing about this here? Because we’re all mystery writers, and we kill people. On paper at least—not in the real world (right, ladies?). And I think there’s a connection.

Can we agree that the human race likes conflict, often bloody? Wars have been around longer than the writing to record them. It seems to be in our blood. What is interesting is that in a number of cases, the deadly wars somehow transformed themselves into entertainment for the masses. It might not have happened all at once, but think about  the gladiator battles of the Roman Empire. Maybe early on they were a convenient way to kill off prisoners or unwanted groups of people, but at some point they became games with cheering crowds (and most likely refreshments and betting).

Same thing in the Middle Ages. Of course there were still wars, and people died. But again, after a while the messy wars became staged jousts between mounted men in armor, trying to knock each other off their horses, while lords and ladies watched. A different kind of game.

We all know crime exists in the modern world, some sophisticated, some brutal. So why does a pleasant group of not-young, non-violent ladies like us write about killing someone (or more than one someone) in each and every book we write? (Writers of suspense and thrillers are not included in this sample—that’s where you readers can go if you want blood and fear and pain.)

I think it’s the same principle, if a bit watered down. We kill off people (usually not-good people) because it gives readers a small chill—”could that have been me?”—and then we set about making things right by solving the crime. I’d guess than none of us believes that murder is a good or even a necessary thing, so what we do is as close as we can come to fixing the problem.

So, back to football. My theory is that it’s mock warfare, with the emphasis on “mock.” Nobody is supposed to die, or even get seriously injured (although sadly it does happen all too often). But we want the thrill of the battle, the small armies of big men running into each other and chasing after a small useless leather object, and we want to care enough about one team or the other that we feel happy when they win, or sad when they don’t.

Better that people get their anger and hostility out of their system watching a mock battle than taking it out on real people, right?

What about you? Are you a sports fan, do you think games are barbaric, or do you simply not care (and go read a book instead)?

County Cork Mystery #6. There are no battles, real or mock, in this book, but there is, alas, a body.