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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Reading History

by Sheila Connolly

gargoylesI love history. Once upon a time I hoped to be a medieval scholar, wandering among French cathedrals and English castles and making intelligent comments about the symbolism of gargoyles and the evolution of the Gothic arch. As a child a friend and I used to act out Revolutionary War stories that we made up. I’m fascinated by ruined buildings, especially those that seem to have been abandoned in the woods for no obvious reason, because I knew there had to be a story there.capital

But I can’t write historical novels, and I seldom read them (my apologies to those who do either—it’s me, not you). In part I blame it on my early academic training. I want to get the details right, the setting, the vocabulary. And that take research, which is a wonderful, terrible time-sink. I’d get so caught up trying to figure out what they called that buckle that held your armor on in 1327 or what kind of varnish a furniture-maker would use in 1783 that I’d never get around to finishing the book. Once I read a perfectly nice book written by a friend, and in it she said someone found a photograph hidden in a secret drawer in a piece of old furniture—but it was supposedly hidden there half a century before photography was invented. I nearly threw the book across the room.

But! you protest, you use all kinds of history in your books!

Yes, I do. But I incorporate history as seen through the eyes of my modern heroines. They don’t always understand all that they’re seeing, so they get to ask questions and do their own research, make their own discoveries. As do the readers!

I also was a teacher for a few years, long ago, and I remember how challenging it was to make teen-age students “see” the past in a way that made it become real to them, and how rewarding it was when at least a few of them did.

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View of Plimoth Plantation

I live in Massachusetts, not far from Plymouth, where so much of our country’s history began. Plimoth Plantation is a recreation of the original settlement, and is said to be one of the best in the country, down to small details like the stitches on the reenactors’ clothes. Old Sturbridge Village does a fine job too. When you’re standing in the center of the town green there, you can believe you’ve stepped back in time (and watch out for the piles of manure from the oxen). By the way, two of the houses at OSV belonged to distant relatives of mine. Sometimes I think my own history follows me around.

sturbridge

Old Sturbridge Village — one end of the green

The more time I spend in Ireland, the more I realize that the oral tradition of passing history down through the generations survives, even in this electronic age. I met one woman who told me that my great-uncle Paddy used to stable a horse behind the pub I use in my County Cork mysteries. A dairy farmer spent half an hour telling me about the history of the house we were renting from him—and what happened when the sisters who owned the place were emigrating in the early 1900s and the man who had agreed to rent the house from them didn’t pay up, so it was the McCarthy’s down the road who took over the lease so the sisters would be able to sail to New York as planned. I heard this a hundred years after it happened, and BTW, the McCarthy’s still live down the road. He believed I’d be interested, and I was.

mccarthy

Yes, that’s the McCarthys’ house

We need history, whether it’s a millennium or a century old. History isn’t all about kings and battles—it’s also about the daily fabric of ordinary people’s lives. It’s the details that make history come alive—in your mind or on a page. I keep remembering a line from a Dixie Chicks song: “Who do we become/Without knowing where we started from?”

What historic place or building or artifact has impressed you most? It doesn’t have to be something big and important, as long as it mattered to you and you remember it.

And in honor of the publication of my new County Cork book, Cruel Winter, I’m giving away a copy to one lucky person who leaves a comment. The book does include a lot of my own history—Maura’s house in the book is the one that my great-uncle built in 1907 (now, sadly, abandoned), and where my great-grandmother Bridget lived out her life.

Cruel Winter, coming March 14th from Crooked Lane Books, and available for pre-order

http://www.sheilaconnolly.com

 

 

Follow Your Dream

It seems like recently the Wickeds have been coming out of their winter hibernation and are looking for places to go, people to see, new projects to start. And maybe, just maybe, summer has arrived.

I’m doing the same thing: tonight I’m leaving for Ireland to claim the cottage I’ve been fantasizing about for years, ever since I first visited County Cork in 1998.

We all need dreams, even if they never come true. Even the imagining part gives us comfort and hope—maybe that’s part of the writer’s “what if?” way of thinking. And if all we ever do is imagine, well, then we don’t have to deal with all the messy realities that might spoil the dream. As in our books, we can edit out the boring and annoying stuff and make the story come out the way we want.

Except I decided to follow my dream and make it happen: I bought an Irish cottage.

My cottage in Ireland

My cottage in Ireland

When I first came up with this mad plan, years ago, I had no money. But why let that stop me? I had my heart set on acquiring the last Connolly house in a tiny place out in the country in West Cork. I even went so far as to have a structural inspection—which showed that the sill was rotting and the roof was shaky, and by the way, there was a huge manure pile with a tarp held down by used tires just behind it (belonging to the neighboring farmer) and a definitely odorous pig farm just up the hill (and upwind), and the seller was asking for too much money, thinking I was a gullible idiot. I put that dream to bed, or so I thought.

But it wouldn’t let go of me. Among the first books I wrote, not long after that, was one set in Leap, in the pub that became the heart of the County Cork mysteries. Over time I rewrote it more than once. The characters changed, and the plot, but the setting never did. It took a few years to sell that as a series, but I kept going back to Ireland.

Fast forward to 2014. I was making some money with my books, hooray. I started looking at online property listings (which are very entertaining). I even applied for a mortgage at a local bank—twice. I was rejected twice. We could never make the numbers work, and that was for even the least expensive houses (that had plumbing and such indulgences).

Still, I kept looking at listings, and I kept saving my pennies, until finally the two lined up. I found a small place that didn’t need too much work, that had been on the market for a while (so they’d accept a low offer)—and that just happened to be in the village where my Cork great-grandmother was born. I made an offer, the owners accepted the offer, and as of a couple of weeks ago it was mine.

OMG, what have I done? I know nothing about setting up utilities there, and how to pay the bills, and what do I do with the trash, and who’s going to mow the lawn, and where the heck do I buy sheets, and…  And you know what? I don’t care. It will work out. And I have lots of friends to help, both in Ireland and on Facebook, where people have offered great suggestions.

The lane to the cottage--and the For Sale sign that's no longer there

The lane to the cottage–and the For Sale sign that’s no longer there

But the clincher? The first time I saw the place in person last year, as we approached it along a country lane there was a blazing rainbow over it. That sealed the deal. The rest is just details.

So I’m off to fix the gutters and the drains, and find furniture, and make sure the wifi is connected, and meet my neighbors (none are too close), and say hello to friends I’ve already made there, and just wallow in the fact that I finally made it happen. It took only 18 years.

The view from the front--and a landscape that is so very Irish

The view from the front–and a landscape that is so very Irish

If you want a message, here it is: If something matters to you, never give up. This applies to writing too. And the County Cork Mysteries is the most popular of my series, because the place is special to me, and I hope that shows.

P.S. If I can turn it into a writers retreat, I’ll do it. But I assume people will want beds, and something to sit on, and maybe a lamp or two. Also you must like the country, where it’s actually dark at night and there are a million stars (look! It’s the Milky Way!), and cows and sheep grazing across the lane. But I’m thinking about it.

Oh, right, I have a book coming out tomorrow: Dead End Street, the seventh in the Museum Mysteries series. But as you can imagine, my head and heart are in Ireland, not in the slums of Philadelphia. If you want to find out how Nell Pratt and her crew are finding ways to make those slums better, check my website for the details.

The Go-To-Bed

You never know where you’re going to find a story. And this is a particularly true in Ireland.

Cover A Turn for the BadThe fourth book in my County Cork mysteries, A Turn for the Bad, will be released tomorrow. Since I like to get the details right, I travel to Ireland as often as I can, and I end up talking to a lot of interesting people. I’m not necessarily looking for story ideas, but I do enjoy hearing tales and learning how cultures differ from one another, even if you’re speaking the same language.

So this is a story from the Skibbereen Farmers’ Market, which was founded in 1657 when the town was granted a charter. It’s open every Saturday, year round. And for the past several visits I’ve timed my travel so I am sure to be there at least one Saturday.

IMG_4626

As a result I’ve made some friends, which is odd because I see them only once a year at best. But we recognize each other. Apart from the amazing food products, there is a guy who makes magic wands, and someone who sells apple trees, and farmers in the warmer months who will sell you a live chicken or a duck. And there is an antique dealer I’ve been chatting with for several years now. He’s English but he lives in Ireland, and it turns out he’s also a mystery writer and an editor for hire. And, yes, I buy odds and ends from him when I’m there—a book, a silver-plated christening mug, a salt shaker from a defunct steamship line—and a go-to-bed.

Go-to-bed 1

All right, that stopped me. I picked up a small object at his booth (I’m always on the hunt for items that fit nicely in a suitcase!) and said, “what is this?” And he said, “it’s a go-to-bed.” I’d never heard the term. So he kindly explained it to me. In detail.

The simplest definition is that it’s a matchbox. The elaborate description is that it was invented (or popularized) by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who, being a Scot, was cheap (hey, I’m just reporting what I was told). Rather than taking a candle to hie himself up to the royal chambers to go to bed, he chose a small matchbox, with a rough bottom for striking the match, and a tiny holder on the top in which to insert the lit match. And then he would proceed to bed (which must have been a challenge, since if he moved too fast the match would go out, but if he went too slowly, the match would consume itself before he got to the bedroom).

Go-to-bed 2

Wikipedia kindly informs me: “One specific variety of go-to-bed worthy of mention is ‘Prince Albert’s Safety Vesta Box,’ … a decorated brass tub with an embossed top…ribbed under base for striking matches…a small finial to take a single match on to.”  Well, mine’s not brass, but it is covered in tartan and has that tiny finial on top. Maybe there’s a bit of accuracy in the story.

So in the course of a few minutes I went from never having heard of this obscure but charming item to being the proud owner of one. Not to mention a piece of history, false or not. Even if it’s not true, it’s a charming story that just fell into my lap.

And there are so many more! Of course I’ll keep going back to Ireland to collect them. The stories may not always be quite true, but the Irish love to tell them.

Ireland cell 1 049

Today is Saint Brigid’s Day in Ireland. Brigid is the female patron saint of Ireland, and she is also the patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle farmers, children of unmarried parents [I am not making this up!], children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers [go, Brigid!], dairymaids, dairyworkers, fugitives, mariners, midwives, milkmaids, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travelers and watermen.

If that’s not enough, she is said to have the power to multiply such things as butter, bacon and milk, to bestow sheep and cattle and to control the weather. 

How can you go wrong with a saint who can multiply butter and bacon and control the weather?

Where do you find your stories? You don’t need to be a writer–just listen and enjoy!

 

Past and Present

by Sheila Connolly

It’s the first Monday of a new year, so here’s my kick-off for the year.

While our daughter was home for Christmas, we watched the 2013 movie Inside Llewyn Davis. I remember reading reviews of it when it came out, but somehow we never think about going to movies, or even watching movies at home (and my husband has a tendency to fall asleep in his chair after the first hour or so anyway). Not that choosing a movie for three people with very different tastes is easy. I think we looked at everything that On Demand offered, and by the time we’d read all the titles, we couldn’t remember what had sounded good when we started.

Finally -we settled on Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by the Coen brothers. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s about a musician in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, back when the folk movement was just picking up steam. I lived in suburban New Jersey back then, so I’d hear about that scene occasionally, but I was too young to venture into New York on my own, at least until I turned 18. (Okay, I was too chicken to even try.) But I knew about it—among my school friends, it was always pronounced reverently: The Village.

Anyway, whether by design or by coincidence, the movie turned out to kind of mirror our daughter’s current gypsy lifestyle, if you substitute theater for music. I don’t know if she knew that when we chose it, but she didn’t disagree, and we all enjoyed the movie.

A week later, I was driving along Route 44 from Plymouth. Driving alone in the car is about the only time I get to listen to “old” music, and believe me, I sing along. I decided on Peter, Paul and Mary’s album, A Song Will Rise. (Confession: I have every album they ever made, bought new, up through  Peter, Paul and Mommy, and I’ve purchased several of the earlier ones on CD for the car. Yes, I still have a turntable so I can play the records.) The album was released in 1965. Yikes, that’s fifty years ago. Way to feel old fast!

PPM A Song Will Rise

One of the songs on that album is “Wasn’t That a Time,” and I’ve heard it a few thousand times. But this time one line stood out to me:

“There is no freedom in a land/Where fear and hate prevail.”

Pete Seeger

Okay, a brief history of the song: it was written by Lee Hayes and Walter Lowenfels, in 1948, at the height of the Cold War. Hayes and Pete Seeger were both members of the singing group The Weavers, and Seeger made it one of his signature songs. He and Hayes were both forced to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, as suspected Communists. The original lyrics for that stanza went:

“There is no victory in a land/Where free men go to jail.”

Someone changed the lyrics along the way—I have no idea who. But the point is that Peter, Paul and Mary chose to use a modified version, which they released in the midst of the Vietnam War.

Maybe they were thinking about Vietnam when they recorded that song, but their version still rings true today. Look at us now. People—ordinary citizens—are buying guns because they’re afraid that they’ll find terrorists at their door or their school or their mall. Large blocks of our population want to ban immigrants from our borders. I keep yelling at the debates and commercials I see on television, “but we were all immigrants once!” My grandfather came from Ireland in 1911. He arrived in New York, got a job, worked hard, married, bought a house, had kids, and lived a respectable life. Should I point out that there were plenty of “terrorists” in Ireland at that time? Should the authorities have turned him away?

Why should we, one of the most powerful and successful nations in the world, believe we are threatened in our homes? Or on a city street? (And why at the same time are towns and cities cutting police forces because they can’t afford to pay them, and the voters don’t want to see their taxes go up to cover the cost? But that’s another story.)

It makes me sad. It’s why I like to spend time in Ireland, particularly West Cork, where the crime rate is very low, and where even the police don’t carry guns (unlike in Northern Ireland). And I think it explains why we at Wicked Cozy Authors choose to write cozies. There are plenty of suspense and thriller writers who are very talented—and very successful. I admire them. But I find more and more I don’t want to read their books, even though I’m pretty sure the main character will live to fight another day—after leaving a trail of carnage behind. Who needs the anxiety and stress? Yes, there are deaths in cozies, but we write about ordinary people who seek and usually find justice. And cozies sell because our readers want to believe in small safe communities where people care about each other, and care about doing the right thing. I’d like to think such places do exist.

It should be an interesting year.

And nCover A Turn for the Badow the pitch: A Turn for the Bad, the fourth book in the County Cork Mystery series, will be released February 2nd.  It’s about high-dollar (or euro) international smuggling (surprised?), but it’s also about people helping each other, at their own risk, because the people–friends and relatives–matter.