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.

Ten Years Later

Released January 9th, 2018

2018 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first book. Not the first book I wrote—there are a few in a drawer (or on a disk) that may never see the light of day. Many a Twist, the sixth book in the County Cork Mystery series, has one foot in the “before” and one in the “now.” One of the first books I ever completed, in 2001, became the core of the series, which first appeared in print in 2013. It was the place—a small village in West Cork—that survived many revisions, while characters and story lines changed over the years. Until I finally got it right.

Mystery writers are great people. They share information about writing and publishing, they congratulate you on your successes, they commiserate about your rejections (because they’ve had their fair share too, even the Big Names), and they support you all the way. Those of us who write cozies (like the Wickeds) are deceptive: we are generally friendly, pleasant, not-young women, but in our books we kill people. Regularly. (To the best of my knowledge, none of us has ever killed someone in the real world.)

But our books are not about killing, they’re about solving the killing and finding the killer and bringing him (or her) to justice. That’s a good thing. Our characters do what they believe is right, sometimes putting themselves at risk. And our readers know they will prevail in the end.

Most of us set our series in small towns, or small communities within larger towns—places where people know each other and look out for each other. Since the first time I saw it, West Cork has always seemed to be a prime example of that: people remember your family, going back three or four generations, maybe a century. And not just names and places, but personal details. One person in the area told me recently, looking at me, “The Connollys were always tall.” (If you haven’t met me, I’m close to six feet tall if I wear shoes.) Long memories!

I wanted to play off that in Many a Twist, where some of those long memories help to solve the death. But at the same time, there are secrets from the past that reach into the present, and no one had put those pieces together until the recent death occurred.

Old and new, side by side. Three-thousand-year-old stone circles next to wind turbines among the old hedgerows. It can be unsettling. But it’s also a very welcoming place, especially if you’re a Connolly and can point and say, “yes, my grandfather was born just over the hill, and his parents were married in the ruined church over there.”

Many a Twist answers a number of questions that have been winding through the earlier books in the series—you can’t have readers demanding, “stop hinting and tell us what really happened!” Characters should grow and explore new things—but that doesn’t mean they’re going anywhere but forward. In the County Cork series they’ll all be back (along with some new faces), and I want to see what they’ll be doing next. I hope you readers do too!

The book is available at all the usual places!

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?


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

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.


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.


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.


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



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.


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!