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.

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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.

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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

 

 

What’s in a Name?

by Sheila Connolly

I have multiple names. I know, since this is a blog written by writers, you will immediately assume I mean pen names. Nope, it’s more complicated than that.

When I married, decades ago, I did not take my husband’s surname. I was making a feminist statement, see? Besides, Connolly was closer to the beginning of the alphabet than his surname, Williams. Also less common, although many people manage to misspell it. (There is no E in it, people!) I worked at Bryn Mawr College for a time, and since I had access to the alumnae database, I looked to see how many female graduates of my era had changed their names upon marriage. Eleven percent. That’s all? So much for that wave of feminism.

But I was reminded of this most recently when my husband and I refinanced a mortgage. The bank did a background credit check, as they should. My husband appears under only one name. I show up under four. Most are odd mash-ups of my surname and his. One of my doctors has me listed as Connollywilliams (yes, all one word).  Since our health insurance is in his name, most of my health care providers think my name is Williams. I do not have a single ID that lists me as Williams. If I am hit by a falling tree and found unconscious, I have no idea what the ER people will make of me. Yes, I carry an insurance ID card–with only my husband’s name on it. Not mine.  There is none with my name. We’ve tried to explain that to the provider, and they just don’t get it.

I wrote my first mystery series for Berkley under a pen name. Who was I to argue with a major publisher? I was insanely grateful to get a publishing deal at all. At least they let me choose the  name, and I picked one from a long-ago ancestor, with a surname that started with A, so the books would appear at eye-level on bookstore shelves. Didn’t save the series.

Connolly was a better strategic choice, since that put me right between Michael Connelly (one of those pesky E people) and John Connolly (no relation), so I knew people would at least see my books in passing. I guess it worked.

When we write our books, we have to make a lot of decisions about names. What’s the hero/heroine’s name? This is a person we hope we’ll have to live with for a long time. Do we chose a name we wish we’d been given? Do we honor a relative, living or dead? Do we pick something traditional and simple, or do we strain to invent something trendy, hoping that it will be more memorable? Do we use ethnic names or stick to neutral ones?

And what about the villains? We can’t waste a favorite name on a killer. Is there someone we want to slime, even though he or she may never know it? A hostile employer? An offensive neighbor? An annoying cousin?

There are even a few rules. Don’t use too many names that start with the same letter and are about the same length in a single book, because people will get confused. Don’t use names that are too weird or unpronounceable (I waver about using Siobhan, which I love as a spoken name, but the spelling is nothing like the way it sounds), because that takes a reader out of the story, which you don’t want. For a while it seemed like every writer had a main character named Kate (that trend seems to have cooled).

Names matter. It may be that they’re important only to the writer, like an inside joke, or the writer may be trying to convey something to the reader (naming a character Napoleon certainly sends a different message than naming him Joe). They are the first gift we receive when we’re born, and they follow us after death, engraved on our tombstone.

Writers, how do you choose your characters’ names? Readers, do you have favorite names? Names you hate? Names you think have been overused?

Finding the Story

This is my first post of the new year on the Wicked Cozies. How did it get to be 2017? Last year was a roller coaster ride. Let’s hope this year is a bit calmer (but I’m not counting on it).

When I bought my cottage in Ireland last summer, the estate agent (that is, real estate agent) told me the place hadn’t been lived in for (he guessed) ten years. It was not derelict, so someone had been taking care of it, but I’m not sure when it was offered for sale. Of course I was curious about why anyone would walk away from a perfectly fine little cottage, but there were a lot of other things I needed to deal with, like opening a local bank account and getting home insurance and scouting out where to get appliances and furniture.

The first “clue” I found was that one of the two chimneys (the one that had never been used) was stuffed with a newspaper to stop warm air from heading straight up the flue. The paper was dated 2006, so it kind of fit the timeline.

Just as I was leaving in June, I took a brief peek in the attic, just to see what it looked like, and to check out the water heater for the heating. I didn’t have a ladder, so my handyman loaned me one. It was a wee bit too short, but it was enough to see that there was a large suitcase sitting on the attic joists. My spidey, er, mystery sense went into overdrive, but I carefully closed the attic hatch and promised myself that I’d come back to it later (after my handyman had cleared out the mice—but I told him not to throw the suitcase away).

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Fast forward to November. The mice were gone from attic. The ladder was still too short, but handyman handed down a smaller box of what looked like toys belonging to a young girl, plus a few items from the now-open suitcase. He also muttered something about “Nigeria” which made no sense at the time. Still no time or opportunity to put the puzzle pieces together.

I had only one name to work with, that of the woman who signed the sale documents. I had the estate agent’s vague idea that maybe she’d had family in the area. And I had a couple of butterfly decals on the window in the back bedroom.

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As a mystery writer, what do you do with these bits and pieces? You weave a story, of course. So I did. Oh, all right, I used my genealogy skills to search on the only name I had to try to find out who the family was, where they’d been. But that was enough.

The husband was born in 1929. He was a banker/accountant. His wife was born in 1930, and appears to have been a nurse in England, although there’s a chance she was born in Skibbereen in West Cork. They had one daughter, in 1956. They lived for a time in Ghana, but they and their suitcase had to travel by way of Nigeria for a home visit in 1960, which explains the label. I didn’t find any other ship’s passage listed for them in online sources, but after 1960 they were probably traveling by air, and passenger lists aren’t available. He passed on in 2005, but his wife is still living in England.

I’m not sure about the identity of their daughter, but there are several possibilities. One charming item in the suitcase appears to be a typed list of items that appear to be required for a boarding school or summer camp, which fits with the girl’s age—they might have sent her back to England for schooling.

The rest of the suitcase? From what I’ve seen it seems to be filled with the kind of books that summer visitors would read, plus a guidebook or two for Ireland. Definitely 1960s or 1970s vintage. They’re still waiting in the attic. The box of children’s toys? I still haven’t dug into it, but there’s a Hello Kitty (created in 1974, says Wikipedia) on top. Again, it fits.

I may never know why the family stopped using the place, or why they put so much time and money into modernizing it with electricity and indoor plumbing (although I’m grateful!) without getting to enjoy it. The wife is well into her eighties—and maybe she held on to it because she had happy memories of the place, or it was too much to deal with after her husband died. Or maybe the daughter is a practical sort and realized the investment was worth it.

But finding the story, based on a few scattered clues, has made the place seem more “human” to me. That’s why we write mysteries—to discover the story.

Readers: Have you ever discovered bits from the past you just had to make up a story about? Or research the real story of?

 

There and Back Again

By Sheila just back from Ireland

One more report from Ireland, after a rather hectic two weeks spent there furnishing my small cottage. Writing related? In a lot of ways, actually. Research isn’t always about places and how things look—a lot of it is about people, and the small details of daily life.

I’ve been visiting Ireland since 1998 and writing about for nearly as long. After a lot of thinking, I bought a cottage from which I can see where one of my great-great-grandmothers was born.

 

cottageThe cottage  was built around 1950, but it hadn’t been lived in for about ten years when I bought it. All things considered it was in pretty good shape, but it was empty, and a bit sad and lonely. So my husband and I went over to make it more like a home—starting with the kitchen, and then adding furniture and a wireless connection and a satellite dish.

We’re looking forward to going back in the spring (when all the wild daffodils are blooming and the new lambs are bouncing in the meadow down the lane). But although I have spent a couple of weeks at a time in the area in past years, it’s different when you’re becoming a part of the place and people know it. What’s more, as we writers know, it’s the details that make a book or story come alive, and you see things differently when you have a stake in a place.

The Connolly surname lets people “place” me in West Cork, and it still matters—not out of any snobbery, but because people like to find connections. If you’ve worked on your family history it’s a plus because then you can share information with others. But simply being there and talking to ordinary people who live there (like Ted at the hardware store and Jerry at the furniture store and Sean at the second-hand store, all of whom I’ve spent a lot of time with) gave me a different perspective on the place, and on being an American.

kitchenIt stands out that Americans are conspicuous consumers. Our homes are big, our appliances are big, our cars are big. Cut those down to half the size and you have what is more typical of rural Ireland. That’s not just a matter of economics, but also of the culture. You shop more often for food—you don’t pack a month’s worth of supplies in a giant refrigerator. You cook on a stove-top that’s 24” across. Your washer measures loads in kilograms: the one that came with my place will take up to 4-point-something kilos as a load. That’s about two pairs of blue jeans. Yes, they come larger, up to about double that, but they’re still small by US standards. And not everyone has a dryer, just a clothesline out back.

I have a second cousin who lives in the house her family moved into in 1956, when the place was new. We visited there last week, and by our standards (even for the 1950s) it’s small. She raised four children there, and helped manage a farm where her family raised both pigs and cattle. It is interesting that two of her married children have settled close by and built new homes, and they are more what we here would call a mini-mc-mansion—handsome two story homes with lots of frills, like electric gates (there are both dogs and livestock to keep in). A lot of the new construction in West Cork follows a much more American model, but plenty of people live in the older places as well. And the insides of the older homes are crammed with generations of pictures and mementoes (makes me feel better about my own housekeeping—maybe clutter is hereditary).

farmers-marketSkibbereen is the nearest town, and it’s booming. The population there hovers around 3,000, but there are new homes being built, and the town is proud that they are now home to the Ludgate Hub, a digital hub that enables regional connectivity and provides local business services (and jobs). It opened in 2015. But if you’re envisioning a huge, sleek building, think again—it’s housed in what was formerly a row-house bakery. The town itself still has only one main street, and a year-round weekly farmers market in the center. In the shops people know you and greet you, and if they don’t have what you need, they’ll tell you what other shop to look in. To me it is a perfect little big town, with everything I could ask for (including good restaurants).

Many of the local towns are tiny (don’t blink as you pass through or you might miss them), but they host a wealth of small festivals—literary, cooking, art, theater and more. It’s a lively cultural region.

The whole area, and maybe the whole country, has one foot in the past and one firmly in the present. You stop someone on the road and they’ll turn out to have known your family years ago. At the same time, you can get wireless with a tiny “hot-spot” device, pay as you go, which is more than I can say for my Massachusetts home. Sometimes the mix of old and new is enough to make your head spin.

sunsetI could ramble on (the Irish are great talkers and rarely seem to be in a hurry), but you get the drift: the best of old and new exist side by side in Ireland.

And one thing that either breaks or warms my heart is how many people, those who know me and those who don’t, asked “when are you comin’ home again?” Soon. I promise.

Readers: Have you ever visited somewhere that you’d love to live?

 

There’s an Election?

thankful-for-our-readers-giveaway-3Sheila is giving away one of her books to someone who leaves a comment. See the details at the end of the blog!

Sheila: You might have noticed by now that there’s a national election coming up—oh, right, that’s tomorrow. I’m sure the country will breathe a hearty sigh of relief when it’s finally over.

You’ll be happy to hear that I’m not going to talk about partisan politics, apart from saying that they’ve never been more evident than this year. I for one believe everyone is entitled to her or his own opinion. My only hope is that those opinions are based on fact, not hints and innuendos and outright lies.

Oddly enough, I suppose we as writers should be thrilled that how a campaign official or publicity person uses words can have a significant impact on the lives of millions of people. That’s a heady kind of power.

Let us start with the premise that most such people don’t lie. Well, not exactly. But they might bend the truth just a bit. This can be done in many ways. There’s omission (“The candidate burst into tears in front of a thousand screaming followers,” which doesn’t include the rest of the statement “after s/he was told that his/her nearest and dearest relative had minutes earlier died in a horrible plane crash.”) The first part is true (and these days, witnessed by millions of people), but it’s not the whole story.

Taken on its own, the first part of that statement makes the candidate appear weak and out of control. Read in its entirety, it could make the candidate appear much more sympathetic. It all depends on who’s spinning the story.

Or take a very fictional example: “The candidate voted to abolish aardvarks in this country, depriving aardvark-herders of their traditional livelihood.” The reality is that there were only 137 free-range aardvarks in this country and twelve herders who looked after them. And that was in 1969, when the vote was taken. Guess what: there are no aardvarks left in herds in this country, but that point appears in teeny-tiny print at the bottom of a television commercial, and is onscreen for three-tenths of a second. Thus the candidate ends up looking hostile to aardvarks and those who care for them—even though there aren’t any. [Insert picture of cute fuzzy baby aardvarks. Oh, sorry, baby aardvarks are anything but cute and fuzzy—scratch that.]

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Any words can be twisted, contorted and edited to say something that the author never intended. Most writers have probably seen that in their own edits: we end up howling at the absent editor, “That’s not what I meant! You didn’t get it, you idiot!” If we are optimistic, we hope that the edits were well-intended, even if we think they’re wrong. If we are really annoyed, we accuse the editor of trying to turn what we wrote into his or her own book, at the expense of our writer-voice and our intended message.

We write fiction. We know it. We don’t expect our readers to believe that everything we put on the page is true and really happened the way we said it did. We hope they believe in the little world that we create on the page for as long as it takes to read the book, but there are few repercussions if they don’t (except maybe to our wallets). But politics is different—maybe. We want to believe a candidate wants what’s best for constituents and the city/county/state/country as a whole. Sadly that’s not always true. All too often there are other motives: ego, personal glory, money, power. All of these can be useful in a strong leader. But can’t we have a little wisdom in the mix? Some compassion? A dash of intelligence?

If you have strong beliefs about a candidate, or more than one, vote tomorrow. It’s both your right and a privilege. If you don’t know much about any of the candidates—inform yourself. Don’t just punch a button or fill in a circle blindly, or because your spouse or your mommy or daddy voted that way. Your decision matters.

November we give away one of our books each day, to thank you all for being faithful readers. I did write a book that included an election—and I never named the political party involved—but maybe you’re politicked out by now. I’ll be happy to offer the most recent one of any of my series: A Turn for the Bad, Dead End Street, or Seeds of Deception, in either print or e-format. Not an election in any of ‘em.

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Just leave a comment here (and it doesn’t have to be political! What’s the ugliest baby animal you can think of?) and I’ll draw a winner (and the drawing won’t be rigged, I promise!)

http://www.sheilaconnolly.com

 

Writers in the Big Easy

by Sheila Connolly, who’s still reeling from a week in NOLA

At last I get to dither on about the glories of New Orleans and Bouchercon, where most of the Wickeds were gathered a couple of weeks ago. If you don’t know of it, Bouchercon is an amazing writers conference by any standard, raised to another level by its location in NOLA this year.

While it is always a joy to gather with other writers—our tribe!—I also wanted to treat myself to some sightseeing, so I stayed an extra day. Way back in 1970 I visited New Orleans with a group of college friends, and I wanted to see how my memories compared with today’s reality.

I was shocked to find that I had absolutely no memory of where we had been, or at least how one place connected to another. I remember vaguely where we stayed (with the parents of one friend, in the Garden District), and that we rode a streetcar, and we visited the zoo, but the French Quarter was kind of a blank to me, with brief flashes of recognition. On this trip I found myself standing in front of Preservation Hall, where I know I went to hear the music, but I couldn’t remember the façade facing the street. (I do remember being very hot, though!)

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So I decided to reset my memory files and enjoy the New Orleans of today. Despite the 90-degree heat and the 80% humidity, I did. I walked almost everywhere in the French Quarter. I ate lots of things (beignets!). I took pictures. I visited a church, a cemetery, a convent; I waved at the mighty Mississippi. I loved every minute of it.

Once again it drove home how different places can be, and how much that matters to a writer. I’ve visited many major cities in this country and abroad, but New Orleans has its own strong character (at least in the French Quarter—I didn’t venture beyond that). Certainly most cities have their own identity, but few seemed to me so “in your face” as New Orleans, where the sights and sounds and smells and even the air itself assault you from all sides.

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One thing I noticed was the plaques on many buildings—celebrating authors. Tennessee Williams wrote here, William Faulkner lived there. The tour guide I was following around counted off more names: Anne Rice, of course, plus O. Henry, Truman Capote, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and more. Standing where they stood, looking at their views, the streets where they walked (and most likely the bars they visited), it made perfect sense that they would have been drawn to the place. Even if you write about the Arctic Circle, you cannot walk away from New Orleans unaffected.

My books are set in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ireland—all places where I’ve spent time and know fairly well. I wouldn’t even try to write about New Orleans without spending some serious time there soaking it all in. Five days was not enough. Now, how do I get back again?

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My next Orchard Mystery is due out tomorrow, October 4th. It’s set in western Massachusetts, in February. That’s about as far from New Orleans as I can get. Massachusetts has its apples, but New Orleans has—bananas in Jackson Square? It’s another world.

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Coming tomorrow! Seeds of Deception (Orchard Mystery #10). Yes, that’s snow on the cover–a nice change from NOLA.

 

The Fourth of July

Sheila here. Today we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, when the American colonies took the first formal step in separating themselves from England.

Picture a group of men, all formally dressed, locking into a relatively small room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, with the windows nailed shut so nobody outside could overhear what they were planning. It’s a wonder they didn’t all pass out from the heat. But they came up with one of the most significant single documents in modern history.

That gathering doesn’t lend itself to great art. But! We in Massachusetts have a work of art that defines our concept of patriotism: the Minute Man statue that stands by the river in Concord, designed by Daniel Chester French. Yes, I know—it represents an event that took place a year earlier, on the 18th (or 19th) of April in 1775, but it conveys the same message, in a more personal way. It’s the ordinary man, standing up against a one of the major powers of the world as it was then—and winning.

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Photo by Dave Pape [Public Doman], via Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Chester French is well known now (and his statue of Lincoln in Washington DC is magnificent), but when he created the Minute Man, he was just starting out. In a fictionalized biography written by his daughter Margaret, called Journey into Fame, published in 1947, the author reports that Daniel’s first sculpture was a carving of a frog wearing trousers, made from a turnip. Unfortunately for the history of art, this youthful work did not survive. But it did convince his family of his talent, and his father purchased a quantity of clay at an art supply store in Boston and presented it to his youngest son, and the rest is history.

It is astonishing now to think that the Minute Man statue was Daniel’s first commission. He was 23 at the time. In 1872 the town of Concord appointed a committee to plan for a monument for the Centennial of the famous battle, and provided $1,000 through a bequest from a local resident. The committee asked Daniel to make a model, which he began in his studio in Boston in April 1873. The model was approved and he was officially awarded the commission in November. (The fact that family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was on the committee may have helped.)

The statue was unveiled on April 19th, 1875, and the dedication was attended by President Ulysses Grant, as well as Emerson and James Russell Lowell.  Strange to say, French was NOT present at the unveiling, and was in fact in Italy.

The statue depicts a modest farmer, who is at the point of abandoning his plow and taking up his musket, to respond to the call to arms. The statue has become the iconic image of the Revolution, or at least our romanticized version of it. Even though the statue is a single figure, it embodies the conflict between the simple colonists who really wanted nothing more than to go on with their farming and raising families and so on, and the larger, better equipped and better trained English forces (who in their arrogance thought they could squash that puny rebellion in the colonies and go on collecting taxes from them).

So we’re celebrating the triumph of the ordinary people over a powerful antagonist they had little hope of beating—but they did. As a long-time genealogist, I can count at least thirteen ancestors from Massachusetts who took part in the Revolution in some way. They weren’t heroes—in fact, family legend says that one of those heard the alarm for the Battle at Concord said, “forget it—I’ve got to finish plowing.” How American that sounds: I’ll defend my new country against all odds, but let me get my crop planted first–my family needs to eat!

But here we are, 240 years later, still going strong. Happy Independence Day!