Looking Back and Looking Forward

Sheila, on the road somewhere between Bethesda and home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The old version

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

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The new version

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

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

In Defense of Clutter

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

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

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

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

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My desk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop apologizing, and find joy in your mess!

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

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

and see what’s changed!

 

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