Talking and Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays

by Sheila Connolly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cozy Cats and Authors

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

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

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

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

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

Cat Raglan

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

Cat Abbyfeale

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

Cat Dublin

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

Cat Union Hall

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

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

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

The Big Game

by Sheila Connolly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

The Sound of Silence

by Sheila Connolly

Just back from a trip to West Cork in Ireland, where (in case you haven’t heard it seventeen times already) I own a small cottage, on a small plot of land. From anywhere on my quarter-acre property I can see a total of four houses, and one of those is a mile away. The ruined church up the hill where several generations of my ancestors married is almost exactly a mile, and I can see it out the back.

Coming back to “civilization” is hard after spending over two weeks in Ireland. The first thing you notice out in the country in Ireland is the absence of noise. It is quiet in my part of West Cork. By my rough estimate, based on agricultural reports, there are 542,000 people in County Cork, and 1,719,500 cattle. The cows don’t make noise at night. Most people don’t go gadding about at night because they’re exhausted from tending all those cattle.

Traffic past my cottage amounts to one or two vehicles per hour, including deliveries, milk and oil trucks, and school buses, as well as individual cars. There are no planes flying overhead. There are birds, of course, and when they squabble (most often various kinds of crows), their caws echo off the trees.

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The peace is lovely. You can feel your blood pressure dropping day by day.

Then there’s the darkness. Across the road in front of my cottage, at night I can’t see a single light anywhere. Turn off the interior lights during the dark of the moon and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. In contrast, during a full moon it seems almost as bright as day, although the light shifts across the sky faster. In winter you’re lucky to have eight hours of sun, dawn to dusk; in summer it’s more than sixteen hours. Those of us who live in suburban places have forgotten those rhythms.

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Silence and darkness seem to go together, It begins to make sense, why Simon and Garfunkel began their song, The Sound of Silence, with “hello darkness, my old friend.” Maybe they were depressed young men when they sang that, but that’s not true in Ireland. People have long memories, often stretching back generations. At the same time there’s a real curiosity about newcomers. Who are you? Where do you come from? And often, do you have people here? Their memory for recent events proves it: people I might have met once, a year or more earlier, remember my name and where I’m staying in Ireland. In some ways that’s unsettling, because it’s hard to be anonymous.

I’m not going to argue whether the silence of the countryside or the noise of civilization is better. I enjoy the energy of cities, at least in small doses. I’d seize the opportunity to visit a city I’ve never seen (especially if there’s a group of writers there!). But sometimes I need quiet, and a slower pace, as do most of us, I’m guessing. Would I go stir-crazy if I stayed in Ireland for good? I really can’t say, but it bears thinking about.

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There’s another quotation that keeps running through my head, and it fits too: “The World Is Too Much with Us,” a sonnet by William Wordsworth written in 1802. In it Wordsworth criticizes the world of the First Industrial Revolution for being absorbed in materialism and distancing itself from nature. It’s all the more true these days, and living pretty close to nature for the past couple of weeks has been eye-opening for me.

How about you? Does fresh air, sunlight and quiet drive you crazy? Or do you crave a dose of tranquility?

BTW, the sixth book of the County Cork Series, Many a Twist, will be released in January 2018, but things are not exactly quiet in the book. Plus the paperback edition of Cruel Winter will be out in a week, if you’re thinking of a nice holiday gift . . .

 

Where is Home?

Thankful for Our Readers Giveaway: Sheila is giving away a copy of A Late Frost, the newest book in her Orchard mystery series. Leave a comment below for a chance to win.

by Sheila Connolly

Writers are often asked “what kind of book do you write?” and we’re stuck either with trotting out a term that we know readers will recognize (“cozy,” “thriller,” “suspense,” “paranormal, “romance” and so on), or we find ourselves splitting hairs (“well, it’s kind of a cozy, but there are no pets and there are three bodies in the story who died gruesome deaths, but there’s a happy ending”). There is no rule book that sets the absolute standards, and even if there were, publishers change their minds a lot about how they categorize (and shelve) their books.

Those of us who write multiple series also have to try to make each series distinct. You can’t just keep writing the same story, but changing the name and the profession of the heroine and the name of the adorable scenic small town with at least two good-looking single guys hanging around and a soaring murder rate that began when our heroine moved to town.

I think I write in a sub-sub-genre: the young woman who has been slapped in the face by adversity (lost a job/a fiance/family) and comes crawling back to (her old home town/a beloved relative’s house/a place where nobody knows her) and sets about making a new life for herself—while solving murders, of course.

I have my own personal reasons for taking this route, mainly because my family moved from town to town or sometimes state to state about every three years when I was young. That meant I was always the new kid, having to figure out a new school and make new friends. (Throw in entering the teen years and things get even worse.) Plus my mother hated my father’s side of the family and refused to have anything to do with them, and on her side, she had no siblings, her mother was an orphan, her father was an only child—so the net result was no close family anywhere.

A 19th-century print of Henry David Thoreau’s house in Corcord

Is it any surprise that what I wanted most in life was (no, not another sibling—one was plenty) a place to call home? A place where I could feel a sense of belonging? And that’s not always easy to come by. So I create my own: I write about places like that. I write about women who face difficult situations and overcome them. These are ordinary women, not super-heroines, or  doctors or lawyers or law-enforcement officials. They are people who were living an ordinary life of their choice when they somehow got kicked off the rails, through no fault of their own, and they have to struggle to define themselves again, to figure out what they want out of life. And since I write fiction, in my books they succeed. It doesn’t matter whether they end up in the city or the country, or even in a foreign country: my heroines’ path is the same. They look for and find their place in the world.

I find that satisfying to write (as I said, for my own personal reasons), and I hope other people do too.

My only problem these days is that I’ve discovered not one but two “home” places: Massachusetts and West Cork in Ireland. Maybe I didn’t have much in the way of recent family members anywhere, but I have a lot of ancestors in both those places. So in a way I’m surrounded by family in either place.

This is Meg Corey Chapin’s house–which happens to be a real house in Massachusetts, built by my 7x-great-grandfather. It’s still there, minus the barn.

My Irish cottage, close to where my Connolly ancestors came from.

 

Tomorrow is the release day for A Late Frost, the eleventh book in the Orchard Mystery series. My heroine Meg started out according to my standard plan, but eleven books later she has a new profession, a new husband (Seth Chapin from next door) and her own niche in her small-town community. Now she’s the one people turn to, to find their way. Oh, and she’s still solving murders.

I’ll be giving away a copy of A Late Frost to someone who submits an answer to my question (by the end of Wednesday, November 8th): Readers, where do you call “home”?

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