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 . . .

 

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?

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The Writing Mascot

Sadie/Susannah/Jane here, wishing I was at the beach…

Hey, Wicked People! Hope you’re all enjoying your summer. I can’t believe it’s half over and I haven’t even been on vacation yet! I am going soon, though, to a lovely lakeside cabin in Vermont for a week. I’ll be leaving my day job (which I love, love, love–seriously!) behind, but I’ll be using part of the time to do some focused writing on a scary project in a new-to-me genre.

Now, I have lots of writer friends (and yes, I know how lucky I am).Some of them use a ritual to get themselves into Writer Mode, like turning on a special type of music, lighting a candle of a particular scent, or simple deep breathing. I’ve never quite found any of these things to be as helpful as just sitting my butt in the chair, rereading and surface editing the work I did the day before (I don’t go back further than that lest I am tempted to go back to the beginning and edit, which would mean I’d just be stuck in an endless loop and never produce any new material). But I know a ritual works for some.

Others have a mascot. My romance writer friend Stefanie London has a stuffed llama. Another romance writer, Regina Kyle, has a toy manatee (named Romanatee, which is the best name ever). And Toni Kelner has Sid the Skeleton. These items have taken on lives of their own, and they are great conversation starters with readers, too, when carried around at conferences.

So, a couple of years ago, I was spending a fun afternoon lunching and shopping with another friend, Kensington author Gail Chianese. We stopped in at an Irish imports store, and I saw an adorable stuffed sheep. I said, “Hey! There it is! My new writing mascot.” I proceeded to buy it. And it has sat on my desk ever since, but even though it’s cute, I never really bonded with it. The unappreciated little girl? guy? doesn’t even have a name.

Now my day job is at a subscription-only publisher of cozy mysteries. And one of the series I work on (the Amish Inn Mysteries, if anyone is interested) features a very, very lazy English bulldog named Beans. At a recent team meeting we were all given a Beans Facsimile. So he also now sits on my desk. I still don’t find him particularly inspirational, maybe because of the aforementioned laziness. But still, I like having him there better than my poor sheep.

Do you have a mascot? A totem? An inspirational ritual? Any crazy thing that gets you motivated to do what you need to do? Also, if anyone wants to suggest a name for Sheep Incognito, I’m all ears.

I Always Wanted to Live in the Country

I’m heading to my country cottage in Ireland next week. It’s been just over a year since I signed all the paperwork, and more than six months since I’ve been there (I’m still working out a schedule).

Buying the place has been an interesting experience, and one that was relatively uncomplicated. Since I’ve gone public, I’ve learned that there are a lot of people for whom owning a small cottage in Ireland is a beloved fantasy. I’m happy to let you live vicariously through my own adventure!

There are two main reasons why I wanted to have a place of my own in Ireland. One is all those Irish ancestors calling out to me. Because of various family frictions, I never had a chance to know my Irish-born grandparents (my father’s side of the family), so this was my way of making up for it (and I’ve found a lot of new relatives!).

But I always wanted to live in the country, somewhere. I grew up mainly in suburbs of major cities, usually within commuting distance. Don’t get me wrong—I love cities. I’ve worked in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and London and enjoyed them all. But I don’t want to live in the heart of one.

My mother was a child of the New Jersey suburbs, until her father had a sort of mid-life crisis and decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer (you have no idea how absurd this was—he had no training at all, and little aptitude). He got a six-week agricultural degree at Rutgers and moved the family to Maine when my mother was fourteen. She hated it. Actually my grandmother did too: she got fed up, moved to Manhattan during WWII, and divorced her husband. My mother lasted another year in Maine, then joined her mother in New York. She never looked back, and when in later years we would drive past a farm with rolling hills and a pretty view, she’d snarl.

Mountain View Farm, Waterville,

 

So why my fascination with places and lifestyles I’ve never known? Sometimes I wonder if there’s some kind of inherited memory involved, which is why rolling green hills seem familiar to me. Other times I think it really may be all those rural ancestors (on both sides of the Atlantic) whispering in my ear, which would explain why I kept finding their final resting places in obscure cemeteries when I’m not even looking for them.

But while I yearned for those rolling green meadows early in my life, a few decades later I’ve found that I want those places for other reasons, that have nothing to do with my ghosts. I want peace. Quiet. Real darkness, where I can see the stars, and on a good night, the Milky Way. Elbow room. I don’t want to be a hermit, but neither do I want to look into my neighbor’s kitchen and watch her washing dishes (been there, done that). Glimpses of animals who are too shy to come out back home, and wildflowers that I don’t even recognize. When I think about the cottage, the little half-acre piece of the world that is all mine, I swear my blood pressure drops. It’s my Happy Place. Sure, there’s work to be done on it, and I still want to visit new places in Ireland, but what I picture most often is sitting on the patio and watching the sun set over the mountains of Kerry.

And, yes, the family cemetery is up the hill

What about you? Have you ever come to a place you’ve never been and immediately recognized it and felt at home? What places just feel “right” to you?

 

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

 

 

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?