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.

plimoth-plantation

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.

sturbridge

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.

mccarthy

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?

 

Follow Your Dream

It seems like recently the Wickeds have been coming out of their winter hibernation and are looking for places to go, people to see, new projects to start. And maybe, just maybe, summer has arrived.

I’m doing the same thing: tonight I’m leaving for Ireland to claim the cottage I’ve been fantasizing about for years, ever since I first visited County Cork in 1998.

We all need dreams, even if they never come true. Even the imagining part gives us comfort and hope—maybe that’s part of the writer’s “what if?” way of thinking. And if all we ever do is imagine, well, then we don’t have to deal with all the messy realities that might spoil the dream. As in our books, we can edit out the boring and annoying stuff and make the story come out the way we want.

Except I decided to follow my dream and make it happen: I bought an Irish cottage.

My cottage in Ireland

My cottage in Ireland

When I first came up with this mad plan, years ago, I had no money. But why let that stop me? I had my heart set on acquiring the last Connolly house in a tiny place out in the country in West Cork. I even went so far as to have a structural inspection—which showed that the sill was rotting and the roof was shaky, and by the way, there was a huge manure pile with a tarp held down by used tires just behind it (belonging to the neighboring farmer) and a definitely odorous pig farm just up the hill (and upwind), and the seller was asking for too much money, thinking I was a gullible idiot. I put that dream to bed, or so I thought.

But it wouldn’t let go of me. Among the first books I wrote, not long after that, was one set in Leap, in the pub that became the heart of the County Cork mysteries. Over time I rewrote it more than once. The characters changed, and the plot, but the setting never did. It took a few years to sell that as a series, but I kept going back to Ireland.

Fast forward to 2014. I was making some money with my books, hooray. I started looking at online property listings (which are very entertaining). I even applied for a mortgage at a local bank—twice. I was rejected twice. We could never make the numbers work, and that was for even the least expensive houses (that had plumbing and such indulgences).

Still, I kept looking at listings, and I kept saving my pennies, until finally the two lined up. I found a small place that didn’t need too much work, that had been on the market for a while (so they’d accept a low offer)—and that just happened to be in the village where my Cork great-grandmother was born. I made an offer, the owners accepted the offer, and as of a couple of weeks ago it was mine.

OMG, what have I done? I know nothing about setting up utilities there, and how to pay the bills, and what do I do with the trash, and who’s going to mow the lawn, and where the heck do I buy sheets, and…  And you know what? I don’t care. It will work out. And I have lots of friends to help, both in Ireland and on Facebook, where people have offered great suggestions.

The lane to the cottage--and the For Sale sign that's no longer there

The lane to the cottage–and the For Sale sign that’s no longer there

But the clincher? The first time I saw the place in person last year, as we approached it along a country lane there was a blazing rainbow over it. That sealed the deal. The rest is just details.

So I’m off to fix the gutters and the drains, and find furniture, and make sure the wifi is connected, and meet my neighbors (none are too close), and say hello to friends I’ve already made there, and just wallow in the fact that I finally made it happen. It took only 18 years.

The view from the front--and a landscape that is so very Irish

The view from the front–and a landscape that is so very Irish

If you want a message, here it is: If something matters to you, never give up. This applies to writing too. And the County Cork Mysteries is the most popular of my series, because the place is special to me, and I hope that shows.

P.S. If I can turn it into a writers retreat, I’ll do it. But I assume people will want beds, and something to sit on, and maybe a lamp or two. Also you must like the country, where it’s actually dark at night and there are a million stars (look! It’s the Milky Way!), and cows and sheep grazing across the lane. But I’m thinking about it.

Oh, right, I have a book coming out tomorrow: Dead End Street, the seventh in the Museum Mysteries series. But as you can imagine, my head and heart are in Ireland, not in the slums of Philadelphia. If you want to find out how Nell Pratt and her crew are finding ways to make those slums better, check my website for the details.

Wicked Wednesday-Accents

Jessie-In New Hampshire, wondering if it is too early to cheer for crocuses

This week we are celebrating Sheila’s latest book release in her County Cork series, A TurnCover A Turn for the Bad for the Bad. One of the things I love most about Ireland is the delightful accent of the Irish people. Which got me to thinking about accents in general and which ones we admire. And even if we think we have one ourselves?

So Wickeds, what are your favorite accents? Irish? Russian? New York?

Liz: I’m a Bostonian, so I love Boston accents first and foremost. But I’m a sucker for a good English or Irish accent!

Julie: It depends on who is using the accent. 😉 English, Irish, Scottish, Italian, French. Canadian accents charm me. I suspect I have a Boston accent, but high school in Maryland may have rounded out my tones. I also love the Wicked Cozy accent. (See what I did there?)

Barb: English spoken with almost any accent will charm me, especially the accents of the far flung empire–Indian, South African, West Indian, Australian. Sometimes it’s hard, though, to believe we speak a common language. In my prior life, I had customers in Northern Ireland. When we’d adjourn to the pub after conferences or meetings, they’d talk and talk. To me it sounded like “mmff-mumph-mff-mmff-mff.” I’d grin and nod my head like an overeager beagle, terrified I was agreeing to some untenable business term. I have to admit that when I watch certain shows on BBC America or PBS, I always have the captions turned on.

Sherry: When we moved to Boston I fell in love with the accent and the way they pronounce things. I’m not too proud to admit I’d follow people around in stores to listen to their voices and ask service people to pronounce random things (like our refrigerator or refrigeratah) by pointing at them. And I’m a sucker for the British/Irish/Scottish accents. There’s a Scottish play-by-play announcer who does the Real Madrid soccer games. Not only do I love his voice but his expression — he was like a salmon swimming upstream — when a guy took in a goal.

Jessie: My husband has one so I adore Brazilian accents. I actually love it when he puts on a fake British accent.The combination is charming and very silly! The older I get the more I miss a strong Maine accent, especially from Downeast. My great-grandparents both had them and they were charming in their way. It wasn’t, of course, just the sound of the words, it was also the choice. My grandfather never said he began or started anything. Rather he said he commenced it. As in  “I commenced to fish”.  I still miss hearing him.

Edith: Oh, accents! So much to say. As a once-and-always linguist, I’ve studied this stuff. We all have national languages, regional dialects, family dialects, and our own idiolect. Your native language can shape the next language you learn, depending on how old you are. And your regional dialect can shape how you understand people from another region. I’m a southern Californian with a Hoosier father (why I say “warsh” for wash) and a native Californian mother who said “goff” for golf, and from whom I picked up that the members of the pairs cod and cawed, cot and caught, Ott and ought were pronounced the same.

In my Country Store Mysteries, police lieutenant Buck Bird speaks the classic southern Indiana way, which is really more Kentucky than Indiana. I modeled him on a fellow linguistics grad student in the late seventies named Buck. He was a local in his forties, recently retired from a twenty-year career in the army, and he was working on his BA, at last. We grad students from “away” scratched our heads trying to figure out how he pronounced his slow, relaxed speech. One of us finally came up with this: “He keeps his tongue in the bottom of his mouth.” Try it and see how it sounds! Vocabulary of the region is also delightful: “I can’t do that every whipstitch.” And, “That drawer’s all whopper-jawed.” Anybody want to guess what those mean?

Readers, is there and accent that when you hear it, it stops you in your tracks? Do you have one of your own?