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

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.


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.


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.


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



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?

Book Birthday for A Turn for the Bad

Jessie: In New Hampshire, where there are patches of grass miraculously showing in the lawn.

Cover A Turn for the BadThis week we are celebrating the release of the latest installment in Sheila Connolly’s NYT Bestselling County Cork series. Here’s what the publisher has to say about it:

The New York Times bestselling author of An Early Wake returns to Ireland where Sullivan’s Pub owner Maura Donovan gets mixed up with smugglers.

After calling Ireland home for six months, Boston expat Maura Donovan still has a lot to learn about Irish ways—and Sullivan’s Pub is her classroom. Maura didn’t only inherit a business, she inherited a tight-knit community. And when a tragedy strikes, it’s the talk of the pub. A local farmer, out for a stroll on the beach with his young son, has mysteriously disappeared. Did he drown? Kill himself? The child can say only that he saw a boat. 

Everyone from the local gardai to the Coast Guard is scouring the Cork coast, but when a body is finally brought ashore, it’s the wrong man. An accidental drowning or something more sinister? Trusting the words of the boy and listening to the suspicions of her employee Mick that the missing farmer might have run afoul of smugglers, Maura decides to investigate the deserted coves and isolated inlets for herself. But this time she may be getting in over her head…

So Wickeds, let’s chime in with our birthday wishes!

Liz: Sheila, yay! I love this series and admittedly I need to catch up, but now I can indulge in reading a couple back to back. So excited to visit Ireland vicariously through you and Maura!

Edith: I can’t wait to read this one, Sheila! And isn’t the tight-knit community the essence of a cozy?!

Sherry: Another trip to Ireland from my own home! Keep them coming, Sheila!

Jessie: A new installment in your County Cork  series is always a cause for celebration! Congrats, Sheila!

Readers, are you as smitten as we all are with this series or with all things Irish?

The Go-To-Bed

You never know where you’re going to find a story. And this is a particularly true in Ireland.

Cover A Turn for the BadThe fourth book in my County Cork mysteries, A Turn for the Bad, will be released tomorrow. Since I like to get the details right, I travel to Ireland as often as I can, and I end up talking to a lot of interesting people. I’m not necessarily looking for story ideas, but I do enjoy hearing tales and learning how cultures differ from one another, even if you’re speaking the same language.

So this is a story from the Skibbereen Farmers’ Market, which was founded in 1657 when the town was granted a charter. It’s open every Saturday, year round. And for the past several visits I’ve timed my travel so I am sure to be there at least one Saturday.


As a result I’ve made some friends, which is odd because I see them only once a year at best. But we recognize each other. Apart from the amazing food products, there is a guy who makes magic wands, and someone who sells apple trees, and farmers in the warmer months who will sell you a live chicken or a duck. And there is an antique dealer I’ve been chatting with for several years now. He’s English but he lives in Ireland, and it turns out he’s also a mystery writer and an editor for hire. And, yes, I buy odds and ends from him when I’m there—a book, a silver-plated christening mug, a salt shaker from a defunct steamship line—and a go-to-bed.

Go-to-bed 1

All right, that stopped me. I picked up a small object at his booth (I’m always on the hunt for items that fit nicely in a suitcase!) and said, “what is this?” And he said, “it’s a go-to-bed.” I’d never heard the term. So he kindly explained it to me. In detail.

The simplest definition is that it’s a matchbox. The elaborate description is that it was invented (or popularized) by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who, being a Scot, was cheap (hey, I’m just reporting what I was told). Rather than taking a candle to hie himself up to the royal chambers to go to bed, he chose a small matchbox, with a rough bottom for striking the match, and a tiny holder on the top in which to insert the lit match. And then he would proceed to bed (which must have been a challenge, since if he moved too fast the match would go out, but if he went too slowly, the match would consume itself before he got to the bedroom).

Go-to-bed 2

Wikipedia kindly informs me: “One specific variety of go-to-bed worthy of mention is ‘Prince Albert’s Safety Vesta Box,’ … a decorated brass tub with an embossed top…ribbed under base for striking matches…a small finial to take a single match on to.”  Well, mine’s not brass, but it is covered in tartan and has that tiny finial on top. Maybe there’s a bit of accuracy in the story.

So in the course of a few minutes I went from never having heard of this obscure but charming item to being the proud owner of one. Not to mention a piece of history, false or not. Even if it’s not true, it’s a charming story that just fell into my lap.

And there are so many more! Of course I’ll keep going back to Ireland to collect them. The stories may not always be quite true, but the Irish love to tell them.

Ireland cell 1 049

Today is Saint Brigid’s Day in Ireland. Brigid is the female patron saint of Ireland, and she is also the patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle farmers, children of unmarried parents [I am not making this up!], children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers [go, Brigid!], dairymaids, dairyworkers, fugitives, mariners, midwives, milkmaids, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travelers and watermen.

If that’s not enough, she is said to have the power to multiply such things as butter, bacon and milk, to bestow sheep and cattle and to control the weather. 

How can you go wrong with a saint who can multiply butter and bacon and control the weather?

Where do you find your stories? You don’t need to be a writer–just listen and enjoy!


How Many Years?

It started a long, long time ago...

It started a long, long time ago…

by Sheila Connolly

Another year. How did that happen?

Over the holidays I struggled to send out a holiday letter to my oldest (high school, college) friends and my scattered relatives (and it was late, as always). For most of them this is the only time they hear from me, unless they’re following me on Facebook, which is most cases is unlikely. So each year I summarize what I and my family have done over the past year. My husband writes his own, to his own list, so I get to spend most of the letter talking about me.

This year I realized I had electronic files for these annual letters dating back to 1996, so I re-read them all. What I had not realized was that I had documented the whole step-by-step process of starting to write, finishing a book, submitting, finding an agent, dumping that agent, finding a better agent, and finally selling a book. And a series, and another, and another.

While I started (tentatively) writing in 2001, I didn’t mention it publicly until 2004. Here’s what I wrote then:

I have a confession to make:  for the last three years I’ve been writing novels – romantic suspense, cozy mystery, chick-lit, even a paranormal.  I figured I’d better give it a shot while I had the chance. I’ve completed eight books, and there are three more in progress. Last year I found an agent, and he is circulating three of them (soon to be four) to editors. It’s a slow process, but I have faith that one or more will land in the hands of a sympathetic reader, and I’ll be off to the races as a published author.  Keep your fingers crossed for me!  

Ten years ago. That “eight books”? Some of them are still on a shelf (and may stay there). Some of them I mined for plots or characters who ended up in a different book—I hate to waste anything. Some of them I cleaned up and released myself. That first agent is history, but I didn’t sign with my next until 2006. I didn’t see a book with my name on it in a bookstore until 2008.

It’s been a long and sometimes bumpy road to where I am today, but I know how lucky I am. I’ve met wonderful people along the way. I’ve learned that being persistent (okay, stubborn) can pay off if you wait long enough. I’ve learned that there’s always something new to learn from other writers, and it pays to listen. I’ve seen changes in the publishing industry that no one expected.

I am grateful to have the chance to be a writer, which I love, and that other people want to read what I write. I don’t plan to stop as long as I can still put words on a page—and as long as people still want to read my books.

Yes, there’s another book coming: An Early Wake, the third in the County Cork Mysteries. A book set in this pub, in this small town, was one of the first I ever finished, but I never let it go. It took a few tries, but I finally found the right story for it, that my publisher liked. And here we are!

Coming February 3rd!

Coming February 3rd!