Happy Cruel Winter Book Birthday!

Happy Book Birthday to Sheila Connolly. Her fifth County Cork Mystery, Cruel Winter, is cruelwinterout!

Snow is a rarity in Maura Donovan’s small village in County Cork, Ireland, so she wasn’t sure what to expect when a major snowstorm rolled in around Sullivan’s pub. But now she’s stranded in a bar full of patrons–and a suspected killer in a long-ago murder. Over the next few hours, the informal court in Sullivan’s reviews the facts and theories about the case–and comes to some surprising conclusions. But is it enough to convince the police to take a new look at an old case?

To celebrate, I (Edith) decided to make one of Sheila’s many Irish recipes from her other group blog, Mystery Lover’s Kitchen. She’s over there most Fridays sharing dishes, both savory and sweet, that she has concocted. I’ve adapted the following recipe slightly, but what follows isn’t too far from her Feb 7 post of three years ago. As you can see, I didn’t have Irish whiskey, but figured I couldn’t go too far wrong with using bourbon, instead.

Irish Chicken and Cabbage

Ingredients

1/2 cup flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 bone-in chicken breast halves, with skin on
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic,  minced
2 carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
1 medium onion, thickly sliced
1 T dried rosemary leaves, crumbled
2 cups shredded cabbage
1-1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade/canned/from a bouillon cube)
Sheila’s twist—a tablespoon or two of Irish whiskey (Edith’s substitution—an equal amount of bourbon)

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Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl or pie pan and dredge the chicken pieces in it, shaking off the excess.

In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat.  Add the chicken pieces and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes per side, until lightly browned. Tuck the garlic cloves, carrots, onions and rosemary around and between the chicken pieces. Lay the cabbage in an even layer on top and season with salt and pepper.

Mix the whiskey into the broth and pour the liquid over the chicken and vegetables. Cover the contents of the Dutch oven with its oven-proof lid, or with foil (press it against the contents to make a fairly close seal), then place the pot in the oven and cook for 75 (remember, the heat is low). Peek once or twice and baste the top with the pan juices.

irishchickTo serve, place a piece of chicken on the plate and spoon the vegetables and sauce over it. I urge you to check Sheila’s original recipe for pix of the entire process and for the few ingredients I left out (because, oops, I didn’t have them in the house).

I wanted to serve the dish with new potatoes steamed and then lightly sauteed in olive oil and herbs – except somebody in my house used the last potato and didn’t put them them on the shopping list. So instead I made quick whole-wheat soda biscuits. Which went almost better with the dish than the potatoes would have.

Readers: Who has read the County Cork series up to now and can’t wait to get your hands on this one?  [Me! Me!] Anybody been to Ireland and, if so, what was your favorite meal? Your favorite Irish pub near where you live?

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?

Seeing a Story

by Sheila Connolly

I’ve been trying to remember when I got my first camera—I think was I seven or eight. My father was the picture-taker in the family. He had an SLR (long before I had a clue what that was), and we had an 8-mm movie camera (which took only 50 feet of film at a time, and my father took a lot of pictures of sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean), and a top-view Roliflex, and even a stereo camera and one of those viewers (the pictures and the viewer are in my attic—the camera is long gone). Oh, and a Polaroid, as soon as they came out. Of course, nobody else was allowed to touch them.

I received a Brownie, one of those clunky but sturdy brown plastic ones. I can’t say I used it a lot: film was expensive, and it took time to get it developed (we didn’t live near town), and if I recall correctly it took only 12 pictures at a time. Not exactly kid-friendly, eh? Certainly not by today’s standards.

Do I have a point in here? That has anything to do with writing? I think so. I have a strong visual memory (which probably explains why I was an art historian for several years of my life), and to reinforce that I take pictures so I can revisit those memories. But—surprise!—it works for a writer too.

People who are not writers often ask, “how do you do it?” Well, to me it’s simple: I see and hear the story, scene by scene. I can walk through a place in my head, like it was a three-dimensional stage. Of course, I usually borrow real places—I don’t just make them up. I’ve stayed overnight in the house that is the focus of the Orchard mysteries; I worked in Philadelphia for several years. And I’ve spent time in the pub that is the heart of the County Cork series, starting in 19IMG_568298 (!), so I can describe the layout accurately.

I’ve heard other writers say that they create whole scrapbooks for their characters and settings. I don’t go quite that far. I do have a large corkboard over the desk where I work, filled with pictures that speak to me, that are iconic for each of my series. Of course, there’s a whole lot more jumbled together: the last target I used when I went shooting with friends (yes, I have a permit), various book covers, a calendar (essential!) and assorted appointment reminders, and other things that I just plain like to look at. Poor overloaded corkboard: every now and then I have to strip everything off and start over, because it’s so jammed up.

But I also take detailed pictures of the places I use. For the house in the Orchard series, I’ve visited the basement and the attic. I go back to Philadelphia at least once a year, to see what has changed—which buildings have gone up or been torn down. While I’m there I also walk between sites I use in the series (like police headquarters and my not so mythical Society building), and throw in a few restaurants and hotels as well, so I get distances right.

And then there’s County Cork. So many people have commented that I make the place come alive for them—they can see it, and they want to be there. That’s because (a) I love the place, (b) I spend as much time as I can there, just looking and listening, and (c) I take pictures. So to celebrate the release of An Early Wake tomorrow (!), let me show you some of the details (not just the lovely scenery or the rainbows) I collect along the way, that make a place real when you include them in a book.

Available everywhere (I hope) tomorrow, February 3rd.

Cork Collage

Pictures from West Cork (and no, I don’t know what the traffic sign means!)

Ireland

by Sheila Connolly

As you might guess from my surname (which was my father’s), I’m half-Irish. My mother, on the other hand, had New England ancestors back to the boat (yes, that one). It was not a marriage made in heaven, and it didn’t last.

Out of deference to my mother, in my younger years I spent time wandering amongst the castles of French chateaux and English castles, and I even took her to France once so she could see them for herself (she and her mother were avid royalists). So it was relatively late in my life that I first visited Ireland.  I’d grown up with all the popular mythologies and next to no personal knowledge: my father’s siblings would say things like, “uh, Cork, maybe?” and that was it—they had no idea where they had come from, and little interest in finding out.  From what I could glean, nobody on that side of the family talked about Ireland at all. They were in America, and they were going to be Americans, end of story.

So in a way I arrived in Ireland with a blank slate, with my husband and daughter in tow.  And you all know what happened after that: The County Cork Mysteries, a decade later.

About those popular opinions:

Ireland is very green: Yes! Even in winter.

Ireland 11-12 3 014

There are leprechauns: Well, maybe.  On that first trip we were driving along a typical small road and came to a stretch between a stone wall and a hedge.  I looked toward the hedge, and there was a man nestled in a little alcove carved into the hedge, and he beaming happily at us—not just smiling, but a full-out grin.  We happened to stop a few yards farther down the road, so I looked for him—and he had disappeared completely.  I still say he’s a leprechaun.

Rainbows:  Oh, yeah. On that first trip, by the end I was telling the rainbows, “okay, you can stop now—I’m sold.”  But that was before the trip my husband and I took in 2012, when we rented a cottage.  There were rainbows that appeared like clockwork every morning about eight-thirty. The windows in the kitchen faced north-west, so I could sit at the table with my coffee and enjoy the show.  Some were doubles, and I swear I saw one triple.

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The food is terrible:  Maybe it used to be, but now it’s great!

The people are friendly:  Definitely. Almost everyone will talk with you, and if you encourage them, they may tell you their life story and give you their opinions on the state of the national economy. This is wonderful if you’re doing research (and there was that one night in a Dublin pub where I got a comprehensive survey of Irish whiskey from a liquor distributor who doubled as the evening’s entertainment—and he dedicated “Whiskey in the Jar” to me). I ran into one stranger in a cemetery who turned out to know my second cousin (the only relative I’ve met in Ireland), who hadn’t lived in the area since 1956.  Small world, eh?  The only downside is, I have a suspicion that people will tell you what they think you want to hear, because they love to spin stories and entertain. I’ve heard Dennis Lehane say that his Boston Irish family loved to tell stories, but the stories changed with each telling.

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It’s peaceful: No question.  Time seems to slow, just a bit. Crime is low, particularly in West Cork, where I’ve spent the most time (that makes it kind of difficult to write murder mysteries set anywhere but Dublin or Cork or Limerick—because there are very few murders). The nights are dark and quiet, great for sleeping—unless you’re a star-gazer, in which case it’s hard to tear yourself away from the sky.

Family is important: It seems that everyone is somehow related to everyone else, because for centuries nobody strayed far from where they were born. Or else they left forever, to find fortune (or at least a living wage) in America or Australia. So kinship was something precious. Sometimes people can’t even define how they are related, so everyone kind of settles on “cousin.” Close enough.

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The County Cork series is set in Leap, a tiny village on the south coast. It’s a real place, and the main east-west road passes through it.  My grandfather was born a couple of miles from there, in an even smaller place. In 1890 the population was 185; in the 2000 census, it was 210 (I know because we stayed in a B&B whose hostess was a census taker). The village has four pubs, and one of them was named Connolly’s. Any relation? Maybe—I’m still working on that. But I won’t say no.

Leap Connolly's 2000

A decade or two ago, Connolly’s was known as the hub of contemporary music in County Cork, even though the building held no more than 200 people at best, and they drew a lot of big names. Last time I was there, I asked the 23-year-old son of the owner, who’s hoping to bring back the music, how on earth the place managed to get the word out about who was playing and when, in those distant days before the internet, and there was no budget for promotion, and events just kind of happened and people appeared.  And he said, quite sincerely, “magic.”

And that’s Ireland. And that’s why I called an early version of that first book Home of the Heart.

Oh, right–I should mention the book that’s out tomorrow: Scandal in Skibbereen.

scandalinskibbereen_BO1,204,203,200_

The Coziest of Cozies

by Sheila Connolly

Readers of cozies know that one of the essential characteristics is often the small-town setting.

I haven’t looked up statistics about how many people live in small towns (whatever the definition of “small” is—under 200 people? Under 2,000? 10,000?) versus cities, although I’m pretty sure that cities are leading in total population. But readers seem to prefer small towns as settings.

Why? I think it’s because there is a sense of community. Everyone knows everyone else’s history, both past and recent, and their family. That might sound claustrophobic, but it’s also comforting in a way. People care about each other (even if it’s negative). Practically speaking it’s much easier to plot a murder in a small town because there is a limited pool of suspects, and people share a certain amount of basic information about those suspects, which gives them a head start, at least compared to, say, a New York City police detective.

For my most recent series, the County Cork Mysteries, I chose to set it in Ireland. This met with some resistance from my editor, although she never quite explained why. I suspect that she (or her bosses) thought that the “foreignness” of the setting would outweigh the small-town aspects.

Wrong. Ireland is the paradigm for a small town, both locally and nationally. The population of the entire country is less than five million (the last time I was in New York, it hit me that that one city holds more people than all of Ireland). Moreover, much of the rural population in Ireland historically never moved more than five miles from where they were born. When times were hard, like during the Potato Famine, people left the country altogether and never returned. In effect, they were erased, save for a few letters home now and then. Local life went on, with the same small (and often related) cast of people.

You might think that this is an outmoded way of life, but it isn’t. Sure, there is the Internet and cell phones—it’s not the Dark Ages in Ireland. Membership in the European Union has brought with it better food—and also more complex and sometimes absurd regulations about storing and serving it. People there take holidays in Spain, so they’re not afraid of travel.

But it still feels like one big small town, particularly in West Cork, in the lower left corner of the country. Historically it’s always been a bit rougher than much of the rest of the country—it was long known as the “Wild West.”

The Village of Leap

The Village of Leap

I chose to set my series in the town of Leap, on the south coast of Cork, because my grandfather was born near there. Leap has a population hovering around 200. Two churches (one Catholic, one Church of Ireland), one hotel (eight rooms; continuously operated by the same family for over 130 years); four pubs. Or there should be four—as of last year they’d torn one down so they could build a bigger one. I have to check to see if it’s open now.

And everybody is connected to you, even if you’ve never been there. Example one: the first time I visited, I had no reservations and the hotel was full, so they sent me around the corner to a place where a family rented two rooms. I walked in, introduced myself and explained I was looking at my family history, and the landlady said, “Oh, I’ve a cousin who’s a Connolly—I’ll give her a call,” and she did, and we met, and that cousin was also a cousin of mine and came with a printed genealogy in hand. And then the landlady’s mother-in-law there said, “Oh, I knew your great-uncle Paddy—he used to keep his horse behind the pub across the road.” That’s the pub that became Sullivan’s in the book.

Example two: last year I was poking around a relatively new cemetery a couple of miles away, and met a man (doing the same thing), and we got to talking, and I said I was a Connolly, and he said, “do you know Catherine Connolly?” Yes, that’s my cousin (see above). Mind you, Catherine hasn’t lived in that area for over fifty years. Things like that just keep happening in Ireland.

Skibbereen

Skibbereen

And that’s what makes it such a perfect setting for a cozy series. Well, apart from the problem of fitting in murders. I had a lovely chat with the police sergeant in the nearest town, Skibbereen (population 2,700), last year, and he told me that in his district they’d had all of three murders in the past ten years, and they’d known who did it in each case. I apologized for raising his crime rate in the series.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who have Irish ancestors, and a lot more who have visited—or want to. The place strikes a chord in a lot of people, and once you’ve been there, you know why. It’s an easy place to be. The pace of life is slower than ours. It’s beautiful. The people are friendly and love to talk. The food is really good these days. And I think that’s why readers like the series.

Which means I get to go back and do more research! And that’s where I am now, all things willing.

I Talk to Dead People

by Sheila Connolly

I love cemeteries.  I spend a lot of time in cemeteries, and I enjoy their history and their carvings.  But mostly I go because my ancestors call me.

I don’t think I’m crazy.  It’s not that I hear voices or see apparitions floating above a tombstone (wonder what they would say, if they started talking to me?) beckoning to me, but I am consistently drawn to graveyards.

I could blame my parents, particularly my mother.  When I was a year old, my family moved to a rather isolated house in Red Lion, Delaware. The best grass could be found in a nearby cemetery, and that’s where my mother took me to perfect my walking skills.  I can picture myself lurching from tombstone to tombstone, when I was shorter than they were, not that I have any memory of it.  Nobody ever told me that I should be frightened of them, or of those who lay under the grass. I think it was a happy time, with my mother, and that feeling has persisted whenever I visit a cemetery now.

But even beyond that, I believe that my ancestors called me to Massachusetts, although I didn’t always see it that way.  I knew my great-great-grandmother had been born and lived here, and her daughter (her only child) had been born here, but I never knew them (although my mother did, as a child) and we had only a few photographs of either of them. I knew that there was one Revolutionary War soldier up the line somewhere, since my great-grandmother had joined the DAR in 1929. And that was more or less where my knowledge of family history ended, for a long time.

I went to Wellesley College in Massachusetts—the only college I applied to, and the only one I ever wanted to attend, once I had visited the place.  It was only decades later that I wandered through the graveyard in the middle of town and realized I had a whole batch of ancestors right there.  I’d been walking past them for years without knowing it.  Coincidence?  I started to wonder.

In Massachusetts I visit a lot of cemeteries, and I almost always find an ancestor, albeit distant, wherever I go.  One of my favorite discoveries came when I went to a large 19th-century cemetery in Lynn, looking for a great-great-whatever uncle I knew was buried there, and maybe a great-great-grandfather.  I had no map and no plan; I told my husband that we’d just drive around and surely we’d find them (he was not convinced—it was a big cemetery).

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We found the two I was looking for, but when I looked up from that great-great-grandfather’s stone, I realized that behind him lay four generations of his family and his wife’s family, all in one plot.  That’s a genealogist’s dream.  Tell me they weren’t calling to me.

I could go on, but unless you’re a genealogist yourself I would probably bore you.  But let me add that the same thing has happened to me in Ireland.  When I arrived in the countryside of rural West Cork for the first time, in 1998, it felt like coming home—to a place I’d never seen (nor did I have any pictures from the family).  And then I started running into people there who had known my family, and who knew where they had lived and where they were buried.  All by chance.  You may call it luck, but I say there’s something else at work.

Of course I use this in all my series.  Meg Corey in the Orchard Mysteries goes to visit the cemetery where ancestors she never knew she had are buried—and yes, she talks to them, if awkwardly.  So does Maura Donovan in the County Cork Mysteries.  It’s an act of remembrance and respect, but it also provides a sense of connection, of belonging.

Let me assure you, it’s all good. Those ancestors are glad to see me, and if they’re haunting me, they’re benevolent, not malicious. They’re telling me that I’m where I belong.