Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Sheila Connolly Talks about Place


 JUNGLE REDS: Sheila Connolly is a prolific New England writer who manages to juggle three bestselling mystery series. Three! We're happy to have her visit the blog today to talk about the magic of where and how she sets her books. Welcome Sheila!

 
SHEILA CONNOLLY: When I was young, my family moved around a lot. My father had issues with authority figures, but luckily he also had marketable technical skills, so we always had a place to go. But moving—and changing schools—every two or three years can be hard on a kid. By the time I started high school, we had lived in four different states and seven different towns.

For college and grad school, I picked yet another state. When I married, I added another couple of states to my life list. I never thought I’d be grateful for all this shuttling around, but as it turns out, my ragtag collection of homes and jobs finally proved useful when I started writing. It was almost like I’d been collecting material all my life.

I write three different series,  set in Western Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and County Cork, Ireland—all my choices rather than the publisher’s. Massachusetts, particularly the rural western part, was where I had always wanted to live. I lived and worked in the Philadelphia area for a big chunk of my life, and I thought an urban cozy would be a nice change of pace, both for me and for readers. I know the city, both the good and bad parts of it, the historic and the modern, and the cultural community there works pretty much like a small town—everybody knows everybody else.
And then there was Ireland. My father’s parents were both born in Ireland, but my parents’ marriage didn’t last, and I never even met my grandparents. I didn’t even set foot in Ireland until about fifteen years ago—and I was blown away. But in a quiet way: it felt like coming home, like slipping on an old shoe. It was comfortable, familiar, easy. Of course I had to write about it.

In the County Cork Series, I created a young protagonist who grew up with an Irish grandmother in Boston. She has no particular love for the Irish, because she’s seen only the worst of them, the down-and-out immigrants scrabbling to get by. Then she inherits a pub and a cottage in Ireland, thanks to a relative her grandmother never told her about, and she makes her way to West Cork. Guess what: she’s still there.

I wouldn’t presume to write a book with an Irish protagonist. While I’ve visited several times, I’ve never lived in Ireland, and I know I’m still an outsider (although the name Connolly helps!). So is Maura Donovan, my heroine: she’s skeptical and she doesn’t trust others easily. But Ireland is winning her over, bit by bit. A lot of that is because of the people, and the sense of connection they offer her, something that’s missing in her life. She’s not leaving any time soon. (I won’t let her!)
The third book in the series, An Early Wake, is about music at the pub. The pub itself is based on a real pub that I stumbled over, called Connolly’s of Leap, that I discovered on my first full day in Ireland, and that I’ve been visiting ever since. The owners used to bring contemporary musicians from all over Ireland to play there. Paddy McNicholl, who made that happen, died a few years ago, but his wife kept the place, and his son Sam, a musician himself, is working hard to bring it back. When I asked Sam how it had happened, back in the day, he said, “It was magic.” He meant it.

And he’s right: there is a magic in Ireland, like nowhere else I’ve been. Ireland gets under your skin in unexpected ways. It’s full of small surprises. Irish people love to talk, and they tell tales that are too good to pass up—and stories keep falling into my lap, and working their way into my books.

I love all three settings, and all the characters involved, and I love writing about them. But it may be Ireland that’s dearest to my heart. As if I need an excuse to go back each year!

What do you want to know about the setting when you read a book? What makes it come alive for you?


Sheila Connolly, Anthony and Agatha Award–nominated author, writes three bestselling cozy mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. Her Museum Mysteries are based in Philadelphia, her Orchard Mysteries take place in rural Massachusetts, and her County Cork Mysteries are set in Ireland, and include Buried in a Bog and Scandal in Skibbereen, both New York Times bestsellers. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three cats, and visits Ireland as often as she can. Read more or pre-order the books on her website.

28 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

I've enjoyed reading your books, Sheila . . . it's nice to know there's some advantage to living in lots of places!
What do I want to know about setting when I'm reading a book? Enough for me to picture it in my mind but not so much that I feel overwhelmed by the descriptions.

Edith Maxwell said...

You know I love your books, Sheila! For setting, I want to feel like I'm there. I want to hear and taste and see and smell what's going on.

Jack Getze said...

I'm only interested in setting as it relates to the story. When I see a whole paragraph of description coming, I skip it.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Now that's interesting Jack! I think I'm more in your camp, but probably it depends on how good the writer is at giving just enough detail...

Mary Sutton said...

I'm kind of with Lucy and Jack - too much place description and I start skimming ahead. However, I like it when the author ties the place into the story so I get a real sense of where they/I am at the time.

Sheila Connolly said...

Believe me, I know what you all mean about too much description. It's all too easy these days to find descriptions and pictures online and drop them right into your book--that's an infodump, a "look how smart I am" bit. But it's the unexpected details that are so much fun, like the chicken in the parking lot, or the strangely moving pre-historic monuments hidden in fields, or the incredible array of unfamiliar and intriguing products in the local supermarket (yes, there is a local supermarket!), that make it real. That's another reason for making my protagonist a newcomer--she can comment on the unexpected things she sees. "Really? You've got to be kidding! That's a what?"

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Welcome, Sheila! And I still--don't know how you do it all!

Jack, that is fascinating. I'm reading a book now that's pretty good--I hit one good paragraph of description, and fine. Then she went on to a SECOND paragraph, and I'm like., ooookay.
Then a third, and then it became a travelogue, and she lost me.
But that doesn't always happen..I guess it has to do with whether it's just description, or a meaningful and revealing description through the eyes of the character.

Margaret Turkevich said...

I want to know what it's like to live in a place: sights, sounds, weather, food, plants and animals. There's a difference between visiting a place and trying to write about it and actually living in a place. I'm curious about the details of certain professions (Cleo Coyle's coffee house). All details deftly inserted to achieve that delicate balance between overload and not enough for credibility.

FChurch said...

I think Hank nailed it for me--and like Jack and Sheila, my eyes glaze over when the description of setting doesn't move the story forward, reveal character, or set the mood of the scene.

Right now I'm re-reading some of my favorite Tony Hillerman novels. In these, the setting is an intrinsic part of the daily life of his main characters, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Observation of the environment around them is part awareness as good police officers and more deeply ingrained as part of their cultural heritage.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

And that makes me think of CJ Box's Wyoming game warden mysteries--he shows the setting through the character's eyes. And the setting is absolutely critical to the character's personality and motivation.

Susan D said...

I feel most at home in a book when the setting is an intrinsic part of the story. That it couldn't really take place anywhere else.

Sure, long descriptive passages promote a little judicious skimming.

But a few well-placed, pithy lines can promote a sense of place that grounds the characters right where they are.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

I love description -- in itsy bitsy gems that give me a feel for the locale if I don't know it. If it is someplace I do know, I love the little nugget that reminds me of the place.

And since I glaze at long paragraphs, I prefer it through a character's eyes, letting me understand that person's relationship with the place.

All easier said than written.

Best of everything with your new book, Sheila.

~ Jim

Denise Ann said...

I was lucky to meet Sheila at a class she taught at Cape Cod Writers Conference, and I have read all three series -- get ready to snuggle in and enjoy really great stories!!

Libby Dodd said...

Information without information overload. That fine touch where you feel you are there without really noticing how the author did it.
Sheila, I love your books. I admit, however, to being particularly infatuated with the Irish ones. It is a magical place. I went there on a trip with my mother when I was in high school. While wandering around the grounds at Blarney Castle (Yes, I have the gift of gab thanks to the Stone) my mother was kissed by a leprechaun!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Sheila! Love your books! Do you have any advice for first-time visitors to Ireland? City or country?

Sheila Connolly said...

Hi, Denise Ann! Libby, I did kiss the Blarney Stone a long time ago. I guess it took a while to take effect, but things don't move fast in Ireland.

Susan, that's a hard question! I love Dublin--it's a very walkable city, with plenty to see. Great museums, interesting pubs, not one but two cathedrals, the Abbey Theater--and bookstores on every corner. But once you get out of Dublin, which doesn't take long, there is so much wonderful countryside. In a way I was lucky because I had family research to do, so I had a purpose. Of course, I'm biased toward West Cork, where my grandfather was born. I think Skibbereen is a terrific town, with a long history but all modern conveniences, and a weekly farmers market that makes me want to buy one of everything. Great restaurants too. The Drombeg stone circle not far away is strangely moving. But my favorite thing these days is to pick a nice pub, sit down, and start listening, which then becomes talking, which is always interesting.

Hallie Ephron said...

Lovely post, Sheila! We were in Ireland last year and I fell in love with it. The countryside, the people, the cheeses, and Smithwick's.

Kathy Reel said...

So glad you're here today, Shelia! You have been on my radar for a while, and I've vowed to get to your writing this year. But, where to begin? Your writing pace is going to be a challenge. I have decided at this point to start with your County Cork series, since there are three. With all the reading I have to do for Bouchercon coming up this year, I'm trying to fit in at least four new series. You writers are just too darn prolific. Rabbits have nothing on you. Hahaha!

Setting. I like to have a sense of the main character's space, where she/he spends time. The home, the streets and places she/he frequents. And, I like to have a general idea of the location of the city or town or countryside, where it fits into the whole. For example, if there are cliffs and an ocean nearby, I like to know how close the setting is to that, just in approximation in the sense of right on the cliff or you can see the ocean from the town. What I really love is a map at the beginning of the book. Nothing thrills me about setting more than seeing a hand-drawn map of the place, nothing too detailed. I will say that long descriptions of places, the paragraph after paragraph kind, make me anxious, like I should be able to completely picture the place now. Too much pressure.

Mark Baker said...

I love it when an author makes a setting come to life without slowing down the story. It's a very fine line, but so many are wonderful at getting me to another place and letting me feel like I'm there without overshadowing other things. It's one of those things I know when I see it.

And congrats on another release, Sheila!

Pat D said...

I've read your first two County Cork mysteries and loved them. Ireland is special. I like some description of the surroundings just to know where the character is. But too much and I skip over it. Hooray for Smithwick's. And for conversation. Scenery is wonderful but interaction with people makes a trip memorable. I kissed that darned Blarney Stone years ago but the gift hasn't shown up yet. Or else it skipped over me and landed on my husband. Not that he needed more.

Leslie Budewitz said...

So many smart comments here! Yes, Sheila, that outsider perspective is terrific, and helps identify the unexpected details that make a setting pop.
I totally agree with those who say show the setting through the POV character's eyes -- if she's too freaked out by the appearance of a ghost to comment on the color of the walls, leave it out, but if the ghost carries a scent, put that in! That helps avoid those long, travelogue paragraphs that bring a glaze to Jack and others.
And a big yes to the sense of smell -- hard to articulate, but so important, esp in memory.

Sheila Connolly said...

Re smell, Leslie, I have to repeat a story that Irish writer Eoin Colfer told at Bcon (in a panel about series set in bars!). Not too many years ago, Ireland banned smoking in pubs. Eoin said, "you don't smell the smoke any more--now you smell the men." It's that kind of detail that says so much.

Lisa Alber said...

Congratulations, Sheila! What you say about Ireland is so true: visiting it is like coming home and it gets under your skin in unexpected ways. :-)

Susan said...

Sheila, I was not familiar with your work before but now want to check it out, especially the series set in Ireland.

I agree with Jack that if the setting is inserted as exposition, it is the kiss of death. And yet when place is integral to the characters and the story, it can really elevate the whole book. Some of my favorite authors for that include Margaret Maron, Laura Lippman, and Jungle Red's own Deborah Crombie. In all of their work, the setting is like an additional character, so of course I'm curious of how it affects the other characters!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

love that comment Sheila--you can't smell the smoke, you smell the men! wonder if that's an improvement, LOL.

Do you prefer writing one of the series over the others? or is that a silly question...

Karen in Ohio said...

Sheila, I'm sorry to be so late to the party, but our Internet kept freezing all day.

Anyway, it occurs to me that your Irish heritage makes you the stellar storyteller that you are. No wonder you felt like you were going home when you went to Ireland for the first time. You simply were.

Sheila Connolly said...

Wow, Lucy/Roberta, that's always a hard question! I chose each series setting and characters with an eye to balancing the three of them--rural, urban; different ages for the characters; different occupations and interests. But each place is one I know and care about, and each protagonist is trying to work out issues in her life that are both personal and universal. I enjoy writing each of them in different ways--and visiting each to do research!