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.