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!)

18 Thoughts

  1. Oh Sheila!
    This is right on spot with me.
    As you probably know, I’ve a couple of art history degrees and they’ve always helped me “see.” But not in the way I see through a camera. I, also, got my first Brownie (I still own it, but they don’t make Verichrome Pan 127 film anymore. Fie) when I was eight. Or seven. A roll of photos was a sacred thing. Each shot counted as it was expensive to process, even though all I had to do was to walk downtown and wait a week or so until it came back from the other end of the island. The photos came in those little tear-off the photo from the end yellow folders.
    I’m in the process of writing a cozy set in a town that is uncannily similar to a town ten miles away from here, in Central Maine. I’ve named it something else (and I must say that just about all the appropriate names for the time in which the real town was settled are taken, even oddish ones.) I’ve moved bits around to accommodate the story.
    And I’ve been taking photos. Well, I’ve been taking photos of this town for about 40 years — it’s not changed much except for the proprietors of all the antiques shops.
    The people, though, may be combinations of bits and pieces of many Mainers and folks here ‘from away.’ I don’t rely on photos for those. I don’t want them to be that exact but to live in a reader’s imagination.
    Anyhow, I love your books, especially the Irish items. I love the voice you use. I shall right now invest in your new item. Congratulations on its birth!
    Carol-Lynn Rössel

    1. Carol-Lynn, it’s so nice that someone else remembers when each picture had to be carefully considered. Now it’s so easy–I have a couple of hundred sitting on my camera, maybe a hundred on my phone, and thousands on my computer. Some I’ve forgotten I took, others still make me laugh when I see them.

      When you’re visiting a new, unfamiliar place, you think you’ll remember details. You don’t. It’s never clear what you will remember, out of so many impressions, so pictures help. In “real” places like Philadelphia I tend to stick to the real layout, since people may know the city. For the house in the Orchard series, the house is real, as is its town, but (gasp) there’s no orchard now, although there once was, and I kind of moved a highway.

      And you’re right–it’s risky to base a character on a real person, although one can give you a good starting point.

    1. Met him (her?) one morning in the parking lot in Skibbereen, which is a busy little town. The Brogue sign in a house name, and brogue means shoe. I’d say it was once a shoemaker’s shop, but it’s a modern building. The road sign is along the main (uh, only?) road through Leap, the N71 highway, all two lanes of it. I’m still trying to work out the message. Run in front of skidding cars?

  2. I’ve always loved taking photos but no one in my family did or does. And I love studying the photos afterwards to see what’s in the background.

    1. All those things we didn’t think we were taking pictures of. Like the cars.

      An unrelated confession: I always focused on people’s faces, so in most pictures I have of family and friends I cut off their feet. But how do you take pictures of people while focusing on their belly-buttons?

  3. I have never displayed any talent at photography and admire those who do. For me, the cell phone camera has been a blessing.
    I like your bulletin board and have a similar one only I can “decipher” (most of the time.)

  4. You have really captured the County Cork of my ancestors. I’d love to know the name of the pub so I could raise a pint next visit. I firmly believe that where you are shapes who you are and that goes for characters in books.

    1. Easy: it’s Connolly’s. They gave up their liquor license a few years ago, but they’ve just gotten back an event license, so things are happening. It’s right on the main (and only) road through Leap, near Skibbereen.

      1. In theory they aren’t currently a pub, although everyone for miles still know’s them as Connolly’s. When the spouse of the former owner passed away a few years ago, his wife (Eileen Connolly) didn’t feel like going on alone and sold the license (she owns the building outright and lives above the pub). But her younger son decided he wanted to revive the music, so he has leased the pub space from her and applied on his own for a special license to host music events and serve liquor at them. Which I gather has just come through. He’s been holding music events for a while, but BYOB. Oh, the things that we learn, doing research.

  5. Great post, Sheila. When we visited England back in 2001 with the specific purpose of touring 16th century manor houses in search of details I could use in my historical mysteries, we took a video camera (still kind of a novelty back then) and ended up with about 12 hours on VHS tapes . . . and that’s without being allowed to take pictures inside most of the houses. Lots and lots of postcards and guidebooks filled in the gaps, along with floorplans and notes. And there were still details I couldn’t remember after we got home. On the other hand, I still consult those resources, especially now that theVHS tapes have been transferred to VHS. So have the 8mm movies my father took when I was growing up. No sound makes the eons of stuff shot at dance recitals look very strange!


    1. One of these days I MUST transfer my father’s movies. When my kids used to play in the back yard and I watched them from the kitchen window, it reminded me of those soundless films (without sound except for the ticking of the projector, which is another whole blog post).

    2. I’ve often wished I had a video camera (I did once use my phone to pan a luncheon for 40 people in Italy), but that would be one more thing to carry and keep track of. And I’ve always been afraid of spending so much time looking through a lens that I wouldn’t see the actual monument. I do need to transfer all my childhood 8mm movies to disk (I managed to get them to VHS, but that’s obsolete now too, right?). And as I said, there is a lot of footage of sunrises. And kittens playing. And my father’s golf swing. Oh, what, there are children?

  6. I always know when an author really knows the place because they make it come alive. Not that the others are necessarily bad books, but there are subtle differences.

    I look forward to getting to know all three of your locations.

  7. Sometimes in writers group, my fellow critiquers will ask, “Is this character an architect?” It’s my fault because I’ve always loved buildings and physical spaces so I do tend to go on and on in first drafts. Most of the places in the Maine Clambake Mysteries involve a very healthy dose of my imagination, though I do take bits and pieces from places I know, or often, places I knew in childhood. I do have to work hard to keep the interior geography straight.

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