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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 1998 (!), 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.
Pictures from West Cork (and no, I don’t know what the traffic sign means!)
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