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 19
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.