by Sheila Connolly

Readers (and some authors) may think we’re writing sparkling new original stories from our own imaginations, but in fact most of us writers borrow a lot from other people’s subconscious perceptions. That’s a good thing, because in a way it saves the writer time. Use a particular phrase or a setting, and it becomes a kind of shorthand for a lot more.

Phila postcard old This shorthand plays a role when we decide where we want to set our books. Take Philadelphia: what do you see when I say “big city”? Noise and crowds and museums? Ireland is a very different case: rainbows and green hills and cottages. These cues let the reader “see” the stage before we start adding characters.

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My fictional Granford, Massachusetts, the home of the Orchard Mysteries (including the latest book, A Gala Event, to be released tomorrow!), is a typical cozy small town. Now, don’t stop to think: what do you visualize when someone says “New England town?”

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The quick answer is: a town green ringed with old maple trees, maybe blazing with fall colors, surrounded by a large white church with a steeple, a couple of stores, and the big old houses built a century or two earlier by the rich folk in town who wanted to show off. Drive through most New England states and you’ll see a lot of them. It’s imprinted in our collective memories.

That’s what Granford looks like. That’s also what the real town of Granby looks like—a place I know and have been visiting since before I started writing. Just about everything in the Orchard Mysteries is real—the library, the historical society, the church, the police station, the feed store, the high school, etc., etc. (Although the real town has opened both a new library and a more modern police station since I started the series—so I moved them in the books too.)

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There was one other critical element, though: apples. I always knew I wanted to set the series in the town, in a colonial house built by an ancestor of mine (also real), but the publisher wanted a “hook.” I thought about it, and rejected some ideas such as organic farming (I’ll leave that to Edith, since I know nothing about organic farming!), but then I hit upon apples. Everybody knows and loves apples—so there’s an instant identification with the idea. I’m sure you all can call up a mental picture immediately when I say “apple orchard.” And then suddenly you’re plugged into Johnny Appleseed and the “apple a day keeps the doctor away” idea of healthy eating and wholesome gifts for first-grade teachers and “Mom and apple pie,” and so on.

See? I don’t have to put all this on the page, but I’ve connected with a lot of readers who already know about all this, consciously or unconsciously. Just mention “apple” and suddenly you’ve tapped into a whole backstory for your book.

What particular bit of shorthand on the cover or in a review makes you pick up a book in a bookstore (or click online) when you see it? Which ones one would make you avoid a book?

A Gala Event
A Gala Event

And one small bit of promotion: A Gala Event, to be released tomorrow. Available everywhere in most formats you can think of. Yes, there really are alpacas in Granby, er, Granford.

Thanks, sister Wickeds, for featuring it last week!

14 Thoughts

  1. I’m hoping to reorient some readers with my historical series. People see Quaker, they think Amish. No! Very different. So the shorthand can also be deceptive.

    1. I’d never thought of that! Of course, I attended a Quaker school as a child, and my father lived in Lancaster County, PA for many years, so I probably knew more than the average reader. But I’m sure you can straighten people out.

  2. The new cover is fabulous, Sheila! I wouldn’t pick up a book with disturbing images or too much blood. Your cover however draws me right in! My grandfather had an apple orchard on his farm in Missouri so I immediately picture it when I hear the word orchard.

    1. At least I had some input in the cover–the alpacas. Most cozy mysteries have dogs or cats or both on the cover, which is one thing readers look for when searching for cozies. I’ve had both, but also goats and now the alpacas, both of which play a role in the books.

  3. I don’t like apples. However, I love apple pie, apple butter…. Don’t know what it is about raw apples that I don’t like.

    I tend to be drawn to food mysteries, so that hook draws me in faster than some of the other themes around, although I have been broadening my horizons (and my TBR mountain range) in the last couple of years. In that case, it’s often the author who draws me to a series.

    1. You’re not alone. But I want the food to be integral to the story, not just shoved in to make an editor happy. It’s really ironic that I was a picky eater as a child, and now I can’t get enough of farmers’ markets and new foods and restaurants.

  4. I do love the cover. I am definitely drawn in by covers, though I also remember all those Perry Masons my grandparents had with the semi-naked women on the covers–and never, ever any semi-naked women inside. So if I pick up a book because of the cover (and the one for Gala is gorgeous, btw) I always read the description on the cover and a couple of pages.

    I definitely came to the Orchard books because of the New England setting. And the museum books because of the Philadelphia setting. I kept going back because of the characters and the stories.

    1. Thank you, Barb–that’s nice.

      For my Bouchercon panel, I’ve been looking at mystery subgenres, particularly that slippery one known as “literary” mysteries. At the other end of the spectrum is “pulp” and most online definitions refer to the “lurid” covers. (Definitely intended ot catch the eye!) So if pulp fiction with women falling out of their clothes, and guys with fedoras and large guns, are considered “lurid,” what adjective should we choose for cozy covers?

      1. For literary mysteries, I always use the definition that I got from Barbara Leavey though it came from someone else. “A literary mystery is a book you can read multiple times, getting something new out of it every time. In other words, you’ll still read again even after you know whodunnit.” ie books that stand up to the kind of scrutiny and analysis we apply to other forms of literature.

        I think the best response to a cozy cover is, “I want to go there.”

  5. I like both of Barb’s answers. I know I read Gaudy Night at least ten times when I first laid hands on it, and each time I found a new perspective. And what you’re saying about “I want to go there” means the cover is doing its job–drawing you into the story before you even open the book.

  6. When I first discovered your Orchard series book 1, I bought it due to the fact that I live in New England, and that is a big draw to me. Secondly, our family has always been big on orchards and apple and peach picking as my uncles Brewster NY orchard that is now run by a third generation of family (my first cousins) was a place that I go to in my mind from all of our visits there when I read your books. And those were wonderful times just like your books are!!! I love covers with detail and some spark of color as you always do. I love books with a scene as I love trees. A cover with a small animal is appealing to me but that animal has to be a small focus on the whole cover but yet I always notice it, even a bird on a cover is noticed by me due to my love of animals and nature. I am an artist so I do look at covers as art and so love scenery in general. I will not even read anything violent and or erotic so those covers with blood and gore are not anything for me. I don’t read any romance unless it is mystery/suspense in that book too, so those are not too common as a favorite. Being a New Englander as I mentioned, makes me long to read a mystery when there is an ocean or water in the picture but it has to have something to draw me in, even something small that I will definitely notice. Guess nature is my favorite after reading what I do like. But even if food isn’t really NATURE and trees and beach scenes, I love to read cozies about food and seeing food on a cover is a lure too, but it has to be realistic, almost like a picture of a kitchen or a dining room table, or something similar. All in all, as long as there is no blood on the cover, I may pick it up and then will read the synopsis. I always read the back cover and any other information on the book inside. Sorry to ramble.

    I cannot wait to read the story of Seth and Meg’s wedding even though we know there will be setbacks and problems. I long for these books so much. Great reading.

    Cynthia Blain

      1. Being a fan of the beach all of my life, what bothers me so much is that I can barely walk or stand now, so getting onto the sand is almost impossible with a mobility scooter. But I did manage to get onto the edge of a couple of beaches this summer using a walker and it nenewed my desire for the ocean and all the scents and sounds once again. So now I will definitely be looking for covers with ocean scenes and sandy beaches as my wish was to find some lovely shells and some sea glass. I dream of being in Florida or where there is some coral and other unusual finds that we don’t get here in MA or RI and to be able to make more of my pendants with them. Books and book covers will just have to replace the actual trips I do believe. I could never live very far from the coast believe me.

        Great article.

  7. First I just have to say I love the new cover!! It grabs attention for sure. And then on to the point, EXACTLY. I love the writer “shorthand” as it give me, the reader a chance to put my own spin on how things look, feel, etc. And I am pretty sure I see things just the way you have described them. Thanks so much!!

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