Reading History

by Sheila Connolly

gargoylesI love history. Once upon a time I hoped to be a medieval scholar, wandering among French cathedrals and English castles and making intelligent comments about the symbolism of gargoyles and the evolution of the Gothic arch. As a child a friend and I used to act out Revolutionary War stories that we made up. I’m fascinated by ruined buildings, especially those that seem to have been abandoned in the woods for no obvious reason, because I knew there had to be a story

But I can’t write historical novels, and I seldom read them (my apologies to those who do either—it’s me, not you). In part I blame it on my early academic training. I want to get the details right, the setting, the vocabulary. And that take research, which is a wonderful, terrible time-sink. I’d get so caught up trying to figure out what they called that buckle that held your armor on in 1327 or what kind of varnish a furniture-maker would use in 1783 that I’d never get around to finishing the book. Once I read a perfectly nice book written by a friend, and in it she said someone found a photograph hidden in a secret drawer in a piece of old furniture—but it was supposedly hidden there half a century before photography was invented. I nearly threw the book across the room.

But! you protest, you use all kinds of history in your books!

Yes, I do. But I incorporate history as seen through the eyes of my modern heroines. They don’t always understand all that they’re seeing, so they get to ask questions and do their own research, make their own discoveries. As do the readers!

I also was a teacher for a few years, long ago, and I remember how challenging it was to make teen-age students “see” the past in a way that made it become real to them, and how rewarding it was when at least a few of them did.

View of Plimoth Plantation

I live in Massachusetts, not far from Plymouth, where so much of our country’s history began. Plimoth Plantation is a recreation of the original settlement, and is said to be one of the best in the country, down to small details like the stitches on the reenactors’ clothes. Old Sturbridge Village does a fine job too. When you’re standing in the center of the town green there, you can believe you’ve stepped back in time (and watch out for the piles of manure from the oxen). By the way, two of the houses at OSV belonged to distant relatives of mine. Sometimes I think my own history follows me around.

Old Sturbridge Village — one end of the green

The more time I spend in Ireland, the more I realize that the oral tradition of passing history down through the generations survives, even in this electronic age. I met one woman who told me that my great-uncle Paddy used to stable a horse behind the pub I use in my County Cork mysteries. A dairy farmer spent half an hour telling me about the history of the house we were renting from him—and what happened when the sisters who owned the place were emigrating in the early 1900s and the man who had agreed to rent the house from them didn’t pay up, so it was the McCarthy’s down the road who took over the lease so the sisters would be able to sail to New York as planned. I heard this a hundred years after it happened, and BTW, the McCarthy’s still live down the road. He believed I’d be interested, and I was.

Yes, that’s the McCarthys’ house

We need history, whether it’s a millennium or a century old. History isn’t all about kings and battles—it’s also about the daily fabric of ordinary people’s lives. It’s the details that make history come alive—in your mind or on a page. I keep remembering a line from a Dixie Chicks song: “Who do we become/Without knowing where we started from?”

What historic place or building or artifact has impressed you most? It doesn’t have to be something big and important, as long as it mattered to you and you remember it.

And in honor of the publication of my new County Cork book, Cruel Winter, I’m giving away a copy to one lucky person who leaves a comment. The book does include a lot of my own history—Maura’s house in the book is the one that my great-uncle built in 1907 (now, sadly, abandoned), and where my great-grandmother Bridget lived out her life.

Cruel Winter, coming March 14th from Crooked Lane Books, and available for pre-order



45 Thoughts

  1. I love this, Sheila. And can you believe I still haven’t been to Old Sturbridge Village? My sons went with school trips. I must schedule that as soon as I can bear to be on my new knee for a few hours at a time.

    Ever since I began attending Amesbury Friends Meeting in 1989 – with a toddler and a nursing five-month-old in tow – I’ve loved the historic Meetinghouse. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, flooded with light from the eight (ten?) foot windows, and most important, imbued with the spirit of all the Friends who have sat in silent worship there since the building was constructed in 1851. Whittier himself served on the building committee. He insisted on the huge windows and absence of fussy expensive wainscoting and decor. Nothing’s made me happier than the chance to include scenes set in the Meetinghouse in each of my historical mysteries.

    (And come on, Sheila, you oughta give us a chance to get details right! Jessica and I, at least, do our best to make our history accurate.)

    1. I’m not doubting you! But there are other writers who are less scrupulous. Or just lazier.

      Yes, there is a wealth of information and pictures available online these days, but there are also gems hidden away in small historical societies that will never be uploaded, like the the Littleton MA town record in which one of my ancestors was paid by the town to take in his widowed mother–and she turned around and announced she was moving out three weeks later because she couldn’t stand living with her son! This is now part of the official history of the town–and it tells me a lot about the people involved.

  2. Nicely put! I have been to both PP and OSV–both are wonderful. However, one of my favorite places to visit was in Concord, the old Orchard House of Alcott fame. And for anyone interested more in the Midwest, the Living History Farm in Dec Moines is great!

    1. Yes! The Alcott house is great (especially the pencilled drawings on the walls, and the story behind the sink). But I blush to admit I’ve never toured Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, right down the block.

  3. Sheila -it was great fun to read your post – my family came from the Winter’s Hill section of Kinsale in Cork. My great great grandmother was only two when the family came to America. We’re going to Kinsale for the first time this summer to visit. I hope we’ll be lucky enough to meet some oral historians while we are there.

    1. Good luck! I’m always amazed to find who knows who, even though I know Ireland is a small country. Not long ago I had a lunch meeting with an Irish group in Boston–three men, and two women. The men didn’t know each other, but by the time lunch was over they’d discovered more than one person they all knew back in Ireland and were swapping information.

  4. I went to Salem Massachusetts. The witch museum and what happened during the witch trials stuck with me.

    1. An early example of mass hysteria (without the Internet!). I had one ancestor there who was hung as a witch, and one who was accused but survived. That makes it personal.

  5. I spent a lot of time on the East end of Long Island, NY as a child (long ago). Two of the towns out there have put together areas where they have moved old homes and other buildings to show what life was like in the 1600s and the 1700s. When I get to visit there now I love to go to those areas and live in the far past for an hour or two. Also get to see places where my mom spent some her childhood summers in the 1930s. I love reading your clambake stories because of the East Coast areas.

    1. I love places like that, Jacki. Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, NH, has done something similar, but go right up to the 1950s with the decor in one kitchen and have one antique house with each room in a different stage of renovation. Fascinating!

  6. When I was younger I used to go for walks with my Dad in the woods. I remember him showing me the foundation of a house that had belonged to a hermit. I never forgot that probably because I felt sorry for the man having to live alone way out in the woods. I can understand it now.

    1. It was a different time. When I was in high school, I spent a week with a friend in her family’s cottage on Lake Champlain in Vermont. Once when we went exploring we came upon an old cottage, much overgrown–and there was an old car there too, which to my young eyes looked like a model T. Makes you wonder who would (literally) walk away from a house and a car. We didn’t have the nerve to go in–wonder if there was a body there?

  7. I love history too, and if I could do it all over, I would go back to college and major in that. Not sure what career I would use it for, but that’s not the point. 😉 I’ve been to a lot of fascinating places and have so many more on my bucket list, but one of the more interesting ones I’ve been to was a stretch of the Oregon Trail. If I remember correctly, there are only about 300 or so miles left of the trail now, which is kind of sad but makes sense, progress being what it is. I stood on part of the Oregon Trail and tried to imagine what it would be like to travel 2000 miles on a wagon and I just couldn’t do it, even though I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject. Just being there where so many others have been, risking everything for a better life….it was just amazing.

    1. Things like that really make you respect the early settlers. It couldn’t have been easy for them, and they must have gotten reports in a letter now and then from the people who had gone before them–but they went anyway.

  8. I loved this. Sheila you and I share some interests, for sure! Though I took a little step into historical fiction in the story I have in the Poisoned Pen new anthology Bound by Mystery. I am fascinated that you have found so many footprints, so to speak, of your ancestors in Ireland. Edith, I too have never been to OSV, having passed driving from NY to Boston more times than remember. Seems silly, doesn’t it? As to places I loved, one is certainly the Alcott’s home in Concord. But another – highly recommend – is the Tenement Museum in NY. They have recreated tenements apartment at different times in history and the guides tell the stories of the actual people who lived there, people who were immigrants and poor, bringing them back to life. Real NY and real American stories and tremendously moving.

    1. The Tenement Museum sounds fascinating. Most of the exploring of New York that I’ve done was when I was young, and my grandmother would take me around. Which is why I only know the museums and department stores. She wasn’t one for experimenting. I felt lucky when I attended the Romance Writers conference a couple of years ago and had most of one day on my own. I went to (guess what?) the Frick Museum, and a Broadway play. And walked all over. But as an adult one seldom gets the chance to see new things, explore different places.

  9. Sheila, I share your love of history. Mine comes out in works about women in the American West.The place that made the most impression on me was the Little Big Horn battlefield–ghoulish but I truly felt the vibes of history. I do hope we don’t lost NEA NEH, PBS and other cultural sources under the present administration. And, yes, I’m a fan of your books–my roots and family ties are in Scotland. Close enough to share Celtic culture.

    1. I love the American west, too. It always fascinates me that the opening and closing of the frontier is such a compressed period.

  10. I have to mention two places — one grand, one humble. Westminster Abbey was so amazing and so filled with history I almost cried as I walked around it. In the small town of Novinger, Missouri they’ve moved a great, great’s log cabin from a farm into the town and it’s open as a museum. I toured it this summer when I was in the Midwest. I’m thrilled this small town took the time and effort to restore a piece of my family’s history.

  11. Living in Virginia, you can’t go five feet without finding a historical marker and we’ve got historically designated roads that they can’t widen or light because a horse and buggy path was once in the same spot. (Doesn’t seem to bother them paving the darn things, she grumbled.) History here has been more a frustrating impediment to modern life because they won’t just pick and choose one or two to preserve but leave all of the roads protected but tear up historic plots of land to build ugly senior living communities with parking garages behind the historic “protected” building, she remarked, again.

    So historical sites aren’t very sacred for me. Except Gettysburg. The air is heavy and mournful there as if even 150+ years on the very earth mourns for the loss of so many young lives.

    1. I know what you mean. When I was growing up in New Jersey, there was one street leading into the town center (and the railroad station) with a large tree in the middle of it–it was said that George Washington had once tied his horse there. My father used to delight in going around the wrong side of it.

      I need to visit Gettysburg again. And when I was 21, a friend and I visited Omaha Beach. I’m not even sure why we chose to do that, but it does give you a different perspective on WW2 battles. It’s so small!

  12. As a teen, I went on a school trip to England, France, Switzerland, and Germany. I loved every minute of it. I remember feeling the weight of all those who came before us, especially at Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame.

  13. I love to visit Gettysburg and imagine the battles. Really enjoy your books.

  14. I love history as well, and I wish I read more historical mysteries. Of course, they aren’t the best way to learn real history since an author may make a mistake, have an agenda they are pushing, or change a small detail for the plot. Still, they are fun.

    Wish we had more historical places around here, but there aren’t nearly as many. Then again, I have yet to go to the California mission that’s just 20 miles south of where I live, so who knows if I’d actually go if there were some near me.

  15. What? Only one? 😉 The house my Irish immigrant great great grandfather grew up in. Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I could make a list . . .

    1. Again, I was late getting to Independence Hall. When I was in grade school in the Phila area, we drove by it the the bus on the way home–wow. When we moved back to the area, many years later, we didn’t get into the city until we had relatives visiting from Indiana. But since then I have taken myself back there on my own, to enjoy the place. I loved working in Philadelphia–there’s so much history there (I regularly visit Benjamin Franklin’s grave there.)

      1. I would like to go back someday. It was so neat! I just saw 1776 (the live play) and I think it helped me to enjoy it more/get more out of it, having been in the actual place once.

      2. I’m always blown away when I stand in Independence Hall, where our Founders were sketching out the Declaration of Independence. This was July in Philadelphia, right? It gets hot there. They kept all the windows shut so no one could overhear what they were doing, and I doubt they were stripped down to shirtsleeves. It’s a wonder no one passed out. (Or maybe some did and nobody ever mentioned it.)

  16. I have been to Gettysburg multiple times. I may lose my Southern card forever for saying this, but staring across the field, thinking of Pickett’s Charge…..well, to say that those moments soured the romantic portrayal of Robert E. Lee I learned in school is putting it mildly.
    Probably the most moving historical spot I’ve visited was the chapel at Valley Forge. I don’t know why it struck me, but it did. Just like in Gettysburg, I could feel the loss of those poor soldiers all around.

    1. You people are making me feel embarrassed by what I haven’t seen! Although I spent many years in Pennsylvania, and my father lived in spitting distance from Valley Forge, I didn’t visit there until a couple of years ago. (And, yes, I had an ancestor there–they’re everywhere.) I don’t recall the chapel, but the house where Washington stayed (?) was set up as though the occupant had just walked out the door–things like shoes shoved under the bed, and a dirty shirt on a chair. It makes it much more real than a military display would be.

  17. The historic areas of Charleston, South Carolina & the surrounding plantation homes & gardens is still one of my very favorite memories of a vacation trip in the early 80’s with my best friend.

  18. I can hardly wait to read your next book so I will hope for a slim chance that I will win it which would be an honor. Many things have given me so much to ponder. One is my direct connection through my paternal grandmother to the Mayflower and our ancestors who are reinacted and have a replica house at Plymouth Plantation. Another was seeing my paternal grandfather’s immigration papers from Austria. One other memory of my youth was finding arrow heads, and other artifacts on my grandfather’s lighthouse property in Alburg, Vermont on Lake Champlain. My parents let my sister and me view the things we found but always had us put them back into the ground for others to find too. I wanted to keep just one arrowhead but my folks said these items were meant to stay on the peninsula forever. If only I had thought of taking pictures of them…But 60 years ago I never would have even thought to do that. There was a lot of discussion in our family about all of these events mentioned here and I am so grateful to know as much as I do about my heritage.. I can just imagine how enriched your life has gotten with each and every story you hear about your Irish ancestors. Thank you for sharing your life with us.

  19. I was born in Washington D.C. in 1935 and lived in California since 1936 but do love to see the history of Washington D.C. as my father’s family go back many generations. My mom had a Native American father and Irish American mother and my mom’s Indian auntie’s were great story tellers and through them were have the history all the way back to Long Island waiting for the rest of you to arrive.. Bits and pieces and then the internet.

  20. I used to love Old Sturbridge when I was a kid. The only downside is it’s gotten so expensive! Other historical highlights in my past: Notre Dame in Paris, Westminster Abbey, and Fatima in Portugal where the Virgin was supposed to appear to three children. I’m not particulatly religious but thought it was cool just to be in the same spot where so many have made a pilgrimage to.

  21. Visiting Germany (tons of times to visit family) had to biggest effect on me. Their history goes back so far. Seeing the Burgs, the castles, the scars of war, wow you learn so much. Neuschwanstein Castle of course is amazing (Disney’s castle is based on it). And the history that surrounds it and the historical figures that had a hand in it’s building is even more astounding than just how beautiful it truly is. I loved hearing my oma’s history, before, during and after the war. Being turned in to the Nazi’s by her own mother-in-law (she was a gypsy) and the things she had to do to keep my mother and her sisters safe, just amazing.

  22. The historic place that made a great impression on me was the ghost town of Fayette MI. It’s on beautiful Big Bay du Noc and it once produced iron ore. There are some buildings that have been preserved and it is now a Michigan State Park. It is so beautiful, I find it hard to believe that no one lives there.

    1. I’ve only passed through Michigan briefly, so I don’t know it. But I think I know what you mean. The first time I saw where my Connolly family lived, out in the country in County Cork, my first through was “how could they have left?” Then the other parts of my brain kicked in–let’s see, ten children, not enough land to go around, no jobs, political unrest. So the family scattered to the US and Australia and New Zealand, and only a couple of siblings stayed behind. Sad to say, you can’t eat scenery, no matter how lovely.

  23. So many places! I’ve visited practically all of the historic places within a 75 mile radius of Boston. I now live in Lancaster, PA and am making my way through the sites within a couple of hours drive. Love ’em all. Major influence: Machu Picchu and other ruins in Peru . Very memorable small place: Hopewell Furnace where I learned about early iron and charcoal making. Fourteen restored buildings make the era come alive. Oh and so many historic homes around the country, and San Xavier Mission in Tucson, and … and … and … .

    1. My father used to live south of Lancaster (Willow Street), but we didn’t do a lot of sightseeing, because he was an impatient driver and insisted on lecturing the Amish people in buggies who were slowing him down. Machu Picchu is on my bucket list. So’s Hadrian’s Wall.

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