What Have You Done?

by Sheila Connolly

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?

Last year I wrote about meeting an accused killer in Ireland, whose story I borrowed for Cruel Winter. We still chat regularly whenever I’m at the Skibbereen Farmers Market.

Skibbereen Farmers Market–with rainbow

I’m still regretting that I didn’t visit the Teapot Museum when I was in Wales (alas, no time). I did, however, once tour a museum in France featuring the works of the local sculptor Pom-Pom (no, I did not make that up) who specialized in sculpting small animals in plaster. I remember lots of bunnies.

When I was doing research for my dissertation, on a medieval abbey in Angers (in France—and it’s now the city’s police station), I wanted to see the 12th-century sculptures in a nearby abandoned church. There was no one from the local museum to give me a tour, so the director handed me the keys. I had an entire church all to myself. (I did wonder whether if I fell and broke my neck, someone would come looking for me.) I also climbed the freestanding medieval bell tower accompanied by a toothless custodian with a thick accent. (I survived both.)

Apple lovers

In pursuit of apple lore, I attended a seminar given by a national apple expert, followed by a tour of an abandoned orchard. It was very funny to see twenty or so curious adult apple-lovers grazing through the neglected (but heirloom!) trees and tasting whatever they could find, on the trees or on the ground. (Yes, I did too.) What’s more, when I made some joke about writing about murders, the tour guide promptly told me about one that had taken place on the property (a former owner had come home unexpectedly to find his wife busy in bed with someone else—wife and lover died.)

Corn sheller 4
Viintage apple shucker (assembled)

Last year I went to our local 4-H fair, where they always have a “junk” booth filled with things that people bring in, hoping to sell them (or happy just to get rid of them!). I spied a hand-cranked machine lying in pieces on the ground and spent some time trying to figure out what it was used for. I was surrounded by guys in John Deere-type hats, making wild guesses, but I was the only person who figured it out: a corn shucker.

Have I used all these factoids in a book? No, not yet, but I have a mental file of them in case I ever need one, either as a plot point or to add flavor to a story. Actually, finding potential murder weapons in relatively easy. I once purchased a collection of 50-plus vintage cooking tools because I could see so clearly how to slash someone’s throat with a curved chopper (and it’s wicked sharp!). I have a feeling that could show up sometime soon.

Choppers (or murder weapons)

What about you? Writers, what have you seen that you can’t forget and want to use in a book? Readers, what have you seen described in a book that makes you want to see one yourself?

cover - birds fixed - Murder at the Mansion 12-11-17


Oh, right, I have a new book (from the new Victorian Village series!) coming out on June 26th from St. Martin’s.

Find out who dies–and how!




19 Thoughts

    1. Thank you! I worked at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for several years, and loved roaming through the stacks (off limits to the public) and handling letters written by famous people. But they are often fragile and require special treatment, so I can’t let an amateur (or the police) play with them in the books.

  1. I used a sugar auger in one of my Country Store mysteries – it’s a wicked lethal giant auger that was used to break up cakes of sugar!

  2. The weirdest thing I did in the name of research was for someone else. A fellow Guppie needed to know if a normal sized person could climb out the sliding back window of certain Chevy Silverados. I had one in the garage so I tried it. About half-hip through I wasn’t so sure and I wondered what the first responders were going to think if I had to call them! I made it, only slightly bruised, and my writer friend had her answer.

  3. Congrats on the new book!

    I haven’t done anything weird, but I did ask a friend of mine what the best barn tool for murder was. She recommended a hay-hook (giant, sharp pike used to move hay bales as well as break them apart).

  4. I love the cover of the new book! I toured an ancestor’s home which is now a museum. In a corner was this iron thing. One long center piece with spikes poking upwards from it. I think she said it was for drying corn. It would make a wicked murder weapon.

    1. That’s one of the problems with being a mystery writer–you see murder weapons everywhere! Old tools are great. Hmm, I have a small anvil out in the barn. . . The nice thing is that any ME would have trouble identifying the weapon since it’s not in any database. Let’s seem–it’s sharp and pointy and heavy (and it probably wouldn’t hold fingerprints).

      1. I don’t think I see murder weapons everywhere.I’m not too imaginative on that topic. But I do, definitely, see places to hide a body!

  5. This has convinced me I need to up my research game! Much of my research takes place in a -yes, it’s true – library. Or on a regularly scheduled walking tour of a historical place. Though I have taken several cemetery tours. Does that count? 😉 PS Looking forward to the new book.

  6. I’m trying to think of the weirdest thing I’ve ever done for research, but I’ve done some interesting things just in my general life that maybe a I should just say they were for research.

  7. Hiking in the Andes certainly showed me lots of places to push people off of mountains and easily hide the bodies. As far as reading about things described I would like to see: Everything! I love to learn. What came to mind first was the intricate workings of bell towers and clock towers.

    i love your books, Sheila, and appreciate all the research you put into them.

    1. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t a lot of fun! I was once visiting the sister of a friend. She was nanny for the summer, but a couple of evenings a week she practiced change-ringing at the local church. Having read The Nine Tailors, of course I had to check it out (not that I was allowed to touch anything).

  8. Your apple shucker is also a corn sheller. My son redid a John deere one for a 4-h project and its sitting in his home, went to state fair. The sheller was originally bought by his great grandfather and they used them to shell corn used for seed, or used it to shell popcorn. Enjoy seeing how much research is used to write cozies and other genre

    1. I loved the thing (it’s amazing I didn’t bid on it)! It had two sizes for the cob–maybe it did double duty! I was also amazed at the level of decoration of the thing–elegant color and a bit of gilt. Not just an everyday object. Do you use yours?

  9. I pretty much do not have any knowledge of weapons, so I usually have to look up what is mentioned in stories. Some of those historical weapons are really scary.

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