What You Remember

So here we are, on the first Monday of the first month of the new year. If I’d been smart when I started writing in 2001, I would have kept some kind of journal of my progress over the years, but I was a newbie and had no idea what I was doing or where I’d end up, so I just kept plugging along. (Predictably the publishing and writing universe changed.)

Connolly's of Leap
Connolly’s of Leap

The seventh book in my County Cork Mysteries comes out tomorrow. One of the first books I ever completed was set in West Cork, in front of the now-iconic pub Connolly’s of Leap. It’s not only still there, but it’s thriving, and I know the people who run the place (although we haven’t yet proved that we’re related, but the odds are good). That first book, however (written in 2001), is still sitting on a shelf collecting dust, which is where it belongs. But writing it taught me a lot.

I had never seen Ireland before my first trip in 1998 and I had no particular expectations, just curiosity. When I was there on that first trip, with my husband and daughter, it never occurred to me that I was doing research. I just knew I loved West Cork on sight (and it was pouring rain at the time!).

I went back to Ireland the next year with my daughter. In 2001 I went with a friend I knew only through the Internet (we were distantly related). I went to Australia because I had Irish relatives there, and we got together a couple of times. And so on, through the years, and I lost count of visits. Two years ago I bought a cottage in West Cork, within sight of where one of my great-grandmothers was born. I can see the family house while I wash dishes.

cottage from east 7-17 (1)
The cottage at Garryglas

Since 1998 I have learned so much about the region and the people of Ireland without even looking for it. I have made friends with an unlikely mix of people, who now greet me by name when I show up. We talk, and I listen. Several of us have found that we’re either related, or we know some of the same people (usually a few thousand miles away). If I say I’m a Connolly, immediately I’m surrounded by relatives I didn’t know existed, and we start comparing notes about families.

This past year I took the Ancestry DNA test, just out of curiosity, and discovered that while I thought I was 50% Irish (through my father’s parents), in fact biology shows I’m 75% Irish—which means my mystery grandmother (my mother’s mother, who was orphaned as a young child) had to have been Irish, which even she didn’t know. I never expected that.

I started writing about a particular niche in Ireland, the part where my father’s father’s people came from. I’ve seen their houses, and in some cases their graves, and I’ve gotten together with the one cousin I know more than once.

But this is not only about enjoying a vacation. After seven books, set in a very real place, reviewers have said things that startled me:

“This seventh in Anthony and Agatha Award nominee Connolly’s ‘County Cork Mystery’ series (after Many a Twist) is a thoughtfully executed and charmingly talkative cozy. The Irish setting is authentic, Maura is a delight, and the characters are gaining depth as this series matures.”
—Library Journal starred review

“Inviting…As usual, Connolly’s lively characters and lovely landscape enhance her well-wrought, thought-provoking plot. Series fans won’t be disappointed.”
—Publishers Weekly

I didn’t go to Ireland to make notes and take pictures (which I do often, though mostly they’re of flowers and mushrooms and cows and food), but along the way I paid attention—enough that I could make the place “real” to readers. And I didn’t even know I was doing it—I just watched and listened.

It’s a wonderful way to learn to write: just pay attention. And save the memories. I want to keep doing it as long as I can, while watching the cows across the lane and the rainbows.

img_4020 (3)

What about those of you who write? Do you find some details or places or event just stick in your mind and you find a way to use them? Does it make a difference if your places are real rather than invented?

lost traveller

Coming tomorrow, January 8th, from Crooked Lane Books

16 Thoughts

  1. Congratulations, Sheila! I know this is the series of your heart, and it shows.

    Even my fictional towns are set in real places. I’m heading to the Cape in a couple of weeks to soak up details for fictional Westham in Cozy Capers Mysteries #3 – and for book six in the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, which will be set in real 1889 West Falmouth!

    1. It’s so much easier to write about a place you know than to make one up. Although if you have to move a road or add a new street to a town, no doubt a reader will notice and correct you! For the Museum Mysteries I wanted to write about Philadelphia because I know it fairly well, and also because it’s such an interesting mix of historic and modern. But as you noticed, Ireland grabbed me from the start, and I can actually find my way around there (which continues to surprise me, because I still get lost in parts of Massachusetts).

  2. I think “paying attention” is the greatest gift and responsibility of a writer. Perhaps not research in the strictest sense of the word, but certainly in the wider sense. Brings home all the details that make characters and places real. Congratulations on The Lost Traveller, Sheila – looking forward to the read!

  3. I forgot to mention that the last time I watched the Jeopardy Teen Tournament, Alex was interviewing the young contestants. One of the general questions he asked was “how did you prepare for Jeopardy?” One young man (could he have been a freshman?) said simply, “I pay attention.” He will go far. ()Don’t remember if he won.)

  4. Love this Sheila and paying attention is so important. I was just down in the panhandle of Florida where my new series is set. Our Uber driver said someone was the son of a biscuit eater which made me laugh. There are very Southern roots in the panhandle but also an influx in the past twenty years of people from other places (not away like in New England) who bring different sayings and traditions with them. It’s all fascinating.

  5. My favorite saying when my son was growing up was “Pay attention!” My copy will be on the front porch tomorrow. Woo Hoo!!!

    1. Enjoy! I’m still boggled that I have regular conversations with (a) an accused murderer (who wants to write and sell a thriller) and a delightful policeman who’s into genealogy. I don’t seem to run into people like that in my neighborhood! And yes, both of those encounters have ended up in books in one way or another.

  6. What a lovely post, and photos. Even my invented places are rooted in reality. Photographs transported to different settings to protect the innocent and not so innocent.

  7. This is so very true. I think part of the writing bug (desire? tendency? fate?) is to observe and remember for who-knows-why. But those odd little moments are stored and they come back when needed, as you’ve described. I’ve always been like that, long before I had a reason for it. Yesterday I sat in a cafe and observed two people, not together, who were unusually dressed. Not weird but…off. Different. Will one or both show up in a book someday? What are the chances? 🙂
    (And looking forward to the new book. Sounds and looks delilghtful)

    1. My husband and I have sometimes discussed what we remember from our pasts (he’s a scientist, not a writer!). I’m sometimes amazed at the odd things the I can recall, like which sweater I was wearing when my kindergarten class was touring a farm and I offered to hold a cute lamb and it promptly let loose on the sweater (the sweater was white with appliqued flowers; my mother was not pleased). Maybe that was memorable, but there were plenty of other random events that I filed away too. I think my husband long ago decided I was crazy, because his memories are a lot fuzzier.

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