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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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?
Coming tomorrow, January 8th, from Crooked Lane Books