Edith/Maddie here, writing from north of Boston and still basking in my 25th release week.
I’m even more delighted to share the week with our dear, late friend Sheila Connolly, whose last mystery, The Secret Staircase, also came out on Tuesday. I got an early read and loved the story. A lucky commenter will win a copy of the new book!
Kate Hamilton is feeling good about her plans to recreate Asheboro, Maryland as the Victorian village it once was. The town is finally on her side, and the finances are coming together.
Kate’s first goal is to renovate the Barton Mansion on the outskirts of town. Luckily, it’s been well maintained in the century since the wealthy Henry Barton lived and died there. The only substantial change she’s planning is to update the original kitchen so that it can be used to cater events in the building. But when the contractor gets started, he discovers a hidden staircase that had been walled in years earlier. And as Kate’s luck would have it, in the stairwell is a body.
After her initial shock wears off, Kate is relieved when the autopsy reveals that the man had died around 1880. Unfortunately, it also reveals that his was not a natural death—he was murdered. And serious questions remain: who was he and what was he doing there? Kate begins a hunt to identify the man and figure out what he was doing at the Barton Mansion. But when a second body is found—this time from the present day—Kate realizes that real dangers lie in digging up the past…
Sheila’s daughter Julie Williams did deep edits and revisions on Sheila’s manuscript, and I was thrilled that she agreed to be interviewed for this post.
Edith: You did such a good job of keeping Sheila’s voice in your extensive edits of The Secret Staircase, her last book. Had you written fiction before, or done other kinds of writing?
Julie: Thank you for saying so! I aimed to keep my mother’s unique voice intact, while making the changes requested to get the manuscript into its best possible shape for publication. Of course, it helped that I knew the author so well! To answer your question: I have always identified as a writer and a lover of language, though that has taken many different shapes and directions in my life.
I remember an elementary school teacher commenting to my parents that I had a good sense of the nuances of different words; when my mother reported this back to me, I had to ask, “What does ‘nuance’ mean?” In college, I read and wrote a lot of poetry, and while that has largely faded in the intervening years, I think it still influences my rhythms and word choices on a sentence level. I love novels and short stories, but my attempts to actually compose fiction of my own have been few and far between thus far. I find it hard to get projects started and to push through the uncertain parts, which makes me wonder sometimes if my real skill isn’t in editing, taking what’s almost ready and helping it to shine.
So, the task of working on The Secret Staircase was a unique treat, as well as a mountain to climb. I got to flex my creaky writing and editing muscles, while not having to make an entire novel from whole cloth. I learned a lot.
Julie: To be honest, I have a bit of impostor syndrome when it comes to theater! I’m not very ambitious – I don’t have fancy headshots [Edith: Ahem, yes she does! See below], a graduate degree, or a long and varied list of credits – but luckily, Chicago (where I live) is populated with a wide variety of strange and serious small theater companies, doing their own thing in intimate spaces over many years. That tends to be where I hang out. I have mostly worked on productions with the Curious Theatre Branch, where I am a company member.
The main difference I notice between making something for the stage and making a work of fiction for publication is the “embodiment” factor. Once you’ve composed a script and begun rehearsals, you start hearing people say your precious words out loud, and you might find yourself thinking, “No, not this! Cut it!” You can use the experience of hearing your work in performance as an editing tool (it helps if you have patient actors), while a novel manuscript can exist as a silent Word document for many months. But I guess this might be the function of critique groups and trusted readers for other writers! I’m a rather solitary animal in art-making, and perhaps that will change over time. I have become a big fan of reading aloud – to hear what’s working, what dialogue sounds clunky, and where I’ve repeated a word three times on this page already.
Edith: Do you have plans to continue any of your mom’s series or to write your own cozy mysteries?
Julie: The existing series will likely not continue, sad to say. (Unless The Secret Staircase is some kind of runaway sensation… Stranger things have happened!) But continuing to write does appeal to me. I’ve been talking to my mother’s agent about pitching a cozy series of my own – and working, verrry slowwwly, on getting some initial chapters together. It has been an educational process already. (When I can steal a few minutes away from the baby, the dishes, the emails, and the day’s other ordinary needs to think about writing fiction, that is.)
I’ve been looking at the cozy landscape: frequent tropes, what’s established and successful, what’s emerging and changing things. I have a few years’ work experience as a production baker in a small coffeeshop setting – making croissants, mixing batters in enormous machines, washing endless dishes – and that feels like a natural place to set a story, but looking through the existing cozies out there, I wonder if that slice of the market isn’t saturated already! I’d love to hear from cozy writers and readers – how important does a fresh, new angle or setting feel to you?
Edith: Writers in the New England crime fiction community, as well as fans all over the world, loved Sheila’s books – and her. Do you have a favorite one of her series?
Julie: Looking back, I didn’t read as many of my mother’s books as I should have! They were a wonderful secret key into the workings of her mind. Whenever I visited home, I got a heaping slice of all her recent writing topics (and conferences, and blog posts) in our conversations. I have an affection for the Irish series; it’s lovely to see that very rural part of the world depicted as the rich and lively place it is, and it was such a passion of my mother’s. I know it made her very happy to write those books – and to keep making research trips to Ireland!
Edith: So many of us shared vicariously in Sheila’s adventures acquiring and furnishing her Irish cottage. Do you have plans for it? (Hint – will you rent it to other mystery authors for retreats after traveling is safe again?)
Julie: Ha! I certainly won’t rule that out… I do plan to keep the cottage in the picture for now, and while I look forward to visiting, I can’t spend all my time there (my elderly cat would get too lonely at home), so I’ll have to figure out some scheme for the future. I was recently paging through an old passport, and noticed that the Irish stamp said, “Good for 90 days,” which made me think: “Hey, you can stay for three months without any trouble?!” That had never occurred to me, and it feels wildly unrealistic but also fun, to contemplate longer trips there. The car rental does get quite pricey, though… You see?
There are some logistics to work out! But I love the idea of keeping the cottage, and having friends and artists use it as a retreat. I plan to visit next summer (all fingers crossed) and meet up with some of my partner’s family members (an American branch of O’Reillys). I look forward to less fraught travel times in the future – as do we all, I imagine.
Edith: You have a darling baby, now a toddler. Do you find bits of your mom’s spirit in Ginger, and can we assume she already loves books?
Julie: Oh, she’s definitely a reader. She’s about a year and a half old now, and she likes to bring book after book over to wherever I’m sitting, commanding, “Read! Read!” I don’t think she pays much attention to the text, but she will stare attentively at each page, and point out things she recognizes. (Owl! Car! Hat!) It’s wonderful to watch her face and remember the thrill of discovering language for the first time.
[Edith: That is the cutest picture, EVER.]
Julie: And there are other facets of Sheila in Ginger – she’s quite tall, for one! I wish my mother could have known her. It was something of a plot twist in my life to have a child at all, and I know my mother was delighted, in her final months, by any news she received. What an exhausting and lovely time it is, in spite of everything.
Readers: Which of Sheila’s books or series is your favorite? How important does a fresh, new angle or setting in a cozy feel to you? If you had the pleasure of meeting Sheila, share an anecdote for Julie. Or ask her a question! She’ll send one commenter a copy of the new book.
Find Julie here:
Sheila Connolly (1950-2020) published over thirty mysteries, including several New York Times bestsellers. Her series include the Orchard Mysteries, the Museum Mysteries, The County Cork Mysteries, and the Victorian Village Mysteries. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of Mayflower Descendants.