The Secret Staircase Release and #giveaway

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.

Edith: You have a lot of experience in the theater. How does that kind of creative work compare with crafting (or polishing) a written-word story?

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?

Sheila at a conference, one of Edith’s favorite pictures of her

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?

Julie with her parents at Drinagh, Sheila’s cottage

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.

Sheila near her cottage with a bit of cabbage

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.

Ginger

[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.

Julia Williams | Photo credit Jeff Bivens

Find Julie here:

FB: https://www.facebook.com/mysterydenizen

IG: https://www.instagram.com/mysterydenizen/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mysterydenizen

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.

85 Thoughts

  1. Edith and Julie, I love this interview. It was really informative.

    Please don’t enter me in the giveaway as I’m going to pick up my copy on Friday.

    My favorite series from Sheila is the County Cork series. I love series that are set in Ireland so this was definitely a draw to me.

    I got to meet Sheila once at a signing she was part of with Edith and Barbara Ross on the Cape. Edith actually introduced me to Sheila and after the event, I spent a few minutes talking to her about Ireland. Since it seems unlikely that I’ll ever get there myself, it was a big thrill to spend that bit of time talking about the country with someone who’d actually been there.

    As for the fresh angle and setting question, I suppose that helps but regardless of the point of view the series would come from or where it is set, the story is king. It wouldn’t matter what spin you put on angle or setting if the story itself wasn’t compelling.

    I’d be interested in learning more about the series that Julie is working on pitching.

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    1. I love that cover image, too. That giant Queen Anne style of Victorians can be ridiculous — so much going on! — but also very captivating to look at. I always want to see the insides…

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  2. Hi again Julie, you’ve done such a good job launching the book this week. Fingers crossed on sales–my copy is snuggled into the TBR pile next to the bed. I love the Irish series too–a stranger in a strange land that turns out to be familiar in so many ways…I do think you need a unique hook for a new series, and a strong protagonist. I think you have the talent so we are all rooting for you!

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  3. I absolutely love Sheila Connelly’s writing. I was so shocked and saddened by her passing. I felt as if I lost a good friend. Her County Cork Mysteries are among my favorite. I have them all and leave the latest one out on my side table to honor her memory. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to Moira, old Mick and all the wonderful characters in those books.
    I would be honored and humbled to win a book by her. The tears are flowing as I write this.

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  4. Julie, what a lot you have been through. Your mom was certainly beloved and it was a joy to know her. Your daughter is precious and good luck in all your future endeavors on stage and with writing. Oh, and I think a fresh angle on a book set in a bakery will always be well accepted.

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  5. How wonderful you have been able to work on a book your mom wrote!! I can’t recall reading one of her books, course that doesn’t mean I haven’t lol! The house on the book cover is practically identical to one in my neighborhood and I always admire it when I go by. And your baby is simply adorable!

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  6. Welcome, Julie and congratulations on the release. What a bittersweet time it must have been for you bringing your mother’s book to the public. We are grateful that you did and I’m sure Sheila is proud.

    My favorite of your mother’s series was the Relatively Dead series. Something about the series and the setting was especially appealing. I first read your mother as Sarah Atwell in the Glassblowing series and have followed her books eagerly ever since. I’m looking forward to reading The Secret Staircase. What a wonderful Nancy Drewish title.

    Best of luck with your own cozy series.

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  7. Brought a big grin to my face to see Sheila’s name on a new book. Thank you to her daughter and all those who brought Sheila’s last work to us for one more mysterious ride. Love the title (so Nancy Drew) and the cover.

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  8. Congratulations on the release of your Mom’s book. My question is did you ever worry that since you didn’t read as many of her books as you stated, that maybe knowing your mom as well as you did could be somewhat of a detriment to finishing her book? By that I mean that maybe instead of writing her characters in the same way she wrote them, that they would turn out to be more like your Mom instead?

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    1. That is an interesting thought. It may be true in some part — but I also think the way she talked and processed ideas manifested in her characters, so knowing her helped to give some clue into her as a writer. And I changed details here and there in the final drafting process, so the characters probably reflect some of my own thoughts as well!

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  9. Lovely tribute to Sheila, a treat for all her many fans. And it’s nice to know the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Good luck to Julie with that series. We’re all waiting to turn those pages.

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  10. I don’t know that I could pick a favorite but how neat that you were able to finish the book for her. Did you ever find it intimidating or worry about it “fitting” with the rest of the series?

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    1. I read through the other books in the series and made notes to get a sense of the flavor, and what details about characters and setting had already been established. It is definitely a concern — but I hope I have not strayed too far off the path! I enjoyed myself.

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  11. Thanks so much for visiting today, Julie! I enjoyed your mum’s company so much whenever I had the chance to visit with her and your post brought that all back in a lovely way! She was always so gracious and encouraging and brimming with enthusiasm. Best of luck to you with your writing endeavors and motherhood!

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  12. I am so glad to hear another book of the series is completed. I love the museum series and its sister, the Victorian Village. As someone who has lived in New England(4 out of 6 states) and now in the Philadelphia area, the locations have become familiar to me and the choice of subject matter for the story plots speak to me! Congratulations to you for taking on and completing some of her work. Your adorable baby has great attitude! Fabulous picture.

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  13. I think my favorite was the County Cork series, but that tended to change with whichever series had a new book out!

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  14. Welcome to the Wickeds, Julie! I worked in theater for many years, and your mother would update me on your theater life. Sounds like you’re making it work, which is such a challenge. I loved my conversations with Sheila–she was SO smart, listened well, and had that great smile. Congratulations on the book! And I hope you continue to explore a series of your own.

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  15. Oh, how I miss Sheila! I don’t have a favorite series, I love them all. I encourage you to write your own cozies, but I have to say, another story set in the a bakery (where poison just has to be a part) is probably not necessary. I know one should write what one knows, but so many authors take on new topics and do such a wonderful job with the necessary (and mostly fun) research. I’m looking forward to reading The Secret Staircase. And I love the house on the cover, too!

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  16. I was so sad to hear of Sheila Connolly’s passing. I loved the Museum Mysteries and this new one. I have some of the Irish ones but have not read them yet. I had so gotten into the new one of that I was devastated that it would not go on. Then I found that her daughter finished it and I was like, “Yes!” Now she says she won’t continue writing it. Bummer. I hate it when a favorite character and series just goes away–like Ellery Adams Books by the Bay where Olivia experiences a tragedy with the Chief and then just leaves. And lately with Sherry Harris’s Garage Sale Mysteries. The last one was great and now there will be no more. Boo hoo!

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  17. Congratulations on the release of “The Secret Staircase”. Finishing your Mother’s book had to be a daunting task. I’m sure you did a great job. I love reading about beautiful homes and I’m looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for the chance.

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  18. Loved your Moms books. Can’t even pick out a favorire because they were all great. Thank you for finishing this book. That was a labor of love. Thanks fr a chance to win.

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  19. What a labor of love. Thank you for finishing her work. Loved all her books and can’t even pick a favorite. They were all great. Thanks for a chance to win a copy.

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  20. I loved all your Mom’s books. I’m excited to read this last one. What a fun interview with Edith! Good luck with your own writing career! Thanks for a chance to win.

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  21. I absolutely adored all of Sheila’s series. She is greatly missed. I’ve been a genealogist since I was 18 & I loved how she wove that passion into every series. I can’t wait to read this one. Thanks for the opportunity. Ginger is adorable! 🧡

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  22. Congratulations on the book, Julie! Editing and finishing a ms. is a great way to kick off your own writing career. While there are a lot of series set in bakeries and in theaters, I do think you could find a fresh angle, drawing on your experience, and maybe mixing the two.

    I have many lovely memories of Sheila, but probably the best come from our day exploring St. Louis in the pouring rain the day before Bouchercon! We dashed through the sculpture park on the long boulevard, went up the Arch, prowled the Lewis & Clark exhibit, and laughed a lot. We were roommates that weekend, staying a historic hotel a few blocks from the convention center, and had a great time. She was almost as excited as I was to see my first book, the nonfiction book, on display in the book room.

    Though I enjoyed each of her series for different reasons, I’m among the many readers who were most charmed by the County Cork series. I confess, I haven’t read the last one, so I don’t have to admit it’s really ended.

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  23. I had the pleasure of reading an ARC of your mom’s book from NetGalley, and you did an amazing job with it! Had I not read Edith’s own review of it on Goodreads and another blog she’d commented on in June, I wouldn’t have even guessed someone else finished out the book. As for your own series, just write what you like or know. As a huge cozy mystery fan/reader, I read tons of the same subject (like baking, library, bookstore), but everyone has their own spin on them, and I can’t honestly say any of them are alike or have turned me away from wanting to read simply because it’s another baking or another library mystery. If you like baking in a coffeehouse theme since you know it, go for it and write about it! I know I for one will be waiting to read it! Best of luck, Julie, and by the way, your little girl is adorable. Edith, it was an absolutely awesome interview!

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    1. Thanks for the perspective, Tari! I do think every place is different, even if the settings/themes might look alike from the outside. And I think “write what you know” is often a smart dictum, especially for those of us starting out!

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  24. I remember meeting your Mom at a New England Mobile Book Fair event with mystery writers from the NE area. As the event was just starting when I arrived, I had the opportunity to chat with your Mom about her books, what she was working on and having her autograph books for me.
    I shall miss all her wonderful series.

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  25. Hi Sheila. You are a new author to me. I love the cover and cozy mysteries. Thank you so much for sharing. It is nice to meet you.

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  26. Actually I loved all the series Sheila wrote. She was extremely good with the main characters and chose some great side characters as well. I have put my reviews up on Goodreads. I have all of her books. I am however just obtaining the latest one from the library. She will be miss. A writer is someone who in the first few pages can grab your interest and keep you wanting to turn the next page. Sheila did a great job doing that.

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  27. Unfortunately I have not read any of her books. 😦 but they sound like they are great reads. I love the cover to your book,it sounds very intriguing audit looks very intriguing also. I will be adding this book to my TBR list. I enjoyed this interview, and thank you so much for the lovely interview. Have a great weekend and stay safe.

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  28. Julie – it sounds wonderful to have been able to work on your mother’s book. I will miss reading new stories from her.

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  29. I haven’t been reading cozies too long so Sheila would be a new author for me. She is going on my TBR list definitely. This one looks so good!

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  30. I had the honor of having breakfast with your mom at a Malice Domestic conference. It was totally by accident because the other tables were taken but we had room at ours. I’m thankful that happened because I was able to thank her for writing her Orchard mysteries. I studied the first one to learn how to write a cozy. Love her mysteries.

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  31. I met Sheila at my first (and only, so far) Crime Bake. We bonded as scholars. I loved her museum books, and was glad to be able to tell her so. I remember her wonderful FB posts about the Irish cottage. I’m Irish and English on my mother’s side, and enjoyed her adventures meeting her relatives and enjoying Irish life, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read any of her books from that series. As for another bakery series — who doesn’t love a great croissant? In my town there’s a quaint tiny bakery called Le French Dad that everyone adores. How about a French bakery? Valerie Horowitz

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  32. In a new-to-me series, I want the descriptions to be detailed enough that I can get a feel for the area. In a series I am familiar with, I don’t want too much change in any one book: changing job AND location AND significant other all at once is too much.

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