Friday, September 14, 2012


by Sheila Connolly
Recently I was invited to be the speaker at a private literary club in Philadelphia.  Since I write the Museum Mysteries series based in Philadelphia (in the very neighborhood where the club is located), I was happy to do it.  I've also been going back and forth with the library in the town that is the model for my fictional Granford from the Orchard Mysteries series:  they want to hold an apple festival event next month—with me as the main speaker.

I sat down to put together a talk for the Philadelphia event, and realized that for each series I present myself as a different person. When I talk about my writing to others, I'm three different people—DAR member with a family tree that goes back to 1620; former fundraising professional in the big city; daughter of Erin.  I don't have to make anything up, but they're all different.

Some of you may remember that I began writing under the pen name Sarah Atwell, with the Glassblowing Mysteries.  This was a work-for-hire series, a three-book contract offered by Berkley Prime Crime, and I am grateful to them.  However, I told them that I had never blown glass and had never seen Tucson, where they wanted to set the series.  They didn't mind—they liked my writing.  The first book in the series, Through a Glass, Deadly, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Book, but that wasn't enough to save the series, which ended with the third book.  Was that because it didn't feel "true" to readers?  I don't suppose I'll ever know.  What I do know is that it's hard to convey the sense of light and air in the desert environment of the Southwest when you've never been there.

Now I write three series:  the Orchard Mysteries, set in western Massachusetts; the Museum Mysteries, set in Philadelphia; and the County Cork Mysteries, set in Ireland.  And I have direct personal ties with all of those.  So when I set out to talk about writing the Museum Mysteries, I could point to my more than twenty years of living in Pennsylvania, first with my parents, then as an adult; I can spin anecdotes about working for Philadelphia's financial advisory firm, at a time when the city faced imminent bankruptcy; and I can refer to my various jobs at Philadelphia non-profit institutions, and what they're really like behind the scenes. 


Choose Column A, the Orchard Mysteries, and I'll tell you about my hundreds of New England ancestors, and distant relatives such as Johnny Appleseed and Ethan Allen and Emily Dickinson; if I'm in "Granford" I can point to the 1790 census, where I'm related to at least a third of the Heads of Household.  The house I use in that series is a real one, built by an ancestor.  I've been inside it several times, from basement to attic, and I've laid hands of timbers that I know were cut cut 250 years ago by people I can identify and I'm related to.  While I may have moved a road or two in the series, other features, such as the Great Meadow, are real.


Column C? My grandfather John Connolly was born in County Cork, but regrettably I never knew him.  I first traveled there more than a decade ago, hoping to understand him better, and to learn about Ireland, which is as large a part of my heritage as all those New England Yankees.  I immediately fell in love with the place and have been back several times since.  As for writing the series, I came to realize that a small Irish town in a rural part of the country is as ideal a setting for a cozy mystery series as is a small Massachusetts town (or an equally small cultural community within a big city like Philadelphia).  Cheers had it right:  it's a place where everybody knows your name—and your grandparents', and when your great-uncle Denis emigrated to New Zealand a century ago and who attended the send-off party.

Some writers say that the setting is as important to any book as the human characters, and I tend to agree.  Sure, we writers can all do research online these day, including accessing 360-degree views of many places from street level.  But it's not the same as being there and observing.  There are too many small but significant details that you will not notice on a computer screen.  Like all the gum stuck to Philadelphia sidewalks, or the (to us) amusing names of Irish products such as Fairy Liquid (a cleaning solution), or the fact that half the street names in "Granford" came from farms that belonged to my ancestors.

What do you think?  Can you sense when an author is making things up and has no real connection to the place?  What details make it come alive to you?



Edith Maxwell said...

I don't know, Sheila. I loved the glassblowing series! Was so sorry to see it end. The setting, a part of the world I love, didn't feel untrue to me.

Susan said...

I know it is a cliche to "write what you know about" and many books about writing say you should stretch yourself, but I tend to agree with you, Sheila. It's all in the details, and when you know them intimately your plot seems more real.

Sheila Connolly said...

I like to think it makes a difference. For example, I know that Barry Eisler made Japan come alive for me (I've never been there) with a wealth of specific details, without making it feel like I was reading a travel guide.

And there are times when you read a book and can't even remember where it's set, other than "big American city".

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sometimes an outsider sees details an insider no longer notices. So for my new series, I'm trying to remember to occasionally put on my "outsider glasses."

Nice essay, Sheila -- thanks!

Fear of Beauty said...

"But it's not the same as being there and observing. There are too many small but significant details that you will not notice on a computer screen...."

But what if the plot's told from first-person POV of an insider? That narrator will ignore details detected by outsiders, especially if she does not share the assumptions of the outsiders. The insider narrator would sound false by keying in on details that she otherwise takes for granted.

It's all in an author's approach. Well, I can only hope. My fourth book is set in a rural village in Afghanistan, and my explorations have been through reading and imagination.

Sheila Connolly said...

Fear (?), you make a good point. An insider wouldn't pay much attention to some details because they've become background. I'll admit I've cheated by making my protagonists newcomers, so they're more aware of their unfamiliar surroundings.

And I hate it when writers use clumsy devices to paint a picture by way of the protagonist, who isn't thinking about such things him- or herself. Like, "he stepped out onto the marble steps of his 1880 brownstone," or "she walked into her shabby office, noting once again the broken coffee maker and the piles everywhere." Almost as bad as, "she combed her short chestnut hair in front of the mirror, noting that her usually bright blue eyes were bloodshot this morning."

Fear of Beauty said...

You don't cheat. As fans (as I've mentioned to you before, my father in law, 90, grew up in Granville and our relishes the books), we recognize you walk that tightrope with skill. And you raise an excellent point - the difference between protagonists who are insiders versus outsiders versus a combination of both and how that influences our writing!