by Sandra Murphy
This week we have a review & giveaway of Many a Twist by Sheila Connolly and an interview with Sheila. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Many a Twist, and a link to purchase it from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
Many a Twist: County Cork series by Sheila Connolly
Review by Sandra Murphy
Maura Donovan wants to have more business at her pub. So far, the music nights have been a hit. Should food be added next? When an American businessman shows interest in bringing his hotel guests by for “an authentic look” at an Irish pub, she’s not that enthused. Why make the townspeople feel like an exhibit at the zoo just to make more money?
Maura agrees to have lunch at the hotel with the man’s assistant to hear more about it, in spite of her doubts. The hotel is beautiful and the food delicious, but Maura doesn’t feel like her pub is a good fit for their plans. Still, she promises to keep an open mind.
When Maura’s friend Sean, the local garda (policeman), stops by the pub the next day, he asks Maura to come to the station with him. It seems John, the American, has been found dead on the hotel grounds. His assistant, Helen, is being questioned and refuses to talk unless she can speak to Maura first.
No matter what reason Maura could have guessed for the request, the reality would never have crossed her mind. Helen reveals she’s actually Maura’s mother, the woman who walked out on Maura when she was just a toddler, leaving her in her grandmother’s care. Why, after all these years, would she reappear?
Maura’s life has almost too many changes for her to keep up with. She’s sort of attracted to Mick who works for her. They’ve shared a kiss or two but neither talks about it. Rose, her barmaid, is now grown enough to want a life beyond pulling pints for the regulars. Rose’s dad who also puts in hours at the pub, although calling it work might be a stretch, is getting married. Will he stay on? Maura’s friend Gillian, is pregnant, nearing her due date and in need of help to move into a new place that needs renovation. For Maura to suddenly have a mother is too much to think about once John’s death is called a murder. Solve the murder first, then think about the rest.
This is the sixth book in the series. Maura continues to grow as a character, finding her place among the locals. The pub is where news is exchanged, a pint tides customers over until time to go home and a welcoming stop for the occasional tourist. The side character’s lives are changing too, and readers will look forward to seeing what come next for them.
Connolly writes the Museum mysteries (seven so far), the Orchard series (eleven books), the Relatively Dead mysteries (four of those), two stand-alone books, and as Sarah Atwell, three Glass Blowing mysteries—and still finds time to visit Ireland to give Maura a place to live.
Interview with Sheila Connolly:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Sheila: I co-authored a script for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when I was sixteen, submitted it, and received my very first rejection letter. Does that count?
I didn’t attempt to write a book until 2001, after 9/11, when I had one of those lightbulb moments and I asked myself, “what am I waiting for? Just do it!” I then proceeded to write several bad books which remain unpublished, but they did get better.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Sheila: Through a Glass, Deadly, written under the name Sarah Atwell, came out in 2008. It was a work-for-hire for Berkley Prime Crime, but it happened almost by accident. I’d been submitting queries to a lot of agents (and collecting rejections), including BookEnds. After the fourth or fifth submission to BookEnds, one of the envelopes (remember those?) came back empty, so I cranked up my courage and called partner Jacky Sach and asked for what I was sure was the inevitable rejection. She was very polite and apologetic, confirmed that it had been a rejection, but since I was on the phone and Berkley was looking for someone to write a series about a glassblower… that’s where it began, and I’m still represented by Jessica Faust of BookEnds.
The publisher’s description for the first book was brief and the series featured a glassblower in Arizona. Luckily, I had taken some glassmaking classes, and there are quite a few glassblowers on Cape Cod, near my Massachusetts home, so I could pick the brains of some talented people and get some more hands-on experience. I’d never been to the American Southwest at all, so in the first book I was guessing about a lot of details. Who knew that cacti grew everywhere there, including in the parking lot at the Tucson airport?
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not, what else have you written?
Sheila: I had been reading cozies since high school, although I don’t think they were labeled that back in the dark ages. But when I decided to try writing, I first joined Romance Writers of America, because that was the only writers group I had ever heard of, and I knew even then that romance sold better than mystery, so it seemed a practical choice. I quickly discovered I do not have a romance voice, and I get bored writing something unless there was more to the plot than two people meeting and spending the rest of the book trying to decide whether they really like each other. I do include romantic elements in my books, but there’s also a corpse.
I will admit that I did finish one romance, a sweet love story between a Philadelphia accountant and an Irish pub-owner. It was important only because the location in a village in Ireland became the heart of the County Cork Mysteries, several years later (minus those original characters, though).
But I have also been a professional genealogist, and I have a lot of ancestors in Massachusetts, who I swear have been calling to me for decades. When I decided to try something different with my writing, I came up with a paranormal romance involving a young woman who suddenly begins to see various departed ancestors (in Massachusetts, of course) but has no idea why. Luckily, she meets someone who knows a bit more about it (since he shares the same ability) and is helping her understand what’s happening to her, and then they kind of fall in love, and…that became the Relatively Dead series, and the sixth one will be released this year.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Please tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Sheila: The latest book, Many a Twist (released January 9), revolves around that pub I mentioned, in a tiny village in West Cork, Ireland, near where my father’s father was born (he left for New York in 1911).
Both of my father’s parents were born in Ireland. Unfortunately, my mother hated all her In-laws’ on sight. That might have been because they told her when they first met that they’d hoped their Johnny would be a priest, so I never met those grandparents.
By the time I had a child who was old enough to enjoy traveling, I thought I needed to know more about that whole side of the family, so my husband, daughter, and I took a vacation to England, Wales and Ireland. We had intended to spend only a day in Ireland, but we immediate extended it when we arrived (and it stopped raining). My daughter and I went back the following summer, stayed in the same village, and spent time getting to know the area. I met my first local relative, a second cousin. By the way, the real pub that’s the model for the one in the book is called Connolly’s. It must have been fate.
The main theme of the series is simple. I was a stranger to Ireland, even though I had the Connolly name. My protagonist in the County Cork series, Maura Donovan, is also a stranger to the place. She was raised by her Irish-born grandmother, in Boston, and she never thought she’d have the money to go to Cork ? and she didn’t really think she wanted to. Thanks to a small legacy from her grandmother, Maura makes the trip with a plan to go back to Boston after a week, but more than a year later she’s still in Ireland, only now she has a home and a business and a growing circle of friends, and a whole new view of life, although she’s still the newcomer, but one with deep roots. She’s now both an outsider and an insider.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Sheila: Both. I try to create believable characters that readers can identify with, and since these are mysteries, I need to put a dead body in the story somewhere! I also can’t help myself from giving readers some interesting information along the way. As I said, I’ve been a professional genealogist, and I’ve worked in more than one museum (in a large city), and I’ve lived in New England for many years, so I’ve used my knowledge of all of those in my books.
Writing about Ireland has been an enlightening experience, because the culture there is both familiar and unfamiliar. Spending time in any other country (at various times I’ve lived in England and France) is always a wonderful, and indirectly I learn something about my own culture. Writing about Maura is fun because she still has a very American point of view, even as she comes to appreciate the long memories of Irish families.
One warning, though: when you write about a place, foreign or not, it needs to be authentic, with real details. I know that you can look up anything on Google these days, and even virtually walk through places you’ve never seen, but it usually shows ? the writing feels insincere. You need to provide sights and sounds and even smells to make a place become real to a reader.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Sheila: I usually write in the morning. I have a schedule that is almost a ritual: I get up, feed the cats, drink a large mug of coffee and read the paper; go upstairs and read emails, check blogs and news updates; call up the last thing I wrote the day before and see if it still makes sense, and tweak it if necessary; then dig into a new chapter. (I write in sequence from beginning to end, in part because I’m not always sure where the story will go.) Repeat until the book is finished.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Sheila: I really don’t like outlines. Most often I start any story by setting down what I think I’m going to write about, which usually changes. The list includes the pivotal plot points, which I’ve also been known to change.
I do keep an ongoing spreadsheet. I need to know if the plot is dragging or needs filling in according to where I am in the story. I also need to know when those pivotal points fit, and make sure they aren’t all clustered together, leaving long empty stretches where the characters do nothing but talk and drink coffee. I add notes to myself about what happened in each chapter (A talks to B, they drive to somewhere else, they find a body, etc.). Both the lists and the spreadsheet are kind of skeletons that I must flesh out in the chapters as I write.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Sheila: I have a morning brain, and my most productive time is between 8 am and lunch. Afternoons are for promotion and correspondence and writing blogs and short stories and all the other necessary things. Having said that, I’ve found that the writer’s brain never stops. I can be in the grocery store choosing carrots and this little light bulb in my head goes on without warning and I say to myself (not out loud!), “what if…”
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Sheila: I’d say my experience was about average for that time. It was five years until I got an agent ?or I should say a good agent, because I had one loser before that, but I just loved saying “I have an agent” so it was hard to cut him loose. It was another two years before I saw a book of mine in print (that wait may seem horrifying to anyone just starting out, since self-publishing has become so easy). Since I had joined more than one writers group by then, I knew what to expect, and I stubbornly kept trying, with a lot of support from other writers.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Sheila: The one about the empty envelope (above) is my favorite. Clearly the lesson was that it pays to follow up on a submission and it also pays to be polite when you’re rejected (don’t burn any bridges!). My success is because someone didn’t lick an envelope? I don’t mind!
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Sheila: The worst? There was the one signing for which I drove halfway across the state in the pouring rain at night, going through construction zones to get to the library where I had been invited to speak, and found there was only one reader there and she already had my newest book. Even the library director failed to attend. But things like this help keep us writers humble!
One of the most enjoyable events was when four of us members of Sisters in Crime New England presented a panel at the Massachusetts Library Association Annual Meeting: we put together a mystery story on the spot using audience suggestions. Everybody had a great time, and I think the librarians came away with a better understanding of how a book happens.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Sheila:I want to keep writing as long as I can. Mary Higgins Clark is a good role model, and so was P. D. James. Writing is a lot of fun, especially when people do read what you’ve written! I might try different sub-genres as I did with the paranormal romance, and I’ve got some grittier suspense books that have been on the shelf but may be worth reviving now, although most likely under a different name, but in general I’m happy with my cozy niche.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Sheila: Dorothy L. Sayers, because it is a joy to watch how her characters deepen and become more complex throughout her Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane series. Mary Stewart for her early works, before she got involved with Merlin. Currently, Louise Penny, who I discovered relatively late – confession: when I read some of her earlier books, I didn’t see what everyone was so excited about, but now I’ve read them all and I’ve come to appreciate their subtlety. Beyond that there are too many to name.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Sheila: I think everything is research for a writer, although you may not recognize it at the time. Most often I borrow from my own experiences: genealogy, working in a museum, renovating older houses, and hanging out in Irish pubs and just listening to people talk, what they talk about and how they say it. Sometimes you can start talking with a stranger and end up with a wonderful story idea.
The County Cork series presents a different challenge, because murder is relatively rare in Ireland compared to the U.S., so it’s harder to stay true to the reality of the place while adhering to a traditional plot format with a body somewhere. That’s why I have a friend there who is a Garda (police officer), who can tell me when I’ve written something that’s simply wrong. I also talk to farmers, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, booksellers, and of course, pub owners.
KRL: What do you read?
Sheila: Mostly books by friends and a few favorite authors when I have time. Some of my books have involved areas outside my own expertise, which has led me to research such diverse things as raising goats and Clara Barton’s role in the Civil War. Currently I’m plotting one that involves the spread of municipal electrification in the 19th century. This kind of involves genealogy too, since my great-great-grandfather was part of the company that became part of General Electric when it merged with Thomas Edison’s company. It’s fun looking up the details for something like that, using both contemporary records and Google and then building an entertaining story around them.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Sheila: I am addicted to Law and Order and some cooking shows, and Longmire, as I grew up on TV Westerns. Movies? I made a promise to myself years ago that whenever I stumbled on a broadcast of Dirty Dancing, I’d watch it. I’ve lost count how many times by now! Jurassic Park, the first one and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Sheila: Sit down and write and keep writing. It’s like exercise. You may not see the results at first, but you will get better. Network with other writers and join writing groups. Writers are extraordinarily generous about sharing what they’ve learned and cheering for you, and you need that to keep going.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Sheila: Never stop reading. Read anything and everything – books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, the cooking instructions on your box of noodles. If you have children, read to them, and encourage them to read from an early age. Rip those electronic things out of their hands, at least for a few hours a day.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I love to make and repair things! I can knit, embroider, use a sewing machine – I learned on a treadle machine in 4th grade. I upholster, hang wallpaper, set tile, cane chairs, refinish furniture, re-putty and rehang Victorian windows, frame pictures…the list goes on. I think I’m fundamentally curious about how things work.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Sheila: Website: www.sheilaconnolly.com
Twitter: never quite got into it. Maybe I can’t edit myself down to so few characters.
To enter to win a copy of Many A Twist, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “twist,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen February 17, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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