Conventional wisdom for writers dictates “write what you know.” So why am I writing a series set in Ireland? In a tiny village in West Cork?
The answer is both simple and complicated. To start, my father’s parents both came from Ireland, although from different counties, and they met in New York City. For various reasons my mother hated that whole side of the family, so I never met either of my Irish grandparents.
It’s hard to miss what you’ve never known—it was years later that I realized what my mother had kept from me. As a result, when my daughter was young we went Ireland for the first time so she’d know something of her own background. That trip included stops at the small townlands where each of those grandparents had been born, and had left nearly a hundred years earlier—and we found local people who still remembered their families.
Years later, when I started writing, I began with two cozy mystery series set in the United States—in western Massachusetts, where I had generations of ancestors, and in Philadelphia, where I lived and worked for many years. Both places I knew from direct experience—and when telling a story, the details matter. Anyone can look at a map or even a street-level view online these days and get the locations right, but that’s not the same as describing what the street vendors are selling or the whoosh of hot air that comes out of the subway entrance when a train arrives, or the way apples weigh down tree limbs in a good harvest year or how the wind sculpts the snow on the orchard hillside.
I couldn’t do that with Ireland at first, but I knew I wanted to write about it. The first time I saw the village of Leap (population just over 200, and near where my grandfather was born) and found there was a pub called “Connolly’s” there, I was hooked. But even though I write fiction, there was no way I was going to pass myself off as an Irish native, because I knew I’d get it wrong.
So in the County Cork Mysteries I sent a young American woman, Maura Donovan, to Leap. Not a bright-eyed cheerful young woman (as so many cozy heroines are), but one who grew up in a rough part of Boston, raised by an Irish grandmother, and who has seen too much of the seedy side of Irish immigrants—the loners cut off from family life, the down-and-outers who manage to string together a series of short-term jobs and save up just enough to go back to Ireland once a year. Maura wants nothing to do with them or where they came from, until her grandmother dies and leaves her enough money for a plane ticket and a last wish that Maura go tell those who remember her in Ireland that she’s passed on.
So Maura goes to Ireland and is completely unprepared for what she finds: people who welcome her, who know more about her family and her history than she does; people who look out for her and help her, in many ways.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Maura decides to stay in Ireland. But she’s still learning about it—the local traditions and connections; the history, both old and recent, that is always there in the background. What it means to be Irish.
Which means she can ask all the dumb questions that I do when I visit—which is as often as I can. I know people there now, and I’ve even found a few relatives. I can find my way around, but I spend a lot of time just talking and listening to people—and I use everything I learn in my books. And I try to get it right, because there’s nothing more insulting than portraying a drunken old man in a greasy tweed cap spouting corny sayings with a brogue. I want to keep going back!
The only problem is, I’ve significantly increased the local murder rate (in the books, not the real world), in an area that has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. I’ve already apologized to the local gardaí (that’s the Irish police). I think they understand—because it’s a nation that loves writers.
Sheila Connolly is the New York Times bestselling author and the Anthony and Agatha Award–nominated author of three cozy mystery series, the most recent of which is the County Cork Mysteries, set in Ireland. Scandal in Skibbereen (February 2014) is the second in the series, following Buried in a Bog (2013). Both have been New York Times bestsellers. Most recent in the Museum series is Razing the Dead. In the Orchard series, the latest is Golden Malicious.