After exploring careers ranging from art historian to investment banker to professional genealogist, Sheila Connolly began writing mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime in 2001 under the name Sarah Atwell, and is now a full-time writer under her own name. She writes the Orchard Mystery series, set in a small town in western Massachusetts, as well as the Museum Mystery series, based in Philadelphia. In addition, she’s working on the new County Cork series that takes place in Ireland; the first book, Buried in a Bog, will appear in February 2013. She has also written short stories, one of which was nominated for an Agatha Award. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Romance Writers of America. Sheila lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three cats.
Before I started writing books a decade or so ago, I was a genealogist—a professional one. Actually it’s my great-grandmother’s fault: in 1928 she decided she wanted to join the Daughters of the American Revolution and filled out all the paperwork. Her grandmother was alive at that time, so she could ask a few questions about a couple of additional generations. But joining the DAR required identifying only one Revolutionary War veteran, and once my great-grandmother had done that, the matter rested—until I came along. Now I’ve identified more than 900 lineal ancestors, and my family tree database has over 9,000 people (in some cases, very distant relatives, like the “wife of step grandson of 1st cousin 8x removed”).
Although I didn’t know it at the time, genealogy is terrific training for mystery writing. There are always clues, which you may find in unlikely places, and there are always gaps in the information you can find, so you have to work out a story that makes sense. If you enjoy the thrill of the chase, tracking down musty documents in small historical societies and trekking through old cemeteries, even in the snow, try genealogy.
This pursuit (some might say obsession) led me to Granby, Massachusetts a few years ago. I had identified a whole lot of ancestors in Granby, and purely by accident I discovered a house that had been built by one of them, that was for a time a bed and breakfast. I visited there and fell in love with the place, and the Orchard Mystery series was born—I wanted an excuse to keep going back. Granby became Granford in the series—one of those small New England towns with the central green ringed with sugar maples, with the big white church on the hill. The real town still looks much like it did a hundred years ago, and it still has quite a few farms. That’s where I chose to set my Orchard Mystery series, and the sixth book, Sour Apples, comes out this week, with more to come.
Most writers of traditional or cozy mysteries start with a small town setting—although how they manage to fit so many murders in is surprising! The real town of Granby has had, I believe, two homicides in the past decade; I gave Granford four bodies in the first year my heroine Meg Corey lived there, and now I’m adding two more in Sour Apples. In this case, to make that happen I’ve combined politics, dairy farming, and toxic waste in the story.
There’s the reason why so many writers choose to write about small towns. Everyone has a history there, good or bad, and everyone else knows it. A character may leave for a while, but when he or she comes back—which they always seem to do—they step right back into their place. Newcomers have to earn their place, usually after having been suspected of murder first! The process is all the more interesting for me because I have a “real” history with Granby, and I mix fiction and reality. I’ve been researching local families there for so long that I feel that I know them, and I borrow quite a few of them for the books.
Massachusetts still uses the town meeting form of government, a practice that goes back more than 300 years. As Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (from Massachusetts) once said, “all politics is local.” If you want to have a say in how your town is run, you have to show up at the meeting and vote. In Sour Apples, that kind of local and personal connection is what candidate Rick Sainsbury is hoping to take advantage of. He was Granford’s high-school football star, went on to manage a successful local business, and he’s now running for Congress, and of course Granford is one of his first campaign stops.
Initially it seems that the unfortunate death of a Granford dairy farmer at about the same time is unrelated, but Meg Corey keeps finding evidence that suggests otherwise: the information she uncovers suggests a criminal deception that goes back for years. Ultimately she has to face the question: how far is the candidate willing to go to ensure his election? And what can she do about it?