Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Multiple Personalities

By guest blogger Sheila Connolly

When I first started writing, I never considered writing a series. I started with one book, and then discovered that I couldn't let the characters go, so I kept writing. And writing. After four and a half books, when none had sold, I laid them quietly on the shelf. And kept writing, except about other people.

Now I find myself in the enviable and overwhelming position of writing more than one series at a time. Of course, it didn't happen all at once—it just kinda grew. The book that eventually led to the Orchard Mystery series was supposed to be a standalone, but Berkley Prime Crime liked it, and I've now written six of them (which bear little resemblance to that original standalone concept). Actually the setting came first—an old house in a small New England town—and the people kept showing up, one or two at a time. It's kind of like settlers moving into a village. The place is based on a real town and a real house. I've never lived there, but generations of my ancestors did, and I feel weirdly at home there.

My second series is nothing like the first—intentionally. I sometimes wonder if many writers harbor split personalities. I think I do, because both series reflect sides of me, but they're not exactly related. I've never been a farmer, but the Museum Mystery series is set in the cultural community of Philadelphia, where I worked for several years. It's urban—definitely not a small town, unless you count the population of museum professionals as their own tribe. Meg in the Orchard series struggles to manage an orchard; Nell in the Museum series struggles to raise money for the historic institution she runs. And both keep tripping over bodies. Makes you wonder if anywhere is safe these days!

The Orchard series seems to tap into a vein of American nostalgia—wherever you were raised, you probably still have this image in the back of your mind of a small town with a central green dominated by a tall-steepled church, with blazing red, orange and yellow trees on the hills behind. It's all new to Meg, but she's finding that she likes it. On the other hand, a city—any city—has its own kind of energy. Things happen just because there's so much energy there, and so many people. Nell may retreat to her home in the suburbs to recharge her batteries, but she loves working in the midst of so much history.

And if that's not confusing enough, earlier this year I contracted to write yet another series (don't ask me if they'll all run at the same time!), this time set in Ireland. For once my protagonist is not an educated professional woman; instead, she's a young blue-collar woman raised by an Irish grandmother. She's definitely not into nostalgia for the Ould Country, because she's seen too many down-and-out Irish immigrants pass through her life. But it shouldn't be a surprise that she changes her mind when she gets to Ireland: it's not what she expected.

And that's another piece of me—my father's parents were both Irish-born, although I never knew them. I didn't travel to Ireland until I was in my forties, but as soon as I arrived it felt like home. In writing about it, I want to get past the tacky leprechauns and paper shamrocks and find out what a different country is really like under the surface.

Now the challenge will be to keep all these people straight in my head: the reluctant farmer, the committed professional, and the skeptical barmaid. And don't forget, I have to throw in a body or two.
After exploring careers ranging from art historian to investment banker to professional genealogist, Sheila Connolly began writing mysteries in 2001, and is now a full-time writer. She writes the Orchard Mystery series, the most recent of which is Bitter Harvest (August 2011), and the Museum Mystery series, based in Philadelphia; the second book, Let's Play Dead, will be published next week. Her first e-story, Called Home, is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble this week.


Martha Reed said...

Hi, Sheila. Good morning and thanks for posting with the Working Stiffs. I do have a question for you: what's your writing schedule like? How do you manage three series at the same time?

Curiously yours,


PatRemick said...

Welcome Sheila! You forgot to mention that along with all of your writing and multiple personalities, you have another as President of the very busy Sisters in Crime New England chapter, and are involved in various other groups. For those who haven't guessed this already, Sheila Connolly is an AMAZING woman!

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Sheila.

My question piggy backs on Martha's. Do you end up working on two different series at the same time? Perhaps drafting one series and doing edits on another? How do you keep them straight???

Joyce said...

Welcome Sheila! We all must think alike. I want to know how you manage three series too!

E. B. Davis said...

Good luck with the new series, Sheila. When will the first book be released? I'm looking forward to it. Still think that stinkbugs would be a good problem in your orchard series! :)

Ramona said...

Wow, you sound busy! But having lots of fun, too.

Can't wait to read Let's Play Dead, in particular. I used to work in a museum. I miss it.

Best of luck with both series, and I look forward to seeing you at Crime Bake.

Sheila Connolly said...

Thank you for having me, Pat, and I blush at the compliments. Pat was my predecessor at SinCNE, and I'm sure she was relieved to hand the job over to me.

When I started I was all over the place--at one point I was writing three books at once. If one stalled, I'd just shift to another. Note that none of these sold.

Now I write any one book start to finish, because I have to stay "inside" a single group of characters. That doesn't mean that I'm not thinking about the others--collecting bits of research, details, etc. It's an ongoing process.

Then, of course, once I've submitted the draft, my (excellent) editor will tell me everything that's wrong with it and, oh, could you fix it by next Friday? So I have to haul myself out of what I'm working on and try to remember what I was thinking for the other book. But the editing process is short and intense.

The first book of the Irish series is scheduled for February 2013, in time for St. Patrick's Day. No, I haven't written it yet, but it is the descendant of the second book I ever wrote. As in the Orchard series, the place came first--a village (pop. 210, up from 185 in 1883) on the south coast of Co. Cork--and people just keep showing up there.

Daily schedule? Get up, make coffee, sit down at desk. First hour for clearing emails and reading blogs, then writing (my brain works better in the morning). Twenty-minute lunch break, then back to desk for more writing and promotion. Brain shuts down in late afternoon, so that's when I read other people's books. Seven days a week. Good thing I have a self-sufficient husband!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your strategy, Sheila. And you didn't even mention the Sarah Atwood glassblowing series, which I'm still mad about the cancellation of.

Can you also share about how long it takes you to crank out one of these drafts?


Annette said...

Ah! So there's my problem! Sheila, where did you find a self-sufficient husband???

Sheila Connolly said...

Annette, I've had him for 35 years.

Edith, people seem to want to hit me when I say I can write a draft in three months (although it's been burbling in the back of my head longer than that).

When I got into this in the beginning (arghhh--2001?), I had no idea how long a book should be, or how long it would take to write one. I just sat down and started. The first book I was proud enough of to send out I started after I'd been dumped from a job, in February, and finished in May, and that's been the pattern ever since.

On a practical note, you can't make a living as a writer turning out one paperback a year, unless you're Janet Evanovich. Otherwise it's an expensive hobby.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sheila. (People wanted to hit me, too, when I told them I wrote my doctoral dissertation in two months. It had also been brewing for a couple of years.)

Would you say you are making a living at writing these days? That is, earning some actual money after you spend advances on promotion? ;^)

Sheila Connolly said...

Edith, that's hard to answer. It depends on how you define "promotion" (and when you're looking for tax deductions, that can be pretty elastic). In the beginning you're trying to establish a public identity and a reader base, both of which take time, so your promotional expenses (both money and energy) are high. I'm not sure when you can relax, but you still need to stay visible, both online and in person, even once you're establihsed, which may be why Janet Evanovich still takes out full-page ads in the NYT Book Review section. Thank goodness I have a husband with a steady salary--and health insurance!

Ellery Adams/JB Stanley posted her statistics on the BookEnds blog yesterday, and they're pretty true for most of us mid-list type writers.

Lynn said...

Sheila --

Thanks so much -- it does help to see how other writers get around to their "other lives".

I am still toying with the idea of when you can come to see NW Connecticut. It is lovely this time of year!


Pauline Alldred said...

Looking forward to the new series. I'm amazed that you keep all the characters separate. You must know them very well.

Sheila Connolly said...

I have to say, it gets a little crowded in my head. I hope my characters are all distinct personalities. They're at different points in their lives, and they face different challenges. (Not that I've ever been a pub owner in Ireland, but I have pulled a pint of Guinness!)