Friday, March 25, 2016

Dig for Murder: Mysteries Written by Archaeologists

Catacomb, the second in my Flora Garibaldi Italian series, comes out April 2. In this sequel to Burnt Siena, Flora and her policeman boyfriend join a perilous search for Nazi-looted art under the city of Rome (pre-order the Kindle edition here).

I could hold my breath until next week, but instead I'm interviewing another archaeologist who, like me, enjoys digging (heh, heh) his professional life for good stories. Meet Steven Kuehn, a new Five Star author. Weekdays, Steve works as a faunal analyst at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. On nights and weekends, he plots murder...

Here's the review I wrote recently about his first mystery novel:

"Steven Kuehn’s Sunken Dreams is a well-written and engrossing 'whodunnit.' Archaeologist Jake Caine corrals a group of students to work on a Wisconsin dig where the previous excavation leader, Jacklyn Wardell, died years ago in mysterious circumstances. Normal dig operations are interrupted by break-ins, attempted theft, cranky senior archaeologists, nosy tourists, and petty rivalry among the students. Tension rises as Jake discovers that Jacklyn’s friends and rivals are still around, and one of them will do anything to derail Jake’s investigation of her death.

Kuehn, a professional archaeologist with many years of field and lab experience, knows all about academic jealousies and the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a dig in crowded and uncomfortable conditions. Kuehn’s deft handling of plot and character bring the mystery to a satisfying conclusion that models good story-telling while bringing day-to-day archaeological fieldwork vividly to life."

Q: What is the title and genre of your novel? Why did you select them?
A: My novel is Sunken Dreams, and it is the first in the Jake Caine Archaeology Mystery series. It is a traditional mystery with an amateur sleuth, combining archaeology and a cold case that quickly heats up. Like a cozy, this novel avoids excess violence and adult situations, and instead focuses on the characters and the storyline.

The beginning writer is often told to write what they know. I have a great deal of experience in archaeology, and the work itself often involves dealing with many interesting people, places, and things. While writing Sunken Dreams, I was able to draw on these experiences to create many of the scenes for the novel.

 Q: What inspired this novel? How did it come about?
:Sunken Dreams had its inspiration, in part, in a real life event. While doing an archaeological survey in eastern Wisconsin many years ago, I read about an archaeology professor who drowned in a boating accident, at a fairly young age. I thought about it a bit, and started to imagine what might have happened if it wasn’t really an accident. I realized it would make an interesting premise for a novel, and started building on it from there.

Doing archaeological fieldwork involves a lot of time on the road, and staying in hotels for months and months can get really boring. In the evenings, after taking care of my daily paperwork and other tasks, I started writing down snippets of the story. At first I focused on different scenes that I wanted to include, and then I created a formal outline that brought the whole story together. Over the years, I worked on the novel during my free time, writing and rewriting until the manuscript was finished to my satisfaction.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the hero of your novel?
A: Jake Caine is an archaeology professor and amateur sleuth at Wisconsin State University. He is a dedicated archaeologist with a passion for his work, and enjoys teaching but hates the politics. Underneath it all is an inherent curiosity, a real drive to understand the prehistoric past. This curiosity manifests itself when he learns that Jacklyn Wardell, another archaeologist, died years earlier under mysterious circumstances at the same site his field school is currently excavating. As Jake learns more about Wardell and her accident, some unusual events occur that make him wonder what really happened. Soon he has to know the truth.
Q: Can you tell us about some of your other published novels or work?
A: I’ve spend most of the last 25 years writing up archaeological reports and articles, but outside of the professional community they probably wouldn’t count much as interesting or fun reads! I have written one Jake Caine short story, Talked to Death, which appeared online in Mysterical-E in 2012. The story is set at an archaeology conference, and the banquet speaker drops dead in the middle of his rather lengthy speech. Needless to say, it wasn’t from natural causes and Jake ends up in the middle of the investigation. And yes, I did think of the idea during an exceptionally dull conference presentation.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on my second novel in the Jake Caine series, tentatively entitled A Killing Caught in Time. It centers on some unexpected finds at a bison kill site in northwestern Wisconsin, when events from the distant past and near past intertwine. A fresh body turns up near the dig and one of the archaeologists is accused of murder, so it falls to Jake to uncover the truth once again.

I have several other Jake Caine novels in the works. After 25 years in archaeology, I have a lot of material to draw upon for ideas and inspiration. I’ve also been working on a historical fiction mystery set in 17th century New France (Canada). Genealogy is one of my passions, and I enjoy doing a lot of background reading to supplement my understanding of the places and times inhabited by my ancestors. Some of my relatives first put down roots in Canada in the 1650s, and I always thought it was the perfect setting for a novel.
Q: What made you start writing?
A: I’ve loved to read since I was a child, and I’ve always been interested in writing. One of my early favorites was the Happy Hollisters series by Jerry West (Andrew Swenson), about five siblings (Pete, Pam, Ricky, Holly, and Sue) who solved mysteries. I guess the mystery bug got to me quite early! I wrote some short stories and one play in high school, and as an escape during college I wrote some epic fantasy and mystery stories.

Writing mystery fiction has many parallels with writing archaeological reports. In mystery fiction, it’s up to the protagonist to solve a crime based on clues he or she uncovers, avoid the pitfalls of red herrings, and overcome any antagonistic threats to life and limb. Similarly, archaeologists take limited amounts of data (clues, in the form of artifacts, features, and sites) to interpret what life was like thousands of years in the past, while dealing with biases and problems (e.g., sampling issues, missing information, gaps in the archaeological record) that can influence our interpretations. Unlike the movies, there isn’t a great deal of danger and mayhem in most archaeological research, but I have been chased by an angry bull, stung by various insects, threatened on occasion, and once slid down a rather steep rock outcrop (fortunately, my fall was interrupted when my head struck a large tree).

 Q: What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?
A: Writing is a tricky business, and no particular approach works for everyone. There are many wonderful books on writing available, and they do serve as good resources. It also helps to have a support network, preferably a fellow writer or writer’s group to whom you can present ideas and receive constructive feedback. I also think it is important to read, read, read, and not just in your genre. Study and compare how other authors present their ideas, how they manipulate the written word to make you think. Above all, you have to write every day, no matter how busy you are or how difficult it might be to get your thoughts on paper. Even on a bad day, if I write one good sentence, it is better than not having written anything at all.
Q: Where and when will readers be able to obtain your novel?
ASunken Dreams will be published on May 18, 2016, and available through any independent bookstore, as well as (available for pre-order now) and 

Thanks to Jacqueline Seewald for the interview template. Questions and comments for Steve are welcome below!


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Sarah and Steve,

What a great surprise to read this fine interview! Both of your new novels look like wonderfully interesting books. I look forward to reading them when they are published. Best wishes and much success.

Sarah Wisseman said...

thanks, Jacqueline! Your blogs gave me the idea...

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