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!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Edit Schmedit

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” ― Colette

As you all know self-publishing has grown exponentially over the past five years. There are still concerns by the reading and authoring community regarding the saleability of some of the books being self-published. We know the value of editing and the self-pubbed books worth reading have been thoroughly edited - they are professional and ready for prime time.

When I first started writing for publication I longed to write a beautiful first draft that leaped off the page with its glorious phrasing and description. What I've learned in the past sixteen years is first drafts are never perfect.

There are tons of books and software out there on how to edit and I've read some and used one or two. Here are my recommendations (these have a permanent place in my library):

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King (personal fave that I've shared a lot)
  • On Writing Well  by Zinsser
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (I've already worn out one copy)
  • Writers Digest magazine has a great section called WORKBOOK with exercises & tips for honing your craft
  • Grammarly is a great tool for catching passive voice, wayward comma's and repetitive phrases
 "Find out what works for you and exploit it." ~Mark Twain

If you can afford to invest in a professional editor, that's great. Your manuscript will no doubt be much improved, but your pocketbook may be thinner.

A critique group is one of the most valuable tools out there for editing. By sharing your work with other authors they often see things we've become blind to. And if two or more of them remark on the same issue - well, it would definitely be worth a second look.

WORD to the WISE: Careful with critique groups, however, they are not all created equal. Critiques should be positive and motivate the author to make the story better. Criticism is negative and can destroy the fragile creative flame. And EVERYONE should have equal time to share their work and get the group's input. No diva's, please.

This post is not advocating self-publishing, although it is a more viable option now than it was six years ago. What I do recommend is stepping back from your work and look at it with an objective eye and if that doesn't work for you, get some help from your author buddies. It's a struggle for all of us to "kill our darlings."

Enjoy the journey.
Bonnie (BD) Tharp, author of women's fiction: Feisty Family Values and Patchwork Family. With a new Young Adult mss ready for an agent or publisher, whichever comes first.
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Friday, March 11, 2016

Interview With Author Richard Cass by Jacqueline Seewald

Richard Cass is our guest today on Author Expressions. He has a most impressive background. Richard began writing as a poet but slowly became enamored of the possibilities of prose: first short stories, then novels. He graduated from Colby College in Maine and earned an MA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. His short fiction has won prizes from magazines like Redbook, Writers' Digest, and Playboy. His first collection of stories is called Gleam of Bone. His first novel is published by Five Star/Cengage.

Richard is a native of Boston and a Mainer by choice and holds an MA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire, where he studied with Thomas Williams and Joseph Monninger. He's also studied with Molly Gloss, Ursula LeGuin, and Ernest Hebert.

Question: What is the title and genre of your novel?  Why did you select them?

Answer: The first entry in my Elder Darrow series is called Solo Act. When I started planning the series, I envisioned a series of titles with the word “Solo” in each, as a way to tie the series together.

Solo Act is what I’d call an amateur sleuth. Elder Darrow is a bartender, not a cop or any other kind of law enforcement officer and the initial mystery he solves is very personal. I’ve always been attracted to the amateur protagonist, at least partly because I was very impressed at a young age with Travis McGee, John D. McDonald’s creation, who solved crimes and helped victims without having any sort of legal or official standing.

Question:   What inspired this novel? How did it come about?

Answer: As part of my checkered past, I spent a lot of time tending bar in both classy and seedy places. You can’t be a bartender for long without realizing that behind all those faces are stories you can’t even imagine. And being a bartender allows you to be a sort of voyeur of those stories. I also spent a lot of time bouncing around jazz clubs in my youth and wanted to capture some of the flavor of that music for readers. And as a native of Boston, I wanted to catch some of my love for the city, its institutions, and its inhabitants.

Question:  Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and/or hero of your novel?

Answer:  Elder Darrow is the son of a Boston Brahmin whose family has been in the banking business in Boston since just after the Revolutionary War. He attended prep school at Exeter and college at Harvard but he became an alcoholic before he worked out any professional path for himself. His father would have liked him to go into the banking business but until Elder can prove he can stay sober, that’s not going to be possible. And Elder himself isn’t sure that’s what he wants.

He’s bought the Esposito, a bucket of blood bar in Boston’s South End, with the idea that he will gentrify it, turn it into a jazz nightclub. His working assumption is that by being around alcohol and drinkers all the time, he’ll inoculate himself against his addiction.

Question:   Can you tell us about some of your other published novels or work?

Answer:  Solo Act is my first published novel. I’ve published a book of short stories called Gleam of Bone and any number of essays and articles. Other than fiction, I write mainly about the outdoors: environmental topics, fishing, oceans and rivers, and so on.

Question:   What are you working on now?

Answer:  My agent is currently shopping a thriller about a man who, in trying to avenge his girlfriend’s death, kills the wrong person. I’m also finishing up the first draft of a political mystery, set in Portland, Maine, where the protagonist is hired to kill a sitting governor’s best friend.

Question:   What made you start writing?

Answer: I wrote my first short story in the sixth grade, a labored-over tale of a valuable stamp hidden in the handle of a magnifying glass. I’ve always read and I always loved mysteries and thrillers, from Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock all the way down the decades to Robert Crais and Ian Rankin. Essentially, I started writing because I wanted to do what all those writers I admired do.

Question:   What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?

Answer: Pay no attention to what you think is going well or not going well in the short term. You will finish your book by accretion, not in great leaps. Understand that you are playing a long game, that how your day’s writing went is almost immaterial with respect to whether you’ll finish and/or how well you’ve done. It’s about momentum and finishing, not about making each day’s work be perfect, or even good. Almost all of the goodness is going to be in the revising.

If you are lucky enough to be published, understand that the publishing business operates at the speed of a shucked snail. And everyone will have plenty of advice for you. Develop a thick skin if you don’t already have one.

Question:  Where and when will readers be able to obtain your novel?

Answer: You can order the Solo Act hardcover from any independent bookstore that buys books from major national distributors like Ingram or Baker and Taylor. Solo Act is also available in e-book and hardcover formats from and in hardcover from For five or more copies for readings, book signings, or reading groups, the publisher provides a discount code for direct ordering.

Richard, thanks so much for being our guest today. Your novel sounds like a fine book.

Readers, do you have any questions or comments for Richard? They are welcome here.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Where do I write? by Susan Oleksiw

I stopped for lunch at a favorite coffee shop/restaurant the other day and started thinking all sorts of curmudgeonly thoughts. So instead of gently chiding myself, I decided to share them with you. Herewith my views on where writers write.

One of my favorite coffee shops stands out for a number of reasons—it’s really a pastry shop and probably loses money on the coffee service. It’s also distinct for having fewer tables and chairs than the space could accept. Those who sit there with a cup of coffee and a pastry watch the passersby on the sidewalk outside or lean over a book or magazine. The shop owner keeps a small bookshelf stocked with miscellaneous titles.

This coffee shop is not the usual place for people to claim a spot and go to work on their latest novel, and I rarely see someone with a computer when I go in. There is such a place, a cafe across the street, where students and workers and retirees fill the booths and counters and tables and chairs. It’s also loud.

In the town where I worked for twenty years and still visit regularly for other duties I have three regular spots for a coffee break or leisurely lunch. In each one I can expect to see a computer and someone typing away, or pondering the screen. I have no idea if any of these people are published writers, or even if they are doing creative work. They could be managing their finances, or writing to relatives overseas or playing solitaire. But what I do know is that I have no desire to join them.

Writing for me is work. I don’t mean that it’s hard. (It is that too sometimes.) I mean that I consider it a job. Just as I got dressed every morning and drove to an office and before that sat at my desk and ghost wrote how-to books and edited all manner of printed copy,  now I get dressed every morning, go downstairs to my desk and plunk myself down in front of the screen. I try to figure out how to cover up a murder, but not too well. I want my sleuth to figure it out. Sometimes I dawdle over email or an interesting blog post or even Facebook. But I soon nudge myself away from these temptations and turn to my work in progress. I have a word quota to meet, and plot and character problems to solve. And I can’t solve them if I’m not dealing with them.


I don’t consider myself an aberration. Most of the successful writers I know have learned the art or skill of self-discipline. Writing is not leisure activity, nor is it entertainment. We are not Parisians living in garrets so cold that we can’t remain at home during the day to write and so flee to a heated cafe. Perhaps a small apartment packed with a couple of infants might justify a trek to the local coffee shop, but other than that I am skeptical of writing in public.

There are certain truisms in this business. Writers write. Sometimes we talk about it if asked questions, and sometimes we talk about ourselves as writers if asked even more specific questions. But mostly we write. We think up stories, organize ideas for essays, read and review books, and support other writers. But mostly, we write. At home. Or in an office. Every day.