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Friday, July 28, 2017

How I Mined My Day Job to Write Mysteries by Sarah Wisseman

By day, I’m an archaeologist at the University of Illinois. At night and on weekends, I morph into a mystery writer. My series is the Lisa Donahue Archaeological Mysteries, and my protagonist is a lot like me. She’s a museum curator trained in Classical and Near Eastern archaeology, she spent a junior year in Israel, and she has a daughter, a cat, and a medical husband (not necessarily in that order!).

So how does one go from archaeology to murder? I grew up in a household full of moldering old paperback mysteries (mostly Golden Age British novels), and my parents liked to read aloud to us from Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles and the like. Then I got a job in a dusty old attic museum where broken windows allowed pigeons to fly in and out. While working on an interdisciplinary mummy project, I realized that my workplace was the perfect setting for murder.

Thus my first novel, “Bound for Eternity,” was born. In this story, Lisa discovers that an Egyptian mummy holds the secrets to two murders in her Boston Museum. (My old museum was moved from Illinois to Boston to protect the innocent). 


The prequel, “The Dead Sea Codex,” allowed Lisa to revisit Israel, hook up with an old boyfriend, and crisscross the desert looking for an ancient manuscript before Christian fanatics destroy it. Book 3 in the series, “The Fall of Augustus,” takes Lisa back to her museum at a time when the staff is supposed to move enormous plaster statues of Roman emperors and Greek gods down through an old elevator shaft. Sounds dangerous, right? Some of my colleagues actually did this at Illinois without misadventure, but naturally I changed the facts in my mystery so I could have the vicarious thrill of killing off two museum directors.

Book 4, “The House of the Sphinx,” takes a new direction. Lisa and her radiologist husband, James, take a delayed honeymoon in Egypt, where they stumble upon a plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox. I like to say that this plot (instead of another archaeological caper) is my husband’s fault, and that he’s a ghoul. Actually, Charlie’s a retired pathologist, and a great source of information on all things medical. He used to work for the Centers for Disease Control, and pointed me to their website. There I found a public, fully detailed plan for dealing with a modern smallpox epidemic. Scary stuff. While I Googled bioweapons and tried to figure out how to weaponize smallpox virus, the thought did cross my mind that someone out there might be watching my Internet use…fortunately, no one showed up on my doorstep.


I see many similarities between mystery writing and my “day job.”  Archaeology is like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing; constructing a mystery is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, but all the pieces should be there and should fit at the end. Archaeologists deal with layers (stratigraphy), with the stuff on top being the most recent and the stuff deep down being the oldest. Similarly, the visible story in a mystery is the top layer (what the writer wants you to see), and the deeper layers hold the motives, the clues, and the detailed plot that is gradually revealed.


Many of us mine our day jobs to write stories. How do you connect your day job with mystery writing or reading?

4 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Sarah,

I think being an archaeologist makes for a great background for mystery writing. I know it fascinates me. My own background as a teacher and librarian has provided me with great material for my Kim Reynolds mystery series. Kim like me has worked as both an academic librarian and an English teacher. When we infuse the reality of our own jobs into our novels, I believe readers like our mysteries much more. It makes them unique.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

How interesting Sarah!

Your job and books sound exciting too.

Good luck and God's blessings
PamT

Maris said...

Hi Sarah, it's been a long time since we've run into each other at writers' conferences. I love that you've given a short summary of your mysteries and what triggered each idea. Keep those mysteries coming. Love your work.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I love the sound of your series, Sarah, and have added it to my TBR pile. And I too find archaeology fascinating. It certainly gives you lots of opportunities to use exotic settings and diverse characters. I used my love and experience of India for my second series, and I especially enjoyed bringing in odd bits of information about the local culture.