Saturday, June 30, 2018

Interview with Sarah Wisseman (first published on Author Expressions)

Florence, Italy (the setting of my next mystery)

Tell us a little about your background
I grew up in a house filled with mystery books with parents who loved to read. I often forgot to do my chores because I had my head in a book, and the love of reading lasted long after the flashlight-under-the-covers stage. History came alive for me when I went on an archaeological excavation in Israel after my freshman year in college. That experience changed my life. I returned to Israel for my junior year, and then earned a doctorate in archaeology. My work career at the University of Illinois was spent in museums and laboratories, studying ancient pottery, metalwork, and mummies. Now I write mysteries about archaeology, art forgery, and the illegal antiquities market.

Tell us a bit about your two series. Are your characters’ careers based on your real life experience?
Archaeologist and museum curator Lisa Donahue is the heroine of the first four mysteries. She’s a lot like me, but a bit younger, and has unusual complications in her life—such as two marriages, step children, and a tendency to run into dead bodies at her museum job. Flora Garibaldi, my current heroine, is only in her twenties. Flora is a half-Italian professional paintings conservator (I have no Italian heritage, and I volunteered in a conservation lab for two years).

How do you “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?
I have a character file on my computer and add information to it about each person before and during the writing process. I write down family background, personality quirks, dark secrets, and motives for each person.

How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?
I outline, again in a separate computer file, and then allow myself to change my mind as things come to while I’m writing. I modify the outline as I grow the chapters. Sometimes my characters talk to me on my long walks, or plot twists come out of nowhere when I’m doing something else. I’ve learning to respect the “percolating” process, realizing a part of my mind is still working even when I’m not writing. Once I even changed who the villain was 2/3 of the way through the novel because it resulted in a better story.

Which do you consider more important, plot or character?
Character, by a short lead. I have to like the characters, even the villain, enough to keep reading any book. The plot has to be compelling enough to engage the mind, but characters must come across as real people with strengths and flaws and fascinating pasts that help explain the present.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?
I still teach part-time, and I have other interests besides writing, especially painting. Sometimes the two interests feed each other; when I get stuck in writing, painting releases another kind of creativity. My biggest challenge is making my story long enough for a traditional mystery novel—I am crippled by years of writing dense (short) academic articles.

Do you have a “How I got my agent” story you want to share?
I’ve never had an agent (not for lack of trying!)

What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?
I am drafting my third Flora Garibaldi novel, The Botticelli Caper, a mystery centered around art forgery and the Uffizi Gallery’s long renovation project. I suspect I will write more short stories and novellas in the future.

What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?
About ten hours per week. I’m always working on something, even if it’s just a blog

If you could take only three books with you for a year-long writing retreat in a gorgeous setting with no library, which three would you take?
I’d never let myself be caught without a real library! A Complete Works of Shakespeare, a fat world mythology, and a comprehensive poetry anthology.

What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?
Keep writing, even if it’s just a blog or a journal, because that keeps your writing and thinking muscles exercised. Try different forms: non-fiction, fiction, poetry…

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Camping illegally on Masada (Israel) when I was 18.

What question do you wish interviewers would ask? (And what’s the answer?)
Why do I write? Answer: to create the kind of books I like to read.

 Where can we learn more about you and your books?

Those First Two Pages...




A few years ago, I attended a conference session in which several authors met with two New York agents. Each author read the first two pages of a work in progress and the agents reacted. I read an early draft of two pages from Burnt Siena beginning with a loving description of Siena, Italy, and ending with my heroine’s discovery of a body. The criticisms were, “Well, obviously you want us to know you’ve lived in Italy…” and “I don’t like your protagonist.” Not very encouraging, but then those two agents didn't like anything they heard that day.  



In my writing process, I often write a first scene and junk it later, realizing that the real story starts later, or that the first draft sets the scene or introduces the plot too slowly.

So with Catacomb, I discarded a scary preface I really liked, deciding it belonged later in the book. Instead, I began the story in the middle of an interaction between Flora Garibaldi and her policeman boyfriend: 

It was a fine day for an argument.
“You did what?” Flora yelped.
“I called your boss and got you some time off,” said Vittorio Bernini.
“Why on earth? And who are you to jeopardize my new job? Why, you interfering so-and-so!” She refrained from calling him a bastard as the blood in her veins heated up. 
“Calm down, cara.” Vittorio stopped and put his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady in one place. “There’s a good explanation.”
Flora, normally susceptible to the warmth of his hazel eyes, fidgeted under his hands and glared at him. “So explain. And it had better be good.”
He took her arm. “We can’t talk here.” They were in the middle of a piazza in Trastevere, the old part of Rome “across the Tiber.” He steered her to a cafĂ© with spindly metal tables outside, choosing one at the back where other conversations would muffle their own. “Espresso for you?”

“Make it a macchiato.” She preferred strong Italian coffee with a little swirl of milk.
Flora Garibaldi drew out a chair and sat, looping her purse around one knee. The soft air of late April wafted around her, lowering her internal temperature. Maybe she wouldn’t boil over--yet. Vittorio had just done what he always accused her of doing, acting first and not thinking about other peoples’ reactions until it was too late. Now she was on the receiving end, and she didn’t like it. 


                                  

Thus I introduce the two main characters and an ongoing conflict between them, namely Vittorio’s tendency to let the demands of his Carabinieri job override his personal relationships. Because these are my heroes and I want readers to empathize with both of them, I also mention one of Flora’s faults—her habit of rushing into things that has put her in danger in the past.

I can’t resist describing the luscious Italian setting—and I think most readers want to know where they are—so I insert a short paragraph while Flora waits for her drink:

As she waited for him to fetch their coffees, she decided that despite the occasional clashes of personality and inherited expectations, their first few months together as a couple had been quite satisfactory. They’d found a small but charming apartment, a third-floor walk-up with a tiny balcony, in Trastevere. Flora loved the area, with its cobbled streets and sunset colors on the painted stucco buildings: burnt orange, pale red, salmon, and gold. The non-existent grid plan of Rome no longer bothered her. Now, she reveled in the odd, triangular piazzas where she least expected them, the meandering streets, and the quiet, flower-filled corners of residential neighborhoods. She’d even adopted the Italian custom of putting out leftover dishes of pasta for the stray cats, some of the thousands of cats who weren’t living in the ruins of the Colosseum but stalked the unwary small rodents in every corner of Rome.

This sets the stage for the entire book, which takes place in modern Rome both above and below ground. The premise: Flora and her policeman boyfriend search for a cache of Nazi-looted art that the Monuments Men missed.

My next challenge is how to convey information about stolen art, Nazi hideaways, and the Monuments Men without doing an “information dump” and boring the reader.

I decide to parcel out some of the necessary facts in a brief conversation between the two protagonists while including a humanizing detail: Flora’s greed for sweets. Other information will be woven in later, in discussions between policemen and the international group of scholars and specialists convened by Vittorio and Flora to help with the search.

The key: weave the technical details into the plot while making the reader greedy for more information. Example: is a short story by Michigan and Chicago writer Barbara D’Amato. In “Of Course You Know Chocolate is a Vegetable,” the reader gobbles up information about the chemistry of chocolate, coffee, and a certain medication to solve the death of a particularly despicable literary critic. Highly recommended reading!


From Day Job to Mystery Writer

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?

How to Self-edit a short story

Self-editing is hard, no two ways about it. I remember a workshop led by Nancy Pickard years ago that I found especially useful. She called her method CASTS (Conflict, Action, Senses, Turn, and Surprise) and encouraged all of us to evaluate each scene or chapter using these five criteria. The trickiest for us to understand was the difference between "turn" and "surprise." If memory serves me, a "turn" could be a shift in mood for the protagonist/narrator, e.g. start the scene excited and end up hopeless. "Surprise" could be an "aha" moment for either the protagonist or the reader, as in, "I never thought of that!"

I recently sent in a short story for an anthology contest that required intense self-editing. As I accepted feedback from friends and colleagues, I had to sort out what to incorporate and what to discard (my rule is: if two or more critics say something needs fixing, pay attention).

Here are some of the guidelines I developed. All of these apply to novels too, but were especially helpful to me as I refined my short story and tried to make every word count.

What is the story logic? Does it work for readers? Review major plot points and how they unfold.
I made an outline and read it out loud to myself. Sometimes the logic is obvious to me, but not to my readers because I have left out some portion of my reasoning.

Where are the red herrings? Are they inserted in the best possible way?
I want some misdirection, but not too much. There’s less space in a short story, and you have to balance misdirection with keeping up the pace of the story.

Follow each character: How do you reveal character? Is each character distinct, and do they interact with others consistently?
 One of my characters was a bit wooden, so I fixed that by adding phrases or action words as dialogue tags.

Do you have the right balance between dialogue and description?
This was especially difficult for me since I discovered halfway through that I was writing my first police procedural, with crucial dialogue between two detectives!  I added a little more description.

Is there tension on each page? How is it revealed?
I made my characters argue with each other, disagreeing on how to proceed. I increased their physical discomfort as well.

Is there a twist at the end?
This is crucial, since most short stories want an “aha!” moment at the end.

I find critique groups immensely valuable; the members are readers as much as they are fellow writers. Although I attend one group that has 15-20 participants, I prefer a much smaller group so we can each read longer sections and receive more detailed feedback.

Finally, here's a great quote:

“A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns."  (P.L. Travers, creator of the "Mary Poppins" series) 

Travel the Palaeolithic (published first in 2017)

Our European trip this fall was a National Geographic “Human Origins” tour of Paleolithic caves in southwestern France and northern Spain. It was spectacular. We visited two or more caves per day, with breaks in medieval villages, an outdoor museum for flint-knapping and a “paleo” lunch (leaf-wrapped salmon cooked in a pit oven), and gorgeous archaeological museums.


I’ve written before about how painting and writing, my two favorite activities, feed each other. When I have writer’s block, I take a painting break; when the painting is stalled, I return to writing.

This trip provided plenty of inspiration for future stories and imitation rock paintings. My jaw dropped at least once a day, viewing cave paintings that were clearly planned out over stretches of thirty feet or more. The artists used multiple techniques: engraving, sketching with chunks of charcoal, depositing ground pigment (iron oxide, manganese) with blowpipes or daubers, painting with homemade brushes. 


Twenty thousand years ago, the painters studied walls to take advantage of natural curves in the rock to design the backs and bellies of bison and reindeer. They used shading to imply depth, and suggested movement of animals by deliberately leaving gaps between the top of some legs and the bodies of their beasts.

The results are stunning, no less than the natural cave formations around the paintings. Stalactites and stalagmites (my husband reminded me of the jingle “the tights go down, the mites climb up” to help remember which is which), columns, and organ pipes greet you around every twisty, slippery corner. Yes, organ pipes that can be played, and music has been written for cave formations.

The smaller French caves were never lived in (too dangerous to light fires with poor air circulation) but were clearly used as places of ritual and worship: think churches, not dwellings. However, one huge cave shelter was once a Paleolithic clothing factory and trading center; archaeologists found tools, bone and shell beads, and other evidence of industry.



The Dordogne region of southwest France is a beautiful country, packed with cave sites and wineries. If you want a virtual visit without suffering an overnight flight, try Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Bruno series set in that very region. Bruno is a war veteran, gourmet cook, and animal owner as well as a country policeman. The author alternates action scenes with descriptions of incredible meals, grape-stomping, truffle-hunting, and fierce games of rugby.


The reason Walker's books are so good is that he lives in the area he writes about at least half of every year. Vive La France!

A Pecha Kucha experience (first published 2017)

Recently I was asked to speak at a local Pecha Kucha, a Japanese-inspired public forum for artists and writers. Each speaker talks about her passion for exactly 6 minutes, 40 seconds, with slides advancing every 20 seconds. You have to plan carefully; once the slides start, there’s no pausing or going back.

My topic is “Toxic Brews in 1920s Illinois,” or a seriously condensed version of the research I did several years ago for my local mystery, The Bootlegger’s Nephew. In this mystery, my physician protagonist can’t figure out whether his friend was poisoned deliberately or just consumed a mixture of bad booze, prescription medicine, and homemade tonics.



His flapper daughter, Anna, helps him investigate, and together they trap a murderer and shut down a local gang of bootleggers. This story was supposed to be about 1920s archaeology, when it was a still a just a gentleman’s hobby. But the fascinating story of Prohibition took over.

The novel has several themes: the dangers of consuming liquor made from toxic substances (industrial-grade alcohol, kerosene, or embalming fluid) or heating corn mash in lead-lined radiators; the difficulties of practicing medicine before the advent of antibiotics; and the enhanced freedoms of young women during Prohibition.

The research was fascinating. Not only were there multiple ways to make and transport illegal booze, there were all kinds of “concealed carry.” Women fashioned deep pockets in their slinky dresses and long coats for flasks of illicit booze.



Our local newspaper, then called the Champaign Daily, reported on a raid in my hometown: “There were bottles of liquor hidden inside boxing gloves and stuffed inside a phonograph. There was wood alcohol, Jamaican ginger, liquor made from kerosene and furniture polish, booze that would make a rabbit expectorate in a bulldog’s face, squirrel whiskey that would make a man climb a tree.”

I stole another tidbit from a true account of Prohibition in Cincinnati: There was an enterprising family who ran a speak-easy in their home. Their under-age son dispensed liquor through tubes from the second floor. When there was a raid, he just threw a rug over the floor tubes and spread out his homework.

Revisiting this fascinating research led me to publish a short story that features the flapper daughter, Anna Junker, and her boyfriend Ben:



The result of all this activity made me appreciate east central Illinois in a whole new way. Now, when I travel around downtown, I notice the older buildings that erected before my stories took place. And I remember that one local establishment, once the store where I purchased my son’s soccer shoes, had a speakeasy on the second floor in the 1920s. It boasted a hidden stairway down to the street so patrons could escape quickly when federal agents showed up. On the same block, there was an underground steam tunnel used to exit a bootlegger’s distillery during raids. I asked around town if I could visit this tunnel—alas, it was closed down years ago.






A Murderous Weekend (first published 2017)

I had the great pleasure of attending our regional mystery conference, Magna cum Murder, in Indianapolis last weekend. This wonderful con started as a house party for writers and fans, held in a small hotel in Muncie, Indiana over twenty years ago.

Although the conference has moved venues twice, once to a convention hall in Muncie (rather impersonal and far from hotels) and second to the Columbia Club (a comfortable, atmospheric private club building in Indy).


Magna remains a friendly and warm conference, both for newbies and returning attendees. It attracts many readers, who enjoy having informal opportunities to talk with authors. The authors' experiences are enriched by these readers, and new friendships form every year. Even the hotel staff enjoys the conference: they comment on how strange it is hearing people talk about murder in the elevators.


The panels deal with both writing mechanics (e-publishing, marketing) and author experiences, such as showing up at a bookstore for a signing and discovering no advance publicity means only three people show up. This seems to have happened to every author at least once (moral: do your own publicity for every event, and that includes online events!).

I always come home with some new insight from both the panels I attend and the ones I am on. This time, it was how different authors revise their manuscripts and get them ready to submit. The best advice: while critique groups can be helpful, beta readers are better. A beta reader is a trusted friend, usually also a writer, who can evaluate a manuscript frankly and tell you where the weaknesses are. In my case, it's usually sections that are not developed enough. A character may not react as fully as she could to a sudden change in circumstances or the odd behavior of a colleague. Or the dialogue falls short, leaving too many questions in the reader's mind.

Finally, writing is a solitary pursuit. Attending a good conference is like a breath of fresh air and an affirmation of the writing life. Yes, there are others out there who live in their heads and plot murders while cooking dinner. Best of all, the weekend reminds me that many people still love reading and talking about good stories.