Thursday, October 24, 2019

Two new audiobooks!

I am thrilled to have two of the Flora Garibaldi Art History mysteries now available as audiobooks.
The first one is Burnt Siena, in which Flora discovers her Sienese conservation firm is involved in criminal practices:

The second is Catacomb, in Flora and her policeman boyfriend organize an international search for lost World War II art under the city of Rome:

Both are narrated by the talented Carrie Coello through, and both have new covers produced by Carrie's graphic designer husband, Ben Coello! Both books are available through Amazon, Audible, and ITunes.

For any author who has thought about doing audio editions but has not yet done it, I had a great experience with Audible/acx and would be glad to chat about it.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Botticelli Caper is published!

The third mystery in my Flora Garibaldi Art History series, The Botticelli Caper, just appeared for sale on Amazon (as of September 1), in both trade paperback and ebook.
During my last trip to Italy with my daughter Emily, we visited the Uffizi in Florence. While Emily gazed at famous paintings and sculpture, I was busy studying unmarked doorways, security cameras, and guard placement to further the following plot:

“Conservator Flora Garibaldi discovers that several paintings in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery have been replaced by clever forgeries. Where are the original artworks, and who’s in charge of the smuggling operation? Flora’s efforts to help the police make her the target of a criminal mastermind and murderer.”

How could this happen? Today the Uffizi is a modern, well-protected museum. However, I deliberately set my story about ten years ago when the old palace that houses the Uffizi was undergoing the latest in a long series of renovations (security systems being revamped, lots of workmen coming and going, construction and packing materials always underfoot, etc.). When you also know that the Uffizi is connected by a tunnel to another palace on its north side and (via a famous bridge) to another palace on its south side, my plot becomes more plausible.

My other book news is the production of my novel Burnt Siena (the first Flora mystery) as an audiobook. Authors who retain their audio rights can produce their own audio editions through Audible/ACX (the audiobook wing of Amazon). Thanks to an amazing narrator, Carrie Coello, the process has been both fun and enlightening. Here is the audio cover (created by graphic designer Ben Coello):

The audiobook will be available on Amazon by mid-September.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

New Editions of Earlier Books

Recently I received the rights back on two of my novels, The House of the Sphinx and The Bootlegger's Nephew from my former publisher Hilliard and Harris. Using Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon, I created new covers and trade paperback and ebooks for each title. Here they are:

This cover was produced using my own painting (watercolor and Prisma pencil). It was a painting class assignment: paint two views of the same object on the same piece of paper. I made the eyes as sinister as possible:) 

This cover uses a photograph of my grandmother Edith from the 1920s. Although the book title has "nephew" in it, the protagonist's daughter plays a larger role in the story. The new edition also includes a historical supplement about east central Illinois during the 1920s.

Both books are available in ebook format as well as paperback.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Dead Sea Scrolls Revisited

Image result for dead sea scrolls images public domain
Recently I taught a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), with the subtitle The Intersection between Archaeology and Religion, at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Illinois. It was a marvelous experience due to my wonderful co-teacher, Janet E. Guthrie, and the mature, alert, curious students at Olli.

Course descriptionThe discovery and interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls radically changed our understanding of biblical archaeology, the development of the Bible, and the history of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Who were the people of Qumran? How did their beliefs and practices differ from those of other Jewish sects of the first and second centuries BCE? What does archaeology tell us about the scroll librarians and how they lived? What is the relationship between the scrolls and the Bible? This four-week class, taught by a retired archaeologist and a retired pastor, will explore the historical and archaeological context of the scrolls, the lifestyle of the people who wrote them, and the implications of these ancient documents for religious history. 

Here are some of our resources for anyone who wants to explore this fascinating topic:


Note:  The best starting places for learning about the scrolls are the overview by James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today and the edited volume Davies et al., The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Collins, John J.  The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013.  A volume in the Lives of Great Religious Books series.  Includes an Appendix identifying “Personalities in the Discovery and Subsequent Controversies.”

Davies, Philip R., Brooke, George J., & Philip R. Callaway, The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Flint, Peter W. & James C. VanderKam, eds.  The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment.  2 volumes.  Leiden: Brill, 1998 & 1999.

[Josephus]. The Works of Flavius Josephus (translated by William Whiston), available online through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
For a detailed description of the Essenes, see The War of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 8.  Jewish sects are also discussed in Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1.

Lim, Timothy H. & John J. Collins, eds.  The Oxford Handbook of The Dead Sea Scrolls.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Magness, Jodi.  The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002.

Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (2012). 

Martinez, Florentino Garcia.  The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English.  Second Edition.  Leiden: E. J. Brill & Grand Rapids, MI: Wm Eerdmans Publishing, 1996. 

Ulrich, Eugene.  The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible.  Leiden: Brill, 2015.

VanderKam, James C.  The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012.

VanderKam, James C.  The Dead Sea Scrolls Today.  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010.

VanderKam, James C.  An Introduction to Early Judaism.  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001.

VanderKam, James & Peter Flint.  The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity.  San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002.

Image result for dead sea scrolls images public domain  The caves near Qumran where many scrolls were found

WEBSITES (the best of the best)

**Israeli Department of Antiquities: Includes photos of scrolls, detailed information, lots of resources. n.b.: this website includes scrolls from other caves south of Qumran (a larger corpus than we dealt with in this course)

**Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Includes a Virtual Tour of the settlement of Qumran led by archaeologist Jodi Magness

Library of Congress exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls, with a very useful glossary:


The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls
Images and summaries of scrolls
The Great Isaiah Scroll

Scroll fragments from Cave 4


Qumran as Fortress
Poor Health at Qumran
Animated map of rulers of ancient Middle East
Fake DSS at the Museum of the Bible
High-Tech and DSS
Articles on the DSS in the Biblical Archaeology Society library (you may have to join BAS to access these, but it is well worth it. Lots of material on biblical archaeology in general)

My mystery novel set in the Dead Sea region, but with different texts (the Gnoststic Gospels) at the heart of the story:

Two archaeologists race to find an ancient manuscript in Israel before Christian fanatics destroy it. More about the novel.  Author website:

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?