Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Birth, wedding, death—all of these events have made up our “biblical” summer. It began with the death of my husband’s mother, a gentle Southern lady with a core of steel. This is a huge loss, not only for my husband and his three siblings and all the grandkids, but to me who thought of Jane as the best possible mother-in-law. She welcomed me unreservedly when I married her son, made me her daughter, chuckled and cried with us at our children’s escapades. I am desolate at her passing but infinitely grateful that she was part of my life.

The “wedding” was my daughter’s, only it was not called a wedding, and it felt more like a church service than an event that celebrated family. But it was still special, leaving indelible memories of food and flowers and love and laughter. Now we anticipate the birth of our first grandchild any day now, and I wait with half-held breath in case there’s another event in store for us, such as a flood or fire or surprise of biblical proportions.

All these transitions are perfectly normal, yet they produce unexpected swings of emotion and sleeplessness because change is never comfortable. When the emotions have been assimilated, I may be able to writer better, or at least more honestly. My characters may deepen. As in other times of change, I turn to writers who express feelings better than I possibly can. This time I chose Madeleine L’Engle: her not-just-for-teenagers Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins and The Young Unicorns affect me like comfort food. Why? Because her families and the loving circles they make remind me of where I came from, and what I hope I created with my own children. And the grandchild to come will just expand the circle.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is Someone Watching Me?

My husband Charlie, a retired pathologist, is a ghoul. On an airplane from Luxor to Cairo, Egypt, I told him I had a new plot for an archaeological mystery, The House of the Sphinx. He listened to my ideas for skullduggery set in the Temple of Luxor and the fabulous site of Karnak. “Fine,” he said. “But what about adding a little bioterrorism?”

This sparked an interesting discussion about which diseases could be used as bioweapons. Instead of reliving our wonderful visit to the Valley of the Kings, I grilled my husband on the symptoms and treatment for smallpox and how Europeans transmitted the disease to Native Americans using contaminated blankets.

Back home, I researched the terrifying saga of smallpox in books, articles, and on the Internet. Because it is a virus that is easy to transmit during the early and unrecognizable stages of the disease, smallpox is difficult to contain and treat. Over thirty percent of people who get sick die, and survivors are often blinded or otherwise disfigured. Officially, smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1979, but the virus stocks in select research facilities were never destroyed...

What if, I asked myself, my archaeologist heroine stumbled upon a plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox? What if there really was a stash of smallpox virus somewhere that terrorists could obtain and weaponize? Not a new idea, I discovered, as I read Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer. Although nonfiction, it read like a thriller, and scared me silly. Preston’s descriptions of smallpox laboratories and frozen virus stashes in the former Soviet Union and Iraq provided me with plenty of fodder for further research, including how to manage a modern smallpox epidemic (I visited the website of the Centers for Disease Control).

Some research can make you paranoid. As I googled how to turn frozen smallpox virus into a stable, disease-transmitting powder, I wondered if other people were tracking my Internet use. Would someone show up on my doorstep to investigate me as a terrorist? Would being a mystery writer be a good enough excuse to get me off the hook? It didn’t happen, but I discovered my own ghoulish tendencies in my fascination with the history of one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

Many writers now say, “write want you want to know,” instead of “write what you know.” I say, use what you know as a jumping off point for new research, no matter how grisly. I’m an archaeologist, not a physician or medical historian, but being married to a doctor has taught me just enough about medicine to be dangerous, to want to learn more. And perhaps I was getting a little tired of killing my villains with priceless Greek vases and Roman statues—it was time for a change.

The House of the Sphinx, by Sarah Wisseman (Hilliard and Harris, December 2009). For more on Wisseman's books and stories, visit
**This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Egypt At Last!

"Since I’m an archaeologist with a special interest in mummies, Egypt has always been on my bucket list. Recently my husband Charlie and I took a reasonably priced Globus tour (Cairo plus a standard 4-night Nile cruise) that met all my expectations.

You have to go there, because no video can do justice to the sheer size of the monuments or the overwhelming impression that the distant past lives cheek by jowl with the 21st century.

At Giza, you face one direction and view the mesmerizing Great Pyramid of Khufu and endless sand. You turn around, and there is modern Cairo, sneaking up on the archaeological site like a metastasizing tumor. Cairo traffic is just as my Lonely Planet guidebook described, “like the chariot race in the movie version of Ben Hur, but without the chariots.” And at night, drivers don’t turn on their headlights until they are about to do something suicidal, like veer across three lanes of traffic.

Away from Cairo, the shores of the Nile look essentially as they did five thousand years ago. Small thatched huts serve as quarters for animals and herdsmen, and fishermen travel in feluccas (sailboats) while beating the water to attract fish. If you take a sunset sail, the sailors will teach you Egyptian songs while they maneuver the boat into the middle of the Nile. Then, when you are unable to leave, they unveil their “genuine” jewelry for sale. This experience prompted my husband to whisper to me, “Don’t buy from a Nubian in the dark.”

The farther south you go, the more aggressive some of the vendors are. They set up souks (markets) between the parking lots and major archaeological sites so that tourists have to run a gauntlet of shopping “opportunities.” When you find yourself draped with unwanted merchandise, with hands tugging at your shirt, the word “imshee!” (get lost!) is very useful.

The highlight of the trip for me was Luxor, the ancient city of Thebes. This is the jumping off point for trips to the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, the Temple of Luxor, Karnak, and the giant temple of Queen Hatshepsut (your guide will teach you to say, “hat-cheap-suit”). The landscape here is stark but colorful, with sandstone rocks in multiple shades of tan, cream, gold, and mauve. Here you can also see the Colossi of Memnon, immense statues whose quartzite was shown by Illinois geologists to have originated near Cairo.

Karnak is full of wonders, room after room of obelisks, paved courtyards, and statues of the lioness goddess, Sekhmet. And if you turn at just the right angle, you can see the golden arches of a McDonald’s looming in the distance.

Avoid uncooked vegetables or you’ll get the Thutmosis Trots. But go see Egypt, before Cairo and the desert swallow up the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids…

Champaign resident Sarah Wisseman is the author of several archaeological mysteries, including The House of the Sphinx ("

(This article recently appeared in The News Gazette of Champaign-Urbana IL. Photos by C. Wisseman)