Wednesday, September 15, 2010 Sarah Wisseman

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, September 8, 2010

Indulging in Armchair Travel…by Sarah Wisseman

When I began to write my second mystery, “The Dead Sea Codex,” I realized that I didn’t really want to go back to Israel and risk being blown up by a suicide bomber. So I cheated; I stayed home in Illinois. I used today’s virtual magic carpet, the Internet. Lucky me—I avoided the purgatory of crowded airports and multiple gas-powered vehicles to traverse oceans and time zones only to arrive sleep-deprived, sweat-stained, and thoroughly grumpy. Instead, I lounged around in my pajamas and sipped hot chocolate while dragging out all my old textbooks, diaries, and pictures from my Junior Year Abroad.
As a visiting archaeology student at Tel Aviv University in the 1970s, I feasted on the exotic. I tasted shwarma (roasted lamb) and six kinds of yogurt, joined an international excavation at biblical Beersheba in the Negev desert, swam across the Sea of Galilee with a hundred other people, and was adopted by a wonderful Israeli family with Russian and Romanian roots.
But these memories are out-of-date. What does the Israeli architecture look like now? Is my memory of palm trees and cacti in urban settings accurate? How do you make hummus and tahini dip? What is the name of the female version of the long garment Arab men wear? I found all these things on the Web, as well as listings of current restaurants with their street names, signature dishes, and local beers. To supplement my virtual findings, I purchased a brand-new travel guide to Israel, dug out my Hebrew grammar book, and reread Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and several related books on the Gnostic Gospels, and watched movies set in the Middle East.

Creating an exotic setting without going there in the flesh isn’t easy, but it is possible. I created a notebook for my novel, complete with hand-drawn maps of the area around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, a historical timeline, phrases of Arabic and Hebrew that my characters would hear and speak, and cutout photographs of models that resembled the physical description of my heroine, archaeologist and museum curator Lisa Donahue.        

Using the Internet and other media does not mean that I’ve given up travel. A recent trip to Egypt proved that no computer screen or video footage quite captures the smelly and precarious experience of riding a camel or the enormity of the pillars of Karnak. Those experiences formed the core of my fourth novel, “The House of the Sphinx.”

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Coming Clean About Mysteries I loved This Year . . . by Molly MacRae

I was looking for a way to avoid doing laundry this afternoon and came up with this great scheme - I'll post a laundry list of good mysteries I read over the past year or so and I'll wind up feeling as virtuous as if I actually threw a load in the washer and hung it out to dry.

So, here you go, in alphabetical order by author, with only a few side comments to bog you down - books I loved this year in three categories.

Adult Mysteries, mostly on the cozy side:
The Poisoning in the Pub by Simon Brett
State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy
The Ghost and Mrs. McClure by Alice Kimberly
A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield (I need to get my hands on A Bad Day for Pretty)
The Desert Hedge Murders by Patricia Stoltey
Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann (sheep!)
Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson (Medieval noir)

Graphic Novels 
Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry (Brulightly is a teabag)
Grandville by Bryan Talbot (Steampunk)

Young Adult / Juvenile (I work in the kids' department of the public library)
The Postcard by Tony Abbott
Into the Dark by Peter Abrahams (every book in the series is a gem)
Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks (Published in 1932. Freddy is a pig who reads Sherlock Holmes.)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (Newbery Medal winner)
43 Old Cemetery Road: Dying to Meet You by Kate Klise (epistolary)

What have you been reading?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Layers of Sarah Wisseman

My life is composed of layers. Layers of personal stuff (family, husband, children, cats), interests (painting, drawing, and gardening) and two jobs. In my day job, I’m an archaeological scientist at the University of Illinois. Our interdisciplinary program explores how science can help archaeologists and art curators decipher their artifacts by examining layers of composition, technology, provenance, and dating.

My other job is mystery writing. Gradually I'm excavating my own life to unearth situations and characters that will make good mysteries. These include creepy old attic museums—digs in Israel, Italy, and Nevada—peculiar academic characters that morph into murderers (or murderees!).

Like an archaeological dig, a good mystery is constructed in layers: the top layer, or stratum, is what the reader sees and where the main story takes place. A couple of strata down is where the villain hangs out, plotting and planning away, occasionally rising to the surface like a misplaced artifact in an ancient garbage pit.

Garbage pits definitely loom large in an archaeologist's life because stratigraphy is rarely orderly. People in the past were always digging holes to lay a foundation trench, bury something (or someone), or to hide some garbage before constructing a new floor.

Personalities have layers too, and it's the job of writers to reveal the layers in their characters in ways that move the story along. And everyone has a garbage pit--the family traumas from the past, the dysfunctional relationships of the present. Garbage, like compost, can provide rich beginnings for new stories.
For a longer article on this topic, visit the free ezine, Mysterical-E.