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.

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