Countdown to "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery:" archaeologists as detectives

Just a little over a week until the premiere of "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery," on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries!  Tune in June 4, 9/8c.

I was disappointed the first time I visited a state police lab. It was a trip with the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America or Sisters in Crime (and if you don’t belong to these groups, and you write crime fiction, you should definitely consider membership). The reason was that it looked almost exactly like the conservation lab I trained in as an undergraduate: same fume hood, glassware, brown chemical bottles, black work surfaces. Even the sample and evidence bags looked similar, either a variety of poly bags or paper bags with context information on them (in this case, the chain of evidence, rather than the location within a site’s stratigraphy).

My response wasn’t fair, of course, and it was only because I expected something more exciting than what I have had occasion to do. But that was the first time I really grokked the similarities between what detectives and archaeologists do, and the reason it made such sense that my main character, Emma Fielding, had the skills to be a plausible amateur detective: She was already trained at recreating past events from material, documentary, and interview evidence.

Courtney Thorne-Smith as Emma Fielding and James Tupper as FBI Agent TIm Conner.

Courtney Thorne-Smith as Emma Fielding and James Tupper as FBI Agent TIm Conner.

Artifacts are the most obvious example of the similarity between these two jobs. Discovering the artifacts’ context—where they were found on a site, and with what other things they were associated—tells us the time of deposition, whether it happened all at once (someone filling in a hole left from a planting) or over time (the gradual accumulation of artifacts and soil on a site over centuries), and how the objects were used.

Sounds like the clues on crime scenes you’ve seen on TV, right, with the construction of timelines and the examination of possible bullet trajectories, for example?

Documents serve the same purpose, whether they are maps that showed the house and outbuildings on a property at a given moment, or telephone records that indicate someone’s location. For the historical archaeologist (like me or Emma) wills and probate inventories tell what someone owned, long after the furniture and finishings have been handed down, sold or given away. Diaries are the best of all, because they may express emotion and intent, something that is very difficult to tease out from artifacts and stratigraphy. Or they may be disappointingly bland, nothing more than a series of entries about the weather.


Surprisingly, archaeologists find interviews of people who had connections to a site useful, even if the site is hundreds of years old. For example, if someone visited a grandparent who lived nearby a site, they may have heard stories from them about neighbors and events from almost a century back. Like a detective taking a witness’s statement, however, interviewees may misremember details or have heard a version of a local story that is incorrect. It’s a game of telephone, distance from the source (in this case, distance in time) obscures the message.

Archaeology even directly overlaps criminal investigation, with specializations in forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology. These both focus on human remains, in either modern forensic or ancient settings.

The most important similarity in both fields is in the practitioner’s patience and ability to apply scientific principals to the evidence. The work is painstaking and oftentimes is incredibly dull, but with both, there is, one hopes, the satisfaction of solving the puzzle at the end.

NEXT:  How to have a "Site Unseen" viewing party!

Countdown to "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery:" How I came to write SITE UNSEEN

I didn’t have plans to write fiction. I got the idea as a kid (I don’t know where) that writers had to have adventures, like running with the bulls or getting into fights, and that did not sound like fun—I was happier in a library! So by the age of ten, I decided to become an archaeologist. It had everything I loved: historical research, languages, science, travel, and intellectual puzzles. It was really a great fit, and I loved every minute of it. In fact, I still refer to myself as “a recovering archaeologist,” because once you’ve worked in that field, you never really look at the world the same way again.

The cast of "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery" on site!  Check out the premiere on June 4, on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries!

The cast of "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery" on site!  Check out the premiere on June 4, on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries!

And then…

Many years later, a looter with a metal detector appeared on a site where I was working with a colleague. We protested; he pulled a pistol on us. My boss was closest; I’d been using the transit. There’s not a lot to hide behind, with a transit. It’s basically a small telescope on top of a tripod, used for surveying. Not a lot of cover.

My choices were: run (and maybe he shoots us) or wait (and maybe he shoots us). I decided to memorize what I could about him, his friend, and his truck, and if things started happening, I’d run into the woods to find a ranger.

Eventually the guy left, but at the time, it was really scary. We reported the incident and I thought that was that. The rest of the season, though, I dug pretty fast. I wanted to have a nice deep hole to hide in, if he came back.

Months later, I told a friend about this, along with some other “interesting” things that had happened to me and my colleagues in the course of doing fieldwork: the cement mixer that went off the road and landed on the site where we’d been digging.  The time another friend was shot at, for digging too close to a still in the woods. You know, work stuff.

She said, "you need to write this down!"  Boom! I knew I had to do it. I had a pot-hunter with a gun, and an archaeologist. I’d read mysteries all my life (still do!), and so a mystery novel made sense.  I started to write what would eventually become Site Unseen. It’s not such a stretch, though, to go from historical archaeology to fiction. Archaeologists make up stories—based on evidence—about people in the past.

That makes it sound very easy, but it actually took a number of years, and maybe twelve drafts of the novel (once I’d finished a first draft). I went to a writing class, and then to a writing group, where we’d critique each other’s work. From there, I attended Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, where, in addition to getting amazing critical feedback, I found my first agent. She sold Site Unseen, and then the next five Emma books.

Next:  The similarities between archaeologists and detectives

Countdown to "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery:" What It's Like to Work on a Dig

Just a few weeks until June 4, and the premiere of "Site Unseen" on the Hallmark Movie & Mystery Channel!  Last week, I wrote about my protagonist, archaeologist Emma Fielding.  This week, it's a little glimpse into what it's like to work on a dig. 

Generally speaking, working on an archaeological dig has all the glamour of working on a road crew, with the added benefit of lots of meticulous recording and paper work. Whether you are digging test pits before the construction of a power line, or working on a remote site that’s been studied for decades, chances are that the work will be backbreaking. You’ll have to deal with extremes of weather, bugs and other animal life, poisonous plants, and the like. Don’t forget that there may be issues related to the natural or cultural environment affecting you as well. I’ve worked outside a state prison, on a waste treatment facility site, and on a wharf site that was affected by the tides. That last one was in the middle of winter, on the Atlantic coast, and the cold was...Dantesque.  

Removing the soil, centimeter by centimeter.

Removing the soil, centimeter by centimeter.

The work is painstakingly slow. Often, you work with the smallest of tools—brushes, trowels, spoons, and dental picks. This is done to observe the layers of soil and features (such as walls, wells, pits, etc.), and to understand their relationship and how they fit together. That’s called the “context,” and it helps you understand what happened, and when, on a site. You spend a lot of time looking at, and arguing about...dirt. You spend a lot of time looking at trash people threw out three centuries ago.

Did I mention the paperwork? Recording what you learn on a site, and being precise about it, is of the utmost importance. You use every sense to describe what you see, because once a site is excavated, it’s gone: Only your notes, photos and videos, and maps will remain for you and others to study. There’s a lot of redundancy, lists of lists of artifacts and photos, because you only get one chance to excavate a site.

Given all that, I’d be a fool to recommend such a career. And yet…

This dig was on a cliff overlooking a harbor town in Turkey. I didn't make it over there, but I was dying to know what they were looking for!

This dig was on a cliff overlooking a harbor town in Turkey. I didn't make it over there, but I was dying to know what they were looking for!

Working on a dig is the best puzzle in the world. Everything from repairing the artifacts themselves to piecing together evidence across the site to learn about its inhabitants is part of a mystery. You may also be comparing your site with other sites around the world. Remember that trash I mentioned before? We learn way more about people by looking at the things they used (ceramics, glass, animal bones, seeds, tools, etc.) than by almost anything else. Add in the documents—diaries, newspaper articles, court records, legal documents, letters—and you’ve got another layer of information to fit with the material evidence. Archaeology provides a jigsaw worthy of a Time Lord, reaching across time and space.

When you work on a site, you also use your imagination, building a set of stories about the people (some of whom might not show up in legal records) who lived and worked in a place. To me, that’s one of the most exciting parts of doing historical archaeology: revealing individuals and their lives within the larger framework of history.

And sometimes the sites are in spectacularly beautiful places. For me, a great view and an ocean breeze will do a lot to mitigate the nuisance of mosquito bites and a sore back.

So never mind what I said earlier. Working on a dig is one of the best jobs ever.

NEXT:  How I came to write Site Unseen.

Even Bertram the Seagull likes an archaeological site by the ocean.

Even Bertram the Seagull likes an archaeological site by the ocean.

Countdown to "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery:" Who is Emma Fielding?

Howdy! I’m starting a series of blogs to count down to the premiere of “Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery” on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries (June 4, 9-11pm). So I’m starting off with the basics: who is Emma Fielding?

Emma is an an archaeologist, and the protagonist of my first six mysteries—Site Unseen, Grave Consequences, Past Malice, A Fugitive Truth, More Bitter Than Death, and Ashes and Bones. She got her name while I was writing my first mystery, and I happened to glance over at my bookcase. There I saw a copy of Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, and a copy of Emma, by Jane Austen, and I put the two names together. It wasn’t for a long time that I realized how appropriate that name was—it can be read as a play on words for her job, someone who spends time in the field. I had another character point out the joke to Emma in a later book, but I felt pretty silly for not having seen it myself right away!

Courtney Thorne-Smith on the set of "Site Unseen."  I think she'll make a great Emma Fielding!

Courtney Thorne-Smith on the set of "Site Unseen."  I think she'll make a great Emma Fielding!

And when I suddenly realized I was going to start writing a mystery (more about that in a future blog), I needed to figure out who my hero was. Since my career at the time was in American historical archaeology (studying the past through archaeology and first-person documents, like diaries or wills), that’s what Emma does, too. This turned out to be a real benefit for an amateur sleuth, because archaeologists need many of the same skills as detectives (which I’ll also discuss in another blog).

I get asked a lot if Emma is based on me. That’s a tricky question, because while her adventures are based loosely on my own experiences (very loosely—my life isn’t that exciting!), we have a lot in common. We both are academics and love puzzles; we’re both New Englanders to the bone. She’s a little more serious than I am, and she probably wouldn’t know what to make of my geeky sense of humor. On the other hand, Emma actually got me to start jogging; the great thing about a fictional character is that Emma’s knees won’t ever give out from all the fieldwork! Emma is braver than I am—she actually surprised me a number of times, by running toward trouble when I expected her to quite sensibly hide—but then, she never tried to write a novel. She’s very loyal to her friends and her family, and she never gives up on a challenge. She’s passionate about what we can learn through science, history, and archaeology—and so am I.

NEXT: What it’s like to work on a dig

Emma Fielding and Site Unseen will be a Hallmark movie!

So in case you didn’t hear me yodeling from the rooftop, my first novel, Site Unseen is currently being made into a movie of the week for Hallmark Movies and Mysteries!  Courtney Thorne-Smith is playing Emma Fielding, and filming started in British Columbia this week!  The movie is slated to show on May 21, 2017.
    But a bit of background...
    Last year was crazy and wonderful--in addition to my investiture in the Baker Street Irregulars as “The Giant Rat of Sumatra,” there was a lot of travel.  In addition to visiting central Europe in the spring (Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czech, Slovakia) for fun, there various conventions from New York to Kansas City to New Orleans (including Boskone, NECON, WorldCon, and Bouchercon).  Part of this is because I’ve been working in so many new genres: last year, I had a Sherlockian pastiche (“Where There is Honey”) in a collection edited by Laurie King and Leslie S. Klinger, my first science fiction story (“The White Rat”) in an anthology of SF inspired by the Brothers Grimm, and an Anna Hoyt short story (“An Obliging Cousin”) in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  
    Speaking of Anna Hoyt, my 18th-century tavern owner and, shall we say...problem solver?  I spent most of the end of last year finishing a novel based on Anna’s exploits.  This is a project near and dear to my heart, drawing from my research on 18th-century Boston and having its roots in Boston Noir (ed. By Dennis Lehane). Anna surprised me a number of times, and I added a whole shelf of books to my library on the history of crime and law enforcement in the colonies.  I can’t wait for her to find a home in print!
    But I got a huge surprise late in November, when my agent Josh Getzler told me that Muse Entertainment wanted to option my Emma Fielding novels!  I was very excited about the idea of my archaeologist/sleuth Emma on the small screen, but know from friends’ experience that it’s a long shot, to go from “option” to “film.”  
    But you never know, because very recently, we found out that the project had the greenlight from Hallmark, and filming was starting.  (See the press release here.)  The official announcement was yesterday, and I’m so excited, I can barely contain myself.  It’s all happening so fast, but if there’s a chance for me to go out and visit the set, you know I’ll be there like a shot!  Another super thing is that my friend Charlaine Harris also has her Aurora Teagarden mysteries on Hallmark, so I'm in excellent company!
    This is crazy and marvelous for so many reasons.  Site Unseen was my first novel.  When I was writing it, playing with some of my experiences in archaeology and my love of mystery, I had no idea it would be published.  Of course, I hoped it would, but there were many, many times when I didn’t think it would happen.  I didn’t know there’d be five more Emma books.  I didn’t know that the Fangborn books would follow, and an exploration of urban fantasy.  I didn’t know I’d meet Anna and follow her through the dark alleys of Boston, or that I’d try writing horror or SF or delve into the world of Sherlock Holmes. 
    So thank you, to everyone who’s enjoyed Emma and supported my work!  I’m very happy to share this news with you.  And if you’re writing...keep working at it.
    You just never know.

Courtney Thorne-Smith will play Emma Fielding

Courtney Thorne-Smith will play Emma Fielding

The Canonical and the Criminal in NYC

My writing year started off with a real bang.  I received a tremendous honor, and was made a member of the Baker Street Irregulars.  The oldest Sherlockian literary society in the world, the BSI takes its name from the gang of street children hired by Sherlock Holmes to "go everywhere, see everything, overhear everyone." He paid them a shilling a day (a guinea, for finding a truly important clue); on January 15, I "received my Irregular shilling."  

Investiture certificate: I am "The Giant Rat of Sumatra!"

Investiture certificate: I am "The Giant Rat of Sumatra!"

First of all:  It's a real shilling.  From 1895.  That's cool stuff!

With the certificate and shilling comes an “investiture,” that is, a name taken from one of the people, places, or things from the Sherlockian canon (the 56 stories and 4 novels written by Arthur Conan Doyle).  They can even be names of the stories themselves.  Mine is “The Giant Rat of Sumatra,” which is an unpublished case Holmes refers to in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” Part of the reason I love this investiture so much is because the reference appears in a discussion Holmes has about Grimms' fairy tales, vampires, and logic (and and storytelling; the tale of the Giant Rat is “story for which the world is not ready”).  Another reason is that it is a recognizable reference, and it's curious and funny—people ask about it right away, if they don't already know about it!  

Three very happy new Baker Street Irregulars in our finery: me, Tim Greer, and Jenn Eaker.

Three very happy new Baker Street Irregulars in our finery: me, Tim Greer, and Jenn Eaker.

Another reason is that there have been two Irregulars called “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” before me.  And that's really at the heart of why the BSI means so much to me: on receiving my shilling, people told me of their fond memories of he who was the “Rat” before me.  Not only have I been admitted to a group of smart, funny people with a wide range of skills and knowledge, but I'm part of a tradition going back decades.  It's a connection with the past (and you know how much that means to me) that reinforces ties in the present.

Receiving my shilling on this particular evening was even more special because it was the 25th anniversary of the BSI allowing women to become members.  Many of the first women to be invested have befriended me since I began going to BSI Weekend and other Sherlockian events; it meant a lot that I could tell them thanks for paving the way for the rest of us.  There's a terrific podcast of an interview about those members of ASH and BSI here:   If you're not misty-eyed on hearing the emotion during that first not to tell me. 

After BSI weekend was officially over, I had one more event.  I was thrilled to be invited by Todd Robinson to a Noir at the Bar event in New York.  This makes my third--the first two were in Boston (and next week, at Boskone, I'll be participating in a special edition of N@B).  You can read about the history of this event, which has gone nationwide and global, here.  Basically, a bunch of writers read, about five minutes each, in a bar. You'll hear some amazing work, without fail.  It's fun, it's raucous, it makes you jealous you didn't write what you just heard.  If someone asks if you want to go first or second, go first.  More than likely, you'll be glad you didn't have to follow up whatever awesomeness preceded you.  

Me and Big Daddy Thug at Shade Bar in NYC ((Todd is the one on the right).

Me and Big Daddy Thug at Shade Bar in NYC ((Todd is the one on the right).

The two events appear on the surface to be very different.  One is steeped in history and tradition and the other has a modern, opportunistic, pop-up ethic.  The stories are, understandably, much grittier at N@B (though Sherlockian pastiche can go there), and the audiences are much more raucous (though Sherlockians are are just as opinionated and expressive).  But at their hearts, I found both events share an identical dedication to fine writing and scholarship, humor, and community spirit.  

N@B: l-r Danny Gardner, Jason Pinter, Vincent Zandri, Adrian McKinty, Suzanne Soloman, Dennis Tafoya, me, Todd Robinson

N@B: l-r Danny Gardner, Jason Pinter, Vincent Zandri, Adrian McKinty, Suzanne Soloman, Dennis Tafoya, me, Todd Robinson

It was a superb weekend filled with good company and good stories.  An excellent start to my writing year.

Fall events and "Burning the Rule Book!"

It's been a while, but never fear, I've been BUSY!  In addition to the new look for the website, I've been writing like mad, including my first SF story (more details to follow), work on another Anna Hoyt colonial noir short story (and the novel ), and a couple more short stories (including another Sherlockian pastiche) I can't wait for you to read!  In addition, my first horror short story, "Whiskey and Light," appears in Seize the Night, edited by Christopher Golden, which will drop October 6.  

There's a new Fangborn short story, "Burning the Rule Book," which features Zoe's parents...before Zoe!  It answers a number of questions raised in Hellbender, so trust me when I say, it's required reading!

I've added several new events to my calendar for October and November, so don't forget to check out the "Appearances" page!

Happy Labor Day, all!