Sunday, June 13, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Settings + TAS Field School, Day 2

Today we finished screening "the pile" and started actual digging. Cool finds to emerge from the pile: a glass marble and something the same size that might be round shot; the face of the pipe bowl from yesterday; a black bead; a portion of a china doll face (small, probably a 3" - 5" Frozen Charlotte or a penny doll); more buttons; and the star of the show, half a dozen carved wooden beads still strung on a brass wire, probably part of a rosary.

We have six units adjacent to the future BBQ pit. I stand in the pit and work on Unit 5. Unit 6 went down "to level" (10 cm below the surface) but Claire Younkin and I worked a little slower. This is typical and though it is possible to go too slow in a dig you should remind yourself, when you see someone else appearing to accomplish more, that it's not a race. A less-experienced digger who hasn't got the hang of trowel movement, a touch of arthritis, a site that is more complex or has more roots or is crumbling away and has to be supported - all kinds of things can slow you down. We aren't expecting much of the top level. Units 5 and 6 form the back of a former trash heap and abut the property line, from which a fence and a loose stone wall were removed to make room for us, so we found fence elements, baling wire, a plastic and a metal rod, screws, and some sort of machinery, a handle or a cog, that turned on a square axle and can probably be identified in the lab. And more glass. Lots of glass. The glass at this site, at least certain kinds, is going to be measured by weight, not per piece.

Screening the pile, we continued to find lots of bones, big and small - chicken and possibly other fowl, the broken ends of long bones of all sizes, ribs, and amorphous lumps of spongy inner bone with all the solid cortex eroded away. Early in the day, one of the people who wasn't at this site yesterday found a bone and asked about it. (To a first-day person, in any enterprise, the second-day person is an authority. This can be a heavy responsibility.) I explained about the smokehouse and said to dump it in the current field sack as it wasn't being curated separately. He said: "Even if it's a human bone?"

I answered: "If it's a human bone you yell out 'stop.' That's a game-changer."

He was joking, but the thing is, every episode of the TV show Bones begins with a similar scene - people going about their business and suddenly, shockingly, coming across a body in an unexpected context. A fresh body would transform the archeological dig into a crime scene; an in situ grave would change the entire nature of the dig; and an in situ grave of a certain vintage would become both a crime scene and an archeological dig.

It is a fact of literature that certain genres are as much about the setting and atmosphere as they are about plot and character. This is absolutely true of the mystery! This is not to say that the plot need not be clever or the character appealing, but do we not pick up a Jane Marple mystery desiring to visit St. Mary Mead and visit with her over knitting as much as desiring to have our brains tied in knots? Do we not choose to read about Sherrif Dan Rhodes for the appeal of his small Texas town and pawky humor, Phillip Marlowe to visit those mean streets, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee to feel like insiders in the Checkerboard and the Big Rez?

A TAS field school would be a wonderful setting for a mystery. Every archeologist is a detective to a certain extent, and the relationships that develop at such annual events, plus the extensive supply of amateurs, professionals, students, children, teens, parents, locals, and landowners provide a dynamic cast of characters to fill roles as amateur detectives, snoopy sidekicks, comic relief, villains, suspects, victims, red herrings - anybody and anything you need. Once you decided to use the field school, you wouldn't even need a body. The mystery could be a disappearance, a series of theft, the identity of the looters cherry-picking the site overnight despite increasingly jacked-up security. You're spoilt for choice.

I often start a story like this, and the problem is to narrow the field. Before you can write the story, you have to decide which story you're going to tell. So ask yourself questions about what you want to do. What possibilities excite you most? To what audience do you wish to appeal? Do you want a short story or a novel, a series or a stand-alone? The answers to those questions will eliminate big swatches of possibility.

For instance, if you're writing a middle-grade mystery, the mystery absolutely must be solved by the protagonist child, so you need to choose a mystery that your audience will accept a child can solve. This is less restrictive than it sounds, because 11-year-old children are willing to believe an 11-year-old child can solve problems that an adult would consider it improper for one to even know about. If you're writing for adults and want to create a romantic crimefighting duo good for several books, maybe you'd have the new sherrif in town solving the mystery with one of the archeologists involved in the field school, striking sparks of sexual tension and sharing expertise.

Heck, this setting would probably be good for a romantic novel, though I never read those and wouldn't know. And archeological digs are such convenient launchpads for time travel stories that I've done it twice, myself. You could write a farce riffing off the social dynamic created by so many strangers, friends, and acquaintances camping together for a week with a common purpose. I'd kind of like to read a two-tiered historical novel/mystery in which the body is found and the mystery of who-this-person-is-and-how-did-he-die is worked on in the modern day and the story of the person the body belonged to is told in alternate chapters, each chapter illuminating the characters and events in the adjacent chapters. (Yeah, yeah, big bite to chew - remember, your reach should exceed your grasp, or what's a heaven for?)

Like some of these ideas but aren't comfortable with TAS field schools? What's comfortable to you? Scout camp and conventions and recreationist groups offer many similar possibilities - cf Mary Monica Pulver's SCA classic, Murder at the War. Not all members of the Society of Creative Anachronism routinely read mysteries; but I never met one that wouldn't read Murder at the War, because it enters into a world and a cast of characters that is personal to them. They want to see if they recognize anyone, if the author has treated the subculture fairly, to laugh at the in-jokes and check for accuracy.

Thousands of people attend field schools and volunteer digs like this every year. All of them are literate. I just thought I'd mention that.

No comments:

Post a Comment