Poetic Archaeology A.2

speak with detective

to consult about a find

did not expect this

No, Meghan Bode never thought anyone would ask her to help with a possible criminal investigation.

But Detective Tom Sandberg is seated at one of her lab tables, and he doesn’t look happy. He assumed the worst when she couldn’t tell him the human bone was a thousand years old.

“Don’t misunderstand me,” Meghan tells him. “I only meant I need more than one bone. I need to see where it was found, what else is there, what the soil conditions are like.”

Sandberg sits up straighter. “We’ve done a preliminary search. Nothing else showed up on the ground or where the dog was digging. Can you come out today? The sooner we know what we’re dealing with, the better.”

“My field equipment’s in my truck. I’ll follow you.”

They arrive at the park, and Sandberg leads Meghan to the possible crime scene. It’s marked off with yellow tape, and a uniformed officer stands guard.

Meghan ducks under the tape, feeling like she’s in a TV crime drama. Her family and friends won’t believe her when she tells them. But she focuses on her task.

There’s a light leaf litter, but she can see some of the ground surface. She moves away from the find spot and studies nearby areas.

“What are you looking for?” Sandberg asks.

“Differences in the surface soils. Are the ones where the bone was found the same as these? It looks like it. That may mean the bone was buried some years ago.”

“I hope so,” Sandberg mutters. “Like hundreds of them.”

Meghan grabs a small mason’s trowel and returns to the area where the dog dug up the bone, bending close to the hole. She doesn’t see additional bones and decides to scrape a small area at one end. If a skeleton was still articulated, she might come across the scapula (shoulder blade) or the lower arm bones. It doesn’t take long before she feels a change in texture—even before she hears the shifting tone in her trowel’s passes through the soil.

Carefully extending her exploration, she spies the proximal ends of two well-preserved bones, the radius and ulna that form the lower arm. Now she has a good idea how the skeleton is oriented—if it’s complete.

Sitting back, she takes in the surrounding landscape. The jogger’s path lies some 30 yards away, slightly downhill. But the shrubs that line the path are tall enough to obscure the skeleton’s location. And the surrounding trees uphill are fairly dense. It’s hard for Meghan to see much from this position.

Sandberg must have guessed what she was thinking. “We already checked. You can’t see this spot from the trail—or from any distance on any side. You found more bone, didn’t you.”

Meghan realizes it’s a statement, not a question. “I’ll leave them for your crime scene unit.”

She stares at Sandberg, wondering why he laughs.

“This isn’t a rich suburb, and we’re not on TV, Dr. Bode. Why do you think I called you? Congratulations. You’re our CSU. So what do we do now?”

I hope you’ll stayed tuned for Part 3 of Meghan’s adventure in forensic archaeology…. This is a stretch for me, trying to present some real information in a fictional format. Also, my novels aren’t written in the present tense. But somehow this experience of Meghan’s started writing itself that way. I’d love to know what you think about this exercise.

66 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology A.2

  1. I love it. And I love that it’s in present tense; it makes it feel like we are receiving the information just as Meghan gets it. It has nice immediacy.

    How true to life is this as far as Crime Scene Units vs. small towns without any services?

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    • Thanks, Anne. :) I didn’t plan on the present tense—it just seemed to happen. But it’s good to stretch ourselves at writing. Maybe someday I’ll write something that doesn’t feature an archaeologist…. ;)

      Forensic archaeology is still a relatively new discipline, really becoming a formal area of specialization in the 21st century. But archaeologists helped in criminal investigations long before then. TV shows and popular novels might lead you to believe fancy, expert forensic units are part of every police department or medical examiner’s office and handle every buried body. But they’re not. Smaller towns and rural communities aren’t likely to have anyone like that on staff.

      In a “real-life” situation that’s similar to Meghan’s latest project, you would likely see the local force contacting someone at a nearby university for help. Our fictional Detective Sandberg was fortunate enough to find an archaeologist who has experience excavating human remains. Not all of us do. (I have some.)

      I’m not sure what the actual numbers would be, but I’d bet more archaeologists like our fictional Meghan Bode get the call than you’d ever see on TV.

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      • Wow! I enjoyed reading Kathy Reichs stuff about her characters’ experiences… and I wondered how true to life those situations were. I think readers are very interested in archaeologists, and since you are an expert, I wouldn’t worry about switching subject matter. ; )

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        • I’m not sure I’d call myself an expert. ;) Especially about forensic archaeology. But I might just know enough, and know where to find information I need, to write some entertaining fiction. :) At least, that’s my hope!

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    • Thanks, Lyndsey. :) Frankly, the presence tense is difficult for me, too. I’ve only read a couple of novels that use it, but I know it’s becoming more common. I certainly didn’t grow up with it the way some younger readers will now. I don’t know if I could ever write a full-length novel with it, but we’ll see what happens in this round of Poetic Archaeology.

      For me, a story may have to be “extra” gripping for me to stick with it if written in present tense—because that structure is more difficult for me to read. At least until I get more comfortable with it (if that day comes.)

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    • Thanks, Vanessa. :) Of course, they’d probably make Sandberg and Bode into some hot, sexy couple and play the “will they or won’t they” game for a few seasons. ;) That’s not the image I have in my head for these two!

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  2. This is fabulous on two levels. First, it’s a subject I find fascinating, as I’ve already mentioned. And the fact that the archaelogist must function in a capacity with which she’s not comfortable makes it even more exciting.

    And second, you have a terrific writing style. Just from that little bit, your pacing is impressive, keeping us wanting more. And the way you made these two characters come alive in just a few paragraphs is enviable. As for the present tense, you’d never know you didn’t normally write in that style. I think it adds an even greater element of suspense.

    Great stuff. You’ve left me wanting more!

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    • Wow, thanks Carrie. :) Does WordPress have a blushing emoticon? Because I need one here. I don’t think I’ll ever get over a feeling of surprise when someone compliments my writing. You’ll probably see me looking over my shoulder, trying to see who’s really being addressed. ;)

      I can’t say this series of Poetic Archaeology is representative of my novels’ styles because they’re not written in the present tense. And, of course, as novels they need more details than I can put in a shorter series like this. I hope their pace is working, though. ;)

      But writing in the present tense is an interesting exercise, and it still lets me have multiple POV for the story. We’ll be hearing more of Sandberg’s thoughts, I’m sure. Whether I could sustain it through a novel is another matter.

      Meghan is certainly taking on a fuller life of her own. And I don’t think she’ll let me discontinue her role or Poetic Archaeology any time soon. She may be biding her time, waiting to give me the idea for a novel of her own…. As long as no one insists “Meghan Bode” and “Madeleine O’Brien” sound too similar, we might be okay. I know they don’t look alike…. And Meghan wouldn’t be time-traveling…. Hmm….

      And now the pressure’s on to keep this little mystery entertaining and moving. I’ll do my best. :)

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      • Well, you’re off to a great start!

        I hear you on the difficulty of taking compliments on one’s writing, though. I still feel like an imposter and suppose a part of me always will. But even though I question my own abilities, I know what I like to read. And I like to read writing styles such as yours. I’m not big on fancy, flowery prose and loads of symbolism. Probably because my left-brain mind is too thick to decipher it all. :) I like a well-paced, each-sentence-has-a-purpose style, and I think yours represents that. :)

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        • :)

          You would not have liked the early drafts of Summer at the Crossroads. ;) Plenty of excess prose has been cut from that one, and I’m still working on “the right tone.” I think Death Out of Time is getting closer to more concise wording and good pacing.

          And I’m hoping I’ll soon be able to download The Seneca Scourge!

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    • So great to see you back, Mme Weebles! :) Don’t feel bad if you can’t catch up with every post by every blogger—you don’t want to get burned out before you even get back in the groove.

      You haven’t missed many by me, and I won’t feel bad if you can’t get to them. There’s nothing wrong with picking up from now. :)

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  3. I loved it, too. I am always on the fence about present tense, and I don’t know why exactly. Usually the present tense reads too stilted, and it tends to read more like a screenplay (for me). Having said that, I think that if this is how the story began “writing itself”, then you need to go with it.

    I really like how you already have two conflicts going on–the bone obviously, and Meghan’s inexperience in this kind of venue. I can see how this story is becoming multi-dimensional.

    This is a wonderful piece of writing and a great story. I really hope you continue with it. (And not just because I want to know where that bone came from!)

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    • Thanks, Kate. :) I need that blushing emoticon that I mentioned to Carrie again!

      I understand what you mean about the present tense in novels. Screenplay is a great phrase for what the descriptive areas can read like. In some ways, I think the dialogue has to be even better in such a work. Something has to feel more “traditional” or “familiar” to a reader new to the present tense, and that’s likely to be dialogue.

      But present tense is how this idea developed, and I’ll see where it leads me. (Although, I know I won’t be overhauling the two WIPs into the present tense. ;) ) And if I ever write a full-length novel about Meghan, I’ll probably stick to the more traditional simple past. Still, I think it’s a good exercise for taking me out of my writing comfort zone. And we will learn who that bone came from. ;)

      Somehow, I can see Sandberg showing up again in a few years with another skeleton. And there would be this reference to him and Meghan having worked on a case a few years ago…. (Please hold on, you two, until I get the current two WIPs in shape!)

      (And I am working on a rather lengthy email regarding Death Out of Time. Feel free to read it in sections over time when it comes in!)

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      • It’s funny about this present tense issue, because I now remember I wrote a short story in present tense. I often wondered if one of the reasons I could never get it published was because of the present tense. But the thought of changing present to past gave me a migraine and I never did it. I should revisit that story and give it another look…

        Absolutely–we must go in the direction the story takes us. Fighting it because we don’t like to do it that way is an exercise in futility. I’m intrigued to see what you’ll discover with this new tense.

        Another WIP in the works? Say it isn’t so! I knew it wouldn’t be long. I think you have a great platform at your disposal, and you’re going to be cranking ideas out left and right. I know, I know. Let’s get Maddie and Jack squared away first… :)

        Looking forward to the email. I am still pondering the Lehen storyline, and glimmers of ideas are taking shape for me. So, it’ll be good to hear more about what your intentions are with it.

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        • Ha, I hope Meghan will be nice and not launch a novel on me too soon. :) Maddie and Jack first. Then Catherine and her alternates. I guess while I work on their series/sequels, I could throw in another book, right? Maybe Meghan has a simple standalone story to tell…. Better not tempt her just yet to toss in more!

          I got that email out to you finally, and I hope to hear soon what those glimmers of ideas are that you have! And you should definitely pull out that story again. Sometimes a little time away is all we need to make any changes—or realize it’s good as is. :)

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  4. This is great. The present tense works for me (although, I do have the same issues with which tense to use when I write so I don’t have an answer for you if you want to change it).

    When I read this it feels like I’m watching a movie – can’t wait to see what happens next! :)

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  5. As a reader: I like the present tense, it’s almost as if I’m a fly on the wall; and I also like the facts intermingled with the fiction. It gives the story more plausibility, which quiets my questioning, inquisitive mind! Nicely done! xoxoM

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    • Thanks, Margarita. :) I don’t think Meghan’s experience would be turned into a movie as it really happens. Hollywood would take great liberties with the story to make it more marketable. ;)

      I hope I can write this little tale that really could happen in a way that still holds readers’ attention and interest. :)

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  6. I love that she knows enough that she can tell what’s going on, but she’s seen enough TV to think she needs to drop back and let the officials take over. This seems so real to me, that I (blush) thought it was a true story about a friend of yours. You’ve done a great job, and I am totally interested.

    My nephew is actually going to college for forensic sciences. Creepy, but cool. I’d prefer to hope the bones are a couple hundred years old, too.

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    • Thanks, Jennifer. :) If my stories sound real enough to be true, I should be on the right track. I do know someone who assisted in a forensic case, but the details were very different—with enough “strange but true” facts to make a good story in themselves, though!

      Definitely creepy on the forensic sciences, but very interesting and important work. You need a strong stomach and psyche. I can handle skeletons, but any flesh?…. I’d have nightmares for sure!

      I’m still working on a lot of the details for this series, so we’ll see how old these bones turn out to be. This is such a new experience for Meghan—and me! ;) I’ve never written any fiction in the present tense before.

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    • Thanks, WB. :) You know, I never thought about the contrast between the present tense and the study of the past. But now that you point it out, it does add an interesting layer to the mix. Meghan, though, is probably more concerned at the moment with not messing anything up. ;)

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    • Thanks, Elliot. :) It is a good writing exercise. I thought it was time to stretch my comfort zone and do something different. Enter the new twist on Poetic Archaeology—with proper thanks to Carrie Rubin for suggesting the idea of finding bones. Who knows? Maybe the idea for another novel will come out of it….

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    • Thanks, Illeandra. :) I’ve only read a couple of novels in present tense so far, but I understand they’re becoming more common. I need some time to get comfortable with them. And that’s why I’m rather surprised that I started writing this short adventure for Meghan this way. Yes, poor Tom Sandberg’s overworked these days. He really doesn’t want a possible murder added to the mix….

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  7. I love the whole piecing together of mysteries that comes through in this, whether it’s with archaeology or detective work. It works really well and keeps the reader guessing. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

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  8. Yeah it held my attention and I wanted to know more as well. I’ve used the present tense for short stories, 3000 words and under but find it a bit tiring for a novel length work, great if you can keep up the pace though. Not sure how it would read if it was present tense and novel length. Hope to read more :-)

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    • Hi, Alistair, thanks for the follow and joining in the conversation! At this stage, I don’t believe I could write an entire novel in the present tense. I’ve struggled with reading it in a few novels, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get comfortable with it.

      This exercise will be a short story, so I don’t think I’m painting myself into a corner with this new format for me. Or is that famous last words? :) We’ll find out….

      Part 3 will air Tuesday morning for me, which I think will be late afternoon or evening for you.

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  9. Pingback: Poetic Archaeology A.3 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology « jmmcdowell

  10. Everything seems natural and as it should be – factual information and feminine asides included. I like it in the present tense, it draws the reader along into the action, where presumably we could have some past tense action at some future date as the skeleton’s life (or death) emerges.

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    • I’m stretching my comfort zone with this twist on my Poetic Archaeology. This story is being written “on the fly” in many ways, and I don’t have a lot of time for edits and rewrites. You’re really getting to see the parts of the story almost in “real time.” Thinking about it, maybe that’s where the present tense came from…. Hmm….

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  11. Pingback: Poetic Archaeology A.4 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology « jmmcdowell

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