Buried Deeds — Part 4 ( A Meghan Bode Mystery)

By the weekend, the work progresses well. Meghan’s crew has sunk several test units in the house cellar. The overlying soil deposits are shallow, the result of erosion following nearly one hundred and fifty years of plowing. Meghan had the backhoe excavate a small trench outside the east foundation wall. What’s left of the cellar extends just under a meter into the ground, about three feet.

While the crew tackles the house cellar, Meghan has nearly completed the excavation of the unidentified foundation. Only now, she’s found a small feature in a corner that removes the “unidentified” tag.

Jackson Carter, Wyndham Thicket’s property manager, is by her side, as eager to see the results of Meghan’s work as is his employer. Evelyn is walking through the field with the weekend’s guests to show them the excavation site.

“I thought you’d like to see this,” Meghan tells Jackson before Evelyn arrives. “We have this small pit that was dug into the earth floor of the building. And here are four artifacts at the bottom. What do you think?”

“Two hoe blades, an ax head, and a spoon,” Jackson says. “They’re at the points of the compass, aren’t they?”

His reply is more a statement of fact than a question.

“That they are,” Meghan says.

“You don’t need me to tell you it’s a ritual cache. “You know this is a slave quarter.”

Meghan smiles. “I’ve read about these caches, but I’ve never found one myself.”

“Does Miss Evelyn know?”

“Not yet,” Meghan says, struggling to mask her awkwardness with Jackson’s words. She knows the use of “Miss” with women’s names in the Mid-Atlantic isn’t confined to African-Americans. But growing up in Wisconsin, she heard nothing like it. Even after fifteen years in Virginia, she can’t shake the image of old stereotypes of class and ethnicity.

“Don’t worry, Dr. Bode. She’ll come around to the idea. She’s not her ancestors just like I’m not mine.”

Jackson drops his voice as Evelyn and the guests draw near. “She may be elitist, but she’s not racist. Don’t be afraid to tell her what you’ve found.”

They stand to greet the visitors. Meghan stifles a grimace as she sees Frank Sloma at the head of the group.

Evelyn and the guests stop at the line of yellow caution tape that Meghan set out around the excavations. Meghan has no intention of being sued by someone falling into a test unit and breaking a leg. Evelyn has to respect this demand if she wants Meghan to keep working.

“How goes the dig?” Sloma asks. “Have you uncovered Isaac’s buried deeds?”

“You could say so,” Meghan replies. “We’ve found a couple of privies near the house.”

The other guests laugh, but Sloma only sets his jaw.

Not as much fun being on the receiving end, is it? Meghan thinks.

“She’s found something far more interesting,” Jackson says. “Take a look at the corner of this foundation. What do you see?”

The guests and Evelyn crane their necks. “A hole with something in it,” a woman says. “Is that important?”

Jackson looks to Meghan for her to take up the discussion. But she shakes her head.

“Very,” she says, “but I’ll defer to Mr. Carter to tell you about it. He’s an expert in this area.”

Meghan listens and watches the group’s reactions as Jackson describes the symbolic role of metal in various West African religious systems and how slaves maintained traditional beliefs and customs, despite the relentless suppression by Christian ministers and slave owners. Some guests stand rapt, absorbing the impromptu lesson. Others, like Evelyn, shift on their feet and focus more on Meghan’s students.

Jackson keeps his talk short and friendly. “The students are working on the manor house. Why don’t we see what they’ve found today?”

“It’s all so exciting, isn’t it?” Evelyn says. “Seeing history come alive?”

Earlier, Meghan had set out some of the more interesting artifacts. “I doubt the family meant to lose this,” she says, holding out a fork. “This is high-quality silver. In Colonial times, this was your bank account. Cash was scarce. You kept your wealth in portable silver like table settings and jewelry. If you needed to liquidate some assets, you might sell this fork or a ring.

“The soil you see in the cellar came from just outside the house. I’d bet one of the Walker children played with this fork in the yard and lost or buried it. Mom and Dad probably weren’t happy if they found out.”

“They just blamed it on a slave,” Sloma says.

“Maybe not,” Jackson says. “I’ve gone through most of the old records from that time, and there’s no evidence the Walkers were abusive owners. The Wyndham Thicket slaves could spend Sundays on their own cash crops and skilled crafts and sell them for themselves.”

Meghan hands Evelyn the fork and catches a grateful smile to Jackson from her.

“It’s beautiful,” Evelyn breathes. “This gets a place of honor in the museum I build.”

“I should be able to pin down its date and manufacturer with no problem,” Meghan says. “The official hallmarks are clear. We don’t find many silver artifacts, but they’re great time markers.”

Evelyn returns the fork with a fond look. “I can’t wait to hear who made it and when. I have to find a set that matches it.”

The December light is fading, and Meghan directs the students to begin closing down for the day. Evelyn and her guests return to the house for high tea—and stronger refreshments—around a roaring fire in the new house.

Meghan takes a last look at the cellar before the students cover it with plastic. They’ve reached the brick floor in one corner and will begin new test units during the week.

The neat herringbone pattern in the bricks is slightly off. They must have reset them for some reason, Meghan thinks. I’ll have to check that out after we open more units.

I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part 5 next Tuesday.

New to the Meghan Bode Mysteries? You can catch up with her first complete story and the previous installments of Buried Deeds with this link.

49 thoughts on “Buried Deeds — Part 4 ( A Meghan Bode Mystery)

  1. JM, you have a real gift for conversational writing. I tend to be descriptive so probably a book would be pages of writing describing the room rather than filling out the characters. Great job!

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    • Thanks, Sus. 🙂 But to paraphrase a famous saying, your descriptions are so entertaining, you could make the phone book interesting! Now if I can just work the writing progress I’m making with Meghan into the two novels, they might be in good shape!

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    • She does like to do that, doesn’t she? 😉 I think she’s been a bit frustrated with “setting the scene” in these first episodes. In the first story, after all, Sandberg showed up on day one with a bone. Of course, she didn’t go into this project thinking anything would be out of the ordinary. 😉 But we’ve got a good idea that’s not the case!

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    • Hmm, I get some encouraging comments about dialogue, setting, and pace in these short stories. Can I get the WIP revisions to be the same across their longer format? 🙂

      I know I keep repeating it, but we sure wouldn’t have much of a story if Meghan didn’t find something unexpected, would we? We’ll have to see how I do at deflecting your attention and misdirecting you. That might show if I have the potential to write a full-length mystery some day. 😉

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    • Well, I’ll try not to dump too much more of the process on you. A little goes a long way, after all. 😉 And Meghan enjoyed slipping in that little zinger about the privies—nice girl that she is, I don’t think she’d ever do more than that. Think it, yes. Do it, no. 🙂

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  2. I really like the way you mix the academics of archaeology and your story elements. The characters have great voices, too.

    I have a question – and this is not a critique, more a curiosity: Why use present tense? Is it for the urgency of a moment, or because you don’t want to give away too much using the perfect or imperfect? (Sometimes, when I know something massive is going to happen to the characters, I wonder if using past tense gives any of that away.) I’ve heard present tense is more common in first-person stories, so to see it in a third-person story always makes me consider the possible reasons.

    I got into present tense for a while because present tense “sounds” more right for flash-fiction (fewer words, for one thing). But then I had a professional tell me it doesn’t work as well for readers. I went back and rewrote my thing, but I’m always curious why others choose the present tense for long-form stories.

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    • That’s a great question, Mayumi. I normally write very traditionally—third person, past tense. But when the idea for these stories came to me, Meghan brought the present tense with her. (In case you’ve missed it in earlier posts and comments, I’m a firm believer in the idea that the characters exist “out there” and find a way to get their stories into our heads. Then it’s up to us to make them “work” in our world.)

      I’ve read very few novels that use the present tense, although I hear they’re becoming more common. And a few that I’ve read are the Ruth Galloway mysteries, which are also written in third person/present. They could be a subconscious influence on these stories.

      So using the present tense has become an interesting exercise. Some bloggers have indicated here and elsewhere that they enjoy it because it feels like they’re following the story as it happens, rather than hearing about it after the fact. Others find it difficult—as 4amWriter said in a comment some time back, it can sound like the writer is giving stage directions. I’m slowly getting used to it, but it still feels “foreign” to my ears.

      I plan to take three of these stories and expand them into ca. 20,000-word novellas for an e-published collection. (I’ll have to do that myself since no agent or press would take a collection like that from an unknown writer!) And I suspect I’ll convert them to past tense. Personally, I find it difficult to do much description in the present tense—that really feels awkward to me. And for a longer story, more description might be needed to flesh out some plot elements.

      But we’ll see. Meghan may put her foot down and insist on present tense. If so, we’ll have to slog through it and see what works best. 🙂

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      • Thanks for the insight, JM! I’m notoriously bad at reading other comments, but I may just have to do, now, to get a fuller feel for Meghan’s adventures.

        Speaking as someone who’s had to do the editing shift from present to past tense, I’d say: if present sounds right to you, just stick with it. If you’re going to collect the adventures together, it might even be fun to have a story stand out with a different tense. Of course, it’s got to be what works best for you (and your intended audience), but I recently did tense edits for two short stories (about 5K words a piece), and what a pain in the behind!

        Personally, I’d love to hear more about Meghan’s publishing adventure, too, when you decide to get around to it. Self-publishing is becoming more and more common, but it’s interesting to follow the path of someone who’s more interested in doing so for their own purposes rather than trying to snag an agent with sales.

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        • Well, I should be honest here—if Meghan’s book did well enough to attract the attention of agents, I wouldn’t mind. 😉 But that’s not why I would publish it. First and foremost, I enjoy writing the stories. And then I’d like to bring her stories (and my novels) to a wider audience and see what type of reaction I get. When that time gets closer, I will definitely do some posts about the process!

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  3. I have some thoughts about where you might be going, but I guess we shall see. As always, like the little details.

    Re: present tense as discussed in one of the comments, I do feel the present tense works well on the blog posts as it give the feeling of being present, and is therefore easy to step into each week. Whether this works as a larger thing i.e. having all the parts together is an interesting point. I’ve not read anything long from this perspective, that I can recall, so I wonder if it would work or prove to be a little testing / difficult.

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    • I am curious if where I go is where readers suspected. Do please let me know. 🙂

      And I have my doubts that I could write a full novel, or even expand these stories into novellas, and continue to use the present tense. Carrie Rubin could probably recommend many novels written in the present tense. She introduced me to Elly Griffin’s Ruth Galloway mysteries, and she recently mentioned the newest Grisham book uses it.

      I’m slowly getting used to the idea, but I don’t think I’ll ever be fully comfortable with it. Younger readers who are growing up with it will obviously have different views. Maybe the “traditional” third person/past tense will become as “old-fashioned” a style of writing as we think today of writers like Dickens and Thackeray. I hope not!

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  4. Way to go Meghan, giving Sloma that little sarcastic barb about the Privies. Probably many a fork and spoon have been found on archaeological sites because of children who like to dig their way to China in all periods of time. I dug with a spoon in my sandbox more times than I’ll ever admit.

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    • I’ve found a few that are nowhere near the house. 😉 All of those have been your run-of-the-mill daily pieces. My husband found the silver spoon on a 1700s site that wasn’t where it should have been! That was a bit of money that went missing for the landowner. Of course, maybe he wasn’t the nicest person, and it was poetic justice.

      I’d bet nearly every child who’s had the opportunity has dug a big hole, just to see what’s there. I guess some of us never outgrow it. 😉

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  5. Oh, the bricks. What’s with the bricks? (pacing until revealed) This is good – the reader races to read to see what’s next – and to piece things together.
    (Oh, did you see the CBS Sunday Morning show segment about self publishing – worth a look.)

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    • I’ll have to take a look at that on-line—I didn’t see it. Meghan’s chomping at the bit to get to “the good part” in this story. This introductory stuff isn’t what interests her. If it was entirely up to me, she might not have looked at those bricks until next week. 😉 She’s pushing for shorter now (the blog stories), longer later (the e-published versions). Hopefully, we and readers will all enjoy the story in the end!

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  6. Okay, so who made a hole in the wall, and what did they hide behind it? Am I getting carried away – because I know it’s a mystery? What mundane reasons might there be for someone to have reset the bricks?

    The cache is something I’d never heard of. I love learning about these things as the story unfolds.

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    • Technically, it’s the cellar floor. 😉 But you’re absolutely right—there must be mundane reasons for resetting the bricks, or Meghan wouldn’t be so nonchalant about it. There could have been erosion problems, perhaps from a poorly thought-out design when the house was built. They might have “redone” the floor as a result. Or, there might originally have been something placed in that corner that was later removed—and the underlying floor was bricked at that later date. Perhaps this cellar is a red herring and Meghan finds something at the other end of the site. 😉

      I enjoy slipping in the real bits of history and archaeology for readers. I just don’t want to overdo them and begin sounding like a professor giving a boring lecture!

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  7. Mmm, this is getting interesting. I have a couple of ideas too, like some others before me. But I’m a terrible guesser, so I’m sure I’m not on the right track. You’re doing a great job keeping the historical and archaeological bits palatable and interesting!

    I like the red background, by the way. 🙂

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    • When this story is finished, I’d love to hear where you and others thought it might go and how close you were to what Meghan offered. She’s antsy to get to more action in the story, which is really an interesting side to her personality that I hadn’t picked up on previously. Not that it drives the plot, but just a development in how she and I interact on the writing!

      The red is for the holiday season—I think it goes well with the snow option. 😉 I’ll either go back to my “sage green” or something new in January. I might need something “perky” to get through the darkest days of winter!

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    • I really try for those hooks. They seem easier to do in a shorter story like this than in my novels. And yet they’re just as important there for keeping readers going for “just one more section/chapter.” Honestly? I’m hoping these shorts are helping me refine the WIPs, too!

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  8. You’re leaving us hanging again! What did they put behind the stuff they rebricked up?? I want to know! I didn’t know that about West African rituals and metal. Very interesting. Is it true that most archaeologists LOVE when they discover privvies, though? Up here they’ve dug up some old sites and evidently they all go nuts when they find old outhouses because of all the goodies in there.

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    • Believe me, Meghan wants to tell you! She’s getting impatient with all this “scene setting.” 🙂

      Privies are great finds. It’s true that all kinds of interesting items find their way into that location. Liquor bottles are common—and I’d bet some of the folks were supposedly “teetotalers.” Some archaeologists have found guns—whether they were dropped there on purpose or accidentally we can’t say for sure. I tend to think on purpose. Most people wouldn’t want to lose a gun that was in perfectly good working order. They’d find a way to retrieve it.

      And when preservation conditions are really good, we can get a lot of dietary information out of the remains of people’s meals. Of course, that usually means the nasty stuff is still around. I know one archaeologist who passed out from the fumes on a hot, humid day. When preservation’s that good, we need to take precautions because bacteria and other nasties can survive, too. The last thing I want is to get something like cholera from a project!

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  9. I really enjoyed the tension about finding the slave quarters, how Evelyn feels about it, and how Jackson handles it. I like learning about the history bits like the cache and the metals symbolism. The pace is picking up…whoee!
    Okay, and I have a technical question: what exactly is a “test unit.” I can guess its purpose, but what does it look like and how does it work?

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    • Test units are small excavations that we use for a variety of purposes. They’re a good way to get a look at soil stratigraphy on a site, where we can get an idea, for example, of how much disturbed “plow zone” we have and how deep the cultural deposits will extend before we hit “sterile subsoil.”

      On sites that likely contain rare or fragile remains, we’ll use them as the main excavation technique to avoid damaging the material. Heavy equipment is not a good idea if you’re dealing with rare, early sites, or skeletons that are only a couple of feet below the ground surface.

      Depending on time, budget, and site characteristics, they might be dug by hand with trowels or by “shovel skimming” thin levels of soil. Typically the units are square or rectangular, often measuring either 1 x 1 meter or 2 x 2 meters in size. Sometimes we’ll do 1 x 2 meter units.

      They can be used in conjunction with other techniques like mechanical stripping of the plow zone or the only type of excavation used on a site. If you’re curious, you can see a photo of one in this post: https://jmmcdowell.com/2012/06/12/poetic-archaeology-8/

      Was this more than you wanted to know? 😉

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    • Thank you for the encouragement! My characters tend to run the show, so Meghan will likely continue to have her way—except for the fact that I have to provide some background and details. She can’t just talk about “the good stuff.” 😉

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    • I think I know what’s under there. 😉 Of course, Meghan might decide to throw me a curve ball as we write the next installment! She can be sneaky. I just hope she saves any changes for the expanded version, where we have room for more red herrings….

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  10. Ah, counting the silver makes so much more sense now! I’m enjoying the story, JM, and much as I’d like to get to the next installment, I’ll admit to enjoying this savoring pace! xoM

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    • Haha—take that, Meghan! Other people like the pace! She’s getting antsy, asking why I need to put in so many details and can’t cut to the chase. But I think she’ll be happier very soon now. 😉

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    • Thank you! And I hope you’ll enjoy where the story goes. 🙂 Meghan will take a break for the holidays after Part 5, but she’ll be back with Part 6 in January. I think too many people will be too busy during the holidays (including me!) to do as much blogging. 😉

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