Serious Research

Photo by Melissa Bowersock
Photo by Melissa Bowersock

Back in February, I wrote about my experience with JustAnswer, a service to hook up a researcher with an expert in order to get good information on a myriad of subjects. I found it to be a good resource for quick questions and answers. But what happens when you need more?

Recently I started a new book that’s based on the archaeology of 1,000-year-old Indian ruin sites near my home in north-central Arizona. I’ve found out that the Verde Valley of Arizona is virtually pocked with Indian ruins; the estimation is that there’s a ruin roughly every 1.8 miles. It’s no surprise that the Indians farmed this bountiful valley, and apparently they built their small community units with enough surrounding space to farm, but close enough to visit back and forth without too much travel. Seems like an idyllic existence. Unfortunately, as much physical evidence as we have of their activities, we don’t have a lot of cultural evidence for their family organization, spiritual beliefs or ritual processes. The Sinagua (named by the Spanish, Latin meaning “without water”) left no written record. The closest we can get to their cultural life is by looking at the Hopi (the Sinagua’s suspected descendents) and extrapolating backward a bit.

Luckily our modern archaeological processes are quite a bit easier to research. Sometimes. I thought getting this kind of information would be easy; just get interviews with the folks at the local archaeology organization, find out what their processes are, how they survey a site, how they report their findings. Pretty straight-forward. But in my first interview with a veteran surveyor, many of my questions brought forth the response of, “I can’t tell you that.”


Come to find out that there are SO many ruins in this area, primarily on National Forest land, and so few resources to survey, restore, protect and interpret them, that most of them just lie hidden in the brush. And because of that, the archaeology community is very careful about disclosing any information that could lead pot-hunters to the sites.

Wow, who knew? I go looking for data and I get intrigue.

But I totally understand. It’s an amazing thing to find a ruin and see a 1,000-year-old tiny corn cob (maize) lying on the ground, or to hold a piece of pottery and wonder who made it all those years ago, and what did they use it for? Matter of fact, it was these very experiences that hatched the idea of the new book in my brain, ergo the research.

Which has now become a two-pronged issue. The main one for any writer is to write authentically. It would be irresponsible to write about archaeologists bulldozing a site and grabbing artifacts off the ground. It would also be completely unbelievable. I want my book to be as real as possible, so I continue gathering research, wending my way around the “I can’t tell you that” details. As I’ve told the folks whose brains I am picking, it’s not really about disclosing in the book all the information I’m collecting. It’s more about not including erroneous information. If they can’t tell me exactly how they go about their process, I need at least to know how not to do it, so I don’t inadvertently weaken the authenticity of my story.

The second issue, the new one, is to not reveal any information that could expose a site. At first I was going to use an actual site for the location of my book, but now that’s changed. In order not to reveal any sensitive information, I’m creating an entirely fictitious site. This opens up all sorts of new possibilities, as I can configure my site any way I want: pit houses, dancing grounds, calendar stones, artifacts. None of it will be real, and yet it will be as real as I can possibly make it.

If I told you any more than that, I’d have to kill you.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

17 thoughts on “Serious Research”

    1. I have always loved archaeology, but never thought I’d be able to get into it very deeply, so it was a pleasant surprise to move here and find it so accessible. It’s definitely making the ol’ brain fire up on several levels!

  1. How cool to live so close to such a wellspring of story ideas!

    One of the things I like best about this gig is that I always seem to be learning something new. 🙂

    1. You’re telling me! I never expected this kind of stuff when we moved here. My lifelong goal was always to go to Mexico and dig up pyramids, but now I’ve got 1000-year-old ruins just a 20-minute walk from my house. The story lines are endless!

  2. It sounds like your research has made you stumble on an almost better story, what with all the intrigue and secrecy. Imagine how much more complicated it could become if you’re trying to do your excavation in a foreign country, with the language barrier, a culture suspicious of outsiders and doubly so of foreign outsiders, and then all the political implications. It sounds like you could have a series there!
    Be sure to make a big announcement when your book is finished and ready for the world, Melissa. This is one I want to read!

    1. Ian, maybe I need to think about making my character into a female Indiana Jones? Sounds like I could find plenty of story ideas for her. And to add to that, I’ve been reading (online, so no secret) about a ruin near me where one researcher found a big meteorite in a stone crypt, wrapped in a feather blanket. Curiouser and curiouser!

  3. I love your last sentence of this post, Melissa. 🙂

    I also think it is our responsibility as writers to do exactly what you are doing: research and make stories as authentic and believable as possible, even in fiction.

    Good luck with your new book! 😀

    1. Thanks, Lorraine. It’s coming along; I’m still more in the “soup in my brain” stage than the writing stage, but I’ve got over 5,000 words, so it’s percolating along. But, yeah, if we’re going to tell a story, we can’t have the readers going, “What a bunch of hogwash!” every other page. Authenticity and believably have to be right up there with a good story line and characters we can relate to. Thanks for chiming in.

  4. “It would be irresponsible to write about archaeologists bulldozing a site and grabbing artifacts off the ground. It would also be completely unbelievable.”

    That’s so true, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. The sad thing is, you’ve also perfectly described the plot of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel Deception Point, among others. Ridiculous handling of a site a standard trope in archeo-thrillers. Often the plot even hinges on scientists behaving absurdly.

    Forget about careful sifting & analyzing the medium in which a piece is resting. Forget about meticulous recording of the item’s placement in situ before getting within breathing distance. Forget about inspecting the area with every non-invasive method available before disturbing it. Nah. Boring. Let’s just dig it up. With shovels. Or lasers. Or a backhoe. W00t! Drama!

    /rant. (shoves soapbox back under the couch) It’s a sore point for me, can you tell?

    I applaud your research efforts, and I look forward to seeing the results. The subject sounds like fertile ground for great storytelling.

    1. Thanks much, and you do bring up a good point about story-telling: how do we tell the story authentically AND interestingly? Digging in a meter-square grid with a dental pick might get just a tad tedious. Luckily we don’t have to write in real time! While all the time-consuming and meticulous processes are going on, we are free to expand on our characters’ goals and flaws.
      BTW, I have to say that although Deception Point was deeply flawed and finally succumbed to just pure silliness (a sharknado, a sinking boat AND an undersea volcano??), I enjoyed most of it. Unfortunately I think Brown fell into the velvet trap of so many successful writers–formula. If something worked once, use it again, and again, and again. Not so, Indies! We live on the edge, in more ways than one! Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  5. Great post, Melissa – just make sure your fantasy site doesn’t end up accidentally on a real site! That would be awkward. 😀

  6. There’s a fine line between emphasizing the exciting parts, to make a story interesting, and being so authentic it becomes a text book. Sometimes I think the unfamiliar aspects of “real life ___” can be used to the writers advantage.

    In my case 90% of firefighting is cleaning, training, maintenance, false alarms, etc. It would make exceptionally dull reading.

    The exciting parts though, I make as authentic as possible, while protecting peoples right to privacy and trying not to give away too much information about how to really get away with arson, murder, etc.

    1. Thanks, John; you’re absolutely right about that. Like so much of writing, it’s a balancing act between being so authentic that it gets boring and bending the facts to fit the story until the facts disappear. We always have to find that happy medium, combining plausibility and credibility with exciting story-telling.
      I had to laugh at your description of fire-fighting; reminds me of the old saw about baseball being 5 minutes of excitement crammed into 3 hours.

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