By Rachel Grant
Rachel Grant is a #KWLWonderWoman—a savvy entrepreneur building her writing career into a successful independent business. Follow the stories here and on Instagram. Do you have a story to share? Tell us here.
I’ve wanted to be Wonder Woman since I was seven years old. I coveted the eagle-and-star Underoos but didn’t think my parents would buy them for me, so I never asked. In the years since I first had dreams of being strong and special, I learned you can’t wait for your power underwear to magically fall in your lap. You have to ask. Sometimes you have to push. And if there isn’t a place for you at the table, you have to make one.
Fast forward twenty-five years, and I was a newish mom facing a computer and given the opportunity (during naptime) to pursue my dream: to be an author. The natural first question was: what type of book do I want to write?
That was a no-brainer. I would write the book I wanted to read: romantic suspense. Strong, smart heroine; strong, smart hero. Equals all the way.
But what would the book be about? The conventional wisdom is to write what you know, and I followed it. But then, I felt “what I know” could be an advantage: I’m an archaeologist, and so is my husband. And he’s not just any type—he’s an underwater archaeologist, which everyone knows is the sexiest kind.
As I wrote my first novels, I constantly asked myself, “What can I bring to the market that’s different?” I’m not talking about writing a story in which the protagonist dies or discovering a heretofore unknown fourth person POV, I’m talking about writing a book for genre readers that meets trope expectations, elicits emotional reactions, and satisfies the cravings of romantic suspense and thriller readers, but also brings something new that’s missing from the market. A way to make a space for me at the table.
For me, that meant writing about realistic archaeology. The sad truth is, archaeology in fiction is often horribly inaccurate. Exhibit A: Indiana Jones. Don’t get me wrong, I love 2/4ths of the Indiana Jones movies, but still, the depiction of archaeology is way, way off.
For starters, the first and most basic rule of archaeology is you don’t go in, grab the golden idol (stealing it from the natives, no less), and destroy everything without a care for all the information that was just lost.
Really. We don’t do this.
Now, treasure hunters and looters do take the gold and destroy the site. But then, most people don’t realize that treasure hunters (who have zero interest in the data and just want the artifacts) are villains. And the reason most people don’t know treasure hunters are bad is because fiction has failed them. Fictional archaeologists are often treasure hunters in archaeologist’s clothing.
So I wrote Concrete Evidence, in which the treasure hunter is the irredeemable bad guy. (I’ll confess I’ve played with the idea of writing a reformed treasure hunter, but I can’t do it! They’re bad. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
With every book since Concrete Evidence (which you can download for free from Kobo), I’ve asked myself the same question: what can I offer readers that is different? I’m currently polishing my twelfth book, Firestorm, and one hallmark of each story before this one is that my heroine is an archaeologist or historian of one sort or another, but not a single one works for a museum or university. While most people think that’s where archaeologists work, the vast majority of us (some estimate 80% in the US, but I’ve never seen data to back this up) work in the private sector, doing what is called Cultural Resources Management. I worked for a decade in CRM before leaving to raise my children and write, and my husband has now worked in CRM for thirty years. This is not only what I know, it’s also what I can bring to the market that’s unique.
An added bonus for my writing is my husband has worked for the last twenty years as an archaeologist for the Department of Defense. First he worked for Naval History and Heritage Command (where several of my heroines work), then for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and currently for the US Navy.
The tagline for my Evidence Series is: Where archaeology, politics, and war collide. I know a bit about how archaeology intersects with the military—which happens more often than most people realize—and when I decide to write about an aspect that’s new to me, I’ve got a list of brilliant archaeologists I can ask.
I knew an archaeologist who worked in North Korea, bringing back remains of GIs lost during the Korean War, so I wrote about that kind of archaeology (Body of Evidence). My husband worked in Palau for several months, and among other things, he mapped a massive World War II battle site, so I made that the setting of a book (Poison Evidence). I once researched a weird kind of concrete that rises like bread dough, and discovered the material had a connection to Andrew Jackson Higgins of Higgins Boats fame, and that became the baseline for a mystery (Concrete Evidence). I’ve known archaeologists who work for the Navy to bring up sunken naval vessels and aircraft, and I’ve written about that kind of project as well (Cold Evidence). I could go on, because I try to make every book about a different aspect of archaeology, a different niche in the profession.
My Flashpoint Series is a little different, in that they lean toward military thrillers, but they, too, are influenced by my husband’s work. A few years ago, the Navy sent him to Djibouti to work on an archaeological project, so naturally, I set the 1st book in the series (Tinderbox) in Djibouti.
Firestorm (Flashpoint #3) will release late spring, and it’s the first of my books in which my heroine isn’t an archaeologist or historian (she’s CIA), but the book has what my readers have come to expect: a deep exploration of the politics and issues surrounding the history of the setting (Democratic Republic of the Congo), a strong, smart heroine, and a smart, badass hero.
Over the years, as I’ve established my brand of archaeological romantic thrillers, I’ve taught several workshops (usually with writer/archaeologist Mary Sullivan) on Archaeology 101 for Writers. I am happy to do this because:
- Even if an author has a story that might sound similar to mine, they’re going to tell it differently. They’ll bring something to the market that is unique to them.
- A rising tide raises all boats. If someone else’s archaeology storyline satisfies readers, they might be interested in reading other books that explore the topic. This isn’t a competition.
- I want other authors to get it right so I can enjoy their books without cringing that their protagonist is really a treasure hunter.
KWL authors with questions about the profession are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I can’t answer your question, I can at least point you in the right direction.
It’s worth noting that traditional publishers have rejected my books for various reasons, including that I’m a woman writing thrillers with foreign settings (apparently that’s not okay?); there is too much romance in my thriller; there is too much thriller in my romance. My books don’t fit in traditional publishers’ genre boxes. I view that as a strength. I’m writing to a place in the market that is under-served by traditional publishers.
Readers email me to say how much they love my plot-heavy romance, or romance-heavy thrillers. And women do enjoy foreign settings like South Sudan (Catalyst) and Turkey (Covert Evidence). And men message me on Facebook to say that they want to get to know me better . . . okay, I block those, but my male audience is growing and I do hear from male readers that they enjoyed the romance element as much as the military/archaeology storyline. Sometimes it’s the first romance they’ve read and they’re won over.
The key for me has been to focus on the niche I’ve built. Friends ask how I can keep writing archaeologist heroines, and frankly, I have no shortage of storylines or types of archaeology to explore (it only encompasses all of human history across the entire globe). I’m not saying there won’t be more heroines like Savannah in Firestorm, but my readers need not fear I’m going to be dumping my brand any time soon.
I urge all authors, if they’re struggling to find what can set them apart in a crowded market, to ask themselves what perspective they can bring that’s different. What makes your story unique to you? And always, always, write a book you would want to read. If you’re still struggling, buy yourself Wonder Woman Underoos (or in my case, pajamas) and wear them to work. It might not fix your scene, but you could be surprised by how much it lifts your mood.
Rachel Grant’s books have been bestsellers at Kobo, iBooks, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Her novel, Body of Evidence, has been optioned for film by Nancy Cartwright’s Spotted Cow Entertainment.
Rachel worked for over a decade as a professional archaeologist and mines her experiences for storylines and settings, which are as diverse as excavating a cemetery underneath an historic art museum in San Francisco; surveying an economically depressed coal mining town in Kentucky; and mapping a seventeenth century Spanish and Dutch fort on the island of Sint Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles.
In all her travels and adventures, Rachel has found many sites and artifacts, but she’s only found one true treasure, her husband, David. They met while working together excavating a four-thousand-year-old site about to be destroyed by the expansion of a sewage treatment plant in Seattle. Despite their romantic first meeting, she has no intention of ever setting a story at a sewage treatment plant.
She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children.