It's a Mystery
Geology and Writing Add Up to Suspense
What comes first – the geologist or the writer?
For Susan Cummins Miller and Linda Jacobs, two geology mystery writers whose books will be offered in the AAPG Bookstore during the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention in Long Beach, Calif., the answer is: Yes.
"Easy answer," says Miller, who's best known for her Frankie MacFarlane series – Quarry, Detachment Fault, and Death Assemblage.
"My business card says writer/geologist. Each is integral to the other. However, easy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The flip side of the question is how audiences view me. When I address audiences composed of geologists, they see a geologist. When I'm with mystery writers and/or readers, they see a fiction writer who's also a geologist."
Miller says her work when she was a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey made it possible for her to get an inside look into the world of geologists and their lives.
"Geologic fieldwork and class field trips gave (and continue to give) me the opportunity to become intimately familiar with various geologic and geographic areas of the West,” she said. “Sense of place – how a specific locale feels, smells, sounds, looks and even tastes – permeates my writing."
Specifically, Miller writes from someone who knows both the figurative and literal terrain: living through flashfloods; rescuing vehicles stuck up to their axles in mud; eating at hole-in-the-wall cafes; digging fossils out of quarries; working solo; interacting with fellow scientists and local characters; watching how other people react and interact in adversity; and once even being shot at.
And reviewers tend to think she not only got it right, she got it exciting.
The Midwest Book Review has said of the series: "Attention Hollywood – this is the stuff from which blockbuster movies can be made!”
"Each novel," Miller said, "is set in a different place so the reader can explore the geology, ecology and culture along with Frankie MacFarlane. These are places I've lived, worked and absorbed over the years."
Like most authors, Miller speaks of her books as if they were her children.
I love each book for different reasons--Death Assemblage, because it evokes my mapping days in the high desert of Nevada; Detachment Fault, for it's poetic language and characters; and Quarry, because it captures the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert, the playground of my youth and the place where my geology career began.
At present, she is working on the fourth Frankie MacFarlane novel, HOODOO, set in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona; a collection of poems; and an anthology of the work of her grandmother, writer Janet McInaney Miller.
Linda Jacobs, who was one of the first female geologists ever hired by Exxon and worked over 30 years in oil and gas in Houston, views geology as her first career and writing as her second. Recently she has been working with the Paleozoic Trackways Foundation towards establishing a new national monument in New Mexico.
"My life's goal as a child was to write a novel,” Jacobs said.
Summer of Fire, her first novel, which had some trouble getting published at first, is about the fires of 1988 in Yellowstone and was selected for a 2006 WILLA Literary Award.
Jacobs' ability to write with such detail may go back to her first experience as a geologist – an experience, she says, which still defines her.
"I and my field partner, Beth Zigmont Lincoln, a UCLA student, drove around southern Arizona and New Mexico sampling mine dumps and stream drainages to look for new porphyry copper deposits,” she said. “I believe the summer in the West, one of several, hooked a girl from South Carolina on the region."
To this day, she still lives near her old field areas.
Jacobs' second book, Rain of Fire, is set in Yellowstone and was inspired, she says, by her own experience at field camp and by the kind of camaraderie and banter that goes on among working geoscientists.
"It's a thriller about what could happen tomorrow if the Yellowstone caldera reawakens,” she said.
"My love for Yellowstone began in 1973, when I attended the geology field camp of Idaho State University, just south of the park,” she recalled. “I have since returned every season, accessing the archives for the rich history of the land and man's brief tenure there.
Her work describes the impending calamity beneath Yellowstone and has been called "compelling speculation ... combined with scientific facts" by a reviewer for RTIR online
She says she would live in Jackson Hole, near Yellowstone, "... if not for two things: the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires when it comes to real estate, and as a southerner, I can't imagine living in a place with 40 frost free days a year."
The Seamless Transition
Both writers talk about the seamless transition from geology to writing.
"Nothing's wasted, though the original experiences may be altered to suit the needs of the story," said Miller, who is now working on poetry.
Jacobs, whose third Yellowstone Series book, Lake of Fire, will be released in August, says, "One thing I learned was that writing a specific genre increases the chance of a new writer getting published, rather than general fiction."
And, apparently, your chances at getting shot.