Friday, May 18, 2012

Moundville Story "Digging Up Bones" Wins Nation's First Tourism Fiction Writing Contest

Aerial view of the Temple Mound at Moundville Archaeological Park
 in Alabama, the setting of "Digging Up Bones." 
Story: "Digging Up Bones" by Kathryn C. Lang
Tourism Attraction: Moundville Archaeological Park
Location: Moundville, Alabama
Photos: provided by Moundville Archaeological Park. Click any photo to enlarge!
Contest Co-sponsored By: Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative and the University of Alabama Museums.

The winner of the Inaugural SELTI Writing Contest is the short story “Digging Up Bones” by Kathryn C. Lang. As promised, the winning story has been published online here on SELTI with a companion tourism guide related to the settings (story begins after the official contest results found below). The Inaugural SELTI Writing Contest was the nation’s first competition that challenged writers to compose short stories designed for directly promoting tourism. The contest guidelines established the setting of the stories as the historic Native American city of Moundville

Moundville was a city of large man-made mounds that thrived on the banks of the Black Warrior River centuries ago. The ruins were found abandoned by the first European settlers in the area. The site in Alabama became an archaeological park in the 1930s. The modern museum displays fascinating collections of artifacts excavated from the site. The surrounding park gives curious adventurers a chance to climb the many mounds that surround a central plaza. Moundville was the second largest Native American city in North America 800 years ago.
A volunteer participates in the Moundville
Plaza Project, an archaeology dig.

The Inaugural SELTI Writing Contest showcases how fiction set in real attractions is the ideal vehicle for promoting tourism. Writers approached the task from many different creative angles, demonstrating how highly adaptable tourism fiction can be in promoting real attractions. With the global economy in such disarray now, tourism fiction is an especially innovative tool that can capture tourism dollars through the powerful drama of stories set in real places.

The idea is simple: set an engaging story in real attractions and then provide readers with a convenient companion guide on how to visit the settings. Fiction provides the flexibility to adapt dramatic scenes to any real location. Most book lovers would love to enhance their reading experience by visiting the places they read about. This allows readers to become tourists by offering them a chance to literally step inside the stories they enjoy.

These days, modern e-reading devices like the Kindle, iPad, and Nook can even allow readers to click on tourism links from inside a bookUSA Today recently featured this innovation in novels that allows e-readers to instantly browse full-color related tourism websites from novels—if publishers include them. Tourism fiction has also moved into the realm of the screenplay with the development of the first movie with a tourism commercial inside the film, Beautiful Little Fools.

The marketing brilliance of “Digging Up Bones” caught my attention within the first few lines. Great stories usually involve a surprise, and this short story immediately stood out with a highly creative plot concept. The world has changed since the 1930s, even in a field focused on the past like archaeology. There is a new level of respect for the burial sites of Native Americans, and that is why there are no images of Native American bones in this story. Although excavations still occur at Moundville, all archaeology work is regulated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. To learn about this interesting development in archaeology, please visit the NAGPRA link above. Also, to get a sense of what a modern dig involves, please visit this blog about recent excavations at Moundville conducted as part of the Moundville Plaza Project.

After reading “Digging Up Bones,” please check out the Tourism Guide below to learn how to visit the real Moundville. The many photos in this feature are all from the actual Moundville site and were contributed by Moundville Archaeological Park, a part of the University of Alabama Museums. Click on this tourism link or the one in the guide at the end of the story to visit the museum’s website to learn more about Moundville and how to visit.
Aerial view of Moundville Archaeological Park
today with the Temple Mound in the
 foreground and the Plaza Mound in center.

When you walk through the grassy plaza of Moundville today and gaze at the mounds where Native American ceremonies and burials occurred centuries ago, a thrilling connection will reach out to your soul. Moundville was not only once a great city but also a sacred burial ground, and a powerful aura of mystery still surrounds the ruins. After the official contest results below, please enjoy the following short story that opens up a new mystery at Moundville, one that no one could have ever anticipated . . .

Official Results of Inaugural SELTI Writing Contest
First Place: "Digging Up Bones" by Kathryn C. Lang
Second Place: "Chunkey" by Louise Herring-Jones
Third Place: "The Serpent's Curse" by Michael S. Offutt, Sr.
Fourth Place: "Legend of Arimatha" by Summer Cato

“Digging Up Bones”
by Kathryn C. Lang
A doctoral candidate works on an
excavation project at Moundville. 

“What did you find?” The young intern could tell her partner was surprised by something down in the hole. He had stopped digging. “Sam?” It bothered her even more that he was not answering.

Sam held up a piece of cloth with a stick. “I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is NOT part of the original burial site.”

The young intern looked down into the hole to try and get a better look at the cloth. The design was not one they would have expected. “I think you’re right.” She dug through her bag and pulled out her phone. This would put a kink in their research plans for sure.
Official word was that the cloth had been blown into the area by the tornadoes that tore through the community the spring of 2011. None of those that had seen the area were buying the official story.

Marvin Johnston has spent several years working his way around law enforcement. He had wanted to work for the state, and investigations only made the job more intriguing. His first official chance to prove his abilities came with a call to visit Moundville. He knew the area but had never realized that Tuscaloosa held more than a famous college. “It’s amazing what can be hiding in your backdoor.”

Interior of the Jones Archaeological Museum at Moundville. 
The other officer looked at him and smiled but did not comment.

They parked the car near the museum, walked around the trail, and passed the Temple Mound. “Wow.” It was all that Marvin could say and the veteran had to agree. It was an amazing site to see, especially when you realized it was hiding out along the Black Warrior River in Alabama and not some place in South America. The veteran had only been to the park one time before with his son for the festival, but this was a place that needed to be visited more than once to be truly appreciated.

The park had been closed since the interns made their discovery. It would be too difficult to keep the details of the investigation under control with a bunch of college students working through spring break and tourists wandering the mounds. Even getting it closed down as fast as they had still let the rumors fly. They crossed through some woods and found the site they were supposed to be investigating.

“What do we have?” Marvin stood next to the veteran officer but was the first to speak. The officer looked at him and smiled again. He remembered what it was like to be that eager, so he did not say anything.
An excavation trench at Moundville.

The man in the hole looked up. “Most of these bones will prove original to the site. This particular spot was first uncovered about two decades back, but it is a minor site and was left alone.” He pointed to some bones partially covered by pieces of material. “This is what brought you guys out today. I will have to get it back to lab to see exactly what it means.” He pointed to the hole in the skull. “I would bet a week’s worth of lunches that we have a murder here.”

“Just let us know when you get something definitive.” Another smile from the veteran went unnoticed by Marvin. “What should we do next?”

Now he wanted the veteran’s opinion, and that brought another smile. “Well, we have two decades of research about who has access to this area of the park and who may have been working in the area.” He looked down at the man in the hole. “Can you give us a timeline at all?”

“Well, I would have to say that based on the material and its decay that these bones have probably been in this space for almost the full two decades.”

Cold cases were hard – but cold cases that had never been investigated in the first place were often impossible. Their only hope would be that the lab guys would be able to identify the body. Until then, they could talk to the professor who had been in charge of digging that hole in the first place.
A professor directs students at the
Moundville Plaza Project dig site.
“I remember that dig. Nothing sticks in the memory like a month of wasted time.” The professor had retired, but still lived in town. He had plenty of time to visit with the officers. “The kids were so excited when we uncovered the burial area. I almost hated to tell them that the officials wanted their funding to go to a dig that produced more important sites.”

“Why wasn’t that site important?” Marvin had taken the lead again, and the veteran smiled.

“It was important.” The professor sat forward. “All discoveries like that are important. You never know what you are going to learn.”

“Then why did the officials tell you to move on?”

“I argued with them for days, but ultimately they wanted us to find more of the burials related to the leaders and not the followers. I wasted a month because of a bunch of class envy silliness. All of it is important.” The professor was talking to himself, but he had provided some interesting possibilities to follow.

The officers tracked down the officials who had funded the dig, but it left them empty. The company went bankrupt the year after the dig, and there were no records of who would have made decisions about the dig available.

“This will not be an open and shut case.” Marvin shook his head, but the veteran smiled.
Aerial view of Moundville Archaeological Park
showing all the mounds surrounding the plaza.

“There are never any open and shut cases in the real world. They all take some patience, some creativity, and some luck.” He knew from experience that the body they had found in the mound would probably take more luck than anything else.

A trip back to Moundville would be the best place to start their new investigation of the murder of Jane Doe. They were looking for anything that might help them identify her or understand what might have happened. The normal tools would not be much assistance this late in the search. They carried a metal detector. The veteran let Marvin put his eager energy to work.

He spent several hours sweeping the area, and that left the veteran some time to take in the full site of the mounds. They scattered around the field and looked odd in their home. He closed his eyes for a moment and enjoyed the breeze that flowed so easily through the area. It took him back to that day with his son. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and maybe it had been. It was the beeping of the metal detector that got his attention.
A University of Alabama anthropology
student uses a metal detector at the Moundville Plaza Project.

“I found something.” It took a shovel to dig down, but they found a wallet and some other items buried in a grave. Marvin opened the wallet. “It belongs to a Leslie Jones, and Miss Jones was twenty-seven according to her Alabama license and from . . . no way! This says she was from Big Springs.” Marvin was from Big Springs. “What are those odds?”

“Sometimes they are better than you think.”
The lab called. “I can confirm that the victim was a female in her mid to late twenties. Besides that bit of information, I am not going to be any help.” He shook his head and motioned around the room. “She’s gone.”

“What do you mean she’s gone?”

“I mean someone came in and took her and had her cremated along with any evidence that we might find.”

“But you saw the bullet hole.” The veteran let Marvin do the arguing. He knew from experience that arguing would not get them any closer to the answers they needed.

“I saw a hole. I needed more tests to determine how the hole arrived in that particular location . . . and when for that matter.”
The annual Moundville Native American Festival is held
each fall. Check the museum website for dates and events. 

Marvin paced around the room. “Where does that leave us?”

The veteran spoke up. “He will have to label the cause of death as unknown. That means that without some reasonable suspicion of foul play we are done.”

Marvin looked hurt. “But the wallet?”

“The wallet is just a wallet. You need to let this go.”

They closed the file on the Jane Doe and included the wallet for Leslie Jones.
The veteran found himself at Moundville after it opened back up to the public. He wandered around the trails and then climbed up to the top of the Temple Mound. He closed his eyes and remembered the day he had with his son.
Men participate in historic traditions at the annual
Moundville Native American Festival.

A group of warriors performed on the stage back then, not far from where he was standing now. He remembered that their chants and movements filled his own heart with power - or hope. The wind blew against his face and he imagined that it carried their voices now. The same power or hope began to well up inside him again. The voices were telling him to keep digging.

He opened his eyes and looked around. The voices on the wind were right. He would keep digging, closed file or not. He would keep digging until he found the truth.

 by Patrick Miller
The famous Stone Duck Bowl recently returned to
Moundville from the Smithsonian.
In one literary sense, Jane Doe might represent all the original inhabitants of Moundville. Archaeologists are still trying to discover who these unique people were culturally. No one knows for sure why the city was abandoned hundreds of years ago, although the historical evidence tells us that the abandonment occurred before the Europeans arrived. During the 1930s, a great deal of excavations revealed stunning artifacts of such artistic mastery that many were sent to the Smithsonian.

The most famous artifact from Moundville was the Stone Duck Bowl, beautifully carved from a single piece of stone. The bowl was long held by the Smithsonian, but it returned to its home in Moundville a few years ago after a renovation of the Jones Archaeological Museum. Today, the bowl is on display less than a hundred yards from where it was originally discovered.

Moundville still offers year-round tours, but the largest public event is the Moundville Native American Festival held each fall, when experts demonstrate the skills and techniques once central to Moundville life. Please visit this link to Moundville Archaeological Park to learn more about everything Moundville has to offer.

I hope this SELTI feature has opened up a new opportunity for touring a unique place. Please browse through the many features in the Stories By Month section in the top left to discover fascinating places to visit through fiction and real life all over the South. For those curious about how this first contest was set up, please review the Official Rules of the Inaugural SELTI Writing Contest.

Also, anyone interested in visiting Moundville would also be interested in visiting the several nearby cultural  attractions of the University of Alabama Museums, which first discovered the SELTI project through the Alabama Tourism Department. The Alabama Tourism Department and the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission both offer wonderful local guides on where to stay, where to eat, and what to do while visiting the area.   

About the Author
Kathryn C. Lang
Kathryn C. Lang shares words of hope, inspiration and encouragement in her writings and her presentations. She draws from her own experiences living in North Alabama with her husband, Keith, their three boys and her father-in-law. Kathryn challenges others to live a life outside normal – because being normal is over-rated.

You can learn more about Kathryn and read more of her writings by visiting Her non-fiction books are available through most major online retailers. RUN, the debut novel for Kathryn Lang, introduces some of the characters found in “Digging Up Bones,” and can be purchased for electronic download exclusively through the Kindle Store and in print from most major online retailers at the end of May. Please read the interview with Kathryn below. Kathryn is also a columnist for the Lakeside Post in Guntersville, Alabama. Please read one of her short columns here: Making A Path to Survival

Other ways to connect with Kathryn:

A Special Thanks to the Judges
From the University of Alabama's
Creative Campus

Dr. Hank Lazer
Professor of English, Director of Creative Campus

Dr. Michael Martone 
Professor of English (creative writing)

Alexis Clark
Creative Campus Coordinator, Adjunct Professor, Human Environmental Science

I would also like to thank Dr. Bill Bomar, Director of Moundville Archaeological Park, and Kelli Harris, Development Director for the University of Alabama Museums. Both Kelli and Bill were instrumental in getting this project completed. I would also like to express deep appreciation to the four finalists in this contest who took the time to help promote this wonderful park through their writing. Each one of these writers has the skill to effectively promote real places through their imaginative fiction. I look forward to following what other places they write about.
Patrick Miller

Interview With Kathryn Lang

Patrick Miller: There were so many different directions to take when writing a story about Moundville for the contest. What inspired you to write about a murder investigation?

Kathryn Lang: “Digging Up Bones” grew from another short story I wrote recently on my website. That short story developed when a friend read my novel, RUN, and wanted to know more about the backstory of one of the lead characters. Moundville holds so much history and intrigue on its own that I thought setting part of the story in that location would be a perfect fit.

There are many unanswered questions in the story. Have you considered developing "Digging Up Bones" into a full-length novel?

“Digging Up Bones” will be the introduction to the third novel in the Big Springs series. The second novel should be available by summer. All of the questions may not be answered, yet, but readers will begin to understand the who and the why of this particular situation.
Interior of Jones Archaeological Museum,
showing life-size representations of a
Native American prince preparing to marry.

What made the deepest impression on you at Moundville as a tourist?

Our family visits Moundville once a year, and each time I am overwhelmed by the impressive size of the mounds. Climbing to the top of the Temple Mound took my breath away – literally and figuratively. That site alone is enough to set the imagination spinning.

The first year we visited the park, a group of students were working on a site. It helped create the structure for “Digging Up Bones.”

Tell us about your other writing endeavors and what directions you plan to take your writing in the future?

I have been working as a content writer on the internet for the last eight years and moved into writing magazine articles and a newspaper column during that time. The column I write for The Lakeside Post in Guntersville has inspired me to release my columns in gift book form, Journey through Reflections. Practical Proverbs, a non-fiction book about finding your life of peace and joy, was inspired by a women’s bible study. Even my novels are crafted around the experiences of my life.

I hope that my writing career continues down the path of providing words that inspire and encourage others – through fiction and non-fiction alike.

Hear Kathryn Lang interviewed on Alabama Public Radio after she wins the 2012 SELTI Tourism Fiction Award, presented by Senator Clay Scofield, Chairman of the Alabama Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee.

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