Saturday, January 24, 2015

I Love Research From Chariots to Crocodiles

...but I can get lost in it sometimes! I do the most in depth research for my paranormal novels set in ancient Egypt. It's not that I don't research some specific things for the science fiction, but the Egypt of thousands of years calls to me. I maintain a large library of actual books, most of which I list on the my blog under the topic of overall historical accuracy. At some point I realized I probably owned a lot of the books I’d need if I was pursuing a degree in Egyptology (but facing no tests).

So how do I pursue this research? I don’t write strictly historical novels because I wanted to have the Egyptian gods and goddesses take direct action in the events. Right away this takes me outside the boundaries of what’s acceptable for historically accurate. I don’t want my novels to be “wallpaper historicals” either though, where I just toss in a few cool looking Egyptian words and make reference to the pyramids, pat the Sphinx on the head and I’m done. I want the Reader to be in ancient Egypt, even if it’s my paranormal version. There are some plot conveniences I want, like talking about actual coins (which the actual deben system was not). I do some deliberate anachronisms to serve my stories.

Let’s take my latest novel MAGIC OF THE NILE. Since it’s a sequel to PRIESTESS OF THE NILE, I’d already done the research into the Crocodile God Sobek, hero of the first book and major player in the second. But for the new book, since we spend time at the temple my heroine Tyema runs, I researched how Sobek’s temples were organized 4000 years ago, a lot more details about crocodiles, how processions were conducted, which deities were important in the capital city of Thebes, the hierarchy of an Egyptian temple’s priesthood, what Pharaoh would wear for different activities, what foods would be served on a big feast day…

I needed my hero Sahure to be dashing, so he’s a charioteer, which was about as dashing as you could get in 1500 BCE. That led to research on chariots, including a wonderful NOVA special, called “Building Pharaoh’s Chariot.” (Available on dvd.) Watching a team of British researchers attempt to reconstruct the chariot of ancient times, with the help of Egyptian craftsmen, basically by studying tomb paintings and the few actual surviving chariots, was amazing.  But where does Sahure need to drive in his gleaming, horse-drawn vehicle?

Turns out there was a chain of fortifications along various Egyptian borders, including at the Southern Oasis of Kharga, located on a major caravan route. I’d already researched caravans pretty heavily for a sequence in DANCER OF THE NILE. That’s one nice thing about writing a series – I can build on the tidbits I’ve learned before.  Also, research suggests plot points and vice versa. Since I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer, this approach works for me! Now I know all about Kharga, including the topography and weather.

At one point, Sahure needs to tell Tyema about a battle he’s fought in beside Pharaoh. I drew a suitable tale to adapt from translations of  4000 year old eyewitness accounts of actual warfare and gave my character the right ‘memories’ to share with the heroine. I also needed to be able to talk about his weapons and tactics. Back to researching bows and arrows of the time…

Were the native people of the Southern Oasis descended from the goddess Sekhmet? They apparently thought so, which sent me off to ponder all the cool facets of her powers and background.  In many cases there are alternate versions of the myths surrounding an Egyptian deity so I’m free to choose the aspects that work for my story and to extrapolate other ideas for my plot.  

A lot of the research I do never shows up directly in the novels, so if by now you’ve been thinking that my books must be pretty dry, dusty tomes, possibly akin to the textbooks, let me reassure you. I have to be able to put myself in the headspace of ancient Egypt, so I can create characters who are believable residents of that time and place, even while they’re having these amazing adventures. I don’t have to show off all my research (except maybe in blog posts LOL). If it doesn’t serve the plot, it doesn’t go in the book, but the knowledge might influence the story’s direction.

It’s trickier than you might think though and I know I don’t always succeed. Let me give you an example from the first draft of DANCER OF THE NILE: “The chariot bounced over iron hard ruts…” The problem? The Egyptians didn’t have iron at this point in time! So I changed it to “bronze hard”…but to a modern reader that’s an unfamiliar phrase and it took me completely out of the flow when I read it. Eventually the line became: “The chariot jounced over deep, hard ruts…” 

So there's my example of how researching one thing takes me to the next and so on and so forth...

And below the art is the NOVA special on chariots:


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