Archive for April, 2009

Alone with the Sphinx

April 28, 2009

“After all, if they wanted a good picture of the sphinx, they needed to do it in the cool, early morning when the rising sun shone directly onto its 30-foot high face.”

That’s a short excerpt from my work-in-progress set in Egypt.   And since I was following in the footsteps of my characters, I naturally had to see the sphinx when Giza opened.  My sister had arranged for a car that day to take me and my husband to Giza, Saqqara and Abusir.  Our driver drove us to the entrance in Nazlet as-Samaan, parked the car and pointed to the cafe where he’d wait for us.  After paying 60 or 70 L.E. to get in, we found ourselves within a few hundred feet of the sphinx without another person in sight.  Only a gentle hum of traffic broke the silence. 

This wasn’t what I expected.  Not at all.  In the opening chapters of NIGHT TRAIN TO MEMPHIS, my favorite mystery author, Elizabeth Peters, had compared the tourists to crowds of locusts covering the plateau.  Her main character had wondered how the photographer of her brochure had managed to “eliminate other objects from his composition” like camels, peddlers, guides and tourists.  Well, I have an answer for Vicky Bliss.  He must have come to the same entrance we used on a December day in the middle of the week.

The Sphinx in front of Khafre's Pyramid

The Sphinx in front of Khafre's Pyramid

 So we spent some quiet time admiring the sphinx from various angles.   Eventually a young French student appeared and asked us to take a picture of him.   We obliged.  He took one of us in return. 

I knew that the global economy was in the middle of a downturn, but it seemed like there still should be more people visiting one of the wonders of the ancient world.  About 20 minutes later, we discovered where they were.  The tour buses disgorged their passengers just north of the Great Pyramid.   When we left Giza hours later, my husband got another shot of the comparatively bustling plateau.   

The Sphinx with the Late-Rising Tourist Hordes

The Sphinx with the Late-Rising Tourist Hordes

The moral of this story?  The early bird gets the unobstructed view.  We’d had a similar experience when visiting Michelangelo’s David in Florence and when roaming through the streets of Venice.


A Pressing Problem

April 26, 2009

I was going through the comments that my friend Gina made  on my SCARAB manuscript when I found the following: “Kate presses her lips together quite a bit.  Check for this.” 

Using the search function on my computer, I did just that.  Not only did Kate press her lips together quite a bit, she and a few other characters pressed their hands against their foreheads all the time.   

Another writing friend, Sondy, cured me of blinking–at least for the most part.  Yes, I’ll use one or two a manuscript just like Stephen King will use the occasional adverb in a tag line. 

In first drafts, however, I’ll continue to use blinking and lip-pressing all that I want.  These personal writing quirks and cliches can serve as signposts in later drafts that I want my character to react in some way. Blinking tends to be an indication of surprise while lip-pressing often means that my character would like to say something, but knows better than to blurt out the first thing that came to mind.

Adding Local Color

April 21, 2009

In SAVING THE GRIFFIN, laurel hedges were rather important to my plot.  That’s why I took time to describe these evergreen leaves.  The trees and plants weren’t quite as important in my novel set in Egypt, but I still needed to establish a sense of place. 

When you’re moving your characters through various forms of vegetation, it’s important to let the readers know what kind it is.  You can’t just write that they’re going into a forest.   Instead you have to be clear what kind of trees they’re walking between:  birches, maples,  pines, redwood.  The different trees will conjure up different images in people.  But you’ll also have to add in a few specifics for people who don’t know the difference between a pin oak and a live oak.   

So how could I bring the streets and gardens of Maadi, Egypt to life? Some  readers probably wouldn’t be familiar with the acacia or the jacaranda.  But they do know about palm trees and poinsettias.  So I used them in my descriptions.   Plus this allowed me to share an amazing fact: poinsettias aren’t flowers so much as flowering shrubs!

The Poinsettia: Not quite as high as an elephant's eye

The Poinsettia: Not quite as high as an elephant's eye

This reminded me of Merano, Italy

This reminded me of Merano, Italy

Al-Ahzar Park

April 16, 2009

While I didn’t set a scene at Al-Ahzar Park, my characters visited it between the ending of one chapter and the beginning of another.   It also came up in conversation a number of times for various reasons.  So of course, I had to go.   Several supporting characters in my novel belong to the same ex-pat family.   While Kate and Michael were visiting for several weeks, the Petersons had been living in a suburb of Maadi for several years.  Ex-pats find places that the tourists on their fast-paced tours never get to see.  I wanted to show this in a way that furthered the plot.

Al-Ahzar Park doesn’t have great age to recommend it.  In fact, this oasis of green in the middle of Islamic Cairo was built less than ten years ago when a centuries’ old garbage dump was bulldozed and replaced with a reservoir topped by a 30 hectares of green space.  All of the pictures I found on the net suggested it would be a place of peace and contemplation after the crowded Khan Al-Khalili.    It would be like strolling through a palace garden surrounded by an ancient city. 

View of Saladin's Wall from Al-Ahzar Park

View of Saladin's Wall from Al-Ahzar Park

The Citadel and Mohammed Ali Mosque from Al-Ahzar Park

The Citadel and Mohammed Ali Mosque from Al-Ahzar Park

The views were everything that I had expected.   The peace and quietness?  Um, no. 

It was the last day of the Eid, and Al-Ahzar was packed with families who were out for the day.  When the taxi dropped us off, we could tell the gardens were swarming with people. My sister and my husband looked at me.  Both their eyes and their mouths asked, “Do we really have to go here?” 

“My characters did,” I answered lamely.  I didn’t explain the part about them going between the ending of one chapter and the start of another.  And really, it was important to certain relationships between the characters.  

It’s not an exaggeration to say that we were probably the only Americans in the park that day.   I was so busy looking around at the trees, fountains and walkways that I didn’t notice at first.  It can take things awhile to penetrate my rather thick skull.   But then kids of middle school age kept saying “Hullo!” and smiling at us.  They probably wondered what we were doing there, but we must have looked pretty harmless.  

The playground where my characters spent time hanging out shows just how crowded it was. 

The Playground at Al-Ahzar Park during the Eid.

The Playground at Al-Ahzar Park during the Eid.

My characters would have had this place almost to themselves in the middle of a school day. 

We left when the sun was still a few handspans above the horizon.  My sister let me know that it could get just a bit crazy after sundown during the Eid.  Pretty soon, all of the families would probably be leaving Al-Ahzar Park as older people moved in for the last night of a three or four day party.

Kentucky Bluegrass Master List: Music to my Ears!

April 16, 2009

I found out yesterday that Saving the Griffin made it onto the  Kentucky Bluegrass Awards Master List for grades 3-5!  This is Kentucky’s children’s choice award program.   Students will vote for their favorites next Spring. It’s so exciting to know that my book will be in a really high percentage of public and elementary school libraries!    

Any of my students or critique partners reading this know where I stand on the use of exclamation marks.  In fiction, they should be reserved almost exclusively for when your characters are yelling.  In nonfiction, they should be used for only the most astonishing of facts and limited to one or two an article if the facts warrant it.  But in blogs, personal letters and comments in the margins, exclamation marks can be used for emphasis.  And frankly, to have Saving the Griffin on two children’s choice lists now–Georgia is the other one–is to me both astonishing and delightful. 


Like a Jane Austin Novel with Less Clothes….

April 13, 2009

I can certainly understand why Terry Pratchett’s novel NATION won so many awards and received so much critical acclaim.  It’s set in a parallel world to ours that has enough changes that he can do what he likes with certain elements of history including a flu epidemic making one of his young characters second in line for the throne of England.  It addresses loss and belief, justice and self-sacrifice.  It’s also very, very funny. 

Most of the action takes place on a South Sea Island after a devastating tsunami sweeps across the island where Mau has grown up.  Since everyone was on the beach waiting for his return from his manhood ceremonies, all of his friends and family were killed. 

As always Terry Pratchett knows how to turn both a  funny and a serious phrase. Here’s one thought that I especially liked, but I’ve returned the book and can’t look it up:  “One person is alone: two people make a nation.”

At the Khan al-Khalili

April 8, 2009

Egypt has over 5000 years of recorded history.  Often, people concentrate on the days of the pharoahs from Menes (Narmer) to the suicide of Cleopatra VII.  But Egypt continued to play its part in world history even though it wound up being ruled by a series of invaders: Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Mumluks, Ottomans, French and English.   

Much of the area around the Khan al-Khalili dates back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when caravans would take their silk and spices safely inside its walls.  Its narrow alleys have more recently turned into an extensive tourist trap.  I made the mistake of admitting that I was looking for a Horus statue for Sara.  About four shopkeepers raised their voices insist that what I wanted was in their shop. 

The crowded market at the Khan al-Khalili

The crowded market at the Khan al-Khalili

I made this photo a bit larger than my usual ones so that the incredible detail on the stone work would come through. 

In addition to doing the research for what my characters would experience in what the local expats call The Khan, I wanted to find a scarab made of lapis lazuli.  A low-key shopkeeper politely took me through the various grades of lapis and told me how the various scarabs would be sold by weight.  This encounter actually wound up being research as well for one of my Egyptian characters.  

We made our way deeper into the bazaar where many of the more expensive shops would be located.  There, I found the gate that I’d use in a key scene.  I love the way the blocks fit together like pieces in a puzzle.  I believe this technique is known as scroobling, but I’ll have to double-check this in a book. 

Having the photo is invaluable.  I didn’t remember all of the electrical wires dangling down or that fuse box that didn’t appear to be sealed against wet weather.  

This gate was perfect for my plot!

This gate was perfect for my plot!

After the bombing at the Khan al-Khalili earlier this year, my husband muttered that he couldn’t believe that I talked him into going here.

Abusir is Closed

April 5, 2009

Abusir is not one of the classic, must-see sights of Egypt. As one of my characters observes,  “No one says ‘I want to see Abusir before I die.”  The pyramids there are 100 years younger than those in Giza, but in much worse condition. I can just hear some Ancient Egyptian bean-counter saying over 4600 years ago, “It doesn’t matter what it looks like underneath since we’ll be covering everything with high-grade limestone. Trust me!”  Since I had set a key scene there and was quite attached to the setting, I had to go.  But  when we arrived, the parking lot was empty.  The monument was clearly closed despite an announcement by the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) that Abusir was now open to the public.  

After watching my sister Liz in action, Kurt and I were ready to bargain our way in.  Three men, who were sitting in a spot of shade stood up as we arrived. 

 “Abusir is closed,” one man said.

 “Can we see it anyway?” I asked. 

 “Okay.  For three hundred. One hundred, one hundred, one hundred,” the same man said, pointing first to himself and then to the two other caretakers.  That would have been about 60 or 70 dollars.  I would have paid it for the sake of the book. 

“Fifty for both of us,” my husband Kurt countered.  “It costs seventy to get into Giza.”

“Fifty?”  The man protested.  “But Abusir is closed.” 

We finally settled on 100 L.E. for both of us.  That’s probably more than a week’s pay for them. 

 The leader sent us off with one of his subordinates who would give us a tour and keep an eye on us.  At that point, Kurt announced that we were down to 15 pictures.  “I told you I needed another memory card.”   (He’d started the day with 143 pictures; I had thought it would be enough.)

 As the tour went on, I’m afraid that Ahmed was left with the impression that Kurt was the most henpecked man in America married to a strange and headstrong woman as I selected the shoots I needed for the book.  “No, not that,” I would say of a perfect tourist shot and then ask for shots of power lines and a hill of sand. 

We started by climbing up the causeway to Sahure’s pyramid first and looked around the ruins of his funerary temple. 


The Pyramid and Temple of Sahure from the East

The Pyramid and Temple of Sahure from the East

The Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) had also announced that only Egyptologists would be allowed inside the pyramids of Abusir from that time on.  I guess that Ahmed didn’t get the memo because he unlocked the gate and led us inside.  Yes, it was the crumbling pyramid of Sahure, but it was a pyramid nonetheless. 

From the entrance of the tomb, we could look north to th pyramids of Giza.  They were over ten miles away, but it was an exceptionally clear day. 


Looking at Giza from Abusir

Looking at Giza from Abusir

From my study of Abusir through the internet, I figured that my characters would come at the mastaba of Ptahshepses through the back. 


No wonder Ahmed thought I was a bit odd.

No wonder Ahmed thought I was a bit odd.

My characters needed to go through the gap in the sand where the top of Ptahshepses’ mastaba is visible.  Out of sight on either side are the pyramids of Sahure and Nyuserra. 

Ahmed was about to lead us to Nyuserre’s pyramid, but I pointed to the mastaba of Ptahshepses.  “I need to go there,” I said. It was my top priority. He shrugged.    

We found a tomb guard sitting on a gap in the wall.  “Money,” Achmed said. 

 “How much?” I asked him.

 “Twenty,” he said. 

I didn’t feel like arguing and Kurt seemed to think that this was fair, so we handed over the bill and climbed over the 4400-year-old wall.  Very exciting.  I was sure the Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities would not approve.

I continued to point out shots for Kurt to take of a courtyard with twenty massive square pillars, but I knew we were getting low.   Then Ahmed took us back to where we could see the sarcophagi of Ptahshepses and his wife.  We leaned over another wall to look at them.   Then Ahmed opened a door, grinned and waved. The opening was small enough to make a claustrophobic take a step back.  We’d been in a few tight spots when visiting the mastabas at Giza and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, but the best way down this rather steep, stone slope was the crab walk.  A few seconds later, we were standing next to the sarcophagi where I’m sure no tourists were supposed to go.  Take that, Head of the SCA.  

“Picture?” Achmed asked.  

“No,” I said ruthlessly, knowing that if we had pictures to burn that Kurt would have already been clicking away.  

Finally, Achmed led us out of the mastaba.  We went over a different wall and walked along the top.  We turned to look at the pillars casting long shadows across the courtyard.  The mound-like pyramid of Nyuserra rose up behind it. 

“Picture?” Achmed asked. 

“Yes,” I said.   


Pillared Courtyard in Mastaba of Ptahshepses

Pillared Courtyard in Mastaba of Ptahshepses

I had originally thought that my characters would come in through the front door of the mastaba’s temple.  But now I knew that they’d have to go in over the wall much as my husband and I had.  Details like this were why I had to go to Egypt to research the book.  With my first book, DEFENDING IRENE, I’d essentially lived on location in Merano, Italy.  My family had visited many places in Tuscany for SAVING THE GRIFFIN.  


The Restored Entrance of Ptahshepeses

The Restored Entrance of Ptahshepeses



My Characters Made Me Do It!

April 1, 2009

In every other project that I’ve done up until MARK OF THE SCARAB, I experienced things before I created characters.  In fact, on my website, there’s an article about how I wasn’t able to write about Merano, Italy until I got to know it. My friend Jeanie Ransom said something like the following: “You’re living in a place where Heidi could be shouting, “Grandfather!  Grandfather!” and you’re writing about Missouri.  (Strangely enough, I wrote most of DEFENDING IRENE, a novel set in Merano, after we moved back to Missouri.)   For SAVING THE GRIFFIN, I had been to Tuscany.  I had also learned about the idiosyncratic way that Italians speak English.  (Don’t get me started on MY awful accent and odd speech patterns.  You can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the girl.) 

When the idea for MARK OF THE SCARAB (working title) struck, I had only been to Egypt through the work of Elizabeth Peters and other novelists.    As I noted earlier in this blog, I studied websites, guidebooks and hundreds of photos to build the setting for my story.  I grilled my sister, who lives in a suburb south of Cairo.  I completed a draft only days before my husband and I were scheduled to take off. 

In preparation, I planned a schedule that would let me follow in the footsteps of my characters so that everything would be as authentic as I could make it. 

My characters walked along the bottom row of blocks of one of the Giza pyramids, so…

Western Side of King Khafre's Pyramid

I had to do it!  My husband snapped a picture and then told me to get down, much like one of my characters did in the opening chapter. 

My characters also rode camels, so I had to do that, too.  I’m in front of Zoser’s step pyramid. It’s the world’s oldest stone monument, dating back to 2650 BC.

Zoser's Step Pyramid

Zoser's Step Pyramid


Shortly after the camel ride, we headed to the pyramid fields of Abusir. A very important scene in my novel took place there. The Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquites had written an article proclaiming that Abusir was open to the public; the empty parking lot suggested otherwise.  Did we get in?  Let’s just say that baksheesh can open closed sites in Egypt.  I’ll try to post on that soon.