Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Writing Historical Fiction

February 6, 2011

Frankly, I’ve always been terrified by the thought of writing historical fiction because of how much research need to be done in order to get the time, setting and characters right.  I’ve had a big enough challenge with contemporary fiction whether it was constructing an imaginary a realistic Italian estate in Saving the Griffin or learning the proper cleaning techniques for a classy bed and breakfast in SuspectBut R.L. LaFevers, author of the Theodosia and Nathaniel Flood Beastologist books, broke her methods down in two posts on her blog.  The first was on research in the pre-writing stage; the second, on the value and limits of historical accuracy.  I’m inclined to take her word seriously on this because I thought that she did a very nice job handling the state of Egyptology in Edwardian times for her THEODOSIA books.  I’m no expert on that era, but I am an addict to Elizabeth Peters’ AMELIA PEABODY series.  Many of those books are set in the same time period.


One More Personal Note

January 31, 2011

I’m happy to report that things have settled down in my sister’s Cairo suburb.  The people of Maadi have essentially taken their neighborhoods back with a little assistance from the Egyptian army.  Undoubtedly, sentiments about Westerners vary widely throughout Egypt, but one stranger came up to a friend of my sister’s on the street and said: “Don’t worry. We protect you.” 

I’m updating friends and family daily, but any readers of the blog can assume that no news is good news.

Friday of Wrath

January 28, 2011

I tend to stick to thoughts about writing on this blog.  But when I had a request for a school visit this morning, I couldn’t help thinking about the ones that I did in Egypt a couple of years ago at my sister’s school, Cairo American College.  These were unpaid events for my sister’s friends.  But they also doubled as research since a couple of the characters in my work-in-progress attended that school. 

Those kids, teachers and my sister are all hunkered down today as events unfold in Cairo.  I’m keeping them in my prayers.  May the demonstrations be peaceful and effective.

Luxor Temple by Night

January 8, 2011

Sometimes beautiful things can emerge when you clean your desk.  In this case, I rediscovered my CD of the photos from Egypt. I’d been meaning to share more of them, but got behind with one thing and another.  I can’t take credit for either of these shots.  My husband was the man in charge of the camera.  They were both taken on the same day, but the first one was in early evening.

View of Luxor Temple from the Corniche

Coming back after visiting the Luxor Museum

Mowing the Lawn

May 11, 2010

About three weeks ago, my editor called me.  We were in the middle of copy edits for SUSPECT.  Usually, this is a matter of tweaking sentences and fixing mistakes.  A few continuity issues will pop up here and there.  But this was something much bigger.  The copy editor couldn’t buy into what was going on between two of the characters.  And her concern reinforced  my editor’s feelings about the same situation.  Something clearly had to be done before the manuscript went to galleys.  Hence the call.  My editor and I went back and forth for about twenty minutes.  She made polite suggestions.  I politely shot them down for one reason or another.  At one point I said, “I know.  I have to mow the lawn.  Maybe I can come up with something.”  

Mowing had worked for me before.  In fact, the first three chapters of my proposed sequel to SAVING THE GRIFFIN came to me when I was mowing our back hill.

In the end, I didn’t have to mow.  (Or at least not to solve my plotting issues.) After the phone call,  I sat down to read over the first section that concerned the Peachtree editors.  Within about ten seconds, I knew what I could do.  But I probably wouldn’t have if we hadn’t hashed things out.

Yesterday, I had to mow the lawn again.  (Ah, the glamorous life of a writer.)  I found myself meditating on what my agent and I have been calling “the Italian chase novel.”  It’s something that was simmering on the back burner until my agent asked me if I’d thought about trying another YA.  At first I said no.  But then, I remembered the basic scenario and described it to her.  To my surprise, I heard her telling me that it sounded like a great idea.   But I basically only had the premise.   I wasn’t worried since I knew the revisions to Calyn’s story would keep me busy until this fall. 

I had finished the front yard and moved down to the back road when things started clicking.  I had a number of reasons why my main character would have something that someone else wanted.  But then I suddenly realized where and why my character would seize the initiative.  Scenes popped into place as did the rather odd quirks of the obligatory romantic interest. 

I may not have a cure for writer’s block, but I do know of  an activity where inspiration can sometimes flow like a mountain stream after a thunderstorm.    Forcing it doesn’t work.  But things often click  when I try to make straight lines across my lawn with my mower.

Research all Finished?

December 20, 2009

I had left open our last day in Egypt just in case I needed to go back and do any additional research, but it looked like it was complete.  I had visited all the places that my characters had: Giza, Abusir, Ma’adi, the Metro, the Khan al-Khalili, and Al Ahzar park.  My husband, the man in charge of handling the digital camera, had taken hundreds of pictures.   So my sister Liz suggested that we go out to visit her friend Margaret, who had a house on the west bank of the Nile not too far from Abusir.  In addition to meeting one of Liz’s best friends, I knew that I’d get a chance to drive by the pyramids again.

I was still wondering just a little about one of my major scenes, so I asked Margaret about some of my travel choices for my characters.  She set me straight on what my three young characters would do.  I was horrifed because this pretty much destroyed my original plan.  Plus, I didn’t have good visuals and wasn’t sure how I could get them.  But Margaret also had a solution, which entailed paying to get into the Saqqara country club and then buying some drinks before we sauntered out to my real destination: the desert.   You can’t just get on it just anywhere–at least not between Giza and Saqqara.  Private property lies between the desert and the public roads. 

This was the first time that I actually beat my characters to a location.  They had been everywhere else first.

A wall of packed sand holds back the Western Desert. A wire fence on top of deters any trespassers.

There's a narrow line separating the the cultivation from the desert. From left to right: Margaret, Liz, Kristin. Neferirkare's 5th dynasty pyramid of Abusir is above Margaret's head.

We walked out through the gate and headed south towards Abusir.  We walked for a little while, but it was really too late in the afternoon to go any farther, especially since Margaret was recovering from surgery. But I had what I needed. 

Kurt and I did take a quick climb up the extremely steep hill shown in the first picture.   And here’s a better view of power lines and pyramids.  I knew that juxtaposition would make it into the book. 

Abusir seen from the South. Pyramids from left to right: Sahure, Nyuserra, Neferikare

While I tweaked a lot of scenes based on my experiences in Egypt and the photographs that Kurt took, I would say that this Friday afternoon triggered the biggest changes.  In fact, I would say that more than six chapters were heavily impacted.  I knew it would take a lot of work to make the changes.  What I had before would have technically worked, but my expat character was a savvy kid who knew how to work his local system.  I might have been able to fool most people, but I wanted to also make the expats in Maadi nod their heads and say, “It could have happened just like that.”  

So here’s a big thanks to Kurt, Liz and Margaret!

Dreaming of Egypt

December 11, 2009

Today, fifty mile an hour winds whipped the snow past my windows.  But a year ago this week, I was in Egypt to research a possible sequel to SAVING THE GRIFFIN.  The wheels of publishing often turn more slowly than the wheels of justice for many writers like me, so I’m patiently waiting for word from my editor on its fate.  But today, I couldn’t help but click through my CD of photos from my trip. 

Here are two pyramid pictures from Abusir.  The first one is the east face of Neferirkare’s fourth dynasty pyramid. 


Another Abusir Pyramid with those of Giza in the distance on the right. A front swirled through the day before our pyramid trip, so the visibility was fabulous. 

It was possible to see the cliffs rising on the far side of the Nile River valley.

Last year at this time Abusir was closed to the public.  But in Egypt, it is possible to work around that.  I will never forget clambering over a 4300-year-old wall to visit the mastaba of Ptahshepses.

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.

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.