The old advice from largely inaccessible agents used to be “only write about what you know personally.”
I obviously disregarded those sage words (and am consequently not on any best-seller lists). Well-meaning friends and readers of KHAMSIN, The Devil Wind of The Nile, often ask, “Have you been there?”
Duh, people! Khamsin plays out in 3080 BC. I may be old, but surely you don’t think I am that ancient. That said, of course, the “feel” of historical fiction has to be there – or your soul, your eternal ba, shall be cursed “never to cross through the field of rushes to find eternal peace.”
That leaves RESEARCH; and plenty of it. So, what really happened at the dawn of that amazing civilization having apparently sprung out of nowhere as a fully formed society?
Nobody knows. So you (the historical fiction writer) assume you can just fabricate the stuff. Not so fast. There are plenty of people (I am excluding historians and archaeologists here) who do know a lot more than you do. Hence, you have to do your research to be incorporated into your story in such a way that it feels authentic without the infamous info-dump just to show what you have learned; and that’s when the trouble starts.
Time-lines especially become a blur of contradictions and "facts" are constantly superseded by new findings. Take Dynasties 00 to 03, for example, since I wrote about the dawn of Dynasty 01. Every publication hungrily perused for indisputable dates lists a different year, even century, as the beginning and duration of those dynasties. Of course, we are dealing with things that supposedly happened five-thousand years ago; and the pox on those inconsiderate scribes who didn’t save their scrolls in “The Cloud.”
Then, take the names of kings, their wives/consorts, and the ancient places. Most widely recognized are the major settlements described by the Egyptian priest Manetho (written in Greek). But he, too, was a few thousand years late to the party and—so they say—had quite a good imagination.
The Greek historian Herodotus gave us “Memphis,” and “Thebes,” and “Abydos,” among many others. The pyramid of Mycinerus? Really? Did Menkaure (also spelled Menkaura and Mencaure) speak Greek? One therefore needs to choose between the various spellings for the same thing and, if you concoct a story around that time, stick to it.
For me, it all started when I happened upon the publications by individual archaeologists describing, nay, expounding their latest and greatest findings. One stumbling block was the often apparent hesitation of their colleagues to accept contradictions to their research. Likely for fear that those might usurp their own published and accepted scientific papers. Hello! Are those theses chiseled onto modern Rosetta Stones and are they, henceforth, forever indisputable?
Way back, when I started my saga, I had no Internet, no Google, no Wikipedia. “You need to read William Budge,” the librarian suggested. Great Horus! Little did I know how outdated that was, and as I wormed my way past Howard Carter et al, I finally stumbled upon the illustrious albeit somewhat opinionated Dr. Zahi Hawass.
I wrangled with the familiar names of the ancient sites (until modern Egypt changed them into Arabic): Hierakonpolis, Herakleopolis, Heliopolis. “Wait a minute. These are all Greek names again,” I sputtered, and then had a heck of a time to find the ancient name Ineb-hedj (City of White Walls). Yes, it’s the well bandied-about Memphis. It definitely wasn’t Memphis during the First Dynasty. Finally, I stuck as best as I could to the ancient names resorting to appendices and a glossary for readers who wanted to know “the real thing.” But one must consider the casual, even though quite knowledgeable reader. Chucking authenticity aside, I decided to stick with a few Greek names for the better-known gods, such as Isis and Horus.
So what is an innocent soul like me – a former Austrian mountain goat turned California sailor - doing traipsing in and out of this ancient minefield? Sometimes, I think that, just maybe, I should be writing erotica instead (it certainly sells better). But, I suspect, that too requires certain research (volunteers not requested).
The morale of my story: If you write HF, you do have to do your search – and know more than you ever use in your novel. Nothing is easier than to slip back into our own comfort zone – but it just wouldn’t do to have a scribe “text” to ask his mother what she’s cooking for dinner; and then “pick up his fork.”
In the end, a writer must strive that the story itself prevails, with the exotic backdrop enhancing rather than challenging a reader’s experience (although I do provide several appendices for cities, gods, etc.).
It all seems to have turned out well, though, since Khamsin, The Devil Wind of The Nile (Book 1 – Legends of the Winged Scarab), has just been short-listed with 8 other books for the 2014 Indie Award by the Historical Novel Society – the winners to be announced at the HNS London Conference in September –read more about it here:
About the Author:
Born and raised in Austria, Inge H. Borg completed her language studies in London and Paris. To continue her study of French (in a round-about way), she accepted a job at the French Embassy in Moscow. After Ms. Borg was transferred to the States, she has worked on both coasts, and after several years of living in San Diego, she finally became a US citizen.
Ms. Borg now lives in a diversified lake community in Arkansas (call it happy exile), where she continues to write historical and contemporary fiction. She also just published a non-fiction book about her cat and its former shelter buddies. Her poetry has been published in over twenty anthologies and was chosen for professionally recorded readings. Her hobbies include world literature, opera, sailing and, of course, devising new plots for future novels.
Author Pages -- Inge H. Borg