Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Fact in Fiction - Part 1 of 5

Khamsin, the Devil Wind of the Nile-Book 1 

Every movie lately seems to have “The Making of ...” clips. Well, here is a little insight into “The Making of the Legends of the Winged Scarab” series, Part 1.

With my historical saga, reaching back to 3080 BC, the question was how much research a writer should do on his or her chosen era. My answer: A lot. Next, how much “real history” should be incorporated into a novel. I’d say, 10% (unless writers want to emulate James Michener – still one of my favorite authors, by the way). These days, however, most of us must remember, it’s fiction. Readers these days want to be entertained rather than learn something.

As the premise for my conflict, I chose the strict laws of Ma'at - Ancient Egypt's "world order" that had to be strictly observed; those who failed could be punished by a horrible death.
When I started my research into Ancient Egypt (and by that, I mean, really ancient), the biggest confusion was over city names. It would have been easy to use Memphis, for instance. But that name – like most of the commonly used ancient names – came from the Greeks, specifically the historian Herodotus who described many of the wonders he found in Egypt during his visit around 490 BC. At the time, Egypt was under Persian occupation in the 27th Dynasty - a full three-thousand years after my story takes place
(during the 1st Dynasty in the Old Kingdom).
Therefore, I resorted to use the ancient Egyptian names (wherever I could find them). But, for my readers, I enclosed an appendix with both names and a map in the hope this would satisfy the historically curious. In recent years, Egypt began to use Arabic names for its towns. Still, many of the tourist sites still bear their familiar Greek names.

As to real people, I only used Aha, the Horus-King. He is documented as the second king of the First Dynasty. Its first king and founder of Egypt is usually said to have been Narmer (or Menes). There is also the mysterious Scorpion King of Dynasty Zero. Egyptologists’ opinions on dates vary greatly.

However, what “my” King Aha was or did stems solely from the figment of my imagination (although, he really did have a son called Djer; his successor). 

The popular and entertaining astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it “the Argument from Ignorance.” 

 However, I did have proof that Aha was credited to have kept the newly unified kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt together. Why? There are cartouches with him wearing the double crown indicating both regions.

 (Faience vessel fragment inscribed with the Horus-name Aha, on display at the British Museum)

And, of course, there is the dreaded khamsin (the devil wind of fifty days), its choking red sand bringing death to those caught in the open. Will it overcome our young lovers as they try to outrun their pursuers in a desperate flight through the Wadi Hammamat. No longer awash, this arid gorge was already an ancient trade route connecting the Nile to the Red Sea. 

One of my biggest worry, however, was whether or not there were donkeys at the time. You think that’s silly. But I poured over volume after volume in hopes of finding a depiction of my desperately needed flea-ridden ass (camels and horses were introduced only much later). Since donkeys were used primarily by commoners and farmers, artists did not depict them on tomb paintings and stone reliefs.  At last, I found one rare picture of the lowly donkey – sending up my thanks to Horus. Phew.

I could now have my fictional King Aha (in disguise) chafe his royal backside raw on a donkey. Perhaps he appreciated my ruse of escape from enemies’ spies, for his real mummy was found buried with the remains of ten donkeys to accompany him into the Afterlife. Would it have mattered if wild asses had not yet been domesticated? Yes. 
For instance, I read some Nile/Nefertiti novel in which the author describes a woman’s “strawberry-lips,” and “apricot-cheeks.” No strawberries. And precious apricots were brought in from Lebanon – in their dried form. Imagine a maiden’s puckered brown cheeks. Put me right off. 

I didn’t want to make a mistake like that. Still, an observant reader chided me for the use of royal “bark” instead of “barque.” When I politely countered with an explanation about the 15th century use of the Portuguese word “barque,” she graciously upped her review to a glowing five stars. Needless to say, there was some private gloating on my side. Mostly, though, it reinforced my belief that when in doubt, check and double-check. 

In the end, while Historical Fiction must ring true to its time, it has to be readable. Loving or hating those characters, readers want to care about them. Oh, and do we writers love to invent hateful people. They are often the most intriguing of the bunch. 

Take my ugly vizier, Ebu al-Saqqara, for instance.
Lowly of birth, ambitious to the point of treason, he is being interviewed by the best-selling British author Helen Hollick.
Read what my puffed-up Ebu al-Saqqara has to crow about here:

(Note: All images - Public Domain)

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