The Minefield of Writing Historical Fiction
by Inge H. Borg
In the “good old days” before the self-publishing boom, advice from largely inaccessible agents used to be “write what you know.”
I obviously disregarded those sage words—and consequently never found an agent or a publisher to bring me fame and fortune. And to this day, some friends and (dare I say ‘awed’) readers of KHAMSIN, The Devil Wind of The Nile, do ask, “Have you been to Egypt?”
Khamsin plays out in 3080 BCE. I may be old, but not that ancient – nor have I ever imagined to be Nefertiti reborn. Be that as it may, the “feel” of Ancient Egypt has to be there – or your soul, your ba, shall be cursed “never to cross the field of rushes to find eternal peace.”
That leaves RESEARCH; and plenty of it. So, what really happened at the dawn of this amazing civilization which seemingly sprung up out of nowhere as a fully formed society? Nobody knows for certain.
So if we (the historical fiction writers) blithely assume we can just fabricate stuff, we have another think coming. There are plenty of people (I am excluding historians and archaeologists here) who do know a lot more than we writers do. Hence, we have to present our stories in such a way they feel authentic without the much maligned info-dump just to show off what we have learned; and that’s when the trouble is likely to start.
For me, time-lines became a blur of contradictions and "facts" were constantly superseded by new findings. Take Dynasties 00 to 03, for example. (Khamsin deals with the dawn of Dynasty 01). Every publication I hungrily perused for indisputable dates listed a different year, even century, for those dynasties. Of course, we are dealing with things of five-thousand years ago; and the pox on those inconsiderate scribes who didn’t think to save their scrolls in The Cloud.
Take the names of kings (the title pharaoh only appears after Dynasty 05), their wives/consorts, and the ancient places. Most major settlements were described by the Greek priest Manetho (written in Greek, of course). But he, too, was a few thousand years late to the party and—so they say—had quite an imagination.
Another Greek, the historian Herodotus, gave us Memphis, Thebes, and Abydos, among others. The pyramid of Mycinerus? Really? Did Menkaure (also Menkaura or Mencaure) speak Greek? One therefore needs to choose between the various spellings for the same thing and stick consistently to one name.
It all started when I happened upon 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 (perhaps even endanger tenure). Hello! Are those theses chiseled onto modern Rosetta Stones, and are therefore forever indisputable?
When I started my saga, I had no Internet. “You need to read William Budge,” the librarian suggested. Great Horus! Little did I know how outdated his writings were. And as I wormed my way past Howard Carter et al, I finally stumbled upon the illustrious albeit highly opinionated Dr. Zahi Hawass, then the Cairo Museum Director. (And if my imagined character, Dr. Jabari El Masri, of Books 2-5 seems to exhibit similar traits, I deny any parallels – although he, too, wears a jaunty Fedora. Sue me.)
Mostly, I wrangled with the familiar names of the ancient sites (now changed to Arabic): Hierakonpolis, Herakleopolis, Heliopolis. “Wait a minute. These are all Greek names again,” I sputtered. I had a heck of a time to find the original name for the northern capital built by Menes. Ineb-hedj (City of White Walls). Yes, it’s the ancient name for the well bandied-about Memphis. It definitely wouldn’t have been Memphis in 3080 BCE.
I resorted to appendices and a glossary for readers who wanted to know “the real thing.” But one must consider the casual yet still knowledgeable reader. Chucking authenticity aside, I decided to stick with a few Greek names for the better-known gods, such as Isis and Horus (this was before a name like “Isis” became such a maligned word).
Some quite successful authors do slip up. For instance, I read (but obviously did not review) Book 1 of a popular Egyptian series where the enthusiastic author has a desert girl dream of a snarling bear. Hello! Even if this was a typo meant to be a “boar,” neither animal did exist in Ancient Egypt, especially not in the desert. Also, the author’s young Nefertiti notices a rival’s “apricot” cheeks and “strawberry” lips. Such fruits were not known at the time. Most readers and reviewers didn’t seem to care as long as “boy got girl.”
So, what is an innocent soul like me – a former Austrian mountain goat transformed from California sailor to Arkansas hermit - doing traipsing in and out of this ancient historical minefield? Sometimes, I think, just maybe, I should be writing erotica instead (it sells better). But, I suspect, that too would require a certain amount of research.
In the end, the storyline itself must prevail, with the exotic backdrop enhancing rather than challenging the reader’s experience.
No matter how well written and received, reviews are ultimately vital to bolster an author’s visibility, especially on Amazon. Even less complimentary opinions help. Although authors are exhorted to bite their tongue and never to comment on them, we do have a secret weapon to our disposal for sweet (albeit mostly private) revenge.
One rather brutal review stands out for me. It was written by a reviewer who subsequently changed his name for unknown reasons. Pity. It was such a splendidly telling name. I abbreviate and borrowed it for Book 3 – and made him the Keeper of the Penises (for my antagonist’s embezzled collection of Greek statuary).
It all turned out well, though, and Khamsin, The Devil Wind of The Nile (Book 1 – Legends of the Winged Scarab) spawned other storms. From the modern-day action/adventures of Sirocco, Storm over Land and Sea (Book 2), to After the Cataclysm (Book 3 in which the Yellowstone Supervolcano blows its top), to The Nile Conspiracy (Book 5 dealing with the – real –Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile – endangering Egypt’s water supply).
Today’s ability to self-publish (without the outrageous fees so-called “vanity presses” some years ago tried to extract from desperate writers) is a fabulous chance for us. Add to this the many readers/bloggers willing to review and champion The Indie, there is the wonderful opportunity to read tremendously talented writers whose manuscripts would have previously languished on the shelves of obscurity. I, for one, am happy for the chance to see my passion recognized by at least a few (more, of course, would make me even happier).
The morale of my story: If one writes HF, one has to do intense research. In the end, one must know more than will ever be used in the novel – but this knowledge is sure to lead us safely through the Minefield of Writing Historical Fiction.
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 her happy exile), where she continues to write historical and contemporary fiction. Her hobbies include world literature, opera, sailing and, of course, devising new plots for future novels.
Author Pages -- Inge H. Borg
http://www.amazon.com/Inge-H.-Borg/e/B006QYQKUS – Amazon-US
https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/505050 - Smashwords
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/inge-h.-borg - Barnes & Noble
Discovering Diamonds Review: Khamsin: