When I was a teenager, I was determined I would be an archaeologist – so I studied how to read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics – as you do. (Did you know the hieroglyph for wine is ‘irp’? They must have had a sense of humour!)
Later I changed my mind and went into journalism, teaching and literary event management – strangely, none required hieroglyphics – but my interest in Egypt never diminished. I was intrigued by the mummification rites, the pyramids, Cleopatra – it all sounded so romantic and mysterious, and I wanted to experience it for myself.
Consequently, as soon as I could, I strapped on a backpack and headed over to check out the place – and this was the genesis for my book Scarab.
Egyptian Culture: Beyond the Tourist Veneer
Backpacking around the country on a shoestring budget with my husband gave me a real insight into aspects of the culture you might not see flitting from air-conditioned five-star hotels or ferries to air-conditioned tour buses.
I savoured and noted the heat, the insects, the noise, all interesting and authentic colour for my novel. I watched papyrus being made; I tasted dates straight off the tree, I ate local low-cost fare. I got sick, really sick, I was spat at by local women, threatened, assaulted, dumped in the middle of nowhere and robbed – and it all made for amazing experiences that I would later use in my novels.
Touring the pyramids, the guide held us up in the desert and told us he would ‘take us across the border to Libya to be murdered’ if we didn’t give him all our money. Looking back on it now it is funny, but at the time we were not laughing. Libya would feature later in my Scarab novel as an ominous place and a centre for the slave trade after I learned it was once part of ancient Egypt. Islands off the coast also were once ruled by the ancient land, and these too would play a part in my future novels.
Staying in hostels that sometimes cost as much as $3 a night I came into contact with locals and their pets, like little tortoises, their idiosyncrasies ‘we build door by door’ and their religious beliefs, which helped add detail to my book when the characters are in modern-day Egypt. We learned that the door handles are taken off taxis so you can’t get out until you pay (often a much higher fee than you agreed before entering the taxi) and that Cairo taxi drivers will not turn their headlights on at night in the false belief it flattens their batteries – making driving at night terrifying for passengers. All this and more I absorbed and remembered, writing a journal each night of our trip and pouring into it my experiences, fears and excitement.
Ancient Egypt: A Closer Look
Entering tombs, I noted the artistry, the claustrophobia, the colours, the ambience, the stillness and the detailed ritual associated with death. I learned that the scarab was bound over the heart during mummification, to protect the secrets of the heart – this intrigued me.
Learning about the Book of the Dead, Pyramid Texts, and Coffin Texts really started to make me think ancient Egyptians believed they were heading to the stars, not to heaven as we know it, but to the actual stars, and this got me thinking… What if they were?
While travelling around, I was also very interested in how many animals were seen to be sacred and mummified for burial. Cats, known in hieroglyphics as ‘Miw’ were one of the major ones, as were cattle, crocodiles, birds, it just went on and on. Later I would write a cat into Scarab and call it Miw.
The gods too were depicted everywhere with animal characteristics. And this made me think, what if they could assume the guise of animals? Who is to say? So much has been lost, Egyptology is still really in its infancy. There is so much we don’t know, so much we assume.
The Terror and the Romance of Travel
Travelling independently through the country was not easy. In fact, it was downright fucking horrible in some places, but I couldn’t shake the romance of the idea of touring Egypt, and I looked for the best in even the worst of situations.
I found that romance in the ruins of Luxor, watching a coloured-light show at the Karnak Temple that lit up the ponds and the columns of hieroglyphs in amazing colours as they were read out by a presenter. One line from the hieroglyphs in particular resonated with me:
“Your love is in my heart as the reeds are in the arms of the wind.”
For all the bloodshed and murder and intrigue we had learned about – there was also love, and I knew the novels I ended up writing from this trip would definitely be romance.
While visiting Luxor, I also found the rows of sphinxes leading up the temple intriguing, at the base of each one was a well which once contained a crocodile, ready to receive offerings. Later these wells would feature in a murder scene in Scarab – the perfect way to dispose of a body!
Many of the hieroglyphs though had been defaced over time by various pharaohs and conquerors, and the French, of course, had stolen so many antiquities, most still grace the Louvre. They even had the twin of the obelisk that once stood at the front of the temple. I’d seen it in Paris, so I didn’t feel totally ripped off, but sad that it was not where it should be. This also would play a part in subsequent Scarab novels, which feature the French and Germans and the rare things they stole from Egypt.
What three things did I take from Egypt that helped me with writing Scarab? I took everything, everything that country and its people offered.
I absorbed it into my skin, and it poured out as little black drops of ink on paper – the Scarab Trilogy.
Which of your favorite books ooze research from their pages? Does it make you love them even more? Share in the comments!
About the Author
Helen Allan’s work has been described as ‘ethereal’ and ‘edge of your seat.’ Specialising in fantasy and science fiction romance, Allan’s work has an edge that leaves the reader thinking about her books long after they put them down. Much of her work is underpinned by a love of the natural environment and a deep understanding of the depths of the human psyche.
Connect with Helen Allan online at:
- Website: http://www.helenallan.com/
- Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/helenallanauthor/
- Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6801010.Helen_Allan
- Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/helenallan/
Helen’s recent release is Gypsy Blood, a paranormal romance series:
An ancient power. A forbidden love.
Smart-mouthed journalism student Freely is not your average eighteen-year-old. Her best friend is a vampire, and they spend most weekends hiding bodies. But when she meets a handsome foreigner, Zan, a strange magic connects them that is older than time.
Bound to him, ancient lore decrees she must learn her gypsy powers in time to protect him from the vampires who seek immortality through his blood, and help him to hunt the creatures of the night.
Can she betray her friend? Will she learn to see Zan as a fighting partner only and ignore their mutual attraction? Can she allow him to continue his line, at the expense of her heart? Or will her love for him destroy them both?
Gypsy Blood is a vampire romance that will leave you clutching your neck and begging for more. Get it here.
What an adventure! The trip itself reads like it would be a really compelling nonfiction novel. (I would read the shit out of it, haha.)
Some of my favorite fantasy books where the research really shows are Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (and that series, really, in which the fencing seems so realistic!), and The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. He clearly did his homework on history (or at least it seemed so to me…), and looking at his other books, I’ll bet most of them are that way.
Oddly enough, books that feel more researched don’t necessarily make me love them more (or less). I think it’s just a different way of bolstering authenticity. Details, whether real or invented, do make a book a more immersive read for me, though.
Absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have always wanted to travel to Egypt myself, and I studied hieroglyphics as home as well. I have forgotten so much of it. One day, however, I will get there.
I do love that you don’t pretend that it’s all roses and perfume traveling alone. It can be quite the challenge. Yet often in the challenges amazing stories are revealed.
For my part, even though I write epic high fantasy with secondary worlds, I do a great deal of research. I make my own tweaks of course, but I love incorporating science and culture from other parts of the world and other periods of history. It’s a fantastic starting point, and I am always amazed at the things I learn.
Thank you again for sharing. I can’t wait to read your books. Have a great day!