by Janis Patterson
It has often been said that research is the bane of a writer’s life. Not only must it be done and done well unless the writer wants to appear as an ignoramus to his readers, but to most writers it is a delicious time sink. One fact leads to another one to another one and so on and before you know it you’re on an entirely different subject and a whole day is gone – enjoyably spent, but still spent.
I personally love research, and just not when it takes me all over the world. Yes, the world. If you know me at all you know I love Ancient Egypt. While writing THE EGYPTIAN FILE (a romantic adventure done by my Janis Susan May persona) I received lots of help from Egyptophiles all over the world, including an ex-pat Brit who rents flats in Luxor and the director of an archaeological dig. We became friends, to the extent that the dig director (Muddir in Arabic) invited The Husband and me to come stay at the dig house during the next season to research a new idea that was boiling in my brain.
Civilians are never invited to stay at dig houses, so of course we said yes, practically before the pixels were dry on his invitation. And, because it seemed foolish to go all the way to Egypt just for a few days, so we decided to tack on a couple of weeks and make a real holiday of it. We hadn’t been to Egypt since 2010 and had been planning to go again in 2016, so adjusting our plans was easy.
We didn’t know until just a couple of weeks before we were to leave if the dig house stay would come off – we had to be given written permissions from two separate branches of the Egyptian government (The Antiquities Commission in Cairo and the Aswan Governate) and had to coordinate our time at the dig between other visitors, such as other archaeologists coming to study and the BBC, who was shooting a documentary.
However, like all good fairy tales, everything fell together perfectly. Our permissions came through easily and we were off. Unfortunately, we flew Lufthansa, which is rapidly becoming my most hated airline, but everything else was a charm. We rented a West Bank flat from the fantastic Jane Akshar – who had so generously acted as my researcher-on-site for THE EGYPTIAN FILE when it had become obvious that we wouldn’t be able to make it to Egypt for that book. The flat was fantastic – 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, lounge, dining room, kitchen and balcony, and oh what a balcony! It overlooked the Gurnah hills. With the telephoto lens on the camera (forgot binoculars, darn it!) we could see Deir el Bahri, the temple of Hatshepsut. Every morning I woke just at dawn, made a cup of tea and sat on the balcony watching the sunlight dribble down the hills as the hot-air balloon flights went up.
We also got to go to our hostess’ birthday party, where we were entertained by a 14th century Sufi dance, a fantastic display (most definitely not the everyday Whirling Dervishes) that none of the guests (all of whom were Luxor residents save us) had ever seen. I will remember that all my life. Since we were not on a tour (I hate the “on-the-bus-off-the-bus-you-have-30-minutes-to-see-whatever” kind of thing) we were free to do what we wanted. We spent two entire days at Karnak temple and didn’t cover all of it. We didn’t visit things that most tourists do – the Valley of the Kings, for example, or Medinet Habu. We’ve done those several times before. We preferred to see less well known things. Also, we remembered that this was a vacation as well as a holiday and spent a lot of time relaxing. I took my computer so we could both keep up with email – internet access came with the flat. And, believe it or not, the flat with all its space and luxuries, was roughly the same cost per day as a plain room in a mid-star hotel.
I even got the first few chapters of the new book roughed in. Want to know about it? It’s a cozy mystery, written by my Janis Patterson persona, and will be called A KILLING AT EL KAB in a unique mix of fiction and fact. If all goes as planned it should be in publication this fall. When I was roughing out the story at the dig house all the archaeologists were fascinated, wondering who would be killed and speculating with what. Actually, they had some pretty good suggestions, some of which will be incorporated into the book.
Now I have read incredible scholarly articles by these people. They all have practically an alphabet soup of degrees after their names. I was in total awe of all of them. The afternoon of the first day I had an idea on how to start the book, so I hauled out my computer, put it on the dining table and started to write. Suddenly I noticed that everyone was very active suddenly, walking behind me quite slowly, craning their necks so they could see what I was doing without really appearing to snoop. I even heard one whisper to the other in tones of awe, “She’s writing a novel while we watch!”
Wow. Just wow.
I even broke my cardinal rule of never letting anyone see anything of a work in progress and offered to let anyone who was interested read the first chapter – as long as they understood that it was raw copy just as it fell from my fingertips. About half of them did, and were most lavish in their praise. I’ve never been treated like a rock star before, and probably never will be again, but it was nice. Very nice.
Yes, research can be fun.
And there’s one thing more I must add. When I said that we were going to Egypt, some reactions just stunned me. The general consensus was fear, predicting that we would be hacked to death with scimitars the moment we stepped off the plane. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Egypt was just Egypt – lovely and calm and welcoming. The lack of tourism due to unwonted international hysteria is worrying, because those in the tourist industry are suffering, but there was no sense of danger or urgency or anything. The Egyptian people love Americans and are all warm and friendly.
Another thing that astonished me was I wrote a friend an email and almost instantly received back a surprised reply “I didn’t know they had the internet in Egypt.” It had never occurred to me that they wouldn’t! Live and learn, I suppose.
We’re already hoping to go back next year.