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The Writing Life - Issue #5

Les Picker
Les Picker
I’m often asked how I came to write a trilogy about Egypt’s First Dynasty and what the research and actual writing entailed. So, here’s an attempt to answer those questions. 

The Writing Life
I’m often asked how I came to write a trilogy about Egypt’s First Dynasty and what the research and actual writing entailed. So, here’s an attempt to answer those questions. 
The First Dynasty Trilogy
The First Dynasty Trilogy
The Beginnings
Throughout my childhood, my father would take me to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Our visits would always include walking through their marvelous Egyptian galleries. 
Later, on my visits to Egypt, I marveled at the Pyramids of Giza, the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, the temple complex in Luxor, and the Valley of the Kings. All these were, of course, fascinating. Yet certain thoughts constantly plagued me. How did this Dynastic tradition begin? Who was the person or persons responsible for uniting a divided Egypt? When did this all come about? The deeper I dived into the literature, the more I was drawn to one character, King Narmer and his descendants. 
There is scholarly debate about King Narmer. Was he the same person as Menes? Was he one of the Scorpion Kings or simply the offspring of one? Most importantly, was he the one who actually united Upper and Lower Egypt into one nation. 
Ultimately, as a writer and novelist, I realized that if I were to wait for a definitive answer to those and the many other questions I had I would probably need to live at least a couple hundred years. Archaeology does take time. 
Diving In
Instead, I visited all the sites in Egypt that had any bearing to that early pre-Dynastic period. I recruited two ground-breaking Egyptologists to serve as mentors for the historical background of the novels. 
For five years I immersed myself in the history of the period, reading everything I could get my hands on, then pestering my mentors with questions and visiting with them in Egypt, England and Berlin. 
Fortunately for me, relatively little is known with certainty about the period. That allowed me some latitude in weaving a story that would hold the reader’s attention and not come across as a history textbook. Based on my average 4.5 star reviews on Amazon, I feel like I was able to create an engaging story, while preserving a semblance of historical accuracy. 
As with any work of historical fiction, the author takes liberties. Yet we also have a sincere commitment to try to be as true to the historical record as possible. We do make mistakes, though; at least I did. In one scene I described a meal that included tomatoes. Egypt today is the major producer of tomatoes in the Arab world, so I erroneously, and without my usual obsessive fact-checking, assumed that was the case 5,000 years ago. Not so! Fortunately I was able to correct that mistake before the book received wide attention. 
Prepping for Writing
I have a long career in journalism, so the act of putting derrière to chair was not daunting. The way I work is to organize all my notes and then write a synopsis of the novel, perhaps two or three pages.
Then I draft detailed descriptions of my characters. What do they look like? How do they carry themselves? Do they have physical characteristics that make them unique? I go on the Internet to try to find images of someone who might look a bit like him or her and paste that into my notes. I keep at this until they are fully fleshed out in my mind, flaws and all. 
Once I’ve done a few drafts of the synopsis and characters, I begin to parse the story into discreet chapters. For me, this is the most painstaking aspect of my writing. It might take me months to get this done. The narrative typically diverges from the initial outline, as I get to know my characters better through the story arc I’m creating. I usually end up adding chapters that help drive the story, but once I have my outline, I find the actual story writing goes pretty smoothly.
The Act of Writing
I tend to write from after breakfast until dinner, with time off for meals, snacks and photography outings. If I’m in the midst of a particularly intense scene I may write again after dinner for an hour or so. If I’m confronted with a difficult writing decision, I’ve been known to get up at 3:00 AM and write until breakfast. When the muse visits I’ve learned never to turn her down!
I can get very involved with my characters’ lives. I often find myself simply observing them interacting and writing down what they say. I figure that is equivalent to a marathoner being “in the zone”. It’s one aspect of writing that I really enjoy. Other times getting a chapter done can be a real slog. 
One amusing incident… When I was in the midst of writing The First Pharaoh, my wife suggested I take a break and we go to dinner. At the restaurant she noticed that I was preoccupied and couldn’t even concentrate on the menu. When she asked what was wrong, I told her I was in the midst of writing a battle scene that King Narmer was leading and he was in extreme danger when we left home. She immediately called over the waiter and we headed home. The best advice I can give a budding author is to marry a spouse that “gets it”. 
The Final Push
Once I finish the first draft of a historical novel, the real work begins; checking it for accuracy, working up another couple of drafts, giving it to Beta readers to review (my wife and a friend or two… or three), revising based on their comments, then revising again. I typically go through four or five drafts before even sending it out to an agent or self-publishing. 
Once I enter the publishing arena, there are the editor’s suggested revisions to argue over, cover art, checking galleys, and more. 
I don’t consider my writing done until I see my book arrive in the mail. Only then do I uncork that special bottle of red wine and celebrate. 
A Last Word
You can see just how much effort goes into a work of historical fiction. Historical fiction writers strive to be as accurate as possible, while doing our best to make sure the work is engaging enough to carry the reader through a journey. That commitment involves far more research than a traditional novel might involve. But in the end, we want all our readers to love our work. Unrealistic? Perhaps. But it’s what keeps us going.
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Les Picker
Les Picker @lespicker

Historical fiction focused on ancient Egypt.

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