A tattered photograph. A yellowing piece of film. A tiny insignificant detail in a memoir. These are the stuff of pure joy to an author of historical fiction. My novels are set in the first half of the 1900s and sometimes finding precious nuggets of research gold can be a slow and painstaking process.
When I start to research a novel, it is a thrilling moment. Anything and everything is possible. I have no idea who or what I will meet along the way. Will I fall in love with my chosen location? Get swept away by the period? What political shenanigans were rife? How do I weave my characters into this factual tapestry? I get so engrossed, I am often side-tracked by fascinating details and wander off down blind alleyways. Delightful – but oh, so time wasting!
My research starts with books. For SHADOWS ON THE NILE, which is set in 1932 Egypt, what better place to plunge in than the writings of Howard Carter himself on his momentous discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun? Here was a man who – just like my character Tim Kenton – was obsessed by Egypt and its ancient history. His reverence for his subject and painstaking attention to detail rub off on me. I make notes. Hundreds of pages of them as I scour as many primary sources as I can lay my hands on. Thank you, Mr Google and Mr Amazon, is all I can say.
Egypt is a bewitching place and, fortunately for me, many people have felt the urge to leave accounts of their lives there. Of childhoods passed in the shadows of the pyramids or years spent in the colonial service in Alexandria. Memoirs are pure gold. They tell you things no history book does.
And then my good friend, Mr YouTube, shimmies into my research life. Old film clips provide wonderful images of Cairo’s streets in 1930 that I pour over or of men in long flowing galabayas carefully lifting ancient artefacts from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. I get goosebumps even now, just thinking about it.
Then come the history books. I relive the warlike reigns of ancient pharaohs, such as Rameses II, as they raised their spears against the marauding Hyksos and Hittites, and I follow the country’s tortuous history all the way up to the twentieth century when nationalism was fighting against British colonialism. I tie this in with an event in London in 1932 – the workers’ march against Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s Means Test which led to riots in Trafalgar Square. This is where my story starts.
By now I am raring to go. My pen is poised in my hand, but there is one more essential piece of research to do. I need to travel to Egypt and see the country with my own eyes. I need to absorb its sights and smells with my own senses. I ride a camel and sail a felucca down the Nile. By train I bump along the ten hour trek from Cairo to Luxor and I explore the heart-stoppingly beautiful tombs in the Valley of the Kings. And all the time I breathe in the crisp dry air of the desert just a heartbeat away.
So I am ready. To start SHADOWS ON THE NILE. Pen hits paper. It is a story of love and loyalty when a sister searches for her brother in the scorching sands of the desert.
But there is one extra element. My dear Georgie. He is a character who unbalances the plot and diverts reader expectations. In 1932 there was no talk of autism, but it is something of the sort that he suffers from, and to research this condition I spoke to people who deal with this problem on a daily basis. It opened my eyes and I hope SHADOWS ON THE NILE will open yours – as well as tell you a rollicking good story.
That’s what I love about research. It takes me places I didn’t know I wanted to go. The gold nuggets glitter and keep me searching for the next motherlode.