Today, I’m delighted to welcome N L Holmes to the blog. She’s going to share with us all the inspiration behind her Egyptian mystery books.
In a way, my Egyptian stories started the same way yours did, M.J. As a kid, I used to love all those fifties sword-and-sandal movies like The Egyptian and Land of the Pharaohs. That awakened my fascination with archaeology and perhaps with what ancient societies looked like. I remember raising pennies to help raise the temple at Abu Simbel when Lake Nassar was being built. During the decades that followed, I got sidetracked from my first love, but in my fortieth year, I went back to school and got my PhD in archaeology after all. Not specifically Egyptian, but Classical and Near Eastern, which situated me in the Eastern Mediterranean. And that meant people who interacted with the Egyptians. The interest was still simmering!
We’re getting closer now to the actual inspiration for Lord Hani. Over the following twenty-five years, I taught a wide variety of classes on ancient culture and history, including one on Ancient Egypt and one called Ancient Near Eastern Empires, which included Egypt and the Hittites. My family had been bookish, so the idea of starting to write fiction when I retired from teaching was a natural one. And the first inspiration I had for a story came from that Ancient Empires class. As an exercise, I had assigned my students to read the few brief historical documents referring to a certain royal divorce in the Syrian city of Ugarit, a vassal of the Hittites. “Now,” I told them, “describe what we really know about the event.” It became pretty clear that there wasn’t much you could say without drifting off into speculation. I said to myself, There’s a novel in there! So when I retired, I began to write The Queen’s Dog and expanded it into the Empire at Twilight series, set in the last few generations of the Hittite Empire.
From my teaching experience, though, I knew there were only about five people in the world who got excited by the Hittites, whereas loads of people were Egyptophiles. I loved Egypt too, after all. And we had a wonderful resource in the Amarna Letters. This is a partial archive of diplomatic correspondence from the reign of Akhenaten, the “heretic pharaoh”, that tells us nearly everything we know about Egypt’s relationship with its vassals and peers in the fourteenth century BCE. Here was a ready-made cast of characters and loads of plot points grounded in reality. Hani son of Mery-ra appeared frequently in the Letters, and his every mission was ready to become an adventure. I took Hani as my protagonist and developed his character into the sort of man I thought might be a trusted royal emissary under several kings. Then I selected a number of events and personages and wove them together. The process was “This, this, and this happened. Now explain it. Give the actors motives and relationships.”
I’m not a writer who plots in advance, so I can’t say that had any particular story in mind before I started. The process was one of tying diverse threads in so that nothing was left dangling at the end. In addition to Hani’s particular adventures, I wanted to capture a sense of the social and political upheaval Akhenaten inflicted on his kingdom with his “reforms.” Thus, I made Hani’s family involved with the worship of Amen-Ra—people whose personal lives took a direct hit from the revolution of values. Hani’s crisis of conscience is an ongoing thread through the six books of the series. But in addition to the political intrigue and the personal or familial arc, there is also a murder mystery in each book. In the case of Bird in a Snare and The North Wind Descends, the murder is a real historical fact; the others are fictional. After my experience with the Hittite series, I thought a solid, definable genre series might be easier for readers to digest. People seemed not to know exactly what to do with a genre-less, perhaps literary book set in the remote past, just because there weren’t any. Historical mysteries are familiar and popular. And that is how Lord Hani came to be!
Thank you so much for sharing the inspiration behind your series of books. They sound fascinating. Good luck with them.
Here’s the blurb:
When Hani, an Egyptian diplomat under Akhenaten, is sent to investigate the murder of a useful bandit leader in Syria, he encounters corruption, tangled relationships, and yet more murder. His investigation is complicated by the new king’s religious reforms, which have struck Hani’s own family to the core. Hani’s mission is to amass enough evidence for his superiors to prosecute the wrongdoers despite the king’s protection—but not just every superior can be trusted. And maybe not even the king! Winner of the 2020 Geoffrey Chaucer Award for historical fiction before 1750.
Sexual abuse of children
Universal Links for series:
Meet the author
N.L. Holmes is the pen name of a professional archaeologist who received her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College. She has excavated in Greece and in Israel and taught ancient history and humanities at the university level for many years. She has always had a passion for books, and in childhood, she and her cousin (also a writer today) used to write stories for fun.
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