The Importance of Research

Author Valerie Douglas
Author Valerie Douglas

I suppose you could say that I’ve been doing research all my life – as any writer should. After all, the essential, endless curiosity that drives us to ask ‘what if’ and then ‘what happens next’ has to start somewhere. It starts in those questions, but it’s based in what we’ve learned and know.

Part of every child’s education is spent exploring ancient gods and goddesses, particularly the Greek and Roman. They fascinated me just as they fascinate most children, especially their excesses – Percy Jackson’s popularity is no coincidence.

At some point in my life – I don’t remember when – I toured a museum that featured ancient architecture, including Egyptian. That fueled my interest in the pyramids and mummies. That, comic books and Saturday morning cartoons. I do know that some part of my mind also noted that in most hieroglyphics, unlike in other cultures and especially ours, women were always represented. Even their statuary reflected husbands and wives, Pharaohs and their Queens, for all the attention paid to Nefertiti and Cleopatra. I was also doing the math. According to everything I saw and read, Egyptian culture had existed, successfully, for nearly two thousand years before the birth of Christ, which made it much older and longer lasting than ours. Nearly ten times older. History and the Bible tended to look at its failures but to me that was like looking at American history and only seeing it in terms of the Civil War and Presidents like Buchanan.

Through my Wiccan and pagan friends I learned more about the Egyptian Gods. It was because of them that I knew just how raw a deal poor Anubis got in The Mummy movies. Given our culture’s fear of death, it wasn’t surprising, and I guess a jackal’s head looks more frightening than the amorphous typhonic Set head – a mixture of different animals. For some reason though, it stuck with me.

I’m a daydreamer, with an active fantasy life. One day my mind started wandering and the first scene of Heart of the Gods and Servant of the Gods was born – along with the rest of the book. As a ‘pantser’ – writing by the seat of my pants – I tend to write in a stream of consciousness so I wrote based on what I had learned over the years, what I surmised and did research to confirm or throw out some things on the fly. Still, there were gaps. Over time and from various sources I’d heard of the Book of the Dead – heavily mentioned in the all the Mummy movies – and had sort of gotten the idea that it was either a plot device or a ‘fabled’ document. Then I discovered it really did exist.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Wandering through Barnes & Noble I came across a copy of what is commonly called the Book of the Dead (as a toy of sorts) which I learned the early Egyptians had called the Book of Spells of Emerging into Daytime. The Book is made up of the spells necessary to get the departed soul through their journey to Ma’at, the goddess who would judge them by the weight of their hearts, before allowing them to pass into the afterlife.

I saw finding that book as a bit of a sign.

Say what you will of Wikipedia, it’s a great jumping off site. It led me to more in depth study of the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses and their places in the life of ancient Egypt. A search on Google provided a wealth of information – for example a list of the Egyptian Gods http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/gods/explore/main.html courtesy of the British Museum and http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/Sekhmet.html. It was a surprise to learn the Goddess Sekhmet was one of the earliest descriptions of what we now call vampires, and added a new depth to one of my characters. The Goddess of War and Destruction, Sekhmet, according to one myth, was unleashed on humanity by Ra, who was tired of us not listening to him. She gave a new definition to bloodthirsty.

Still, although I loved the novel, there was something not quite right. Bits and pieces nagged at me. One of them was the time period. Egypt has been extensively studied and researched which presents a problem to many writers who haven’t done the same – it’s easy to get tripped up by little details. When I first wrote about Khai, he was riding on horseback, but all the images I saw of ancient Egypt were of chariots. That bothered me. It wasn’t until a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park museum, with its concentration on the evolution of the horse, that I understood what it was that was nagging at me. (Well worth visiting in the spring or fall, by the way.)

In that time period, neither evolution nor breeding had resulted in a horse of a size necessary to carry a man, certainly not one the size of Khai, although there are hints of a pre-Etruscan horse-based culture which might have been the source of tales about centaurs. All of which meant a bit of rewriting. Khai’s height might also have been an issue, since many people are of the assumption that people then were much smaller, but height and health were dependent on ready access to good quality food.

I resolved the time period issue by going to an even earlier era, before the two halves of Egypt, Upper and Lower, were joined. I’d been intrigued by references to an earlier King – Pharoah is a Greek term for Egyptian royalty and so I chose not to use it in the book – by the name of Narmer, perhaps because the name seemed so prosaic when compared to Tutankhamen. Not as much was known about that time, which gave me a bit of wiggle room. Still, I had to respect the culture, and given my own Judeo-Christian background – offset by my Wiccan/Pagan training – and I wasn’t sure I grasped it completely. So I did some exploring. I was a little surprised to find that the ancient Egyptians were a good bit more egalitarian than we are. Women were freer then than they are now, considered largely equal partners in society they could own a business and work in any job – including the army. So free were they that some other cultures complained about it! I also learned that marriage was an essential part of Egyptian culture, later writings by both men and women to their partners speak of a depth of feeling many now would envy. However, it seems they weren’t big on ceremony, all you had to do to declare yourselves married was to move in together.

A trip to the western US and visits to pre-puebloan cultures also helped. Learning about the way in which they related to the world around them gave me greater understanding of earlier civilizations pre- and post- Christianity. As with the Egyptians, the after-life for them wasn’t a frightening mystery, it was side by side with the world they had known. They believed their loved ones watched over them from the afterlife, going about the daily tasks in the same manner as those of the living. Thus the reason for supplying them with all the essentials of living a new life when they died – in a way, they were just moving to a new house, spiritually.

Then there was the whole mummification thing. A crucial plot element had a main character consenting to be mummified alive. That was no simple process and the details had to be essentially right – which both created a problem and provided a key plot element. The problem was simple, as part of the preservation process the organs were removed and placed in canopic jars. The Egyptians, though, believed that the seat of reason was the heart, not the brain (and wouldn’t we be better off if THAT were true?). To them all the head contained was mucus (as anyone with a cold would attest), so they would take a straw or hook, stick it up the nose, swirl it around and get all that nasty stuff out of there. None of which would do my character much good at all. However, since they weren’t actually supposed to ascend to the afterlife I took a few liberties.

Early Egyptians had let the heat and sand of the desert do the mummification for them, only later building complex burial places like the pyramids. How did they get from burying their dead in the sand to there? Recent excavations have revealed there were interim steps. Curiosity about a scene from The English Patient gave me a possible answer – the Gilf Kebir, a massive escarpment in a remote and still relatively uncharted section of the desert bordering Egypt and Libya. In the movie, the lead leaves his lover in a cave in the desert covered with petroglyphs. The real cave, known as the Cave of the Swimmers, isn’t the one in the movie. The real cave drawings aren’t nearly as dramatic. Still, those ancient markings indicated people knew that place, once an ancient seashore, and so in the book it became the burial ground of the priests. Since so much isn’t known about the Gilf Kebir it’s not impossible.

Therein lies the rub – and the importance – of research, especially in certain genres. First and foremost because it grounds your story in reality, making whatever else you write seem more real. In fantasy, everyone is counseled to do good world-building, but when your book is written about a known culture the world is already built. People know, or think they know, certain things about it. If you stray too far from what is known, without the research to back it up, you’ll hear about it.

I know some people view research as boring and dull, but thanks to the miracle of the internet, it doesn’t have to be – information is at your fingertips, a few mouse clicks away. To me, though, it’s fascinating, and how could it not be? You’re walking in the footsteps of your characters, exploring their world, right alongside them.

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Valerie Douglas is a contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and the writer of the epic fantasy series The Coming Storm and the contemporary romance series The Millersburg Quartet. For more information please see the IU Bio page, her blog http://valeriedouglasbooks.blogspot.com or visit her web page http://www.valeriedouglasbooks.com/ .[subscribe2]

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4 thoughts on “The Importance of Research”

  1. Good post. And somewhat counter-intuitively, even in fantasy/science fiction, research is still essential. I'm not sure anyone has ever made up an entire world from whole cloth. Even Tolkien based so much of his creation on Norse/Scandinavian myth… to the degree even the master himself referred to it not as creation but *sub*-creation.

    But yes. Interesting stuff about ancient Egypt, Valerie.

  2. Research is sometimes the best stage of writing. It takes the author to the edges and back. The accumulation of knowledge and impressions results in a product from what is used and what is discarded.

    I have always agreed that Wikipedia is a great traffic cop – it sends the inquirer off to relevant places, and offers springboards exactly as you say, Valerie, so good on you – this was good to read.

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