Okay, I’m a purist. If a story isn’t factually accurate, it doesn’t fly with me – except maybe against the nearest wall. I can take a little fudging, especially when the actual facts aren’t known, but egregious transgressions against time and custom and known facts make me livid. That means I do a lot of research.
All too many times research means a lot of dry swotting in libraries (preferred) or on the internet (oftimes unreliable), but occasionally the gods smile and I get to go and do. Like in March of this year.
My dear friend Dr. Dirk Huyge, who was such a help when I was writing THE EGYPTIAN FILE, is Director of the Belgian Archaeological Mission to El Kab. We joked about setting a murder mystery in the dig house, which is reputed to be haunted by its builder, Somers Clarke. Not surprising, since his grave is in the courtyard. Then he asked me and The Husband to come visit, so we could actually see the dig house to make the book realistic.
Civilians are NEVER invited to stay at dig houses. To allow us to come, Dirk had to get permissions from the Ministry of Antiquities in Cairo and the Aswan Governate, which he did, so on a few weeks’ notice we were off to Egypt. (It will take a long time for our budget to recover, but we simply could not decline!)
Staying at the dig house was wonderful. The crew there were incredible. Scholars all, most with an alphabet soup of degrees after their names, they all but fell over themselves to answer my questions and suggest ideas. (Thank you, Stan Hendrickx, for coming up with the perfect murder weapon!) All this was heady stuff for a simple scribbler of novels whose only degree is a DHW with an HSD. (In case you didn’t know, that means Dallas HouseWife with a High School Diploma.)
We were given permission to go about on the dig site itself (a huge place as big as many, many soccer fields) and Dirk took a day to drive us to places back in the desert that tourists never get to see. One that sticks in my mind is a plain little stone building in the middle of nowhere, but which in ancient times sat on a way of sacred pilgrimage. Outside it looked like nothing, but inside was a nearly perfect jewel box of a temple to Amenhotep III, the paint still bright after three and a half thousand years. Another place we stopped that day was an enormous rock – also in the middle of nowhere – covered with rock art thousands of years old. Sadly, pieces of it had been chipped away, presumably for sale to unscrupulous buyers. There just isn’t enough money to protect these all Egypt’s national treasures, and there is a low class of humans who will steal their heritage and history to sell for a small amount of money.
After our all-too-short stay at the dig house was over, during which I actually started writing on A KILLING AT EL KAB, The Husband and I went to Luxor where we rented a luxury holiday flat on the West Bank from my beloved friend Jane Akshar (flatsinluxor.co.uk). Three bedrooms, two baths, lounge, dining room, kitchen (in which I made tea and nothing else) and a glorious balcony overlooking the Gurnah Hills, where Deir el Bahri and the Valley of the Kings are. We are not wealthy people, and I must tell you that all this cost just about the same per day as a standard hotel room in a mid-star hotel on the East Bank.
One of the benefits of traveling on your own is you can do exactly what you want. We spent days at the temples of Karnak and Luxor, most of a day in the Luxor Museum and several days just prowling the town. We did a sunset cruise on the Nile. We were fortunate enough to be invited to Jane’s birthday party, where her husband arranged Sufi dancers to entertain – not the famed Whirling Dervishes, but an esoteric and seldom-performed ancient war dance. We were the only non-residents of Luxor there and no one had ever seen this kind of performance. Since we’ve both toured the Valley of the Kings several times each, we didn’t go there, but spent most of a day at Hatshepsut’s temple Deir el Bahri, or Djeser Djeseru as it was known in ancient times. We had tea at the famed Winter Palace Hotel. Every Egyptian we met was wonderful, from the street vendors to the dig house staff to the museum staff.
Every bit of it counts as research, and it has all paid out. A KILLING AT EL KAB is going very well, so well I hope to be finished with it in a couple of months and have it out by the end of the year. I also believe in paying back; a quarter of the proceeds of this book will go to the restoration fund for the dig house. An architectural marvel, it is registered with the Ministry of Antiquities as a national monument and has been submitted to the World Monuments Fund for inclusion of the Watch List of Endangered Sites. I am proud to have been allowed to visit it.
(all photographs ©Janis Susan May Patterson 2015)