18 January 2015

Guest Post ~ Researching for Authenticity in Historical Fiction, By D.J. Niko

Cambridge archaeologist Sarah Weston and anthropologist Daniel Madigan team up for another expedition and adventure in this second book in the Sarah Weston Chronicles. While working on the Qaryat al-Fau archaeological site in Saudi Arabia, the pair uncovers a mysterious ancient scroll composed as a riddle. As they attempt to date and decipher the scroll, a flurry of ills befalls their expedition and the scroll is stolen. Journeying through the worlds of the occult, corporate greed, geopolitical conflict, Judaic mysticism, and biblical archaeology, Sarah and Daniel race to uncover the powerful ancient message that could have an explosive impact on modern Israel.

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Researching historical fiction and thrillers with historical themes is a little like going down the rabbit hole: you have to enter another world and come out, sweating and panting, on the other side before you can actually get it.
When you research and write about the ancient world, that’s especially true. I deal with time periods as far back as the sixteenth century BCE, when information wasn’t exactly plentiful and the recording of facts was sketchy at best. Think about it: historical documentation as we know it wasn’t a thing back then. The ancient Egyptians carved their conquests onto temple walls, the Israelites had an oral history that got passed down over thousands of years, the Greeks (before the days of Herodotus) painted pottery and inscribed ostraca, and on it goes. A few blanks to fill in? You can say that again!
A lot of people ask me, why the ancient world? Why not pick something more accessible, like, say, World War II or 1960s London? What can I say? Doing things the hard way is one of my more charming qualities. Ahem.
So how do I get my material? For starters, I hang out with a lot of archaeologists. Archaeology is one of the most important tools in understanding antiquity, because it provides hard proof of how people lived and died, when cities flourished and were destroyed, worship practices, and so on. The scientists working in the field are a wealth of information and, in most cases, fairly outspoken (and opinionated!) about their research. They are more than happy to give a novelist an earful.
In researching my first book, The Tenth Saint, I traveled to Ethiopia and spent time with historians at Aksum and monks at Lalibela, trying to understand the mindset of the people during the early centuries of the Common Era, when Christianity first infiltrated the Abyssinian Empire. I went down into the tombs of Aksum, walked through the catacombs beneath the rock churches of Lalibela, attended traditional ceremonies whose practices had not changed since ancient times, hiked to cave churches in the hinterlands (and I mean hinterlands), and studied the stele inscriptions of the nation’s early kings. Of course, I also sampled all the Ethiopian food, beer, coffee, and tej (honey wine) I could get my hands on. Hey, it’s the least I could do for my readers.
For the next book in the series, The Riddle of Solomon, I added another layer of inquiry to the standard archaeological research. The story is set largely in Israel and involves an antagonist who believes he is the Jewish messiah for whom the world has waited. This guy is ruthless in amassing the relics that will prove his legitimacy; chief among them are the plans for building the third temple in Jerusalem, meaning the original temple plans by King Solomon.
So, to research messianism, Judaic oral tradition, and the spiritual significance of King Solomon’s story, I consulted a couple of rabbis. They were very gracious to embrace a Greek Orthodox girl and, over several meetings, walk her through the fine points of Judaism. It was illuminating, to say the least, and I think the book is better for it.
For me, there is no substitute for experiencing a place first hand and interviewing the experts in person. But life does not always allow for this. My other means of research include university library archives, books written by ancient writers (for my current novel, The Oracle (due out November 2015), I am reading Plutarch, Herodotus, and Pausanias), museums, and, of course, the Internet. And this happens throughout the writing process, not just in the front end.
Because I’m all about recycling and reusing, I use this information in other ways. In recent years, I’ve been repackaging the research and lecturing about it to private groups and continuing education students at academic institutions. It’s just another vehicle to get my name out there, sell books, and share some of this fascinating knowledge in a more direct way. If you’re curious, you can see some of my lectures on YouTube.
As I state in my Twitter profile, I have become an antiquities geek thanks to all this research (I’m really fun at cocktail parties), but if the work seems more authentic because of it, I’ll take the ridicule.
I will leave you with this fun quote by Homer: “I did not lie! I just created fiction with my mouth!”

 D.J. Niko

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About the Author

D.J. Niko is the pen name of Daphne Nikolopoulos, an award-winning author, journalist and editor residing in the USA. She writes archaeological and historical thrillers, bringing to life the places and characters of the ancient world. A lifelong traveler and adventurer, she personally visits and researches in the places she writes about--with particular relish for the more remote ones. Her debut novel, The Tenth Saint, was released in 2012 to critical acclaim and has received the Gold Medal for Popular Fiction in the Florida Book Awards, a juried competition to identify the best literature in the state. The second book in the Sarah Weston Chronicles series, The Riddle of Solomon, was released in 2013. Both The Tenth Saint and The Riddle of Solomon will be translated into German and sold in the German market starting in fall 2015. The third book in the Sarah Weston series, titled The Oracle, releases in November. When not writing, Daphne enjoys spending time with her twin kindergarteners, cooking (Indian food is a favorite), traveling and reading. Find out more at her website www.djnikobooks.com and find her on Facebook  and Twitter @djnikobooks

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