Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Wednesday Writing Workout: How to Fantastically Capture Your Historical Novel's Spirit in Four Easy Steps!

In 87 lifetimes I could never come to know the terrific and talented writers from all walks of life my teaching and coaching continue to bring me.
Teachers and librarians, of course.  Journalists. Booksellers.  Performance artists.  Actors and actresses.  Doctors. Lawyers. A tribal chief!  Environmentalists.  Venture capitalists. Activists. Politicians.  Entrepreneurs.  Inventors.  Technological wizards.  Cartoonists. Fine artists.  Print makers. Graphic designers.  A cosmetologist. And oh, several members of the clergy, including a Franciscan monk.
But never had I worked with a tried-and-true Egyptologist, especially one who was scaffolding her time-travel middle grade series on the Armarna Period whilst featuring a biracial boy from Chicago’s South Side!
Lucky me. 😊
And, now lucky you, because that Egyptologist is none other than Malayna Evans, the debut author of JAGGER JONES & THE MUMMY’S ANKH (Month9Books) and the generous creator of today’s Wednesday Writing Workout.
If Malayna learned anything as she wrote – and rewrote – Book One in her series, it was how to fantastically capture the spirit of an historical period in the telling of a story.

And what a story!
“Jagger Jones is a whiz kid from Chicago's South Side. Ask him anything about Ancient Egypt, and Jagger can fill hours describing all that he knows. But when he and his precocious little sister Aria fall more than three thousand years back in time to the court of Amarna, Egypt, Jagger discovers a truth that rocks his world: books don't teach you everything there is to know. Mummies, pyramids, and cool hieroglyphics make awesome movie props, but the ancient court of Amarna is full of over-sized scorpions, magical amulets, and evil deities determined to scare unwanted visitors away. If Jagger and Aria are to return safely home, they must find nine soul-infested gemstones, defeat an evil general, save the royal family, and figure out how to rescue themselves! Armed only with Jagger's knowledge of history and a few modern objects mined from his pockets and Aria's sparkly purse, the siblings have exactly one week to solve supernatural riddles and rescue the royal family. If they can pull it off, Jagger Jones just might return to Chicago a hero.”

A Utah native, Malayna now lives in Oak Park, Illinois.  She earned MA degrees in Greek and Roman history and the history of the ancient Near East before earning her Ph.D. in Egyptian history from the University of Chicago.  Along the way she created two children – whom she considers her real accomplishment – and started a marketing company she still runs today.  She’s represented by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency and blogs with fellow debut children’s book creators at On the Scene in 19.

Malayna indeed succeeded in capturing the spirit of the Armarna Period in this heart-stopping time-travel adventure, but she also infused a whole lot of her own singular positive Spirit – with a deserved capital “S” – into the telling, and IMHO – that’s why JAGGER JONES & THE MUMMY’S ANKH truly succeeds.

Thank you, Malayna, for sharing your writing adventure as well as your story and your smarts with our TeachingAuthors readers!

I wish you - and our readers, too - ankh, wedja, seneb.

Happy Spirit Capturing!

Esther Hershenhorn
Don't forget to enter our Book Giveaway of Gwendolyn Hooks' ONA JUDGE OUTWITS THE WASHINGTONS!

. . . . . .


One thing I learned during the many years it took me to earn my Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian history, was how to be pedantic. So when my nine-year-old son suggested I write a book about a biracial kid like him lost in ancient Egypt, I brought my full knowledge of the ancient world to the task. And I ended up with … a snoozer!

No, really. It was dull, dreary, boring! There might be a middle grade reader out there somewhere who would have found my esoteric theories on Amarna Period genealogy thoughtful. But let’s be honest, probably not.

Fortunately, in addition to knowing how to be pedantic, I’ve also learned how to take advice. So when TeachingAuthors' own Esther Hershenhorn suggested I highlight all the history in my book yellow, then edit some of the unnecessary bits out, well, let’s just say version one might as well have been printed on yellow paper.

In the end, that first manuscript landed in the trashcan and very little of it survives in the book’s final form. Don’t get me wrong: there’s still an awful lot of history in the series. The magic spells are based on real spells, most of the people are historically attested, the places and setting details are real, and the artifacts, which are the heart of my story, can be found in museums across the globe. Even the plot was influenced by real upheavals of the time, as well as a specific tomb I’m partial to. History was the scaffolding I hung my story on.

But rather than lose myself in small historical details, on my second attempt, I focused on the fantasy, the story, and the spirit of ancient Egypt. Okay yeah, spirit is a pretty loose concept. So what do I mean by it? Well, I mean I tried to capture the vibe of ancient Egypt in big and small and, above all, well-integrated ways.

To capture the spirit in a big way, I needed a theme that would resonate authentically with an ancient Egyptian worldview. And I wanted something big, something like … the meaning of life itself. So I turned to an old blessing: ankh, wedja, seneb, which means (may you have) life, prosperity and health. Book one of the three book series tackles ancient notions of life, contrasting them with modern notions. That’s a wordy way to say I took the old boy-saves-princess storyline and aligned it with the spirit of ancient Egypt. So it’s not the princess’s life Jagger must save, but her afterlife. (Cue spooky music here.) Meanwhile, our South Side Chicago heroes are fighting for their own survival. (Books two and three similarly juxtapose ancient and modern notions of prosperity and health respectively.)

I also crafted a series of fantastical challenges based on things your average ancient Egyptian might have had nightmares about. Then, I amped those scary things up to fantasy level. So, for example, throughout the series, my brother-sister duo face over-sized scorpions, an obstinate sphinx, a mummy army, angry baboons, animated temple statues, a gravity-defying Nile, and the ultimate bad guy, an evil sun god. Every time I threw a problem at my main characters, I worked to ensure it was tethered to ancient beliefs. And then I let my characters combine ancient artifacts and magic with modern objects, Jagger’s book smarts, and Aria’s street smarts to problem solve.

On a micro level, I captured the spirit by weaving in various aspects of daily life that strike me as uniquely ancient Egyptian. Some of this was as easy as having my American kids learn to play a popular board game or sleep on the wooden headrests ancient Egyptians used as pillows. But I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to incorporate aspects of ancient life that could really trigger the senses.

Anyone who has spent as much time studying ancient Egypt as I have will tell you it must have been a very smelly place. Yes, the world is fully of smelly places. But one senses the ancient Egyptians took their smells extra seriously. Scents show up in texts, poetry, and images. Pictures of women with lumps on their heads, for example, are believed to portray scented wax hats that would melt throughout the hot day and keep the wearer smelling yummy.

Unlike Jagger and his little sister Aria, I can’t travel back to the place and time that fascinates me so much and enjoy the sounds and smells. But as a storyteller, I can assign smells I associate with ancient Egypt to magic spells cast by my magician characters. As an historian, I’m pretty sure you can’t ward off giant crocodiles with gum from a little girl's purse and the scent of lotus blossoms, which is exactly why I eventually let Storyteller Malayna take the wheel.

You ready to try integrating history into your story? Okay, let’s do this.

1. First, get out your favorite highlighters and pens. Try reading through your WIP, highlighting all the bits of history in one color. If those bits are unnecessary for your story, underline them as well. Now take the fabulous Coco Chanel’s advice and “take one thing off" and lose most of the bits that are both highlighted and underlined. Consider limiting the number of unnecessary historical details to something like three or four sentences per chapter, max.

Good start. But what to do about all that highlighted history that is necessary? Well, here are a few exercises that might help you better integrate those bits.

2. Think about your story’s theme. Now think about the period in time your story is set in. How would a person in that time-frame think about the theme? Are you sure the theme would resonate for your characters the same way it does for you? If not, there might be an opportunity to level up there.
3. Make a long list of artifacts from the period. Think about how they functioned, either in reality, or, if your story is fantasy, in theory. Can any of those artifacts help propel your plot forward? Employing objects in challenges, solutions, and plot twists can be a fun way to merge the history with the plot.
4. Finally, make a list of things people from your period would fear on the left side of a wall or oversized paper. On the right side, write out the challenges your characters face. Are the things on the right side also on the left? If not, consider choosing challenges that are more authentic to the period by throwing some left-side terrors in your protagonist’s path.

In the end, the thing I’m most proud of with this book is the integration of real history into an over-the-top, fantastical hero tale. My greatest hope for the series is that readers will get lost in the adventure … and barely notice all the history they soak up on the way.


Carmela Martino said...

Thanks so much for this terrific writing exercise, Malayna! And thank you, Esther, for bringing Malayna's work to our attention. Jagger Jones and the Mummy's Ankh sounds like a fun read!

Jarm Del Boccio said...

This is very helpful to someone like me, who is a MG historical novel writer. Thanks so much for the advice, Malayna, and congrats, again, on your book!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

So glad readers are finding Malayna's WWW helpful!