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Wrapped Up In Lies – Book Review

I decided to do something a bit different for this post and write a book review. One of the great things about social media is the ease with which you can connect with other writers. Some I only manage to stay in touch with fleetingly, usually because of being in different time zones, but others have become a great support and – dare I say it – friends.

Screenshot 2016-04-09 15.43.58

One such writer is Jess Erin, who has written two books set in 1920’s Egypt. Her first novel, Wrapped Up In Lies, introduces us to our heroine the funny, feisty yet hopelessly clumsy Emma Fortune. Emma is a member of the Cambridge Adventurers Society and has journeyed to Petra, with a very old map, secreted out of a tattered old book, seeking ‘adventure, fortune and fame within my Adventurer’s Society back home.’

Unfortunately, as is often the case with treasure maps, things are not always quite what they seem and following an impromptu invitation to join in a camel race, which she wins, Emma leaves Petra with nothing more than a rather ornery camel, or two.

Fate steps in however and she is asked to go to Cairo to hear a proposition from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. Once there, Emma is persuaded to be part of a publicity campaign to promote Egypt, in the hopes that her connections to the Adventurers Society and her recent notoriety following the camel race would encourage more tourists to travel to Egypt.

During a preliminary photo shoot, Emma falls off her camel and ends up several feet below the sand in an ancient tomb. Along with many treasures, there is also a sarcophagus, although sadly, the mummy had been removed eons ago. This proves fortuitous, as the Department of Antiquities decide use this to their advantage. Arranging to have the sarcophagus ‘opened’ in full view of a fascinated public, it is soon obvious that the mummy has been stolen and a convenient curse is observed on the outside of the coffin. All is not lost, however, as a fake treasure map, handily planted on the underside of the lid, reveals that the canopic jars containing the mummy’s internal organs have been spread across four ancient sites (a way of nullifying said curse) by the original tomb robbers.

The team has shrewdly captured the imagination of the public, who are now enthralled by the idea that this treasure map will lead the troop to the canopic jars and possibly the mummy itself, along with more riches from antiquity, which have been lost for centuries.

Emma is joined in her quest by a disparate, yet fascinating group of people, who all have their own agendas. Following the map, their adventure, which is exciting, fascinating and occasionally downright dangerous, takes them from Abu Simbel to the Valley of the Queens and everything in between.

Do they succeed? Is the Department of Antiquities happy with the result? Now that would be telling. You’ll just have to read it to find out 😉

This is a well-researched book, Jess Erin is obviously passionate about Egypt and it’s history and her book reflects this. Treat yourself to an delightfully engaging, fast paced, and at times very funny book. ‘Wrapped Up In Lies‘ is available worldwide through Amazon.

Keeping it Together: Research for The Pomegranate Tree

Since the release of my first book, The Pomegranate Tree, people have been asking me how I managed to keep all my research together, as well as what sort of program I used for the actual writing. It was quite an interesting process so I thought I’d share it.

Writing Platform

By the time I had worked out the plot lines, my characters and where the story would be set, I realised I required more than just a note pad or a document file. I needed to find some way of keeping everything under one umbrella, so to speak. It was at this point that I was introduced to Scrivener, which I believe to be the most amazing writing platform (no, this is not an endorsement — just my opinion).

The beauty of Scrivener is that everything you write and research is all together, not spread across several files and includes different formats or layouts for different writing styles. For the novelist, in addition to the section for your actual chapters, there are a sub-sections for characters and their biographies, for research notes, for general information – in fact you can have as many sections as necessary.

This meant that I was able to keep tabs of everything very easily. Every time I introduced a new character, I added it to my list along with any pertinent background information. It could be as simple as their name, but could extend to what they looked like, their role in the story, what their jobs were and so on. In the modern world, this often covered both the character’s work as part of the excavation team and what they did in their regular life. In the ancient world it was more related to how the character fitted into the hierarchy of the Zealot enclave. In this way I built up short back stories which not only helped while I was writing The Pomegranate Tree but has also proved very useful for the sequels.

Pomegranate Tree Research
Photo Courtesy of ucanr.edu

The next step was to correlate as much general information about Masada and its surrounds as I felt necessary. Not only its history, but also the excavations and how the citadel looks today. Names of local towns, even flora and fauna. ‘The Pomegranate Tree’ also mentions a visit to the Dead Sea, so it was important for me to find out what it had to offer; such as the resorts and tourist attractions, as well as its distance from Masada and whether it was a place the archaeologists could travel to with relative ease.

Ancient Cultures

Then there was research into every day life in ancient Judaea. I looked into their traditions and laws, clothing, food and medicine — most especially medicine. Having decided that my Hannah of ancient Masada was going to be a healer, I needed to understand what techniques were used; the treatments that were available and what medicines, ointments and balms could be created, mixed and dispensed.

I discovered that Jewish physicians were not only highly trained, but also extremely well regarded throughout the known civilised world – and have continued to be so throughout history. What amazed me was the number of essential oils, herbs, plant, roots, minerals and mineral extracts that had healing properties, proving to be most efficacious. Many of these were available and accessible to people in ancient Judaea and those that weren’t easily obtained, could be acquired from merchants travelling the trading routes through the desert.

Once I had started down the track of researching, it kept piling up. Archaeological techniques, how any finds might be treated, preserved or conserved in such an isolated environment. Understanding ancient funeral rituals and marriage rituals the list went on. I know my book is a work of fiction, but I wanted to be sure that, as far as possible, anything I wrote about was as close to actuality as possible.

Funnily enough, I enjoyed doing the research as much as I enjoyed the writing. Some things I knew about, others I had a vague awareness of, but much was completely new to me and connected me to my story and characters in ways I did not anticipate.

Being able to have all this information at my fingertips, so to speak, meant that instead of having to keep searching through piles of papers and documents, I could just go to the relevant file within the project. Okay then – my research was neatly organised into one platform; I had my idea, I had my characters and I had gathered a huge amount of background material – now all I had to do was make it work.

Oh & I’m always happy to answer any questions about my writing process – chaotic though it may be!

Ok – I Had An Idea – The Pomegranate Tree Comes To Life

Ok, I had an idea – that’s great – but how did I turn this into a story? How did I go from jottings in a notebook to The Pomegranate Tree? How did I create characters that I believed in? That others would believe in? My plot line should include all those things I researched – the ambush, the massacre, the Roman army and the woman who lived. Then within that plot line I wanted a romance, no, not just one – two – one in the modern era and one on ancient Masada. I needed to choose names, come up with back-stories for my characters and I had to find a solid reason why someone would suddenly decide to travel to Masada. Even though it is close to the Dead Sea, it’s still quite isolated.

Characters turned out to be quite easy. I based them, loosely, on people I know, but only described them enough for the reader to build up their own picture, preferring to leave something to the imagination.

Photo source: UNESCO.org
Photo source: UNESCO.org

Now for the story. While researching the history of Masada, I came across an article about some skeletal remains that had been discovered under a pile of debris on the lower tier of the Hanging Palace. Initially assumed to be one of the Zealots, further examination has suggested that it may well have been one of the Roman soldiers killed in the ambush of AD66. This peaked my interest and I started to play with the notion that one or two soldiers might have survived the rebel attack and were discovered some time later, badly wounded. Rather than being summarily killed however, the soldiers were treated and then held as captives to be used as bargaining tools should the need arise. All well and good, but how were they cared for? Who would treat their injuries? These men were an enemy; the Zealots would more likely have preferred to finish them off.

Enter my ancient heroine. Choosing to call her Hannah, meaning favour or grace, I decided that she would not be a typical Hebrew woman. A single woman, brought to Masada by her brother, she had been trained in the art of healing by an indulgent uncle, himself a great physician. Holding a unique status in the burgeoning community at the fortress, she would be central to the survival of the Roman soldiers.

So – now we have settled that problem, another arose – why would my modern heroine, also called Hannah, visit Masada? She receives a ruby clasp, a surprise birthday present from her grandmother, who died long ago, the accompanying letter telling her that it was a gift from a grateful solider at Masada. Hannah decided to try to trace its origins and, by sheer coincidence (hmm) her best friend, male – of course – is already going to the fortress on an archaeological dig.

Once on Masada, Hannah begins to have dreams or visions about the ambush and its aftermath. She realises she is seeing the events as they unfold through the eyes of her ancient counterpart. At the same time, while assisting on the dig, she finds artefacts that link her to the past. Artefacts that she, or rather her ancestor, has discarded or lost.

All well and good, now we needed the magic, something that would connect these two women, merging them into one, without either of them physically travelling through time (I did say I wanted it to be plausible). I also wanted anyone who read this book to believe in the love these two couples shared, hoping that they had a chance of living happily ever after.

So – how about this best friend who has travelled with her, accepts that what Hannah is experiencing is real and not her imagination and, that this same best friend has loved her for a long time. Then maybe allow one of the Roman soldiers to fall in love with the Hebrew woman who is treating him – a forbidden love and one that could have fatal consequences. Finally, I just had to arrange for Hannah to slip through time and then add a dash of rebellion, a jealous would-be suitor, an avenging army and one woman in love with two men across millennia. What on earth could go wrong?

How It Started

Ancient history in all its forms has always fascinated me and not very long ago, I was persuaded to return to University to immerse myself in it, rather than remain an armchair historian. A devotee of archaeology documentaries, initially I thought that this was my calling – two lectures and a tutorial convinced me otherwise. Already signed up for a unit on Roman history, I was lucky enough to have a lecturer whose passion for her subject was infectious. Before long I was completely spellbound by the Julio-Claudians and their successors during the first century AD.

I had no intention of leaving Uni, I wanted to continue along the academic path right up to a doctorate. I even had an idea for my thesis. Something shifted however in my last semester, there were changes afoot, which brought my decision into question. Deciding to take a break and see where the wind blew, I put everything on hold. It was at this point my husband suggested that I might like to write a book set in antiquity, putting my love for history to a different use. Although the idea appealed to me – writing a book has long been a dream of mine – I didn’t think I had it in me and wasn’t I too old anyway? Even if I decided to give it a go, what would I write about? How did I come up with an original storyline?

I let the concept play around in my head for a while, jotting down possibilities, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Then one day, while looking through my assignments, I came across one on the ancient port city of Caesarea Maritima, the background to which, covered information on King Herod’s entire building program including his restructuring of an isolated citadel in the Judaean desert. A spark flickered into life; this was the fortress at Masada, where in the first century AD there had been a rebel ambush, a massacre and the arrival of a vengeful Roman army. All great scenarios around which I could base a story, could I make something of this?

Devouring every piece of information I could find on the history of this fortress and the archaeological excavations, the spark became a little brighter and an idea started percolating, one that intrigued me, but one I struggled to pin down. Then I remembered that according to an ancient source, seven people, two women and five children had survived the massacre and inspiration hit. One of these women could be my heroine; I just needed to work it backwards to determine how on earth she might have been able to avoid being slain. Then, I added a further complication, deciding to include a modern heroine, related to the women who survived and that somehow they connected across time. Not time travel in the accepted sense, she wouldn’t actually disappear from her own world, but her soul would meld with that of her ancestor. She would see events as they unfolded and could use her knowledge of what would happen to save those she loved.

Sound easy? Well now I have to make it into a believable story.