Hello from Fiona!
I want to share with you how to (really) write about real locations.
The sense of reality about a real location is what makes a story credible. I felt very fortunate that I had been able to visit Egypt prior to writing my middle-grade adventure The Secret of the Sacred Scarab. So, how to recreate for readers to sense of ‘being’ in a place? Top of the list is, of course, actually going to the particular location.
Any location is unique, and there is pressure upon the author to describe it so that the readers can relate to it, enjoy it, and believe in it. Location is not just a geographical point on a world map. It’s a mixture of sights, sounds, smells, sensations, tastes, and the ambiance or atmosphere that comes with its people, history, culture, architecture, and art.
Would you believe that light, something so simple that we take it for granted, is different in other parts of the world? Sunlight in Egypt is unforgettable—blinding, glaring, beating down upon your retinas so that unless you have sunglasses, your poor Westernized eyes will remain squeezed shut in desperation as you try to shut out the probing rays. On the other hand, when darkness falls, it’s really dark. The sand dunes that once were a blazing sea of endless saffron yellow turn the purple of bruised plums as the sun finally sinks in the west.
Next-best options for authors not able to travel include guidebooks, travel blogs, Google Earth, interviews with experts, and (very importantly) research. These options shouldn’t be considered second best in any way because even though one may be fortunate enough to make a trip, there is hard work to be done when putting a story to paper.
I am a natural collector and accumulated air tickets, stubs from entries to monuments, menus, postcards, and the usual array of stuff that finds its way into travel bags. Photographs were vital for me—I was shocked to find that after a few weeks my memory of where exactly that fascinating statue had been was a bit hazy. I also muddled up the locations of two very famous temples (horrors!). So, with the help of a guide book, a clear map, and all my photographs, I was able to recreate the journey and make a ‘collage’ to guide me as I built the journey line of my two young heroes.
Since I modeled my heroes on my two nephews (Adam, left and Justin, right), it was important for me to get a feel for how two boys would react in such a foreign (and potentially dangerous) environment.
I’d also recommend souvenirs to jog one’s memory. I bought quite a few miniatures that really helped me recreate the haggling scene in the Egyptian market at Esna, and brought back the sounds and smells of people, incense, food, spices and much more.
The taste of the food was unforgettable. Do you know the best olives and cucumbers are found in Egypt? The crisp, cool, almost sweet taste of a cucumber is so juicy and refreshing that one just wants to gobble the whole thing down. The tart tang of a black olive on your tongue … spicy yet so tasty that one or two are just not enough.
Interviews with experts make another plus. We had Leila, our fantastic guide who was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge on Egypt. Contrary to what one might think, travel guides (the official ones) in any country, have to have a vast amount of knowledge on their subject. It came as no surprise to find that Leila had a university degree!
Finally, the hard slog of research. I think Egypt was even more daunting than I imagined because so much has been written about the country, its history, and its culture that I felt under enormous pressure to check, double check, and check again (just in case) all my facts. There are also conflicting opinions of experts so one has to be careful whose opinion one chooses.
It’s almost a shame that hours of research go into looking up facts that will make a perhaps brief mention in the chapter concerned. After all, there is no point in inundating readers with lots of information. Details should be carefully and subtly woven into the story, always being an integral part of what the heroes need to know to move along in their story.
For me there’s nothing to beat the reality of location, so if you can go there, do it.
Copyright 2017 Fiona Ingram
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