Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Michelle Moran Week: Author Guest Post

Today we get the pleasure of having Michelle take over the blog! I was very intrigued by her decision for subject matter for this post, so I was looking forward to reading what she had to say! It is a very interesting post, so I hope everyone enjoys it. Thanks Michelle for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do all of this.

First of all, thank you very much Kelly for having me at The Historical Tapestry! I am always in awe at the number of books you manage to get through, and I am deeply flattered that one of those books was The Heretic Queen!

When you first asked me to write a guest post, I knew immediately what I wanted to talk about. History’s surprises. I don’t mean the small surprises an author uncovers during the lengthy process of researching for an historical novel, such as the fact that the Romans liked to eat a fish sauce called garum which was made from fermented fish. Ugh. No, I mean the large surprises which alter the way we think about an ancient civilization and humanity.

The Heretic Queen is the story of Nefertari and her transformation from an orphaned and unwanted princess to one of the most powerful queens of ancient Egypt. She married Ramesses II and possibly lived through the most famous exodus in history. I assumed that when I began my research I would discover that Ramesses was tall, dark and handsome (not unlike the drool-worthy Yule Brenner in The Ten Commandments). And I imagined that he would have been victorious in every battle, given his long reign of more than thirty years and his triumphant-sounding title, Ramesses the Great. But neither of these assumptions turned out to be true.

My first surprise came when I first visited the Hall of Mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Contrary to every single media portrayal of Ramesses and every movie ever made, it turns out the Pharaoh was not tall, dark and handsome as I had expected, but tall, light and red-headed (which was just as fine, by me)! When his mummy was recovered in 1881, Egyptologists were able to determine that he had once stood five feet seven inches tall, had flaming red hair, and a distinctive nose that his sons would inherit. There were those who contended that his mummy had red hair because of burial dyes or henna, but French scientists laid these theories to rest after a microscopic analysis of the roots conclusively proved he was a red-head like Set, the Egyptian god of chaos. As I peered through the heavy glass which separated myself from the a man commonly referred to as the greatest Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, my pre-conceived notions of Ramesses II fell away. I knew that the oldest mummy ever discovered in Egypt had had red hair, but to see red hair on a mummy in person was something else entirely.

My second surprise came as I was attempting to piece together what kind of man Ramesses II had been. I assumed, given his lengthy reign, that he must have been a great warrior who was level-headed in battle and revered as a soldier. Pharaohs who were inept at waging war didn’t tend to have very lengthy reigns. There were always people on the horizon – Hyksos, Hittites, Mitanni – who wanted Egypt for themselves, not to mention internal enemies who would have loved to usurp the throne. But while researching Ramesses’s foreign policy, a very different man began to emerge. One who was young, rash, and sometimes foolish. His most famous battle—the Battle of Kadesh—ended not in victory, but in a humiliating truce after he charged into combat strategically unprepared and very nearly lost the entire kingdom of Egypt. In images from his temple in Abu Simbel, he can be seen racing into this war on his chariot, his horse’s reins tied around his waist as he smites the Hittites in what he depicted as a glorious triumph. Nefertari is believed to have accompanied him into this famous battle, along with one of his other wives. First, I had to ask myself, what sort of man brings his wives to war? Clearly, one who was completely confident of his own success. Secondly, I had to wonder what this battle said about Ramesses’s character.

Rather than being a methodical planner, Ramesses was clearly the type of Pharaoh who was swayed – at least on the battlefield – by his passions. However, his signing of a truce with the Hittites seemed significant to me for two reasons. One, it showed that he could be humble and accept a stalemate (whereas other Pharaohs might have tried to attack the Hittites the next season until a definitive conqueror was declared). And two, it showed that he could think outside the box. Ramesses’s Treaty of Kadesh is the earliest copy of a treaty that has ever been found. When archaeologists discovered the tablet it was written in both Egyptian and Akkadian. It details the terms of peace, extradition policies and mutual-aid clauses between Ramesses’s kingdom of Egypt and the powerful kingdom of Hatti. Today, the original treaty, written in cuneiform and discovered in Hattusas, is displayed in the United Nations building in New York to serve as a reminder of the rewards of diplomacy. For me, it also serves as a reminder that Ramesses was not just a young, rash warrior, but a shrewd politician as well.

There were other surprises as well; about the personal history of my narrator Nefertari, the Exodus, and even the Babylonian legends which bear a striking resemblance to Moses’s story in the Bible. Researching history always comes with revelations, and it’s one of the greatest rewards of being an historical fiction author. There’s nothing I like better than being surprised and having my preconceptions crumble, because if I’m surprised, it’s likely that the reader will be surprised as well.


  1. Thanks so much for posting that bit of background on your research. I'm always amazed at how a bit of knowledge about how an author went about writing any given piece of work enhances my enjoyment of it. I tend to remember the book for much longer than if I'd just picked it up and quickly read it.

    I think it's wonderful you spend time in the blogosphere with your readers (and cultivating new ones!) and I think it creates a lot of loyalty from us as readers.

    Thanks again!

  2. I must confess that I was quite surprised to see a red haired pharoah in the pages of an Egyptian novel, simply because it doesn't fit with the modern view of Egyptian colouring!

    Thanks so much for the guest post Michelle. It is a great topic!

  3. All scientific evidence aside, Ramesses will always look like Yul Brenner in my mind's eye. Insert big adoring sigh here . . . :-)


  4. It's all just fascinating to me. The only studying of Egyptology that I ever had was maybe a one or two day thing in second grade. I'm loving finding out more and enjoying the process through your Nefertiti and Nefertari's story in The Heretic Queen. I'm on chapter 10 and cannot wait to read more... I'm off to read now..

  5. Thanks for sharing, Michelle! It's always so interesting to hear how other authors work with history in their novels. I wonder whether the reading audience has more or fewer preconceptions about ancient Egypt than, say, medieval Europe. People probably know less, but the little they do know might be more cliched. What do you think? In any case, thanks for teaching us all something new and in such a fun way!

  6. I didn't know he was red headed. How interesting! I too imagine a Yul Brenner type of figure. I'm glad Michelle depicted Ramesses as he was and not how we'd like to picture him. I sometimes find that history is often more facsinating in truth than what we can make up.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. HA! Yes, Lezlie and Amanda, it's hard to stop picturing the hotness that was Yul Brenner when you think of Ramesses, isn't it?!

    And Julianne, I find it incredibly challenging to deal with the cliches (which are often wrong) about ancient Egypt, especially when I'm speaking to book groups. Many people want to know why I would include Black Plague in my first book when plague was only in Europe. Of course, this assumption is understandable, but wrong. I imagine that in some ways it would be easier to write on the Middle Ages, since people's preconceptions about that period seem to be more realistic. Then again... there are just as many knight-in-shining-armor movies (if not more) as there are mummy movies, so maybe not!

  9. What a wonderful job, Michelle! I feel so duped by not knowing these surprises until now. It makes one wonder how many other historical innacuracies we've been told or have read in our lives. I'm looking forward to reading your novel very much!

  10. Thank you, Elizabeth! It is frustrating to think how the media portrays historical characters in whichever way pleases them and suits their needs. Henry VIII was a red-head as well, but in the movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl he was very much a brunette!

    And Amanda, I meant to ask you - did you already go to Egypt on your honeymoon, or is that adventure coming up?

  11. What a great post! I learned so much just from reading it! When you said Ramesses I automatically pictured Yul Brenner in my head. What a shock that he was a red-head!

    I love reading about archealogy and I was a linguistics major in college, so your information about the treaty was especially fascinating!

  12. Thanks for stopping by everyone! And thanks to Michelle for writing this up! I enjoyed reading it. :) I was surprised by the red hair. I really need to read more non-fiction.

  13. Thanks for talking some about the process of your research. I find that sort of thing fascinating! And it's fun to know that authors run around museums trying to get a feel for what people were like - something I find myself doing, as well.

    I always have 'art' people glaring at me when I'm in front of Gaugin paintings, for example, because my picture of him is one that I would not have liked very much...and I don't hesitate to say so to whomever I'm with.