Ok GirlMoguls – we scored something really sweet for the Sphinx’s Princess book club – a little letter to us from the author, Esther M. Friesner in which she talks about the book, chocolate, and how to write about a real person that lived thousands of years ago…enjoy! (You can see all book club posts here)
By Esther M. Friesner, author of Sphinx’s Princess
I suppose I should apologize for that dreadful pun in the title, but you know what? No, I won’t. I love puns, dreadful or not, so let’s move on, shall we?
I love puns and I love history. I also love chocolate, but that’s something Nefertiti would not have known about, poor girl. So to even the score, I didn’t know a lot about her when I began writing SPHINX’S PRINCESS and SPHINX’S QUEEN. Of course I’d seen the famous image of her—the painted bust that’s now in a museum in Berlin (though I think the Egyptian government is trying to get it back). There’s no way to look at that carving and doubt she was beautiful, but I wondered if that was all she was. I hoped not. I’ve never cared for the unwritten message out there in far too many places that that if a person is beautiful or handsome, they don’t need to be anything else. It doesn’t just limit all of us, it limits our idea of what “beautiful” –really- means.
I don’t like limitations. I wanted there to be more to Nefertiti than just another pretty face, so I started my research, and you know what? There was lots more! I love puns, history, chocolate, books, the internet, and some very fascinating television programs about Nefertiti. They opened my eyes to marvels.
Research is a lot like a really good shopping expedition. You never know what sort of surprises you’re going to find on the shelves. Even though there are times when you can’t find exactly what you wanted when you set out, you end up discovering wonderful things you never knew were out there until you started looking.
With Nefertiti, I found out that what we don’t know about her is more interesting (for me, anyway) than what we do. Who was her mother? (Her stepmother is mentioned on monuments, but her birth-mother’s name is unknown.) Was she really Egyptian? (They’ve found the mummies of her paternal grandparents and there’s intense speculation about whether her grandfather was an immigrant, maybe from as far away as Canaan.) Most puzzling of all—though too late in Nefertiti’s life to be a part of my books—what happened to her? There is no mention of her death in the official records. One moment she was the queen of Egypt and the next. . .gone.
We don’t have a lot of facts about Nefertiti’s life before she married Pharaoh’s heir, so I was able to make up my own version of events. However, as a responsible story-teller I could not make up my own version of the world she lived in. We might not know what young Nefertiti was like, but we all do know she was not a 21st century girl playing a game of ancient Egyptian dress-up. I had to plunge into her world and learn about it from her point of view. For instance, her family probably would have had servants, but also slaves. And they wouldn’t be the only family in town who were slave-owners! If you grew up in a society where owning slaves is common, what would it take to make you realize that just because everyone’s doing it, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do?
Of course not everything I learned about Nefertiti’s world was serious. Did you know that the ancient Egyptians gave many different names to their dogs, names that described the dog’s color or skills or were simply names to show that their masters loved them—but that cats were only called Miu (“Cat”) and Ta-Miu (“She-cat”)? I suppose it made sense. If you call most dogs by name, they’ll come running, but try that with most cats and see how well it works, or even if it works at all! I know it doesn’t work with mine.
Then there was the matter of food and drink. I’d rather not write “Nefertiti went to a banquet” when describing exactly what she ate and drank would make the scene come alive for the reader. In ancient Egypt, bread could be an adventure. They made flour by grinding grain by hand on stone slabs with stone rollers, so what do you think got into the flour and then into the bread? Crushed stone. Grit. No wonder so many mummies have worn-down teeth! And for a treat, you could eat. . .DOOM! All right, not doom, but the sweet fruit of the doum palm, which is pronounced in that same sinister way. Would you like a little more DOOM for desert? Why yes; yes, I would.
I told you I like puns.
Let’s see, what else did I learn?
Hippos are dangerous. Scary dangerous. This is not something I would have known after a trip to the zoo, where they look about as dangerous as a big pool toy.
Scorpions are not as dangerous as hippos. I used to think that if you were bitten by a scorpion, you died. Game over. Apparently not (unless it’s a particular kind of scorpion or you happen to be a mouse).
The ancient Egyptians did not have a lot of things we take for granted, like money (They bartered) and children’s clothing (Kids went unclothed for most of their childhood because it was hot) and hair (A lot of Egyptians—men and women—shaved their heads and wore wigs because it was cooler and cleaner. No head-lice worries!) and formal wedding ceremonies (I was kind of disappointed by this one).
They did have some things that might surprise people who believe that anyone living B.C.E. was also living in extremely primitive, barbaric conditions. They had doctors who could fix all sorts of very serious injuries, including broken limbs and fractured skulls, as well as being able to perform certain kinds of brain surgery. They had bathrooms with showers and toilets (Okay, not flush toilets, and to take a shower you had to have someone pour the water over you, but they did have separate bathrooms for this sort of thing.)
Then there’s the matter of mummies. The ancient Egyptians did not just mummify people. They also mummified many different types of animals—cats, crocodiles, birds, everything from full-grown bulls to tiny shrew-mice. (I think they mummified the shrew-mice so the mummified cats would have something to eat in the Afterlife.) They even mummified snakes, which has got to be one of the easiest jobs, so I’m guessing this was what the students of mummification had to do for practice. I just hope no one’s dog ever ate that piece of homework!
There’s so much more. I’m going to let you discover it for yourself. Why should I have all the fun?
All the chocolate, though. . .that’s another story.