One of the characters whose life is changed by an encounter with Henrietta is Sebek, an elemental spirit captured before the dawn of history and trapped in the body of a great crocodile. He’s a fun character to write due to his sarcasm and his way of reducing everything to black-and-white contrasts. Every crocodile knows about sarcasm; it is a necessity to allow them to pretend to be half-submerged logs for days on end to lure their prey closer. “Of course I am a log. No, no, there are no crocodiles here.”
To develop his backstory, I researched the earliest rulers of Egypt like Iry-Hor, Ka, and Scorpion. They were the legendary early kings at the dawn of written history. The next king, Narner, would unite Upper and Lower Egypt to become the first true Pharaoh.
I imagined that Iri-Hor found an artifact in ruins that were already immensely ancient in 3100 BCE and used it to capture something rare and powerful to act as a guide and protector to his people. A betrayal by his brother Ka and nephew Scorpion released Sebek into the wild to eventually be found by Iri-Hor’s son, Narner. He tames the beast and overthrows his uncle’s rule to unite all of Egypt.
One of the interesting questions that I found in the literature is a long-standing controversy regarding the Egyptians themselves. What did they look like? For a people famous for innumerable drawings, paintings, and sculptures, not to mention thousands of preserved mummies, it may be surprising how unclear this one particular aspect is.
Though many paintings show people as reddish-brown, Egyptian art was highly stylized. As an example, the characteristic look of their paintings is achieved by drawing a person in profile but showing their eye as it would look from the front. The Egyptians thought that view was the easiest way to identify a person in portrait. Men were almost always darker than women to signify their roles as outside field workers as opposed to inside home-makers. Pictures of Egyptians were also black or white, on occasion.
Their name for themselves sounded roughly like “rematch en Kehmet,” which means “People of the Black Land.” Some people think that KMT, or Khemet, was a reference to their skin color. Most historians think that this is a reference to the black soil of the Nile floods that carried silt from the heart of Africa. The modern name of the country comes from another ancient name of their home, Hout-ak Ptah, which means “The Temple for the Ka of Ptah.” This can further be broken down into “The House of the Spirit of Ptah,” their most ancient god and creator of the universe in their religion.
The current thinking seems to point to ancient Egyptians being like their modern counterparts with a wide range of skin tones from very dark to very light. Egypt was a conduit between the cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean and as such was something of a melting pot. But it was a multicolored society that was not multiracial. Everyone who lived in The House of the Spirit of Ptah was an Egyptian. And in three-thousand years of history they never thought it particularly important to write down the color of their skin.
Sebek Illustration by Jeff Dahl
When writing historical fiction, even stories that are thoroughly mixed with fantasy, it pays to do research. In this case, I am looking for examples of girls and women who broke with tradition and became true terrors to the establishment of their day. Jeanne de Clisson was that and so much more. She was a faithful wife and doting mother whose nobleman husband was wrongfully executed by the King of France. She sold her estates, formed a small army of supporters, and took to the seas to terrorize French vessels for decades. She was notable for her lack of mercy, especially towards French nobleman, often leaving only a single survivor as a witness to her attacks. Her victims knew her from the black hulls and red sails of her small fleet. All of this occurred in the early 1300’s, three-and-a-half centuries before the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean.
Unlike most pirate tales, this epic ended with her remarriage and settling into a quiet life. Her family reconciled with the later rulers of France and one of her descendants eventually became King of France.
In writing about Henrietta’s exploits in my next book it helps to remember that the line between an antihero (or antiheroine) and a villain can be quite thin. Jeanne de Clisson seemed to be able to wander across that line at will.
When I started writing Henrietta Pimm I had one goal in mind: create a compelling story for my daughter to go along with her unconventional crew of Playmobil pirates.
It was easy enough. Write a short story about an absolutely resolute little girl who steals a pirate ship with the help of her crew of Barbary Apes (not the kind that live on Gibraltar but the other, far more dangerous kind that live in isolation in a remote area of the world.) The hard part? Writing a compelling novel that explains where she came from and how she ended up the diminutive terror of the seas in the age of buccaneers. I really don’t like my heroes and heroines to be unreadable cyphers by the end of the book, so fleshing out their motivations and influence is an integral part of telling their stories.
Long after I started this enterprise I stumbled on the real-life story of Julie D’Aubigny, a celebrated non-conformist who tore through French society in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She was legendary trouble-maker who was a master duelist at a time when dueling itself was outlawed for everyone, not just women. She was a singer who began performing to roadside crowds and went on to become the most celebrated opera singer of her time. She was a nobleman’s daughter whose love life could be summed up as one of continuous scandal. Let’s face it, stealing a dead nun’s body and burning down a convent to pursue a romantic liaison would be a scandal even today.
Her motivations must have greatly perplexed society at the time. Today it is rather obvious. She simply wanted to live her life on her terms. If she were alive right now you would be watching her on television or saving your money to catch her in concert. The tabloids would cover her incessantly and more than a few paparazzi would be suing her for serious, life-threatening injuries. The people of her time did not realize what a treasure they had.
As for Henrietta, there are parallels to Mademoiselle D’Aubigny. Both are doing their best to upend society in the 18th century. Both take on unlikely partners and powerful enemies. Both are demons with a sword. The one big difference is that Henrietta haves a family to help her, even if she has to nearly kill them to make them come along.
\ˈänt, ˈant, ˈa-mənt\
chiefly Scotland and Ireland
Definition of amn’t
1. : am not
“I amn’t as tough as you think I am.” That was my five-year-old’s response after telling her that she was tough enough to endure a hair brushing. I understood her completely, of course. English is a wonderful language. Most people praise its large vocabulary and the sheer number of speakers across the world that make it an ideal international language (from my decidedly American viewpoint.) What I like about my language is its flexibility. While the majority of native English speakers reside in the US, we are greatly outnumbered by people who use it as a second language or lingua franca when doing business. Thus the language takes in a lot of influences from around the world and that is a good thing, in my opinion. We have a lot to learn. But no one quite mangles our language as thoroughly as my fellow Americans (estadounidense). English needs to be flexible just to deal with its native speakers.
But this wasn’t just any English speaker; this was my kid. Every parent hears unique phrasing and mispronunciations from their children. It’s part of their development. My youngest daughter was speaking in fully grammatical sentences at two, much younger than her sister (and certainly her parents) did, but was less grammatically correct as she approached three. Was this a backslide? Not really. She went from carefully mimicking her parents and other adults to putting phrases together herself. It was a sign of growth, actually. Going back to the issue of amn’t, I knew to let it slide. Like most of these things, it would drop on its own. Besides, it was charming.
But its charm was soon eclipsed by its other trait: its durability. “I amn’t” became a common phrase in our house. Soon her sister was using it as well. A few months ago, we started correcting her. “It’s ‘I’m not.’” She would say that phrase for a short while, but amn’t was what came out when she was excited. And five-year-olds are almost perpetually in that state.
One day we were on a long trip to pick up a great deal on Craigslist that involved a lot of turns and trying to listen to my nav program over the conversation she was engaging me in. “I amn’t,” she responded to some remark I made. “That’s not a word,” I said automatically. Then it hit me. Do I really know that for a fact?
At the next stop sign I pulled out my phone and quickly typed the word into Google. As you probably surmised by the definition at the beginning of this essay, it certainly is a word. Mind you, it is a word commonly used in Scotland and Ireland, but I have always maintained that uncommon word usage is a good thing because it marks us as being from an actual place. And looking at her red hair, I was reminded that her locks came from Scotland (via her dad) and Ireland (via her mom). I could have kept my mouth shut about it, but I had to tell her. She was pleased as punch.
As a result of this research (all ten seconds of it), her challenge went from learning to drop the word in favor of a correct one to learning how to defend its use in the face of linguistic homogeneity. Peer pressure is strong, but I have been working with both my girls to strengthen their story building skills in an attempt to teach them that their voice matters. Teagan, and now her sister, probably won’t use that word into adulthood but it may make its way into their stories. Just as it has made its way into mine.
This song, originally recorded by the British band Hello, is both guilty pleasure and inspiration rolled up into one. This was released in 1978 when the members of Kiss made four solo albums in what was clearly a blatant cash grab. Against all expectations, it was Ace who had the biggest hit out of the four with this song. It would be like having the best post-Beatles song coming from Ringo. *
If you listen to the lyrics, you will find out it’s about a guy riding around the city in the back of a limo with piles of cash and a floozy on hand. If you take a step back, it’s a great anthem about a city that was in a very bad place at the time but still loved unconditionally by the artist.
When I play this song, the struggles of promoting a book about NYC get a lot easier. I get into the New York Grove and push on. Thanks, Ace.
* Ringo did have the best solo album. “It Don’t Come Easy” was the best song of the early solo work by the former Beatles.
My next book has Henrietta Pimm embarking on an epic voyage with the help of her crew of Barbary Apes. These are not to be confused with the monkeys found on and near Gibraltar, but are a fierce race of ape-men found in isolated pockets around the globe. People have reported tales of wild men since the very beginning of our civilization. The people of Uruk had only known city-living a few generations before Gilgamesh was confronted by Enkidu, a man from the wilds created by the gods to stop his depredations on his own people. That’s one of the first things we created when we built our first walls: a wild place outside of them to house our fear.
As for the attached article, I can never pass up on a good cryptozoology yarn. These are the wild men and mythical beasts of our time. Besides, check out the really intricate map. How on Earth have we missed them with their location so tightly mapped?
The UnMuseum: The “Wild Man” of Central Asia
Where the Wild Men Are
Perception affects every aspect of our lives: what we are able to perceive affects what we are capable of understanding. This is a core idea in New York Underground. All of this stemmed from a question I’ve always had: how can so many people just ignore something that should be really obvious to them? From that question came the idea of blindspots.
Blindspots are things we can’t see and that we cannot even perceive that they are hidden from us. Take the blind spots on our eyes, for instance. There are areas in our vision that we cannot see because of the mechanics of our eyeballs. This spot is just a few degrees away from the center of our vision and we should notice this gap immediately whenever we open our eyes. But in a miracle of biological software engineering, our brains close the gap by pulling in the information from the surrounding space. In reality, we have a cloaking device in all of our minds.
What other things are hidden from us that none of us can perceive? These scientists are working on technology that will make the unseen a larger part of our daily experience. What would it be like to be the only one who can see them? That’s Tony’s struggle in this book.
Why every human has a blind spot – and how to find yours
What does my book stand for? I was told communicating that to your audience is key to reaching them. Look at this picture. Is there anything positive about it? They even manage to put a sideways “D” next to “anger.” Great subliminal. But it’s also a great representation of why I write.
What does my book stand for? What is it really about? It’s about seeing the positives in having a different sort of mind. It’s not always a picnic teaching or living with someone with ADHD. I know, because I’ve had to live with myself a long time. My protagonist has it too, and it may be the key to the entire plot.
We don’t tolerate different kinds of minds, we need them. There’s a big difference. That’s my message.
Release day for a book is a big event. I was surprised how mixed my emotions were after I saw it posted on Amazon. Did I do a good job editing? Is the story accessible? Is it any good? Those doubts were balanced by a feeling of relief. A story untold is a weight on your chest, and today a 433-page weight has been lifted off of mine.
Now it’s your turn to worry about my protagonist and whether he solves the mystery in front of him. My biggest, secret hope while writing this was that someone would care about the character as much as I do. Take a chance, read a book by a first-time author, and you might end up being that person.
Find it here.