In writing believable fiction, research is imperative. Everyone knows that. But how far should an author go to delight her readers by making scenes plausible and characters authentic?
I’ve always believed that firsthand research is best, even if it comes with a high degree of adventure (or, as is often the case, misadventure), so I try to visit the places I write about (yes, even the remote ones), get to know people of the cultures represented in my pages, and maybe put myself in some unusual situations, just to see what happens. No risk, no reward—right?
As an example, I’d like to share a story about a personal experience that informed one of the scenes in the first novel of The Sarah Weston Chronicles, my series of archaeological thrillers: The Tenth Saint.
In Chapter 7, Gabriel warns the Bedouins about an imminent sandstorm. As a Western man and a scientist, Gabriel knows with mathematical accuracy the storm is coming. The Bedouins do not listen to him, instead pressing toward the oasis so they do not miss their turn in the fertile lands. Sure enough, the storm comes, wiping out the Bedouins’ caravan and brutally claiming lives.
Describing this sandstorm in an authentic, realistic manner came naturally to me, because I had experienced it firsthand. I was with four friends in the Moroccan Sahara, near the Mali border. We had been traveling on camelback for about a week, heading toward an oasis to replenish supplies.
Just before dusk, we saw the cloud approach from the south and knew we were in for a long night. Typical Westerners, we covered our backpacks and camera gear in blankets so that sand would not get in. We had no tents, and there was no cover anywhere in sight, so we built perimeter fences from bed linens, holding the contraption down with sand bags. We were industrious. We were resourceful.
We were scared.
Meanwhile, our Berber camel drivers were calm as could be. Without breaking a sweat, they built a fire and boiled murky water we’d collected earlier from a sand depression. They made tea and cooked some noodles. I shook my head. Who could think of food at a time like this?
The nomads were unruffled because they knew there was nothing they could do in the face of such fury. They couldn’t stop it; they couldn’t hide from it. So they went on with life. Whatever would come, would come, tea or no tea.
The sandstorm did come, and it battered our camp from sundown until four in the morning. It was the longest eight hours of my life. I still recall the constant grit of sand between my teeth and the violent stinging of my eyes as I lay there, in the fetal position in total darkness, waiting for the hissing to stop, hoping we would not be buried alive.
At dawn, as the shreds of our perimeter fence whipped in an errant breeze, we surveyed the damage. We shook pounds of sand off ourselves and searched for our belongings, which had been scattered by the wind. I recall inscribing “LIFE” with my fingernail on my sand-caked arm, in the same way you’d write “WASH ME” on a dirty car. But what I remember most vividly is Mohammed the Berber blowing into the belly of a meager fire, coaxing some flames, as if nothing had happened.
I learned something that day, and it is summed up this way in The Tenth Saint: “The way of the nomad is to accept everything as it comes: there is no anticipation of better days, no longing for the unrequited, no despair for loss.”
In the second novel of the series, The Riddle of Solomon, the antagonist, Trent Sacks, sits in a boat floating on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. It’s late at night and all is dark, save for some strung-up lights illuminating the burning ghats. Then a platform on the edge of the river erupts with light and sound as Hindu priests announce the beginning of the puja ceremony by blowing into a conch shell. Here’s an excerpt from that scene:
The seven identically robed pujaris sat in lotus position on the platforms in front of Dasaswamedh Ghat, moving brass bells to and fro with slight movements of their wrists. The bells rang in practiced unison, their clear, melodic sounds like an entreaty imploring the heavens. They faced the Ganges, directing their worship to the goddess of the river rather than to the thousands of dark faces that crowded the stepped stone terraces behind the platforms or spilled out of the windows of the ornate Nagar buildings.
With movements as synchronized and fluid as the rhyme of a poem, the priests stood and took up brass diya lamps filled with burning incense coals. The tolling of the bells persisted, now joined by drumming, deliberate as a heartbeat, and a soft monotone chant. The pujaris mirrored one another as they waved the lamps like slowly swinging pendulums, raising great clouds of smoke that glowed copper under the golden lights. The faithful bowed their heads as the smoke wafted toward them, anointing them with the sweet fragrance of sandalwood.
Sacks shifted his gaze downriver. A cow, eyes wide open and bloated with death, floated past, and he regarded it with indifference. In the distance he could see a plume of smoke rising from Manikarnika Ghat and he felt the familiar pangs of arousal stir within him. Another cremation, another soul being released unto the ether. Funeral pyres were lit hundreds of times every day, from early morning until well into the night. In a country whose population exceeded a billion, there was no shortage of demand for the services of the burning ghats, nor for the delivery from suffering.
I still remember fondly my time in Varanasi: the pujaris performing exactly those movements, the woody scent of the incense, the marigold and candle offerings floating downriver, the smoke rising from the pyres of the burning ghats, the dead cows floating in the holy river. The dichotomy of Varanasi, which I’ve become well acquainted with over six visits, pits chaos with spirituality, life with death, filth with beauty. It’s not comfortable to travel there—both from a physical and emotional standpoint—but it does offer an education for those who go with eyes wide open. And that makes all the difference in crafting scenes, building authentic setting, and bringing characters to life.
For my next book, the fourth Sarah Weston adventure, I’ll be traveling to Morocco and the American Southwest, looking for the genuine soul of these places—and hoping to stay out of trouble!
Thank you, Marni, for the opportunity to contribute this post!
For more information:
D.J. Niko website
For more information on D.J. Niko’s books:
The Tenth Saint
The Riddle of Solomon
Find D.J. Niko on Twitter and Facebook.
DAPHNE NIKOLOPOULOS – Biography
Daphne Nikolopoulos in an award-winning journalist, author, editor, and lecturer. Under the pen name D.J. Niko, she has written two novels in an archaeological thriller series titled The Sarah Weston Chronicles. Her debut novel, The Tenth Saint (Medallion Press, 2012), won the Gold Medal (popular fiction) in the prestigious, juried Florida Book Awards. Her follow-up release, The Riddle of Solomon, continues the story of British archaeologist Sarah Weston as she seeks the relics—and mystical secrets—left behind by the biblical King Solomon in remote Israel.
Daphne’s newest releases include The Oracle, book 3 in The Sarah Weston Chronicles (November 2015), and The Judgment, which is set in Israel and Egypt in the tenth century BCE (May 2016).
In addition to writing fiction, Daphne is editor in chief of Palm Beach Illustrated magazine and editorial director of Palm Beach Media Group. Prior to that, she was a travel journalist who logged hundreds of thousands of miles traveling across the globe, with emphasis on little-known and off-the-beaten-path locales—many of which have inspired her novels.
Daphne frequently lectures about her research on the ancient world. She is an instructor at Florida Atlantic University’s Lifelong Learning Society, teaching on the subject of archaeology. She has also spoken to audiences at the Jewish Community Center of the Palm Beaches’ Academy for Continuous Education, and several libraries and private groups throughout Florida.
Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Daphne now resides in West Palm Beach with her husband and twin son and daughter. You can find her on the Web at djnikobooks.com and connect with her on Facebook (AuthorDJNiko) and on Twitter: @djnikobooks.