Setting a Novel in a Foreign Locale

It’s very tempting for writers to describe their own cities and neighborhoods in their novels. It doesn’t require any research, and there is little chance of making the kinds of mistakes that critics love to point out. There’s no worry that some critic will thumb his nose at the novel because “only an ignoramus would be unaware that the river runs west and not east across the city.”

The problem, of course, is that setting all your novels in the same locale gets boring, both for the writer and for the reader. Even Faye Kellerman, the author of several best sellers set in Los Angeles, decided to write a novel set in Europe. Of course, the price a writer such as Kellerman faces is that some readers have certain expectations when they come to one of her novels. There’s a comfort level that comes with what the reader is used to reading. Michael Connelly, the well-respected mystery novelist, tries to balance reader expectations with his own desire to explore new territory by having Detective Harry Bosch take occasional trips. One Connelly novel takes place mostly in Hong Kong with a slice of the action back in Los Angeles.

For that reason, I had some misgivings when I decided to set Egypt Rising in modern Cairo. Since I don’t speak Arabic, my main character is an American teenager who happens to live in Cairo with her archeologist father. I only had to worry about Arabic words for food and clothes since Olivia Hunter only uses street Arabic when necessary. My trusty Egyptian Arabic dictionary (yes, there is an Egyptian version of Arabic) as well as a few good guidebooks provided me with all the Arabic phrases I needed to make the book feel authentic and to show that Olivia was accustomed to conversing in Arabic.

Any foreign city is a challenge to describe for an American writer. Small details really do count for authenticity. I still remember reading one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and noting Fleming’s description of how his spy turned on a water faucet in Turkey and watched as it spat out an insect. In my case, I focused on some of the unique cultural aspects of Egypt. As an example, I described a bowab, a man responsible for handling the day-to-day needs of apartment dwellers. I also described specific Egyptian delicacies that Olivia was likely to enjoy. When it came to the city itself, I used several guidebooks as well as maps to describe modern Cairo and its unique neighborhoods. One area of the city, for example, is occupied by people who bring home garbage and sort through the mounds of garbage in search of anything valuable. Very poor people (it’s all relative in Cairo) are squatters in the many mausoleums found in another Cairo neighborhood. Olivia has a horrifying experience as she tries to find her way through that area.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to visit Cairo during one of her vacations. I still have vivid memories of the city. One fascinating detail I noted at the time and later incorporated in the novel is that Egyptians are taxed when a building is completed; as a result, many buildings are in a constant state of construction. I never have seen so many buildings that were occupied while clearly unfinished.

One major plot element in Egypt Rising has to do with the Egyptian revolution of 2011 that took place during the time known as the “Arab Spring.” I relied on several first-hand reports, many by Egyptian reporters, to get a sense of the chain of events that resulted in the ouster of President Mubarak.  I also did quite a bit of research on the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other groups of Islamic fundamentalists. I read reports of how some of these groups attacked Western women.

A city and its people can’t be plucked out of the air without writing about its history. Michael Connelly does a fantastic job in his novels of describing historic Los Angeles buildings and events. I wanted to give my readers a sense of Egypt’s history. I have always loved Egyptian history, so doing some additional research wasn’t a tough task.  Olivia’s father, an archeologist and lover of all things Egyptian, was a natural vehicle for adding historical elements to the novel. In addition, I described Olivia as a girl who very much wants to become an Egyptologist like her father. Her knowledge of all things Egyptian, including hieroglyphics, helps her save herself as well as others when she travels under the Sphinx. I also researched several Egyptian cults over the centuries, and I incorporated that element into the plot.

Of course history can only take a writer so far. I’ve always loved the theory that refugees of Atlantis influenced the early Egyptians, so I incorporated that paranormal element into the novel along with Edgar Cayce’s descriptions of a “Hall of Records” that supposedly is buried under the Sphinx.

I hope readers enjoy Egypt Rising and find my description of Cairo adds to their feeling that they really are visiting that city. As far as the paranormal elements of the novel, they help answer a question that long has stumped historians who focus on ancient Egypt.

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