Friday 29 May 2015

On The Trail Of Cleopatra by Lucy Coats

Photo credit: Peter van den Berg

Our May guest is Lucy Coats, friend to many History Girls and lover of all things mythological. Welcome, Lucy, and thanks for filling in the background to your new YA novel.

Lucy Coats has written over 30 children's books for all ages, and has also worked as an editor, journalist and bookseller. She has just published a YA novel, Cleo, a paranormal/historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra, as well as a new mythological middle-grade series Beasts of Olympus. Lucy lives with her husband and three out-of-control dogs in a house mostly furnished with too many books.

The Art of Researching a YA novel

I cannot imagine writing a book on any subject and NOT researching it. For me, research enables me to write from a position of knowledge. Even if I don't use much of the material I find (and I am always aware of the dreaded sin of 'info dumping'), the fact is that I need to know this stuff, even if my reader doesn't. I am always aware of the reader at my shoulder, especially my teenage reader. So what I put in has to be interesting, relevant, and germane to the story in some way. For a YA novel, a light touch with facts is essential.

With Cleo I gave myself a huge task from the outset. Writing a novel about a real historical personage is always tricky - and more so if it's a personage about whom everyone has their own view and opinion. When I decided to take on (arguably) the most famous woman in the ancient world - Cleopatra - for my first proper YA novel, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, research-wise. Not only did I choose to write about her undocumented younger life (before she slides into the historical records), but I also chose to mix history with fantasy, and bring in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. I knew that the former gave me a certain amount of leeway - if I wanted to write a story within a 'hole in history' where the gods helped her to the pharaoh's throne, then I could do that without fear of being contradicted. But even if I had no historical 'facts' to go on, I was determined on one thing. This book would give my readers as proper a 'feel' of Ancient Egyptian life and customs as I could provide.
Cartouche of Cleopatra's name in the House of Horus at Edfu - Wikimedia commons
 I don't read Latin well (or Greek at all), but there are many good translations of Lucan's Pharsalia - a fertile source for descriptions of royal banquets (see quote below), and one I plundered shamelessly for my own purposes. I didn't need to invent any of the party and feast scenes in the book - the real descriptions I found in the research were much more magnificently opulent than I could ever have imagined (and I'm not even showing you the bits about wreaths of nard and roses, and cinnamon hair oil!).

'Jewels glittered on the couches; the cups, tawny with jasper, loaded the tables, and sofas were bright with coverlets of diverse colors - most had been steeped in Tyrian dye and took their hue from repeated soakings, while others were embroidered with bright gold, and others blazed with scarlet.' 

An Egyptian Feast by Edwin Long - Wikimedia commons
Then there was Cassius Dio - writing two hundred years after Cleopatra, true, and also through the somewhat skewed lens of a Roman triumphalism which considered my heroine a dangerously seductive witch. He was an important primary source, and had seen earlier (and now destroyed) evidence from Cleo's time, as had Plutarch. It was little quotes like the one below which set my mind whirring for the Roman scenes I needed to write for the second book, Chosen, which will follow next year.

'For Caesar and Pompey had known [Cleopatra] when she was still a girl and inexperienced in affairs.'

When did Caesar and Pompey meet her? Did she accompany her father into exile in Rome - or did she perhaps join him there? I spent some time recently following a trail which theorised that she did, and put my own spin on it to suit the purpose of my story.

Cleopatra making an offering to Isis (Louvre) - Wikimedia commons
 If reconstructing a historical personage was difficult, so too was reconstructing the physical landscape around her. I have some experience in tracking down 'ancient historical geography', gained during the writing of my Atticus the Storyteller book on Greek myths, but mostly I didn't have to describe those locations in too much detail. This time, I had a whole royal palace to reconstruct, plus the most important library in the ancient world - the Great Library of Alexandria. I made several serendipitous discoveries along the way, including one which would be crucial to both books. Ptolemy I Soter, when he built Alexandria, included a series of cisterns under the royal palace, connected by narrow passages. What better way to allow people to sneak about unnoticed?

The Great Library was destroyed either during or soon after Cleopatra's reign, but I took the view that as an educated woman who spoke several languages, and studied mathematics and much else, she would have spent time there. So I had to find out how they stored the scrolls (in custom made cubbyholes), and who might have been working there in Cleo's time (I dug out Apollonius of Tyre, who appears briefly in the book as one of her ex-tutors).

Research is time-consuming, and mine has taken me from the bigger questions of geography and physical descriptions of journeys and modes of transport up and down the Nile through costume, jewellery, make-up, puffer-fish poison, embalming techniques, songs sung by ancient Nile boatmen, the ancient board game of senet, temple ceremonies, weapons, armour, soil types, flora, fauna and much more. Some totally fascinating facts have had to be discarded, unused, but that's all right. They will simply go into my vast store of 'useless knowledge', to be brought out at some opportune later moment.
Senet pieces - Wikimedia Commons

However much research I've done, though, however many dusty books I've read and scholarly articles I've trawled through, one thing had to come first. I had the opportunity to make Cleopatra come alive for a new generation, in a way that had not been tried before. Not everyone will agree with the way I've done it - my Cleo's 'voice', for instance, is quite modern in tone - but there is one thing I hope everyone who reads it will recognise. I've done my damnedest to get the backdrop to my story right! When I wrote the initial synopsis for the first book, this is what I said:

'I want my readers to smell the harshness of the hot, dusty winds of the simoom (the ‘poison wind’), to feel the way its gritty residue gets into clothes and nostrils, ears and eyes and to know that its touch is a curse of dryness, not a blessing of coolness in the fierce heat of a desert day.

I want them to be desperate for the soothing touch of blood-warm water mixed with camels’ milk and rosepetals on their skin—and want to try for themselves the only recipe that works for keeping a young princess-priestess’s complexion dewy and glowing. I want them to see the way sun turns blazing white against a blue sky in which Egyptian Vultures (Pharoah’s Chickens) soar on the thermals and wait for something to die down below.

I want them to look over the shoulder of the embalmer as he learns his trade on the linen-wrapped body of a young priestess—to smell the herbs he uses, to hear the sound of pestle and mortar grinding the sacred and secret preparations that preserve the shell of the body for the afterlife.

I want them to feel the way the stifling, incense-laden air in the dark corridors of the royal palace in Alexandria presses down on a person and makes everything slow and confusing—to blink with the shock of light reflecting off gold and lapis and a million jewels as they enter the blinding magnificence of the Great Throne Room.'

Only if I've actually succeeded in taking my teenage reader away from the 21st century for a while, and made her feel some of these things, will I know that I've done my job as a writer.

You can find out more about Lucy at: and also on Twitter at @lucycoats


Carol Drinkwater said...

What a terrific cover for the book. Good luck with it, Lucy.

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, Carol!

adele said...

Good luck with this, Lucy. Sounds fascinating. I wrote a Cleo factual/fictionish kind of book for much younger children some years ago, so I know how interesting the story is!

Susan Price said...

Yes, great cover and slogan - and that synopsis did its job for me, Lucy! I want to read it.

Unknown said...

Thank you. Good luck
Vaniya Chettiar Matrimony site