Welcome to “News from the biblical past.”

An archaeological dig in Catalhoyuk, Turkey
An archaeological dig uncovering the remains of a prehistoric civilization in Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

Welcome to a new series of posts – really, more like a newsletter – that I’m calling “News of the Biblical Past.” This is where I’ll be writing every month on recent developments in biblical archaeology, and how they relate to writing historical novels.

It feels weird to be doing this. Not only did I not start out as a writer, I never really liked historical fiction (which I generally associated with bodice-rippers). I was more into the future. Space skimmers were my thing, not horse-drawn coaches.

But I eventually came to historical fiction through a series of necessities, first as an actor, then as a mom, and now as . . . whatever I am now. A former journalist, teacher and empty-nester with a monomania for telling one story: the biblical story of the Exodus, with as much archaeological accuracy as I possibly can, from the point of view of Israelite twins.

I’ve never acted professionally, although I certainly had the training. I graduated from New York’s High School of Performing Arts and spent two years at the Juilliard School Theatre Center. When I was in my senior year at PA, I did a scene from Federico Garcia Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda AlbaI needed to find out what it would feel like to be a woman in 1930’s-era Spain, so I picked up a novel called The Time of the Doves by Merce Rodoreda.

I was hooked. From that moment, historical fiction became my go-to research option for any role involving a character born before I was.

After I gave up theater completely and majored in creative writing at Bennington College and then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I didn’t envisage ever writing historical novels myself. They had been helpful when I was acting, but sci-fi remained my reading genre of choice.

Years later, when my child was about seven years old and I had the inspiration to reimagine the Exodus, I didn’t consider that book historical fiction. I wrote the original novel to fill a need: My kiddo loved the story, and I was tired of reading the same children’s version of it aloud every Friday night. After several more drafts and much obtuse insistence on the category of “biblical fiction” I finally realized, in a query letter consultation with an agent at ManuscriptAcademy.com, that I’d been writing a historical novel all along.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Back when I was still studying theater, I assumed that the authors of all the books I’d read had spent untold hours bugging librarians. These worthies were often profusely thanked in the writers’ “Acknowledgments” sections. Today, of course, historical novelists don’t have to bug anybody. Research, even in out-of-the-way places like defunct scholarly journals, is a click away. And I’m clicking all the time.

There are plenty of answers online to the question of how writers of historical fiction should execute their research. These are mostly one-shot, 30,000-foot perspective advice posts, with titles like 8 Rules of Writing Historical Fiction Research and How to Do Historical Research for a Novel. But as far as I can tell, no one is writing about how to research a novel set in a period of ancient history for which there are relatively few good sources. There are no regular posts for authors on the nitty gritty in a field — biblical archaeology — that is constantly making new discoveries and piling on caveats to old ones.

So, just as I decided to write a realistic novel about the Exodus for my kiddo in 2010 when I couldn’t find the book I was looking for anywhere else, I’m inaugurating this newsletter. I’ve already organized most of the major research I’ve done over the years into blog posts on specific themes and locations in the story. But now I am turning a young-adult trilogy into what is supposed to become a literary historical novel aimed at adults, and I am still doing research. Monomaniacally.

I’m combining two audiences here that don’t usually overlap: aspiring historical novelists, and members of the general public interested in what archaeologists are discovering about the origins of biblical stories and the period around when the Exodus may have taken place. You might want to begin with my introductory blog post, just to get a general sense of what I am trying to do, but what you are about to read will be structured very differently. Rather than embedding the research into the narrative of the post, I will start with a few of the most interesting articles I’ve read or videos I’ve watched in the past month and summarize them. Then I’ll explain the novelistic context for needing to know that particular bit of information. The first regular post will feature a granite fragment, stored and forgotten about for decades in a Berlin museum, that just might be the earliest mention of the place-name “Israel” ever found by archaeologists. And unfortunately for my artistic mission, it puts Israel on the map when the Hebrew Bible says they were still slaves to Pharaoh.

I will never charge a fee to readers, since I have a day job and general audiences are not clamoring for this type of content as far as I can tell. But to those who are interested, even mildly so, I’d like to make more scholarship in a fascinating area — one that arouses passions linked to deeply-held beliefs and cultural touchstones, i.e., the facts behind the stories of the Hebrew Bible — accessible to all. I hope you will share this journey with me by subscribing, and thank you.

Egyptian hieroglyphics carved in stone
Egyptian hieroglyphics carved in stone. Photo by 2H Media on Unsplash

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