Thursday, January 10, 2013

Researching the Historical Novel: A Personal Experience of the Slush Pile, a guest post by Ann Chamberlin

Today I'm welcoming internationally bestselling author Ann Chamberlin back to the blog with a powerful guest post about the inspiration for her new novel, The Sword of God, set in 7th-century Arabia and dealing with the early years of Islam.


Researching the Historical Novel:
A Personal Experience of the Slush Pile
Ann Chamberlin

My latest book, The Sword of God, is the second volume of a trilogy about early Islam. I'm just sending the third volume, The Sword and the Well, to the editors now, and it should be out later in 2013.

Sarah gave me a great interview for The Woman at the Well, the first volume, some time ago, for which I thank her. I thank her for this chance to blog, too.

In that earlier interview, I told the story of the genesis of this work, about the Bedouin woman I had the fortune to meet in the Sinai desert and how knowing her plunged me into a life of struggling for understanding in the best way I know howthrough writing and reading historical fiction.

I'd like to share more details of that formative trip that also went into this series of novels. I was a college student majoring in archaeology in those long-ago days, when I got the chance to excavate at the biblical site of Tel Be'er Sheva in the Negev Desert.

That experience confirmed me in the interest of my life, provided a lot of detail for my novel Snakesleeper (originally titled Tamar) about King David's daughter.

Here's a picture of Tel Be'er Sheva.

The excavation also became a very concrete example for me of winners writing history. I scraped away for three months with my "turiot" I think the word we used for this tool is the Hebrew. Kibbutzniks used turiots to lay in their irrigation systems. They were like hoes, not the trowels or toothbrushes you may see excavators using on television.

We grunts were moving lots of dirt with our turiots, but not nearly as much as the bulldozer over on the other side of the tel. I sometimes stood and watched him, trying to make what I saw over there agree somehow with the "carefully save everything," "every remain has its story" of my archaeology classwork. The bulldozer was removing the top layers NB all the Muslim layers: an Ottoman police station, a few Arab graves. He was preparing the surface for the first cuts of our more careful blades.

In the fields below him, Bedouins men, women and children kept their heads down over their melon fields. For one moment, the blade of the bulldozer exposed the double bones of a human lower arm. A bracelet of silver, green and blue beads encircled the limb. I had no more time than to think, "That's the grandmother of somebody working down in that field," before the sight vanished under another swath of yellow, bulldozed dirt. The sight vanished from the world, but never from my memory.

I am sorry to say, I didn't stand in front of that bulldozer like twenty-three-year old American Rachel Corrie, whom the Palestinians call a martyr, did in front of hers. But of course, she had the higher purpose of trying to save the homes of living Palestinians from destruction by the Israeli Defense Forces. I kept as silent as the Bedouin woman in her disturbed grave.

And in those far-off, innocent days, I still mostly believed the spin of the more experienced excavators around me. That summer, we at Tel Sheva had a visit from Dame Kathleen Kenyon, the famous excavator of Jerusalem and Jericho with whose books I was already familiar, something of a hero of mine.

I'd stood at attention with the rest, turiots on our shoulders, while afar the bosses showed the grande dame around, leaning on her cane. Some of my fellow diggers, the livelier young Zionist men, had fashioned bow ties for themselves from cardboard, so there they were, in steel-toed desert boots, cut-offs, sabra hats, bare, brown hairy chests (nobody worried about melanoma in those days) and cardboard bow ties. I wish I had a picture of that! Think scruffy Chippendales in a revue line along a dusty balk with turiots for canes.

All I have is this:

To my total incomprehension, my coworkers were making fun of her.

You can see Dame Kenyon was a stout woman, God rest her, a British battleax. "She'll bring down my carefully honed balk," grumbled the fellow next to me, running a finger around the sweat under his tie.

"Bad methodology," said another, when pressed.

Even shallow judgements made by people who ought to know to dig below any surface paled in comparison to Dame Kenyon's graver sins, in their eyes, of "bad methodology," of having dug below the line where King David crawled up a water tunnel and conquered the ancient "City of David." She revealed Jericho millennia before Joshua fit the battle.

Look again at the picture of our tel, its streets and low walls hermetically sealed for the tourists at the level of Kingdom of Israel occupation. Nothing saved below. Nothing after.

What my turiot whacked through actually tells a very different story.

We found the original of this altar purposely hacked to bits, desecrated and strewn around the site. In trench after trench at the highest point of the tel, we dug down to bedrock searching for traces of an ancient sanctuary. It should be there. It was there, every place else in the Middle East. Guess what? Somebody in the eighth century BC had erased every trace of what was before, sown salt on it in fact. They made sure nobody would revere the site again. I found an arrowhead and burned wooden beams, showing just how the deed was done. We were looking Amos v:5 and VIII:14 in the face: "They that swear by the sin of Samaria and say, Thy god, O Dan, liveth; and the manner of Beersheba liveth; even they shall fall, and never rise up again." The priests of the City of David ordered all other sanctuaries in the land destroyed so they and their God alone could receive all the worship and all the taxes shipped to them in jugs labeled KDÅ  "holy". I found one of those, too, at a higher level.

This is why there's only a volume one of the Beer Sheva excavation reports. That's why we were even ordered to give up digging the famous well where Abraham made a covenant to own the land the covenant of the tel's name, something like $24 in beads for Manhattan.

Digging in the well did send a number of our party to the hospital with mysterious infections. That is the reason they gave for stopping the digging there. And our director, Professor Yohanan Aharoni, died shortly thereafter. Of a broken heart, my dramatic mind likes to think. Because he couldn't tell the story his efforts and mine had found.

If you'd like to take consolation by thinking this is an isolated incident in the annals of archaeology, think again. "The Making of Israel Based on Lies: The Masada Fraud" is but one article exposing that the great icon of Israeli nationalism, where IDF Special Forces are sworn in in secret rites Masada, too, is the result of revisionist science.

I know what this is like. I live in Utah, and we have the site of the Mountain Meadows massacre. After the first children's skulls with bullet holes appeared, we shut that excavation down quickly, too.

It's taken me many years to come to an understanding of what I saw on that dig with my own eyes. I could do nothing then but wield my turiot and think under the hot sun. I understand now that scientific publications are often as not fiction. My fiction, I like to think, is truer. And the only way, really, to get the truth of what I saw onto the page. Through my fiction, I give voice to the child's olive eyes I saw looking out through the chainlink of a refugee camp at me and my girlfriends sauntering down to the beach in Gaza. To the Ottoman police station I saw go under the bulldozer my Sofia series deals with that.

And my most recent work gives voice to my veiled and silent but powerful woman of the Sinai. To those arm bones and their silver and blue and green bracelet buried on the tel of Be'er Sheva. These things are worth the time for me to write about, not to dismiss as merely the slush pile of history.

Ann Chamberlin
author of The Woman at the Well (2011)
and The Sword of God (2012)


Ann Chamberlin's The Sword of God was published in 2012 by Epigraph (256pp, $14.95 trade paperback or $24.00 hardcover).  Photographs above are from Wikimedia Commons. 


  1. Fascinating and sorrowful post

  2. This is absolutely fascinating (and heartbreaking). Thank you for sharing this. I so enjoyed Woman at the Well, and I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on The Sword of God!

  3. Also, will The Sword of God be available on Kindle anytime soon?

    1. Sometime by mid February, I hope. Thanks, Julie, for asking.

  4. Anonymous7:57 PM

    Now that the Palestinians control Gaza, would you still go swimming in the beach there with your girlfriend?

    1. Good question, Anonymous, and worthy a longer answer.

      Let's think what my options to repeat this foray would be.

      I could come in through the Israeli blockade by Turkish boat.

      Or I could come in by tunnel from Egypt . Gee, the mouth of that tunnel looks like the well we excavated, and exactly how we got down there. Yeah, I'd pay to do that.

      Or, probably the most difficult, I could attempt the Erez crossing from Tel Aviv. The only crossing that seems open any more. Open only six days a week to "international aid workers, medical and humanitarian cases." No, I'm quite sure the dear, friendly IDF would not like the two Syrian visas in my passport, which I only won by lying and saying, "No, I have never visited Jewish-occupied Palestine."
      Can't say that problems at this point are the Palestinians'.

      Not that my visit to the Syrian coast left more idyllic pictures. The women cleaning my rooms were sex slaves from the Philippines, begging me to get them out. Now that would be a novel--

      Because again I didn't know what to do then, either, but to view and write about what I view. And Assad and the rebels have no doubt taken care of their problem by creating something worse.

      My girlfriends from all those years ago would definitely not join me, alas, in any of these forays, so the happy, innocent days of youth would not repeat themselves. I couldn't fit in the swimming suit, either.

      I just meant to say that had I not had doubts about the morality of what I was doing on that saunter beach-ward, my girlfriends and I might have been wearing cute little dirndls going for a picnic in 1941 near Dachau, not questioning what we witnessed.

      Look! Here, by the miracle of Wikimedia, here we are.

  5. I enjoyed reading this passionate post about what inspires a writer to write. I too was drawn to archaeology and dreamed of working on a dig in the desert, but I dropped the class within 2 weeks because I knew I couldn't make a living at it. But the love of history remains and Ann Chamberlin, an author new to me, tells a fascinating story.

  6. This is a very powerful article. Thanks. As a student of ancient archaeology I'm fascinated by what you have to say about Israeli digs. Lots of food for thought. The connection of your experiences and your writing is particularly engaging.