A Visit from Secrets of the Sands author Alisha Sevigny!
We talk historical fiction and research, plus the best beverages for writing with
The Secrets of the Sands trilogy by Alisha Sevigny
I have this idea for a historical fiction young adult novel - I’ve had it for years - and I just can’t bring myself to do anything with it. I’ve tried. I’ve bought and read way too many books on the time period but when it comes time to write the first sentence, I panic. Historical fiction, the research involved, intimidates me to the point of paralyzing. So I just don’t touch this historical idea. It continues to fester in my brain meats. Cue Alisha Sevigny - Alisha is the author of Kissing Frogs, Summer Constellations, and The Secrets of the Sands Trilogy. She’s an editorial sorceress, and one of my dearest writing buddies! We swap pages and notes on a semi regular basis (we’re so bad at consistency) and her wisdom and guidance on every disaster I encounter in this writing life (and life in general) is basically the only way I come out unscathed. And it just so happens, Alisha’s brilliant middle grade adventure series, The Secrets of the Sands, takes place in Ancient Egypt.
I watched Alisha create not one, but three books, set in an ancient past and she tackled the research and writing for each one with zero discernable fear or trepidation . I wanted to ask Alisha to impart her wisdom once again, here on Authorstrator, to share her approach to research and writing historical fiction.
Thanks for joining us, Alisha!
So, what drew you to historical fiction and Ancient Egypt?
I have always been obsessed with ancient civilizations, particularly Ancient Egypt, and books and movies like The Mummy (which I know you also share a love for!), only further captivated my imagination and fascination with this epic time in history. I love historical fiction because, when looking closely at the past, you can’t help but feel a sense of wonder at where we, as human beings, came from, as well as an appreciation for all the incredible things that we take for granted every day.
What comes first? The story or the research? Do you outline the story before the research?
For me, it usually starts with setting, actually. My YA romance, KISSING FROGS, was inspired by a trip to Panama, and SUMMER CONSTELLATIONS, by the campground where I spent my childhood summers. When developing a multi-book concept with several other authors that spanned time and civilizations, I chose Ancient Egypt. Research led me to the Edwin Smith Medical Papyrus, the real-life “secret scroll” featured in the series. Though the multi-author series didn't end up happening, I’d already fallen in love with my story and characters, so I kept on writing, and this resulted in THE LOST SCROLL OF THE PHYSICIAN, the first book in the Secrets of the Sands series.
Where do you start researching? How do you know where to begin/what you need to write the story you want to tell?
I was able to do a lot of research for this series thanks in part to grants received by the Ontario Arts Council for the project. As mentioned, I began with the scroll and a time period and imagined who could've authored this ancient document. Historical research is a balancing act - you want to include enough detail to make the world rich and all-consuming, but you need to remind yourself that some facts, no matter how fascinating, may not develop the story and can be cut for pacing. Also, because my story takes place 3500 years ago, I erred on the side of caution when it came to certain points that may or may not have occurred at that time. For example, the second book in my series, THE DESERT PRINCE, has Sesha and her friends traversing the desert in the company of a camel (vaguely reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon's A FAR OFF PLACE). But camels didn’t come to Ancient Egypt until a bit later, so I had to change it to a donkey, which worked quite well, actually.
For Sands, I remember you getting to go to the ROM to do research, not just the exhibits but some of the private hidden stuff that only very serious researchers get to look at! How do you know what sources to look at? The internet is a fine place to start but how do you know where to go from there?
There was a lot of internet research, as well as traditional book research, that went on. I relied heavily on academic papers, especially when it came to the Hyksos capital of Avaris, which is in modern Tell El Daba, so studying data on archeological digs also featured into my research. I immersed myself in exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Louvre and my agent put me in touch with a family friend who was an actual Egyptologist! Dr. Roberta Shaw got me into the private stacks at the ROM which was incredibly cool.
How do you know if you can trust the information you find?
Well, you have to correlate it and look at sources of course, but while I strived to make everything as historically accurate as possible, I had to give myself some grace when it came to writing. Also, I did have the safety net that no one was actually around 3500 years ago and new discoveries are made every day. We think one thing then find out something that totally contradicts it. In part, this is what this series is about. At times in the past, the Hyksos were thought to be marauding warriors who invaded Ancient Egypt, but through recent research we’ve learned that they actually assumed power for a brief period by immigrating naturally and running the country when a few of the Egyptian dynasties were struggling (and this is the time we know as the Second Intermediate Period). This series is so much more than just an immersive adventure, it’s about recognizing a people that were once erased from history or portrayed in an unfairly negative light, due to the victors having the final say. That's why we have to be mindful when doing historical research and be aware of our personal lenses through which we view the world.
Do you know where the story as a whole is going even before you research?
Vaguely! I only had the first book written when I signed my publishing contract. Which meant a lot of fancy finger work when writing books 2 and 3 to make sure everything fit and the prophecies lined up, etc. etc. But luckily, it all worked out and I am so proud of this series.
I imagine you could research anything forever. How do you decide enough is enough? When do you put the books away and make the story happen?
You can research forever, and you can definitely start to obsess about things if you let yourself, which I did do at times. The research didn't necessarily stop until the final book was in print, but it also didn't get in the way of the story. The final book, THE ORACLE OF AVARIS, had some last-minute edits, because I discovered one of the characters, Pepi (who was a real figure from history), had a sister named Tani. His sister in the book had another name which I was quite attached to, but in the end I went with accuracy, and so Layna was changed to Tani in the book's final hours. Will any of my readers realize this or care? Probably not. But I did.
When writing the Sands trilogy, did the research ever derail your plans for the direction of the story?
I don't think so, because I knew where I was going from the beginning stages of research. I didn't exactly know how I was going to get there, but that final idea or scene was in my head.
What’s your best advice for writers looking to tackle historical fiction?
Be passionate and thoroughly research but honour your story and your characters. You can always slip in an author's note if necessary. It is fiction, after all.
And finally, what is your writing beverage of choice?
Great question! Coffee in the morning, tea later in the day and sometimes if I’m feeling extra festive, a glass of Pinot Noir in the evenings ;)
Thanks for your wisdom, Alisha!
You can check out more of Alisha’s amazing Secret of the Sands Trilogy here. Or, if you happen to be on the lookout for a book for a wee baby or little one, Alisha’s latest book is a board book, Give Me A Snickle - it's way too cute and can be found here!
What is your writing beverage of choice? I’ll go - at the moment, its hazelnut ice coffee. Also, diet pepsi.
WHAT I’M WORKING ON
I’m outlining hard. I’ve been totally stuck on the MG project of mine and this weekend, with my maternity leave rapidly approaching its end, I decided enough was enough and it was time to get drastic and spend the time doing a serious and detailed outline. The outline is almost complete so soon there will be nothing left to do but write….and hope my characters stick to the plan.
I’ve started my animated movie creative project (whatever it is - I still can’t really decide how to define it - mock movie, maybe?). Here’s a sneak peek of the title and some character designs for the hero -
Also, Bears and Bears: Scales and Stardust are going to the OLA Super conference on Feb 3rd. I’ll be at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre signing copies from 12-1 at the Penguin Random House booth. And I am so looking forward to it! Will share the highlights.
Finally, I’m working through all my amazing inks from Ferris Wheel Press and Writing Desk is definitely my new favourite.
And don’t forget! You can use code MEG for 10% off all their products.
That's it for this week! Until next time :)
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I drink an instant capuccino mix. And then a nice glass of water.
This is great insight! Thank you for sharing
Thanks for hosting me, Meaghan! xoxo