I have been doing a great deal of traveling this year. I’ve seen the Swiss Alps, cruised down through the Swedish fjords, and strolled down my favorite city streets in London. I love to travel. I always have. I am a very lucky person.
But in fiction, it’s a little harder. Sure, I get glimpses of times gone by. But I don’t get the whole picture, no matter how many miles I fly. I’m currently working on Masks & Malevolence, the followup to Frost & Filigree, and it takes place in Cairo in 1924. So much has changed in that great city, that it’s pretty easy to get lost in the weeds when it comes to research. “But this is fantasy fiction, Natania!” you say. “You can make things up!” Of course I could. I mean, this is a world where Questing Beasts and lamias walk among us.
Except I’m an academic first. And I have to make sure things are relatively plausible before moving forward. I don’t like to make things up if I can find historical analogues for them. Because, to use a totally hackneyed phrase, truth is often stranger than fiction. As someone who can’t get enough of history, especially with primary sources, I feel I owe a debt to my writing to dig deeper.
And what I find is sometimes so much more clever than anything I could have imagined on my own.
Take M&M. I’m in the beginning part of the story. It’s 20 years after F&F, and our two heroes are searching for someone. After two decades, they’ve found themselves in Cairo. Now the first story took place in Tarrytown, NY, so I needed a relatively posh place for them to stay. But I know virtually nothing about 1920s Cairo, let alone the hotels available to them.
So I Googled. I always try to avoid Wikipedia first because, honestly, there are so many primary sources out there now (not the same as when I was in grad school, mind you, where you almost always had to go through interlibrary loan or else scan the shelves yourself) that it was a surprisingly easy jaunt from Old Maps Online to this amazing little tool with a map of the 1920s. I did a virtual walkabout and figured if my heroes were anywhere, they were by the Nile. Though I know relatively little about early 20th century Egypt, I was pretty certain this would be prime real estate.
After a few minutes of squinting and zooming, I see a little name scrolled, “Semiramis Hotel.” The name sounded rather old, and it was, in fact, the ancient queen of Assyria.
But it gets better.
This is where I start to nerd hard.
And it was a huge undertaking. So much so, that the papers called it a “Monster Cairo hotel.”
I had to do a double take at that. I’m writing a story about monsters. Nerissa, Vivienne, and Worth are all monsters. And somehow, through some truly fun research, I found not just any hotel, but a monster hotel.
Sadly, the Semiramis was torn down in the 70s, to be replaced by an InterContinental. But there remains a glimpse, if you look hard enough.
“We have a room at the Semiramis,” Worth says. “It’s got a lovely view.”
He doesn’t know why he says such a thing, really. It’s because he doesn’t know what to think of this business, and he wants to make Kit feel comfortable. But it’s terribly non-sequitur, and both Nerissa and Kit look at him questioningly.
“Why, I’ve never been there,” Kit says at last. “Do you know when they called it when it was first built?”
“A hotel,” Nerissa says.
“No, a monster hotel.”