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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: Cleopatra Confesses

Writing about Cleopatra was a big leap for me. As a rule of thumb, the more distant the subject lived from the present, the less material is available for research. Queen Victoria, who lived until the beginning of the 20th century, left a lifetime of diaries; Mary, Queen of Scots, who died in 1587, has been the subject of many biographies. But when I considered writing a novel about Cleopatra, I didn't have a lot to go on, aside from the speculation of historians.

The upside was that I was free to speculate, too--especially on her early years, which interested me most. The downside was that I had to invent a story without much to go on. The date of her death is well established, but not the means (the snake story is probably legend). No one knows exactly when she was born (probably 69 BC), or who her mother was. There is some confusion about the names and number of sisters. There are many legends about her life, and there are movies. This is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of "Cleopatra," starring Elizabeth Taylor, with Richard Burton as Marcus Antonius and Rex Harrison as Caesar. (Watch the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRrHqcUBIQQ). But the movie was about Cleopatra as an adult and a queen, not as a young princess. Fun to watch, but not a great research source.

I have always enjoyed travel as a part of the research process, partly because it stimulates my visual imagination, and partly because museums and artifacts supply ideas and details. And so I booked a trip to Egypt, to see what I could learn. I loved the boat trip down the Nile, visiting some of the very sites Cleopatra had once visited. I saw the pyramids, ancient even to Cleopatra's dazzled eyes. The museums were indeed interesting.

But the trip to Alexandria, where Cleopatra grew up and spent most of her life, was disappointing. The library, famous in her time, was destroyed by fire centuries ago and replaced by a beautiful new complex. The lighthouse that served as a beacon to sailors more than two thousand years ago was destroyed by a tsunami, and the royal palaces are all at the bottom of the sea. There are plans to build an underwater museum someday, so that visitors can tour the ruins, and that would certainly be worth another trip!

Discovering Cleopatra's voice as the narrator was even tougher than finding any artifacts associated with her life. Her native language was Greek (her forebears were Greek, and the ruling class in Egypt spoke only Greek), but she learned Egyptian as well as several other languages of the Middle East and was fluent in all of them. So how do I express that in modern English? My editor and I debated at great length whether she would use contractions--isn't, can't, I'll, she's. Not to use them made her narrative voice sound stiff and formal. Using them too freely seemed overly casual. My solution was to use the informal language when she was speaking to her sisters, brothers, servants, and tradespeople, but to be formal when addressing her father and other high-ranking individuals.

Aat the same time, I had to create a believable personality that was both consistent with her age and gained maturity as she grew older. That meant deciding when to begin her story and when to end it. Starting when she was ten seemed too young, but that was at a critical point in her life and an event filled with drama: the return of her father, the pharaoh, from Rome, and I decided to risk that readers would not be turned off by her youth. On the other hand, it seemed better to end the book before the birth of her expected child. This was not to be a book about her adult life, but about her growing up. Her reign and all those hot scenes with Caesar and later with Marcus Antonius, would have to be described in another book.
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