One of Jody's fans interviews her about where she got the idea for The Frankincense Trail.
Interview by Leanne B.
Where did you get the idea for Frankincense Trail?
When I was about 20 years old, I went to see an Egyptian mystic — this is the person that the character of Asim is based on. He did a reading for me, then made me a talisman… written in saffron ink on white fabric, and folded up sealed with wax. His instructions were the same as Asim's: do not bind it in string, do not pierce it with metal, do not let anyone open it and read it; any these will render it ineffective. He also gave me some incense, to help with meditation. It wasn't the stick incense you see in most stores; this was a mix of wood shavings, seeds, and some amber-coloured pebbles I didn't recognize. To burn the incense mixture, I had to light a piece of charcoal, then drop the incense on top. The amber pebbles started to sizzle, then smoke, and the room was filled with the most amazing fragrance. The pebbles were frankincense.
A few years later, I read a travel article by someone who had followed the ancient Frankincense Road. I was instantly hooked! So I started doing research… and couldn't believe how much fascinating history there was to the region, and how little of it I knew. In school, our history lessons skipped around continents, civilizations, and eras, and it was extremely Euro-centric: According to our curriculum, not much happened in the world until white people went there. We learned lots about the Roman empire… because that was Europe. Egypt? Well, seeing as lots of Europeans dug it up and took the artefacts back to their countries, that made the history books. I have no idea why the Assyrian, Babylonian, or Sumerian empires didn't even get a look-in… too far east? Not enough of their artefacts in our museums? China didn't warrant a comment until Marco Polo went there. Yes, that was the disturbing bias of our history curriculum. Pretty shocking; it even skipped entire continents (South America only got a mention when it was 'conquered' by… you guessed it… Europeans). Anyway, I suddenly discovered this whole part of history I had known nothing about. And I realized there were also great stories waiting to be written!
So you had to do a lot of research?
I had no idea how much research went into historical fiction, because our school history lessons were all about kings and generals. Wars and monarchs make the history books; not much else does. But with historical fiction, you need all kinds of little, day-to-day details. Let's say your character gets up in the morning, washes, dresses, and eats breakfast. What kind of dwelling do they live in? What is their bed made of? What kind of vessel is their water kept in — stone, iron, brass, copper? Who fetched the water? What do their clothes look like, and what are they made of? What kind of food do they eat, and how was it cooked? Now, that's all for a five-minute episode! So imagine how much you need to know just to get your character through their day!
And that's when history became really fascinating to me. I don't care about kings and generals; I want to know: what did people eat? Could they read and write? If so, how did they learn? How far have they travelled, and what do they know of the rest of the world? Have they ever seen the ocean, fog, snow? What do they do in their spare time? What kind of songs do they sing, what stories do they hear? What god(s) do they pray to? Those are the kinds of things that make history exciting to me; I wish they'd taught us that in school!
That kind of research was quite difficult, though, because the Arabian peninsula hasn't undergone as much archaeology as, for example, Egypt. Which means there are still a lot of 'unknowns'. Someday I'd love to go on a research trip there! But until I can go there, the internet is my best friend.
Was that the hardest part about writing this book?
Actually, no… the hardest part was overcoming stereotypes! Most Westerners know so little about the Middle East; just what we see and hear on the news. I found that my beta readers had a lot of stereotyped ideas (like: middle eastern women are all clothed in burkas and aren't allowed out the house) that were interfering with them reading the story. They didn't believe that Alia would be allowed out. I had to explain to them that not all countries in the middle east are like that, and besides, the story was set more than 2000 years ago! ...But of course, I had to explain it in the story. So I needed some way to quickly show that women had a different place in society than they do now, without spending several pages on a history lesson. There are so few women mentioned in ancient history, but luckily there was one from that region whose name most people would know: the Queen of Sheba. I dropped references to her in an effort to remind my readers that even millennia ago, women could do great things. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how important she was: The biblical stories tell us that she went to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon, but historians tell us that the real reason she did so was to negotiate trade routes — ones that would last for centuries.
How did you get the idea for the character of Alia?
I knew I wanted to set the story on the actual Frankincense Road. I was fascinated by the Queen of Sheba, but as so little is still known about her, it would have been difficult to base the story on the real person. So then I thought: What would it be like if you lived in ancient times, but long enough after the Queen of Sheba that it was already more like a legend than fact? Yet you dream of being like her…
I also wanted my main character to already know about the Frankincense Road, but little about the realities of the journey. That way, the reader encounters them for the firsrt time along with her.
You're calling it The Frankincense Road, but the book is called The Frankincense Trail… what's the difference?
It wasn't called The Frankincense Road at the time; historians have named it that in comparison to The Silk Road. It wasn't in fact one route, but a series of trade routes (see the map below), and these changed over time. As for changing it to 'trail'… well, as you'll find out if you read the book, that's because they were off-roading! ;)
(But some people do call it The Frankincense Trail.)
This make it sounds like it's all history, but really the story is an adventure. And not only that, but an adventure that went in a direction I didn't expect… I thought it was going to be all swashbuckling, and was totally taken by surprise when *omitted because of spoilers*. Although I did love the one swordfight that's in there!
For me, the story always takes precedence; the history just happened to be the ideal setting for this one.
Apart from watching the news, the only thing I knew about the Middle East was the famous Tales of the Arabian Nights, which I read as a kid. I figured the same might be true for readers of my novel, so I wanted to bring in some of the adventure and exoticism of those tales into this one; that way there would be something familiar in a time and setting that is so completely unfamiliar.
The original plan was for a good o'l ripping yarn, nothing more. But as the character of Alia grew, I realized she had to go through a few more rough knocks before she could become the person she is at the end of the story. When the story begins, she has already endured a lot, but she isn't 'whole' inside; there are several things she still has to come to terms with. And so the desert crossing became a metaphor for her emotional journey. What tied in perfectly was that as I researched the Frankincense Road, I knew I wanted to convey how dangerous the journey was from a very practical point of view: We're talking about a landscape where a person could die of dehydration or exposure in a very short time. Alia starts out so inexperienced and naïve, so it made sense for her journey NOT to go according plan! I could have had her go in there guns blazing (swords, if we're historically correcting the idiom) and come out triumphant… but what are the chances of that happening to a 15-year-old girl in the company of men twice her age?
Nevertheless, I had to have at least ONE swordfight in there… so I figured I'd better make it a good one!
Speaking of swordfights... tell me about Kardal! Where did you get the idea for him?
Kardal was one of those characters who arrived in my brain fully-formed. I didn't need to think up a thing… I knew how he dressed, how he walked, how he spoke.
And if I write the sequel… well… he might make an appearance. It feels like he and Alia still have some unfinished destiny. But I don't want to give too much away!
Sequel? Tell me more!
There were always plans for another book… the other reason the story is set in 200 BC is that this was around about the time that the maritime incense trade began. If you look at the maps below, you'll see that the sea routes would have been much easier for incense trade, but mariners hadn't yet learned to harness the monsoon winds. Once this was known, the sea trade grew, and land trade declined. Alia's story coincides with this great change. So there's more for Alia to do… but again, it will take more (you guessed it) research. If I had a research assistant, that book would be written by now!
There's so much more I could ask you, but it's time to wind this down… anything you'd like to add?
Yes, if you're interested in this subject, check out Dan Gibson's amazing website, which provided so much of the information I used in the book: http://nabataea.net. There's a whole section on the Incense Road.
Thanks, and good luck with the book… I hope to hear more about Alia someday!