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November 7, 2022

After several different careers, including professor, antiquities dealer, and nun, Holmes can today be found using her doctorate in Classical and Near Eastern archaeology to write mysteries set thousands of years ago. We spoke with Holmes about her writing process, her advice for other authors of historical fiction, and why historical mysteries offer something extra. 

Pilot Who Knows the Waters is the sixth book in the Lord Hani Mysteries series. What makes this series different from your Empire at Twilight series?

Empire at Twilight is not so much a series of interlocked stories as a shared world—the Hittite Empire. Some of the characters recur in several books, but the protagonists are different in each one, and it isn’t necessary to read them in order. As a genre, they’re psychological dramas as much as anything. The Lord Hani books are mysteries set in Ancient Egypt with a dollop of political intrigue and family drama. The protagonists are the same throughout the series, and although each book has a complete story arc and can be read alone, there are broader character arcs that stretch throughout the series.

Your background in archeology must have been a boon while you were writing. What was the writing process like?

The whole idea of writing historical fiction began in the classroom when I was teaching. Certainly, having a general background facilitated research, although there still were specific areas to research, including kinds other than historical. For instance, when I was working on a book about a chariot driver, I learned to drive horses. The books are based on real historical events, so my writing begins with what we know. Then I have to explain that, without violating any fact. Where facts are few, imagination swings into action. When it comes to the actual writing, I’m a “pantser,” who does minimal organization up front. I often begin by writing certain scenes I know I want to happen, joining them up later. I can afford to do this because of the basic historicity of the stories. 

Do you have any advice for authors who would like to write historical fiction? 

Care enough to get it right. I’ve read so many books set in Egypt where things just aren’t quite accurate, or details are based on outdated scholarship. But research can be an excuse not to write. I would say do enough to get started, then research specifics as you go. The second part of my advice is that this isn’t historiography, it’s a novel. Take pains with your craft and make it a darn good book. Historical fiction has trouble getting respect as literature perhaps because we authors haven’t always taken ourselves seriously as craftspeople.

What do you think historical mysteries offer that their contemporary-set counterparts don’t?

Mysteries are popular because every question is answered, bad guys are punished, and the world is set right—unlike in the real world, where that rarely happens. A mystery that’s planted in an exotic time and place takes us away in another sense. The setting itself becomes a character that impacts the action. Think of how differently an investigation would be carried out in 2022 and in 1350 BCE. I’m so happy not dealing with fingerprints and DNA! An ancient detective has only his own deduction to go by, based on a few clues, mostly people’s witness. Readers really have a chance to work things out for themselves without specialized knowledge.

The Lord Hani Mysteries series currently sits at six books. Can readers expect to see more?

The sixth book is the last one of that series, because the political arc is complete. But I don’t want to say goodbye to Hani and his family yet, so there will be a spin-off series featuring his daughter Neferet, a physician who’s old enough to have her own adventures. Hani will find his way back into her stories. Now that Tutankhamun is on the throne, the political aspects will be a little less visible and the murder mystery will take on more importance. I’ll be working on the first Hani’s Daughter book as soon as I finish another Hittite book for Amazon’s serial format, Vella.