WHY NOT DIP INTO OUR OBELISK SEVEN BLOG – IT HAS MORE STUFF YOU MIGHT LIKE!
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A Da Vinci in Da Vinci
Our quest started with a wait of a few hours in the Da Vinci airport in Rome for our return flight from our European holiday. We had started in London, ducking through the Chunnel by high speed train to Paris, and then on the TGV down through Venice to Rome.
As we waited for the boarding call, Loraine spotted a softcover copy of Dan Brown's novel in the bookstore, and she joked about the many times that our tour guides in Rome and Paris had quoted The Da Vinci Code while pointing out scenes of interest. It was as if the guides had co-opted Brown's book as part of their tour material ...
So we bought his book and read it.
When we finished it, we talked about how Brown wove interesting facts – the where, the who, the what - into his thriller.
Suddenly we both had the same thought: why not use some of our wonderful memories of the cities we had just visited in a thriller of our own?
And so Obelisk Seven was conceived. Two and half years after the conception of that idea, after a lot of research and hard work and tons of sheer fun, our novel was finally born.
The links between The Godfather, The Da Vinci Code and us
Why did we do it?
For the same reasons that the son of Italian immigrants living in the Hell's Angel neighbourhood of New York wrote his bestseller, The Godfather.
Mario Puzo needed cash to care for his five children, and to pay off his $20,000 debts, so he set about making money in a very methodical way. He studied bestsellers, tracking the elements that would make readers keep on reading until they finished the book, and then applied these lessons. He was successful.
And for the same reason that made Dan Brown write his books.
On holiday in Tahiti Brown read The Doomsday Conspiracy by Sidney Sheldon, and was impressed by the way that Sheldon was able to grab hold of him and keep him turning the pages until he finished the thriller. This planted the seed in his mind – perhaps he could write thrillers.
Years later, when Brown had finished The Da Vinci Code, he was sued for plagiarism by another author, and on 21 December 2005 he filed his Witness Statement in the High Court of Justice.
In it, Brown says in paragraph 52:
I tried to write a book that I would love to read. The kind of books I enjoy are those in which you learn. My hope was that readers would be entertained and also learn enough to want to use the book as a point of departure for more reading. When I was researching the book, I would learn things that fascinated readers.
So we did it (like Mario Puzo) for the money we hope to make and the fun of studying how to write a thriller that people might like to read, and (like Dan Brown) so that we might entertain our readers while at the same learning things they did not know.
The salt on our fish & chips
We started batting ideas back and forth, a bit like Brown and his wife do. We dissected Brown's novel, examining the characters and the places and the plotline – see more on this in The Art of Writing Novels – and we did a bit of research into how he wrote his books.
We liked the way he slipped little bits of information into the novel, and loved thinking back on the places we had seen which he included in it.
Then it struck us: we had noticed something very interesting in London, Paris and especially in Rome. It seemed that everywhere you walked in Rome you came across huge granite blocks of stone erected in ancient Egypt many centuries ago. Later we learned that the obelisk pope, Sixtus V, had deliberately restored many of the obelisks in Rome in places where they could be beacons to the many pilgrims coming to the city. As in: Go down this street, turn left at such-and-such an obelisk, then right at the next one, until you come to ...
Could we use these ancient obelisks in a thriller?
Easily said, but how?
One afternoon, we remembered, we had been sitting under the awning of a cafe in the square in front of huge Pantheon, when a bridal couple entered the ancient monument, along with dozens of wedding guests.
A sudden rainstorm had swept through the square, driving Romans to seek shelter in the Pantheon.
Then it stopped, the sun came out again, and the driver of the horse and carriage dried off the seats that the wedding couple would use.
I noticed crows gathering on the sloping roof of the Pantheon, and the steam coming from the obelisk facing the temple.
That gave us the idea: what if some mysterious sound came from the obelisk? Could this be the beginning of a hunt to find out what or who was making the sounds?
The rain, the wedding couple, the horse and carriage, the crows, and the obelisk all found their way into Obelisk Seven.
So one of our three themes appeared.
But it was not enough.
Why would someone want to read about obelisks making a sound (we called these obelisks Singers in the novel). We needed something more to hook readers, to make the book more interesting, more topical.
Back to Dan Brown.
In his Witness Statement Dan Brown says that all his books weave together fact and fiction. But he does more. He says:
My hope in writing this novel was that the story would serve as a catalyst and a springboard for people to discuss the important topics of faith, religion, and history.
And he courted controversy with his theme that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and started a bloodline that has survived until our time. This caused a huge fuss in some quarters because it contradicted the general belief and faith of Christianity.
We decided that we needed a lively controversy to help us make a thriller out of a handful of singing obelisks. Global warming became our controversy wrapper – the newspaper holding our fish & chips of singing obelisks together.
And then we needed to add a pinch of salt to our meal, and we came up with the idea to link the singing obelisks with global warming through an advance in microbiology, in the form of a new microbe that started eating the carbon in deposits of oil and coal and tar sands.
And we had our three themes – mysterious obelisks that sang, a controversy over whether global warming is a threat to our civilization, and a carbon-munching Bug.
Research, we did a bit ...
... and then a bit more.
First we plunged into ancient Egypt, finding out which pharaohs made which obelisks.
We walked around with visions of Cleopatra presenting herself to Caesar, wrapped in a rug; of Rameses the Great erecting massive statues, carving the sides of mountains, and building monumental edifices; of the powerful woman named Hatshepsut, who made such beautiful obelisks; and of the hauntingly beautiful Queen Nerfertiti and her revolutionary husband.
Then we ferreted out facts about the slow but steady rise of concern among many people at the increase of greenhouse gases in our shared atmosphere, and the advent of a boisterous and well-funded phalanx of deniers.
And we ended up with so much material we despaired.
So, once more back to how Dan Brown did things.
He had the same problem, and had to be ruthless in trimming the fat, as his Witness Statement puts it:
This painstaking process of researching and writing a novel has been described by me as a lot like making maple sugar candy. You have to tap hundreds of trees ...boil vats and vats of raw sap… evaporate the water ...and keep boiling until you've distilled a tiny nugget that encapsulates the essence. Of course, this requires liberal use of the delete key.
So we cut, and cut again, and cut yet once more, reducing our novel from over 200,000 words down to 120,000 and then down to 85,000, following Dan Brown's advice:
In many ways, editing yourself is the most important part of being a novelist - carving away superfluous text until your story stands crystal clear before your reader. For every page in each of my novels, I probably wrote ten that ended up in the trash.
And devices we did plot ...
... to help the story along, guided by Brown's succinct advice:
Finding a plot device that enables me to dole out information in bite size pieces is helpful.
How on earth could we help our readers grasp the major issues in climate change, without boring them to tears?
We decided to give the hero, Nick Kangles (a wealthy man who was dedicated to spreading the concept of trading in greenhouse gases as an effective way to let the market help reduce emissions) another role to play – that of the co-host of an international television program, WorldHeat, which dealt with global warming. As we cover in Who Does What in Obelisk Seven, this gave us the plot device to dole out bits of information on climate change, while also giving us a vehicle to add tension through the problems Nick faces when one of his co-hosts – an evironmental activist – is suspected of trying to kill Nick.
The roads we travelled ...
We soon found out that our research was being done on three levels. The primary one is so that the basic facts can give structure to the story you are telling about your basic topics.
On a second level, you are looking for facts that might guide your whole story on to a different route, perhaps altering the storyline. A classic example of this is the way that Dan Brown stumbled upon the storyline for Angels & Demons:
I still had not decided on the main topic for my new novel when Blythe and I visited Rome. We were beneath Vatican City touring a tunnel called il passetto - a concealed passageway used by the early Popes to escape in event of enemy attack. It runs from the Vatican to Castle Saint Angelo. According to the tour guide, one of the Vatican's most feared ancient enemies was a group of early scientists who had vowed revenge against the Vatican for crimes against scientists like Galileo and Copernicus. History had called them many things - the enlightened ones, the Illuminati, The Cult of Galileo. I added the Illuminati to my mixing pot of ideas.
For us, this moment came when we stumbled upon the new breed of microbes known as methane-munchers (see Bugs in a Bottle).
The third level of research for us was the hunt for nuggets of gold, little snippets that could add a little zest to your tale. One nugget we found was a comment by Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Paris obelisk. Another nugget added a little bit of interest to the obelisk that was moved from Egypt to Paris. When the obelisk was erected in the Place de la Concorde, live scorpions were found in its crate.
Our balance was found ...
Like Dan Brown and his wife, Blythe, we eventually found a balance, as he puts it:
She often playfully chided me about my resolve to keep the novel fast-paced (always at the expense of her research). In return, I jokingly reminded her that I was trying to write a thriller, not a history book. In the end, we found a comfortable balance of pace and history, and we had a wonderful time throwing ideas back and forth.
We, too, had a wonderful time throwing ideas back and forth while producing Obelisk Seven.
Loraine and the famous Nefertiti bust in the Old Museum in Berlin - 2009
The Pyramids in Egypt with copies of the Gayer Anderson Cat for sale
Churchill Suite - one of the suites in the Mena House Hotel in Cairo where Glenn and Loraine stayed
St Mark's Square mystery in Venice during Carnival time